Unsustainable Digital Collections

Jo Ana Morfin
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Five: 2017-2018


This paper analyzes how in the context of Mexican museums, the lack of policies, frameworks and strategic planning has led to the creation of unsustainable cultural digital collections. It focuses on the challenges in rescuing the digital collection Bienal Inter­nacional de Poesía Visual y Experimental (Biennale of Visual and Experimental Poetry), held at the Mediateque of the Museo Universitario del Chopo. The Mexican artists Araceli Zúñiga and César Espinosa (b.1939) organized the International Biennales of Visual and Experimental Poetry between 1985 and 2009. These events brought together practitioners from all over the world whose work is placed at the intersections of the fields of contemporary visual writing, copy art, concrete music, mail art, and performance.

Throughout the years, Zúñiga and Espinosa became interested in creating a “memory” of these events. Therefore, they started to gather videos, mail art works, photography, artistic electrography, from each event. The collection was stored at their house and clas­sified and organized by the artists themselves. Through the years, the collection became a key source for researching and tracing the development of alternative and experimental art practices in Mexico. Given the significance of this collection and with the aim of preserving and providing greater access to its contents, Zúñiga and Espinosa agreed with the Museo Universitario del Chopo in digitizing the materials and donating a digital version to be included in the collection of the museum. Over 2,000 artworks were digitized.

In 2015, the museum received a grant to put this content online. However, during the development of the project we realized that most of the digital objects were unstable. Given this situation, the project focused on rescuing this digital collection from oblivion. The project brought to light several concerns, such as the lack of digital preservation planning, the deficient use of metadata standards, the shortage of expertise, and more importantly, the lack of institutional policies to create sustainable digital collections. The museum’s team did not follow clear guidelines, standards, and best practices for the creation of digital objects and their subsequent management, affecting the ability to read, access, and understand the digital materials. Furthermore, we became aware that several cultural institutions in Mexico shared this scenario. The project’s findings show that numerous museums undertake digitalization-driven projects without following a strategic plan, thus resulting in unsustainable digital cultural collections. Fortunately, in 2016 three major initiatives aimed at overseeing the creation and management of cultural digital collections emerged. Working in close collaboration with these platforms—Metadata for the Mexican Cultural Heritage, Cultural National Agenda for Digital Projects, and Digital Preservation Group—we developed a plan for rescue and long-term access to the collection of Bienal Internacional de Poesía Visual Experimental.

Jo Ana Morfin
Museo Universitario del Chopo