April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

New Media Art in Museum Collections: A Report from the DOCAM Cataloguing and Conservation Committees

Richard Gagnier, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Madeleine Lafaille, Canadian Heritage Information Network, Elaine Tolmatch, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Anne-Marie Zeppetelli, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Canada


New challenges concerning the acquisition, exhibition and preservation of media art in museum collections have recently surfaced. These challenges have given rise to an important study led by the DOCAM Research Alliance (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage). Established in 2004, this initiative is a SSHRC funded research project spearheaded by the Daniel Langlois Foundation and the Canadian Heritage Information Network. This paper presents a number of DOCAM case study findings on new media works by the research teams at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Conclusions drawn from a survey of new media cataloguing practices in some North American, European and Australian institutions are also discussed. Museum cataloguing methods and conservation strategies are identified. Finally, the importance of protecting our new media heritage for the future is emphasized. Participants will benefit from the research findings and will learn how the Web is used to bring together vast quantities of resources on new media, including the DOCAM Web site (

Keywords: media art, cataloguing, conservation, case studies, museum collections, research alliance, DOCAM


Media art refers to the large body of artistic works that have a technological component. The complexity of such works has been described on the DOCAM Research Alliance Web site (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage - The Web site states that the components of media artworks, created in different eras, may be analog, mechanical or electronic, and that they may be composed of machines, software, electronic systems, and still or moving analog or digital images integrated with traditional and non-traditional materials.

Museums that have acquired media artworks in recent years face major challenges. Chief among them is certainly technological obsolescence, in itself a serious impediment to the ability of museums to adequately exercise their mandate to exhibit and preserve the art in their collections. The urgent need to avert obsolescence - or worse, extinction – of a major portion of our recent artistic heritage has forced museums to take serious stock of their capabilities. In addition to implementing new conservation strategies, museums must also cast a critical eye on the concept of their mandate to manage, acquire, exhibit and preserve media artworks. Should such works be acquired with the intent of preserving them for the longest possible time, thus fulfilling a mandate to conserve our heritage for generations to come? How are museums to catalogue media artworks and integrate the resulting information into a collection management system? Is there additional information that should be gathered and preserved within collection archives? What should our preservation strategies be when the time comes to replace worn out or defective equipment? Are the strategies under consideration consistent with the integrity and authenticity of the works? These are some of the questions that the DOCAM Research Alliance has addressed.

DOCAM is an international research alliance consisting of museum professionals and university researchers who address the documentation and preservation of media art heritage. DOCAM’s main objective is to develop new tools and methodologies that respond to challenges posed by technology-based artistic practices. It has assembled a multidisciplinary team of researchers from such fields as art history, museology, archival management, information sciences, and history of technology. DOCAM has six research committees - Conservation and Preservation, Documentation and Archival Management, Technological Timeline, Pedagogy, Cataloguing Structure and Terminology - all working together toward a common goal.

This paper is divided into two parts. The first part, prepared by the Cataloguing Structure Committee, details the research methodologies and preliminary findings of the case studies on new media works in the collections of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. It also reviews the survey and case studies conducted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and identifies current cataloguing approaches. The second part, prepared by the Preservation and Conservation Committee, discusses issues pertaining to the authenticity and integrity of media artworks and illustrates current conservation approaches.

Cataloguing Methodologies and Case Studies at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM) is a pioneer in the study of new media works in public collections, being amongst the first museums in Canada to develop a tailor-made cataloguing methodology and to conduct case studies. This section will illustrate three major concerns – archival, technical and ethical - that are evident in the case studies conducted by the MACM on works by Bill Viola, Gary Hill and Janet Cardiff.

The three concerns can be described as follows:

  • Archival: The archival aspect focuses on the importance of archiving the greatest amount of pertinent information possible on the work acquired. In addition to documenting standard logistical issues, preservation and presentation aspects must also be considered. To protect an artwork’s integrity, it is necessary to provide a description of conceptual aspects as the work evolves and transforms in various presentations and as it adapts to technological changes.
  • Technical: The technical aspect concerns all information on the technology used to produce the work (how it was produced, how it operates, how it can be preserved and how it can be migrated to a newer technology).
  • Ethical: The ethical aspect is linked to copyright issues that not only pertain to the exhibition and preservation of a work of art through time, but also deal with the production of new media works.

