Bridging the Gap between Metadata Librarians and Art Conservators
During the summer of 2014, I started a nine-month residency at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. This project was part of the National Digital Stewardship Residency in New York, a program that takes recent graduates from LAM programs and places them at cultural heritage host institutions to work on digital preservation projects. I will not go into extensive detail about my project here (you can read through my residency blog here to get more information), but the basic goal of the project was to create a metadata profile to record the conservation activities performed by museum conservators on time-based media artworks. Time-based media is a sort of catch-all term that refers to materials like film, software, and slides that “have duration as a dimension and unfold to the viewer over time” (Guggenheim Conservation Department: Time-Based Media).
When I entered MoMA on the first day, I could have filled a multi-volume set of books with what I did not know about museums, conservation, and working with museum professionals. I had no idea if the information architectures of our respective professions would match up enough to have coherent conversations, or if we would constantly be explaining basic tenets of our profession to each other. I was unsure to what degree metadata was understood and used in the museum world, and what kinds of systems museum professionals were using to interact with and store metadata. I also had almost no knowledge of audiovisual materials and the type of technical information needed to properly care for these types of materials, especially when they must be preserved as works of art (meaning maintaining aesthetic authenticity was hugely important). In short, I had a lot to learn.
To my relief, I found conservators to be willing and excited to participate in an information exchange with the traditional library world; we both had much to learn from each other, after all. Conservators helped me to understand their domain, and this in turn allowed me to translate that domain into a metadata profile that would adhere to digital preservation standards. So how did I bridge this gap between metadata librarians and museum conservators? In three ways: 1) Embedding myself in the domain of museum conservation; 2) Learning to appreciate the domain of fine art and conservation work; and 3) Translating everything I said out of library jargon.
The first of these, embedding in the domain, was greatly helped by the fact that my workspace was in MoMA’s painting and sculpture conservation lab. This meant that I was able to interact with the conservators, watch their work, and observe their documentation process as it existed. I also shadowed the media conservators through the digitization/transfer process of one artwork. This gave me a clear sense of their process and the significant properties they needed to be able to record in a metadata profile. The conservators also walked me through current exhibits at MoMA and other museums to show me their work in context, so I could understand how the information in the metadata profile would actually assist conservators in the future to most accurately exhibit an artwork. Finally, I attended any meeting I could that was at all relevant to my project, allowing me to slowly absorb the museum terminology that I would need to know to create a useful metadata profile.
The second way I reached across the aisle to museum conservators was through really exposing myself to time-based media artworks, and gaining an understanding of why these pieces are so special that a person would devote their career to preserving them. I had not been particularly interested in modern art in general before this residency, and had very little knowledge of time-based media art. It was not until I saw these pieces on exhibit that I was fully able to appreciate their uniqueness and importance, and also what type of information would need to be recorded to ensure that these pieces could be exhibited this effectively in the future. Pieces like Feng Mengbo’s Long March: Restart (2008), an interactive video game that surrounds the viewer on both sides like a tunnel, made it clear how innovative and affecting time-based media art could be. This type of art also demonstrated just how difficult the task of properly preserving these types of works would be, and how important it would be to create a metadata profile that was both comprehensive and extensible, able to adjust to the new innovations sure to come in the future of time-based media.
Lastly, I translated everything out of library jargon, and emphasized how what I was creating could practically help them with their work, rather than focusing on the importance of digital preservation and good metadata practices from my perspective. These are proudly held beliefs in the library world, but can sometimes over-complicate a pitch for improved documentation to museum professionals. Some conservators are certainly interested and invested in digital preservation, but most are simply looking for a way to ease the burden of very heavy, time-sensitive workloads; explaining how a concise metadata profile could save them time now and in the future is a useful way to get conservators invested in such projects.
Museum conservators share many common interests with metadata librarians, but it can be difficult to see that from a cursory look at these two cultural heritage domains and their current metadata and digital preservation practices. My time at MoMA creating a metadata profile for time-based media conservation demonstrated that much of the work we do in the library metadata world translates very usefully to the museum conservation world; it is just a matter of knowing how to speak to each other to reach our shared goals that stands in the way of more comprehensive collaboration. I hope that this post will offer some useful guidance about overcoming these barriers to those considering such collaboration across museum-library borders.
This post was adapted from a presentation given at ALA Midwinter 2016 during the ALCTS CaMMS Cataloging Norms Interest Group meeting.