New Media Museums Proceedings, 2022


Dušan Barok

Video and installation have become the staples of artistic practice over the last three decades. Working with sound and digital media is also becoming more common. New media, which had been given the status of a separate genre, are now a common means of expression for contemporary artists. Compared to painting or sculpture, media-based works are more compact and portable, however their acquisition into collections is still relatively rare. As a result, in the long term it is not at all clear that post-1989 media-based art will have the same representation in public collections as it has had in award exhibitions and historical anthologies.

A major obstacle to collecting media art is the lack of expertise in its care. The preservation of electrical objects and digital materials does not necessarily fall within the remit of curators, restorers or depository staff, while museum technical departments are rarely prepared to take responsibility for parts of the collection. The installation of these works in galleries relies on the presence of the artist and their collaborators, who play the role of arbiters of the aesthetic and technical decisions involved in the process. The freedom of museum staff to make these decisions independently is otherwise limited. When it comes to installations and time-based media, we are still a long way from the self-confidence that accompanies the installation of painting and sculpture.

The New Media Museums project aims to address similar challenges by creating a platform for knowledge exchange and collaboration in the collection, preservation and presentation of media arts and culture. Its founding members include art museums and other organisations involved in the presentation of media arts in Central Europe. The initial phase was designed as a practice-oriented research. The aim was to identify possible scenarios for the participating institutions to shape their preservation strategies and workflows in order to better incorporate new art forms. This was achieved through case studies carried out by each partner on selected works from their collections.

Collecting time-based media art

The founding partners of the New Media Museums project are two museums: Olomouc Museum of Art (OMA), and Slovak National Gallery (SNG), and three nonprofits: WRO Wroclaw, C3 Foundation, Budapest, and PAF Olomouc. Their mandates to build collections and preserve works of art therefore vary. Museums are legally obliged to preserve the art in their collections. As Jakub Frank noted, curators therefore tend to refrain from acquiring media-based works. There is a real fear in museums that they will not be able to provide the necessary quality of care for media art.

Both the SNG and the OMA have dedicated staff for curating and restoring their collections of modern and contemporary art which include a growing number of media-based works and installations. In 2020, the OMA has begun the process of building a collection of new media and intermedia artworks, acquiring new works and communicating with the artists to provide satisfactory conditions for the conservation of their works. The SNG collection currently contains around one hundred media-based works, including 40 videos. The WRO and C3 collections are primarily digital and can also be described as archives. The WRO collection is linked to its biennial and exhibitions and includes mainly video art and video registrations of installations and performances, but also installations. The C3 collection includes net art, video art and media installations co-produced by the organisation since 1996 and currently comprises 70 works by 40 artists. PAF has been developing a platform for the distribution of contemporary Czech moving image for some time, adapting its distribution strategy to a more personal approach, which has proved to be more effective for an organisation of this size and focus. However, all institutions have an interest in presenting works from their collections in gallery exhibitions and online.

Each partner maintains an online digital catalogue of their collections. The OMA operates an online platform called the Central European Art Database (CEAD); the SNG’s collection catalogue is available on Web umenia; the WRO’s collection can be accessed through its Videoteka and Media Library as well as on site; the C3 collection is available at catalog and collection; the PAF distribution can be consulted online.

Processual and performative preservation

Traditionally, art conservation has been associated with architecture, sculpture and painting. The profession has evolved to adhere to the conditions of impartiality and objectivity, synonymous with 'minimal intervention.' This concept, derived from the positivist paradigm, remains a dominant attitude in conservation.1) In essence, it expects conservators-restorers to carry out scientific analysis of material changes in order to determine the interventions necessary to restore the original state. While this approach remains relevant for a large number of works, the opening up of collections to media works raises the question of whether it is also applicable to time-based, processual art.

The argument for rethinking approaches to preservation triggered by time-based art essentially begins with unlearning the understanding of artistic intent and authorship as something that is given at the moment of the work's creation. The exclusive relationship between the artist and the work needs to be reconsidered. Conservation research in recent decades has persistently argued that this assumption is incompatible with the nature of the wide range of contemporary art, which requires different ways of determining the nature of the artwork.