Prior to the case studies, the MACM research team analyzed its database and reviewed its standard cataloguing methodologies, adding fields of information and adapting cataloguing forms specifically for new media works. Several fields of information, such as three new fields for the description of the works (iconographic, a technical and a detailed description of the installation of the work) and various fields for describing the different components of each work, were added to the database. The MACM also developed an in-house artist questionnaire. In addition to the factual and technical queries, the questionnaire asks how the work was conceived, how it functions, and which of its components need to be preserved for each presentation. The questionnaire can be completed either privately by the artist or publicly in the form of an interview between the artists and museum staff. A videotaped interview during exhibition installation is the ideal time to collaborate with the artist and his/her technicians and to obtain extensive documentation about a new media work.

Archival Documentation

For each of the case studies, the MACM documented every new media work in depth. The archival documentation consists of a description of the operational components, including both the components visible to the visitors during the presentation and those hidden behind the technical booth. A complete inventory of audiovisual equipment, machines, manufacturers, models, serial numbers and all tapes including exhibit copies, program codes, etc. was taken.

Preserving an artwork’s integrity is an important part of its archival documentation. It is defined by using several descriptive levels, all of which are mainly based on the artist’s concept and intentions. An understanding of how the work operates on a conceptual and functional level is necessary in order to foresee its behaviour at each presentation and its evolution from a technological standpoint. Therefore, a description of the work, its function, and behaviour, is done so that the museum can determine its installation parameters. The artist questionnaire/interview helps to determine these parameters, and to clarify the artist’s wishes with respect to each presentation. The questionnaire defines the relationship between the concept, the artist’s intention and the artwork’s technical expression.

The Sleepers (1992) by Bill Viola was one of the MACM’s case studies. At the time of acquisition, Viola produced a complete description of the work with a list of the materials and technical equipment required for the installation. The artist also provided signed hand-drawn sketches and floor plans for The Sleepers, clearly describing his intentions and requirements. This serves the MACM as a certificate of authenticity for the work and determines the parameters that apply to the artwork’s presentation. These documents describe the work’s essential functionality. They help the MACM to understand how the work needs to behave; they also define the physical and aesthetic parameters that need to be reproduced at each presentation. In addition, they also help the MACM to respect the integrity of the work at each presentation and avoid any understatement of its intrinsic value.

Technical Aspects

When taking into account technical aspects, it is necessary to document transformations over time, such as migration, emulation and the refurbishing of obsolete equipment. In fact, the MACM constantly migrates video components of media works to newer formats - all of which are documented. The MACM emulated several works which needed re-design or re-programming of digital components. Most of these changes and transformations are made according to the artist’s intentions and recommendations.

Technical aspects of some works are highly specialized. One of the MACM’s most complex video installations is Dervish (1995) by Gary Hill, another case study completed by the research team. Dervish is composed of 2 moving video projections (rotating on a semi-circular wall built specifically for this installation). It comprises 2 laser discs and players, 2 modified projectors with integrated strobe lights, a control box and a laptop computer. The structure at the centre of the piece, barely visible to the visitor, holds two modified projectors with strobe lights, a turbine engine with mirrors, a time coder, and a computer that contains the programming code for this piece. The moving video projections on the wall are created by the reflection of the video images on the rotating mirrors. In the technical booth adjacent to the installation, the main control box, two laser discs with players, and a synchroniser are not visible to the viewer.

Dervish is activated by a sensor in the installation space. As visitors walk into the room, the turbine engine is automatically activated. The video images are reflected on rotating mirrors and projected on a semi-circular wall. The projections move horizontally across the wall, in various directions, for variable lengths of time. The code (computer) controls the turning mirrors’ velocity and activates the control box sending a signal to the video players for the selection of video display and the control of the on/off sound.

The documentation on Dervish consists of construction plans for the semi-circular wall, electrical plans for the installation of the wiring, the equipment, with a detailed plan of each part of the installation, installation instructions, as well as instructions on the handling and care of the equipment. Most of these plans were provided by the artist’s studio at the moment of acquisition. The MACM continues to work closely with the Gary Hill Studio with regard to this piece.

Ethical Concerns

Ethical concerns involve copyright issues. In respecting Canadian copyright laws, any modification to the presentation and/or preservation of the work must be overseen and authorized by the artist. The artist may specify, through an official contract, the changes that he/she authorizes to the piece; however this occurs on only rare occasions. Each work varies, and artists have divergent opinions on how their works should survive through time. For this reason, it is difficult to adopt a standardized acquisition policy for all new media works.

Museums must deal with copyright issues in the production of the media work itself. The MACM needs to ensure that artworks acquired are copyright free with regard to collaborators, programmers, and the existing software used in the production of the piece. The MACM must also ensure that the artist has obtained the right to use specific software and cleared all authorship issues with his/her collaborators.

Théorie du complot / Conspiracy Theory (2003) by Janet Cardiff, another case study, has an interesting copyright issue. This work was specifically produced for the MACM. It is an interactive video installation consisting of 12 digital cameras, 24 mini DV cassettes (12 in French and 12 in English), and 12 sets of headphones. It is one of Cardiff’s walking pieces; she has created several versions for different museums. They are all produced with a similar approach: the museum visitor is handed a video camera containing a videotape for playback with a set of headphones and is directed to a specific area of the museum where the walking piece begins. As the camera is set in playback mode, the artist in the video leads the visitor to specific areas and sites in and around the museum by speaking to the visitor throughout the walking tour.

The MACM has no written agreement specifying the changes that are allowed to be made to the work. The artist must approve such modifications. Since it is also a site-specific work, any modification to the architecture filmed in the walking tour can render the piece impossible to experience. Moreover, a change in the MACM’s architecture has made it impossible to complete the tour as originally envisaged. Respecting the copyright law and the artist’s moral rights, the MACM will verify if the artist is willing to recreate part of the tour so that its visitors can continue to view it. Cardiff will then decide if it is possible and if she is willing to recreate a part of her work. In cooperation with the MACM, both parties will determine how the re-creation of the work will be done. Should Cardiff decide against the modification of the artwork, the MACM will be left with only the documentation of the original piece.

The case studies on Bill Viola, Gary Hill and Janet Cardiff demonstrate that it is necessary for museums to address the archival, technical and ethical concerns brought forth by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal when acquiring new media works.

Survey and Case Studies at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

As a member of the Cataloguing Structure Committee alongside the MACM, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has contributed to the DOCAM project in two ways: first, by conducting a Survey of New Media Cataloguing Practices in some North American, European and Australian institutions; and secondly, by completing two case studies of new media works from its contemporary art collection.


The MMFA prepared a survey of 13 questions which address collections management issues specific to the acquisition, classification, documentation, installation, conservation and migration of new media works. The MMFA contacted 143 North American, European and Australian museums and galleries. Forty-three of these institutions responded, citing the timeliness and appropriateness of the DOCAM initiative. Several conclusions have been drawn from the survey findings:

  1. First, when acquiring new media works, some institutions continue to apply existing procedures used for traditional artwork. Other organizations are formulating specialized contracts and artist questionnaires and developing tailor-made databases.
  2. Second, new media works are classified under various categories such as Art with a Technological Component, Electronic Media, Media Art, etc. It would be preferable that standardized cataloguing terminology for new media works be agreed upon by museum professionals.
  3. Third, art institutions typically archive master versions of new media works and exhibit duplicates. Some institutions store these new media works in specialized cabinets, whereas others store them in spaces alongside painting, sculpture and other media.
  4. Fourth, the obsolescence of technological components in new media works is a growing concern for museums. It is common practice to migrate, repair, and, if necessary, replace specific elements of new media works.
  5. Finally, the maintenance of multifaceted new media works necessitates ongoing collaboration among specialists in curatorial, conservation and audio-visual departments.

Case Studies

The results gathered from the survey led the MMFA to review its own collection management procedures for new media works and consequently to conduct two case studies: 1) In Your Dreams (1998) by Gisele Amantea; and 2) Royal Canadian Mounted Police (1989) by Nam June Paik. The MMFA’s research team carried out a comprehensive study of each work. First, the team reviewed the object file, noting each work’s exhibition history and condition reports. Next, the team completed a photographic inventory of all of the works’ components, detailing the monitors, power supplies, cables, lights, fans, etc. With the aid of technicians, the team then installed each work; the step-by-step process was documented and photographed. Lastly, the team generated reports on the case study findings. Moreover, the MMFA’s database was restructured to include these results and better correspond to the specificity of new media works.

In Your Dreams

The MMFA’s first case study examined the video installation In Your Dreams by Gisele Amantea. In this work, 31 snow globes – presented in two long horizontal rows – rest on a large, white wooden structure. Each globe supports a mirror which allows the viewer to observe short film sequences projected from tiny colour monitors hidden within the structure below. Through extensive research and analysis, the MMFA documented:

  1. the migration of the work – the VHS tapes purchased at the time of acquisition have been converted to DVD;
  2. the modification of the substructure – the aesthetic appearance of the work has not changed, but the installation process has been facilitated for technicians;
  3. the deterioration of the monitors – the longevity of the work is at risk; and
  4. the complexity of the installation procedure – the loan of this work to other institutions requires specialized technicians.

