The Smithsonian Aims to Preserve Digital Design

A museum preserves our culture from disappearing over time. But in the 21st century how can museums preserve the apps, software, and digital ephemera that now define our culture?

The Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian's National Museum of Design in New York, is starting to explore this issue with a digital acquisition, an iPad app.  Released in 2011 by Bloom, Planetary is an app that examines a user's iTunes collection it across a truly cosmic scale, transforming your music library into a virtual 3-D galaxy. Each star in that galaxy represents a different artist, each orbiting planet an album, and every moon a song.  

Sebastian Chan, Cooper-Hewitt's director of digital and emerging media, recently told FastCoDesign the acquisition has to do with the museum's mission to collect contemporary design - a mission, which faces new challenges in the digital age.  

"If we were satisfied to just be a history museum or an art museum, we could stay focused on the tangible, but to fill to the role of being the 'National Design Museum,' we have to broaden what we do," Chan explained. "We are beginning to come to terms with the fact that the contemporary objects that a design museum should collect are now often neither unique nor inherently precious. It's forcing us to consider how to communicate the intention and the processes of the designers behind their work."

The acquisition is a bigger deal than downloading an app onto a museum iPad. Chan added, "Not only did we acquire Planetary's source code, we also acquired the developer's change log and other development ephemera. This gives us the opportunity to show our visitors how the app was made, and the trade-offs made along the way in the design process.”

Planetary from Bloom Studio, Inc. on Vimeo.

Additionally, Planetary's original developers over at Bloom were willing to work with the Cooper-Hewitt on an on-going basis in figuring out how to best exhibit and preserve it. To Chan, this was important because at his former job at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, he had been exposed a large collection of early electronic musical instruments from the 1960s and 1970s. These instruments had been collected, but had not been preserved, so turning them on might destroy them.  

“Preserving something digital requires experimentation. You can't just freeze it in Carbonite," he said.
As part of that experiment in digital preservation, the Cooper-Hewitt has made Planetary open source to encourage software developers to modify it. In 2014, the app will also be exhibited to museumgoers on museum iPads when the Cooper-Hewitt re-opens after renovations.

Further, this acquisition could influence more than just digital preservation. According to Chan, it could change the way other museums preserve physical objects. For example, right now, the Cooper-Hewitt has a collection of 3-D printed chairs, but not the source code used to generate them.

Collecting digital works of design is the future of museums.  You can't preserve a digital object without preserving the technology that created it.

Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist at IIR USA in New York City, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the tech industry.  She can be reached at Follow her at @AmandaCicc. 
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