Pip Laurenson, who introduced media conservation at the Tate, talks about the need to move away from trying to return an object to its original state and instead to recognise change as an integral part of its identity. Indeed, media works in museum collections are usually realised through reinstallation. In practice, media works only exist when they are installed. Moreover, many of their physical components – monitors, projectors, sound equipment, software and props – are interchangeable. Large parts of artworks are 'stored' only as a set of installation instructions and digital materials. Laurenson likens the act of installing a work to a performance, the results of which always vary because they depend on the interpretation of the work's specifications. Much like musical notation in music or a script in theatre.2)

Vivian van Saaze adds that the relationship between artist intent and the reinstallation of the work is not unidirectional, but that authenticity and intention are 'made,' constructed through documentation, interviews with the artist and discussions with the wider team and experts who are thus involved in the creative process. In contrast to the perspective of preserving the work by freezing it in a singular state, Van Saaze argues for practical and interventionist forms of engagement by museum staff.3) According to philosopher Renée van de Vall, this is what distinguishes the paradigm of performative conservation from traditional, scientific conservation.4).

The transformative effect of changing works on perceptions of authorship and the role of conservation is not limited to installations. Authors such as Rudolf Frieling and Annet Dekker write about examples of site-specific, relational and performative works.5) Dekker says that artists are of course still important in the process of reinstallation, but instead of being inward looking, the museum assumes the role of facilitator for a group of people formed around the artwork in order to continue it, in other words, its 'network of care.' Similar forms of distributing authorship for the purposes of preservation are usually referred to as open, proliferative preservation. In this sense, Van de Vall speaks of a processual paradigm of preservation.6) The latter differs from both the scientific paradigm, whose central concern is the material integrity of the work as a physical object, and the performative paradigm in that it does not rely entirely on the conceptual identity of the work, which is expressed as a set of instructions. Indeed, processual works are subject to uncontrollable factors such as weather, material wear, audience interaction or participation. In this context, the aim of conservation is to support the continuation of the work by transferring the necessary skills, procedures and information to those involved.

In summary, the preservation of contemporary art relies on the informed interpretation of the conservator, as discussed in Zuzana Bauerová's contribution to this collection. This parallels the shift in archival theory that has taken place in recent decades. It has to do with the recognition of the power of institutions over history, as well as the fact that everything archivists do is subjective. Extending this thesis, the artist Cornelia Sollfrank highlights the concept of 'situatedness', which can help conservators understand what they can do, rather than striving for objectivity.7) Or, in the words of Donna Haraway, 'feminist objectivity' can only be achieved through the interconnection of different, 'partial perspectives.' It is important, then, to acknowledge the plurivocal narratives in determining the artist's intent and in the pursuit of documentation in general.8)

The proceedings

There are two main parts to this collection. The first, the reader, contains commissioned essays presenting different approaches to media conservation. The second part contains video recordings of a colloquium organised as part of the project at the Olomouc Museum of Art in March 2022. The presentations are divided into three blocks, focusing on case studies of the project partners, different museum practices, and archiving of video art and moving image. Many of the colloquium's participants participated in a roundtable discussion. A closer look at the case studies is provided by the video documentary, which was produced on the occasion of a workshop at the Slovak National Gallery in September 2021.

Although the discussions within the New Media Museums project followed several axes, some themes should be highlighted.

The first and obvious party to approach in addressing the questions of presenting and preserving problematic artworks is the artist. For museums, however, working with an artist is not necessarily straightforward. Artists' views on their work change over time, all the more so on the scale of several decades. On the other hand, their opinions are invaluable and there is an urgent need to document them in one way or another while they are still around. Ideally, the artist would be interviewed at the time of acquisition or exhibition, and the documentation of this exchange would be available for future exhibitions of the work. Before this can happen, it needs to be decided how to these interviews will be conducted in order to adequately address potential problems, and how this documentation will be kept available for future use. This also relates to wider issues of documentation production and organisation.

As the Tate's media conservator Patricia Falcão once remarked, although we often cannot clearly identify the 'significant properties' of the work in question, it is important to think about them and try to write them down, because we learn a lot in the process. Exploring 'significant properties' is a means of determining what to focus attention on in order to answer fundamental questions about the work and what is important for its conservation. The term was originally adopted by Pip Laurenson from the archival community and has since been used interchangeably with the terms 'work-determining properties' and 'work-defining properties.' Patricia Falcão also stressed the importance of involving the artist in the process, ideally from the early stages of acquisition.

Installation-based works change from exhibition to exhibition. In this context, several contributors emphasise iteration reports, the purpose of which is to chronicle changes to the currently exhibited iteration, including the decision-making process behind them. They serve as a companion to the identity report of the work.9)

There are various institutional models to support preservation. The development of a media conservation laboratory seems appropriate for larger collections of media installations such as the Tate, MoMA and Guggenheim. Another approach mentioned was that of an interdepartmental working group. SFMOMA offers the example of its 'Media Team', which consists of curators, conservators, technicians and other staff who meet monthly to discuss issues related to the presentation, conservation, acquisition and loan of media-based works. Another model is offered by LIMA, an Amsterdam-based NGO that acts both as a distributor of media art and as a conservation facility for media-based works and components for the country's network of art museums.

