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Cataloguing and documenting new media collections

While museum professionals can easily document and catalogue most works from traditional fine arts collections, new media works bring about several problems including the development of a new vocabulary describing the works, an extensive knowledge of the technology used to produce them and an understanding of how they operate during their presentation. A further cataloguing challenge with new media collections is the documentation of these technologically based works that inevitably transform, be it through migration, the refurbishing of equipment, or emulation. This documentation needs to be contained within a flexible and accessible information environment (data structure) that reflects and respects an institution’s collections information program.


The DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) case studies have allowed participating museums to confront these challenges by developing documentation strategies that best describe new media works and that can be determinant in their presentation and preservation. In comparison to most contemporary artworks in museum collections, new media works demand much more time, care and attention; they require that institutions adapt their cataloguing systems and develop their vocabulary to include terminology that addresses their specificity.


Following a revision of standard documentation practices and an analysis of collections database structures, modifications to existing cataloguing methods were necessary for the integration of new media works. The following summarizes the changes, the adaptations and the tools implemented by the DOCAM cataloguing committee:


• The addition of cataloguing fields of information that would most thoroughly describe the works, three different levels of description (iconographic, technical and a detailed description of the installation of the work) as well as various fields for describing the different component parts of the work (See the Descriptive Table - Essential Data-Entry Fields for Documenting New Media Works and Recommendations);

• The use of a controlled vocabulary list of equipment;

• An adaptation of our cataloguing form specifically for new media works;

• The use of a questionnaire for the artist: Apart from the factual and technical inquiries, the questionnaire asks very specific questions regarding how the work was conceived, how it functions and what essential quality needs to be preserved for each presentation. The questionnaire is either sent to the artist or completed through an interview. Ideally, a videotaped interview while installing the work for an exhibition seems to be the most appropriate time to collaborate with the artist and their technicians for a more complete documentation;

• The use of a form for documenting the changes made to the work when installing for exhibition purposes.


In developing the documentation and cataloguing methodologies for the case studies, three broad areas of concern were identified: archival, technical and ethical. In order to treat each area of concern, participating museums worked collaboratively to determine the documentation strategies necessary.