The museum archive: from managing and storing memories to predicting the future

Published on January 3rd, 2015

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The New Institute plans to explore the challenges and possibilities of the digital archive. Taking the archive system as a point of departure, and drawing on various themes addressed in the museum’s exhibitions, artists, designers and photographers will expose the invisible layers of the digital archive.

This introduction text is part of Archive Interpretations a research project by Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, curated by Annet Dekker

The museum archive: from managing and storing memories to predicting the future

by Annet Dekker

‘Far too much invisible art’, ran the headline in the Dutch newspaper Trouw in December.[1] Museums can display just five percent of their collections: insurance for art loans is too expensive, and there is too little money available to digitise objects and documents and make them accessible. Whereas transparency and dissemination are key words in the early 21st century, reality shows that there is plenty not on display. Exactly how extendable, or even misleading, are notions such as transparency and dissemination? Moreover, what are the consequences of the digitisation of physical collections and the emergence of digital archives? To what extent does a digital archive function differently? Do collections and archives become more accessible? Will we indeed see more soon? Will the links between works and documents in the archive become clearer? And will insight into the past and present be advanced? In other words, can we learn (more) from the digital archive? The New Institute plans to explore the challenges and possibilities of the digital archive. Taking the archive system as a point of departure, and drawing on various themes addressed in the museum’s exhibitions, artists, designers and photographers will expose the invisible layers of the digital archive.

The Museum and its Archive

The archive is often seen as the very foundation of an organisation, and that also applies to Het Nieuwe Instituut. The collection of documents, photographs, models, sketches and personal notes by architects, designers and artists is impressive, yet much of the information is difficult to access. The institute has therefore set itself the goal of improving insight into the archive. As it expresses it, ‘if this archive is to enhance its social relevance, and thus its legitimacy, then access – in particular for a wider audience – is a requisite’. Archives are charged with the task of preserving (cultural) heritage for the future. The functions of an archive are generally described as maintaining, providing access to, and making available sources. An archive is there to serve the national memory and individual recollection and conscience. Within this trinity, a dynamic tension between the past, present and future results: understanding what has happened, and providing insight into with whom or where we want to belong. In general, the archive focused on the (recent) past, but now there is a shift towards openness of documents and objects. This means that old paper documents and analogue photographs are being digitised, and models and objects are entering the computer database digitally ‘immortalised’. With the tendency towards dissemination and the ease with which the digital domain facilitates access, the archive changes from a largely paper ‘dust trap’ into a digitally ‘invisible’ space. What are the consequences of this change? What is the impact of a digital database on the physical archive and its objects, and vice versa?

Archives are cultural products whose location, organisation and maintenance contribute substantially to the value of the knowledge and the creation of meaning. In other words, the medium that facilitates access to the items in an archive and the system that supports it, as well as the setting in which it is housed, determine the way an archive functions and the power it exerts. The merging of these fundamental characteristics of the archive has been frequently discussed in history, and the key question has often been: to what extent, and in which way, does the archive as a system influence the production of knowledge and meaning? With the emergence of digital access mechanisms in the form of database management systems, the importance of this question remains unchanged. While a database possesses comparable functions and values to an archive, a new technical structure can exert a different effect on what is contained in the database. In other words, the administrative processing of an object or document is never the same as a description of what it represents, and furthermore, the medium influences to a greater or lesser extent that which it describes.

From Memory and Storage to Predictive Algorithms

As stated, the archive often constitutes much of the basis of an organisation. Collections in the archive make up the core of activities for exhibitions, education, research and so on. Throughout the past decades, critics have attacked the museum, as they did the archive, as the embodiment of western cultural domination. While most museums stood up to the criticism, their authoritative position now seems to be faltering owing to the behaviour of the general public as it gains access to the digital files of the museum. In many cases, users of the digital archive can copy, store, change, and distribute information. Anticipating this trend, the museum is starting to settle into its new role: from a storage depot for physical objects to a data-set of digital files. With this change, not only does visitor attention shift from a physical to a ‘virtual’ environment, but contact with the objects themselves also changes. While a museum offers a (historical) perspective or context in which visitors are encouraged to reflect, analyse, remember or make connections, the database works in the opposite manner.[2] A database reacts to input and searches for information by making the most efficient connections. Accordingly, certain expected findings can fail to materialise, while unexpected results can materialise.