What seems relevant in our context at the moment is to initiate communication about media preservation in institutions and to spearhead cooperation with third parties. There are several pitfalls to consider. Out of a hundred media-based works in the SNG collection, about ten are problematic from a media point of view. This is not enough to develop a caretaking partnership with an external institution. Instead, the museum works on a case-by-case basis, although it is interested in a more systematic approach. For the WRO, collaboration on preservation with external parties is limited by financial constraints, while its institutional status does not require museum standards. Similarly, the use of its video digitisation station is limited to the institution and there are no plans to offer it as a service to third parties. The digitisation process was made possible through participation in the major international project Digitising Contemporary Art (DCA). C3 has collaborated with various partners and projects on preservation such as Gateway to Archives of Media Art (GAMA), 404 Object Not Found and most recently with the artist Mark Fridvalszki, as discussed in their presentation and essay.

In her contribution, art historian and conservation researcher Anna Schäffler recommends that museums establish long-term relationships with external stakeholders, which we might call 'networks of care.' This can also be seen within the institution, in the form of building distributed knowledge, where conservation is the result of collaboration between conservators, curators, educators, archivists, technicians, and others. It can also be seen in the shift (both in vocabulary and practice) from registration, conservation, and curation to collections care, collections management, and stewardship. Museums can draw on post-custodial practices here: focusing on facilitating processes and moving from static cataloguing to mapping relationships between different stakeholders. Acquiring 'unruly' works opens up for their 'instituent potential,' stimulating positive changes in established institutional approaches.

This project is by no means an isolated effort. It builds on the initiatives of the etc. gallery in Prague, PAF Olomouc, Ludwig Museum Budapest and other organisations in the region.10) In 2019, Vasulka Kitchen Brno organised the colloquium The Digital Era of Artworks in Galleries and Museums, which resulted in an open access book.11). In addition, the Národní filmový archiv, Prague, has carried out a major research project, “Audiovisual Work Outside the Context of Cinema,” aimed at building an infrastructure of professional care for the moving image in Czechia.12) The baton can be passed on.

1) Villers, Caroline, “Post Minimal Intervention”, The Conservator, vol. 28, no. 1, 2004, pp 3-10. DOI: 10.1080/01410096.2004.9995197.
2) Laurenson, Pip, “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-based Media Installations”, Tate Papers, no. 6, 2006. Online:
3) Van Saaze, Vivian, Installation Art and the Museum: Presentation and Conservation of Changing Artworks, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2013. Online:
4) van de Vall, Renée, “Documenting Dilemmas: On the Relevance of Ethically Ambiguous Cases”, Revista de historia da arte, no. 4, 2015, pp. 7-17. Online:
5) Dekker, Annet, “Networks of Care”, in Dekker, Collecting and Conserving Net Art: Moving beyond Conventional Methods, London: Routledge, pp 71-98. Frieling, Rudolf, “The Museum as Producer. Processing Art and Performing a Collection”, in New Collecting: Exhibiting and Audiences After New Media Art, ed. Beryl Graham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014, 135–58.
6) Van de Vall 2015.
7) Sollfrank, Cornelia, “obn_a - A Situated Archive of the Old Boys Network”, in Networks of Care: Politiken des (Er)haltens und (Ent)sorgens, eds. Anna Schäffler, Friederike Schäfer, and Nanne Buurman, Berlin: neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK), 2022, pp 72-80.
8) Sollfrank 2022, 77.
9) The basis for iteration reports in a number of museums is a report developed by Joanna Phillips at the Guggenheim Museum and published on its website, Several other museums have followed the suit in recent years and published their forms online, for an example of SFMOMA, see Barok, Dušan, Julia Noordegraaf and Arjen P. de Vries, “From Collection Management to Content Management in Art Documentation: The Conservator as an Editor”, Studies in Conservation, vol. 64, no. 8, 2019, pp 472-489. Online:
10) Between 2015 and 2020, the Ludwig Museum organized four editions of MAPS - Media Art Preservation Symposium. Most recently:
11) Vojtěchovský, Miloš (ed.), Vasulka Kitchen Cooking Reader #1: Beyond Media Texts: Primal & Final / Vašulkova kuchyňská kniha #1: texty k médiím: první & poslední, Brno: Vašulka Kitchen Brno, 2020. Online: