Soon over 200 exhibition websites for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), going back to its first web experiments in 1995, will be totally archived, from their images to their code. The project, started in 2014, is a collaboration with the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC), which includes the Brooklyn Museum and Frick Collection and is concentrated on preserving the digital art history of museums.
Seth Persons, a NYARC web archiving intern, wrote about the initiative in a post last month marking the 20th anniversary of the first MoMA website, which was made for the Mutant Materials exhibition, launched on May 25, 1995. The site was created by curator Paola Antonelli with a budget of $315 and required teaching herself code. It even preceded MoMA’s general museum site.
As Jess Joho pointed out at Kill Screen, many of these sites are already cached at the Internet Archive, which has been diligently saving the web since 1996 with its Wayback Machine and captures about a billion pages each week. The NYARC project goes deeper, though, enlisting a web archivist who examines each link, image, and cumbersome Shockwave plugin. For example, Persons cited the website for 2003’s Kiki Smith: Prints, Books, & Things as being too complicated for basic web-crawl archiving; sorting through its Flash components required weeks of hands-on work. Others are more basic, like a moody black website accented with blue text for the 1999 Jackson Pollock exhibition, while Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities in 2008 has a full-screen Flash experience. Now, when you go to MoMA’s exhibition archives and click through to past shows, you’ll be taken to interactive online sites that appear just as they did for users when the exhibitions were open. Just 14 are still pending in the project.
Antonelli (still at MoMA) takes a similar approach to the acquisition of video games, wherein getting the source code in its original language is an essential part of the process. MoMA is far from the only institution concerned with internet preservation — the Library of Congress is archiving all of our tweets — yet much of social media and online content in general remains surprisingly ephemeral. Jill Lepore surmised in January for The New Yorker that the “average life of a Web page is about a hundred days,” citing BuzzFeed deleting old posts, the demise of MySpace and GeoCities, and the expiration of hosting domains. There’s a whole slew of early museum websites out there that may already be riddled with dead links and broken images, a potential void in our art history.