These results closely relate to the MMFA’s survey findings. This case study was concluded with an artist interview that will help the MMFA to better determine future preservation and exhibition strategies for In Your Dreams.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police

As its second case study, the research team closely examined Nam June Paik’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Here, a figure composed of 10 vintage television and radio casings sits on a wooden horse. Each casing holds a colour television that is connected to a Laserdisc player at the base of the structure. Malfunctioning components have kept this video installation in storage since its acquisition. These obsolescent components could be migrated to extend the artwork’s longevity. This information illustrates another survey result: a majority of respondents mentioned their continued reliance on the opinion of the artist to make collection management decisions regarding new media works. This reinforces the necessity of formulating detailed agreements between artists and museums at the time of acquisition. Today, the MMFA is faced with the challenge of obtaining authorization from Paik Studios for any issues relating to Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Without authorization, the MMFA is unable to conserve and exhibit this work in an appropriate manner.

Preliminary Results

The research teams of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts validate and complement two existing collection management approaches specifically designed for new media works: 1) Variable Media, and 2) Media Matters.

Variable Media

Developed, for the most part, by the Guggenheim Museum, in cooperation with the Daniel Langlois Foundation and other organizations, Variable Media (Depocas, Ippolito & Jones, 2004) recommends that museums use a detailed questionnaire as its primary tool to document the artist’s viewpoint concerning the material and behavioural components of his/her work. At the time of acquisition, the artist outlines which elements are crucial to the integrity of the work. Therefore, the questionnaire can be useful in resolving existing collection management problems.

Media Matters

The second collection management approach, Media Matters (Tate Research, 2004), was developed by the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tate and New Art Trust. This method focuses on the need for an international agreement among museums regarding time-based media works and specifically targets the loan process. Media Matters guidelines can be consulted on-line and include a sample budget, a condition report, a facilities report, an installation document and a loan agreement.

Variable Media and Media Matters are excellent strategies when seeking to update existing collection management procedures while taking into consideration the requirements of new media works.

The research conducted by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts demonstrates some of the challenges that museums are facing with new media works. The research teams concluded that artist interviews and questionnaires, inventory lists, documented installation procedures and customized databases greatly facilitate the cataloguing, conservation and exhibition of new media works in museum collections. The survey and case study findings will help to update collection management procedures and protect our new media heritage for the future, thereby benefiting the entire museum community.

The Integrity and Authenticity of New Media Works

Museums with an interest in exhibiting and collecting new media art are faced with many complex issues. Not only do such works challenge the fundamental notion of what makes art unique and original, as is the case for a number of contemporary art practices (Couture, 2005), but they also make it difficult to define exactly the intrinsic composition of the works, or at least the required technology for survival. In the first place, we have the technology itself (image or sound) which is at risk of deterioration over time and may become incapable of delivering its content. In fact, such artworks are all transformed into media to varying degrees by equipment. For such components, the issues of their status within the work and of their ability to be maintained and operated become critical and determine to a large extent what strategies are applied to their conservation, both in the short and the long term. This aspect of feasibility is not technical as such, as it involves the very essence of the work: the things that convey its meaning, according to the artist’s intentions. Media art works not only are representative of the values and content of their specific time in history (Laurenson, 2004), but also act as part of the history of technology development. Although well-documented, this history is occasionally very difficult to understand, given that the quest for innovation and the upgrading of technology tend to make its initial manifestations vanish. Where the work of art is concerned, this unavoidable obsolescence runs counter to its reason for being, which places it in a fixed position on the continuum of time.

Part of the museum’s mission is to preserve the objects with which it is entrusted. In preserving objects, the museum strives to define and maintain the authenticity of the work. However, conservation traditionally establishes authenticity based on the identification of the original materials making up the work (Laurenson, 2006). Once such materials have been identified, the conservator must analyze them, assessing their stability and state of preservation. Measuring deterioration enables assessment of what Pip Laurenson describes as the degree of loss of the original, and thus in good part the authenticity of the work (Laurenson, 2004). The concept of material originality therefore is obviously strongly linked to the traditional notion of the artist’s technical expertise and of his/her manipulation of the material. Technical knowledge impacts the production of media art works, with several artists having a claim to their creation, often relying on the creativity and knowledge of technicians in the particular media to convey their artistic vision. New principles of contemporary art conservation consider replacing industrial components of some works of art with similar components, in the case not only of purely mechanical or electrical components, but also of aesthetic ones. Such replacements of “originals” that have become too damaged or impossible to repair have led to expanding the ethical concepts of conservation (Beerken and Hummelen, 1999).

In the long term, certain types of equipment such as out-of-date video projectors that can no longer be repaired and are discontinued could be replaced by later models featuring different technology but having the same basic functions in terms of image production, i.e. to display the image. The problem arising here is that in many instances, new equipment performs faster and/or produces a different quality of image in terms of resolution, contrast, or proportion. But for many media works, significant upgrading poses no problem, and artists appreciate the incorporation of newer technology into the functionality of their works.

