Recovering the Eyebeam Collection Following Superstorm Sandy: Conservation Lessons for All Revealed by a Multimedia Disaster

Kara Van Malssen
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Four: 2015-2016


In the fall of 2012, Superstorm Sandy struck the New York City region, destroying or badly damaging homes, businesses, and infrastructure. As is the case with all disasters, numerous cultural heritage materials, both personal and institutional, were amongst the damage. Once the storm passed, several museums, libraries, archives, galleries and other collecting institutions across the region, in particular those close to the city’s numerous waterways, faced the recovery of both their inundated buildings, as well as the artifacts contained within. Amongst those affected was Eyebeam, a non-profit art and technology center dedicated to exposing broad and diverse audiences to new technologies and media arts. Founded in 1997, Eyebeam supports residen­cies and fellowships by artists and creative technologists, stages exhibitions, and runs educational programs.

Since its inception, Eyebeam has collected the creative output of its residents and fellows—including video, audio, and software-based artworks and their related documentation—as well as recordings of the organization’s numerous events. The result is a growing collection of over 3,000 analog and digital media items, many of these original art works, on formats ranging from data tapes and discs dating back to the late 1990s, to myriad video and audio formats. During the storm, Eyebeam’s building, located in Manhattan’s West Chelsea, filled with three to four feet of highly corrosive saltwater, submerging approximately 50% of this collection.

This presentation will tell the story of the expert-lead, volunteer-driven effort to urgently stabilize the Eyebeam media collection in the days that followed the storm. The discussion will focus on methods used for establishing a network of responders while day-to-day communication lines were down, working with trained and untrained volunteers, triage efforts, conserva­tion techniques used for the variety of formats, roles and teams, mechanisms used to mitigate risk of loss and further damage, and outcomes. The presentation will stress the critical disaster preparedness and preventative conservation lessons that emerged through this experience, including the requirements of intellec­tual control for collections in today’s data-driven conservation ecosystem, and the need for valuation and prioritization within large collections. Chief amongst these lessons is the role that digitization and proper digital preservation can play in protecting heritage from disasters and conflict, not only for media collec­tions, but for collections of any kind.

Kara Van Malssen
Senior Consultant