Another important difference in dealing with the past, and in particular with memories, stems from another functioning of the memory. After all, the memory of a computer does not work in the same way that the museum manages and preserves its memory, i.e. the collections in the archive. Computer memories do the very opposite of storing. They do not return continually to a document. Instead, every time a document is accessed, the ‘memory’ opens a copy of the document, which can then be stored as a new document or as a replacement of the previous document. In other words, we can never literally open the same document twice, thus storing is also creating.[3] Looking at memory in this way clarifies the difference between a digital database and a physical archive in terms of function and operation: no longer are we guided by the past, but each time we focus on a new version, i.e. the future. While the museum always focused on telling stories, the database focuses on translating and bringing out an ordered logic, and it makes predictions and connections on each occasion. Nevertheless, just as directors, curators and archivists make specific choices, programmers largely determine the arrangement in the database in advance.

From Content to Design

The arrangement of an archive is determined in part by the specific programme used, which is then refined and tailored by the database administrator in consultation with archivists. It is obvious that a digital system demands other conditions, and it is set up with other aims and interests in mind than an exhibition, study or discussion is. The technical principles of a database call for a clear indexing and structure based on the end user, and they do not serve any higher goal of an organisation or abstract service such as historical memory. The database system is all about logic and structure in locating items quickly and easily. The difference between a digital and physical archive no longer results from the form of the data, but from how the structuring principles filter, provide access to, and use the information. A digital database can group and regroup various elements in countless ways much more easily and quickly. The idea of an original or authentic ordering maintained and altered by the archivist in the physical archive no longer applies to a digital archive.

The world of the computer, databases and code is stubborn and generally opaque. Ellen Ullman, computer programmer and journalist with the New York Times, has frequently stated that programmers often do not know what they have embarked upon. This is mainly because of the rapid succession of changes and the associated uncertainty about what the following step will bring. In Ullman’s words, ‘the corollary of constant change is ignorance’.[4] If the makers of systems do not always work according to an intentional goal – even though the client may perhaps think it has specified one – and are guided by the process itself – in which preconceived ideas, desires and shadowy decisions come together – what does that then mean for the eventual system, its structure, the information and documents fed into it, and its users? This will undermine not only the so-called openness, but also the idea that a system is more autonomous than the dominant decisions of a director, archivist or curator.

Experimenting in the Archive

This short account raises various questions. For instance, what happens when a digital archive is no longer accessible to the archivist alone but to all sorts of visitors? Who are those visitors and what do they want? And what are they doing? What impact does the ‘mantra of transparency’ have on the authoritative status of the museum and its archive? The New Institute will explore these questions through a series of five exercises, with as starting point ‘the archive as a system’. Various ‘archive thinkers’ will deal with the notion of the deconstruction of the digital archive. They will not focus on the composition of a new archive or examine the contents of the archive, but instead they will view the archive as something that constantly moves: something that is largely invisible and monumental, hidden and ubiquitous, all at the same time. This investigation into the archive is urgent because the characteristics of the digital archive call for a reassessment of the material value of (digital) documents that no longer refer to the past but, in their use, focus on the present and future.

To be continued …

Each following assignment will add a new dimension to this text. In this way, the deeper layers of the archive will come to light and, at the same time, the archive will progress into the future..


1. Henny de Lange, ‘Veel te veel onzichtbare kunst’, Trouw de Verdieping, 11 December 2014. <>.
2. For more information, see Mike Pepi’s analysis of the differences between the functioning of a museum and a database in his article ‘Is the Museum a Database?: Institutional Conditions in Net Utopia’, e-flux, 12/2014, <>
(accessed 17 December 2014).
3. In his book Mechanisms. New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), digital forensic expert Matthew Kirschenbaum explores the impact of the difference between memory and storage and its effects on conservation.
4. In her book Close to the Machine. Technophilia and its Discontents (London: Pushkin Press, 1997), Ullman explains in a clear and slightly ironic manner how the process of programming and designing a system.

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