Ethical issues involving technology transfers arise, certainly within the context of museum preservation. Let’s take, for example, a 1960s analog video work projected on a large-scale museum wall using technology from the 1990s instead of a CRT monitor. Soon, CRT monitors will be obsolete, and analog technology is already quite unstable. Moreover, under what conditions is transferring to digital technology inevitable if we are to preserve such artworks?

It is understood that media professionals have access to equipment and techniques to reproduce originals, using either the same medium as the original or other media that are more easily exhibited, but not necessarily with the same quality. It has been well established as part of the ethics of technology preservation that the most stable medium is selected: the medium that has the capacity to store the most data from the original and to be used as a master from which copies may be made. A hierarchy for preservation is formulated using such reference copies (submasters of the original). As opposed to exhibition copies, these will be stored under optimal conditions and never be viewed. For instance, a digital work on DVD is considered an exhibition copy, whereas its DigiBeta version is the submaster. In the same way, when a film work is acquired, it must include not only a positive for exhibition, but also an internegative, to guarantee preservation over time and the ability to make new copies.

At the time of acquisition, the equipment that makes the exhibition of a work possible is not always included. Depending on the artwork’s complexity, the artist may insist that specific models of equipment be purchased. However, the institution may elect to rely on the multimedia equipment it already owns or borrow a certain type of equipment for the duration of the exhibit. In either case, preservation of the artwork will depend on the acquisition of additional apparatus after the assessment of stability and costs involved, even though the use of spare parts and continued technical maintenance jeopardize the long-term functionality of the artwork.

The ensured long-term preservation of media artworks is a fundamental museum practice. Museums are no longer just acquiring unique objects dependent on the stability of their constituent materials. With media art, stability becomes dependent on other materially ‘representative’ copies of the same thing. Museums must ensure that the artwork can be reproduced successively and not just presented once.


Although media artworks are increasingly found in museum collections, the requirements associated with their documentation, conservation and exhibition often remain as barriers that museums hesitate to cross at the time of acquisition.

The work of the DOCAM Research Alliance is innovative and brings together museum professionals and university researchers in an effort to achieve a better understanding and appreciation of media art. Results demonstrate that initiatives such as DOCAM give rise to the design of tools and methods that can complement current museum practices in terms of describing and conserving media works.

The Variable Media, Media Matters and DOCAM Web sites are worth further exploration. They show how museum and cultural communities benefit from research findings because of the Web’s ideal interactive platform for learning, research and exchange. These sites are also effective instruments for disseminating information, documents, recommendations, guidelines or practical tools, all of which benefit museum professionals, teachers, students and, ultimately, the creators themselves.


Special thanks to Dina Vescio (Research Assistant, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) who co-wrote the “Survey and Case Studies at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts” section of this text. Her efforts in final revisions of the entire text were also greatly appreciated.


Beerken, Lydia & Usbrand Hummelen (1999). Tony Cragg: one space, four places 1982 - model research. In Modern art: Who Cares?  Amsterdam: The Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art and the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, 86-90.

Couture, Francine (2005). To re-exhibit or to produce the original work; Espace Sculpture 71, 6-11.

Guggenheim Museum & La Fondation Daniel Langlois pour l’art, la science et la technologie (2003). The Variable Media Network. Consulted January 15, 2007.

La Fondation Daniel Langlois pour l’art, la science et la technologie (2004). The DOCAM International Research Alliance on the Documentation and Conservation of Media Arts Heritage. Consulted January 15, 2007.

Lacerte, Sylvie (2007). La pérennité des arts médiatiques : enjeux théoriques et éthiques, défis et embûches. Journée d’étude, Faculté des Arts de l’UQAM en collaboration avec l’Institut du Patrimoine, 23 novembre 2007. Available at

Laurenson, Pip (2004). The management of display equipment in time-based media installations. In Ashok Roy and Perry Smith (Eds). Modern Art, New Museums, IIC Bilbao Congress, 13-17 sept. 2004. London: The International Institute for Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works. 49-51.

Laurenson, Pip (2006). Authenticity, change and loss in the conservation of time-based media installations. In Tate Papers Online, 2-3. Consulted January 31, 2007.

Tate Research (2004). Media Matters, Collaborating towards the care of time-based Media Works of Art. In collaboration with the New Art Trust, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Consulted January 15, 2007.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (2006). Survey of New Media Cataloguing Practices in some North American, European and Australian Institutions. Unpublished report.

Cite as:

Gagnier, R., et al., New Media Art in Museum Collections: A Report from the DOCAM Cataloguing and Conservation Committees, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted