What Happened When? Creating Retroactive Iteration Reports for Time-based Media Artworks

Alexandra Nichols
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Five: 2017-2018


In recent years, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has increasingly acquired time-based media, with the total collection numbering 274 time-based media artworks as of May 2018. A current best practice in the documentation of time-based media artworks is to create iteration reports, which document the manner in which a variable artwork is displayed in a specific exhibition.

In this article, research regarding the creation of retroactive iteration reports for past exhibitions and the challenges in relying on secondary sources and incomplete documentation is presented. Cross-departmental collaboration was key, as conservation relied on conversations and interviews with a wide range of staff members involved in the installation of the works. Recognizing that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, the author investigated scientific research related to the formation and recall of human memories. Additionally, she consulted prominent journalists to learn about methodologies that they employ to invoke memories and encourage more descriptive responses from interview subjects. The results of this research are demonstrated in a discussion of lessons learned and practical advice gained throughout the project.


In recent years, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been rapidly expanding its collection of time-based media (TBM) art. As of May 2018, the collection totaled 274 artworks, with the collection quadrupling over the past four years.

Fig. 1. Growth of the time-based media collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995 to May 2018.

The collection is split among five different curatorial departments: the Department of Photographs, Modern and Contemporary Art, The Costume Institute, Asian Art, and Drawings and Prints, with the majority of the collection based in the Photographs and Modern and Contemporary Art Departments. The Met established the Time-based Media Working Group in 2001 to address the unique needs of this collection, yet did not have staff dedicated to the conservation of TBM art until the addition of its first time-based media conservation fellow in 2017. As such, there has been a lack of documentation for past exhibitions of TBM at The Met. This is significant because detailed documentation into how an artwork is installed can be highly informative for future exhibitions and provide guidance in outgoing loans. Depending on staff members’ institutional knowledge is risky, as memories fade and staff members retire or otherwise leave the institution.

In order to tackle this challenge, The Met adopted a documentation model developed by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that uses identity and iteration reports to document past exhibitions of TBM artworks in the collection. The first step in creating a master list of past TBM exhibitions proved in itself to be challenging owing to the unique organizational structure of The Met. The Met has 17 curatorial departments, each with its own definitions, policies, and procedures relating to exhibitions, installations, and collection rotations. Information and images about past installations were collected by searching each department’s curatorial files, TMS records, and NetX, The Met’s digital asset management system containing images of past exhibitions. Often, additional images could be found on artist- and gallery-operated websites and Instagram accounts, and descriptions of the installation could be found in other publications and reviews. In addition, staff members present for the installation of exhibitions containing TBM artworks were interviewed.

Interviewing staff members on past events poses challenges, as memory fades over time. In addition, The Met organizes approximately 60 exhibitions per year; thus, it would be easy to confuse details between different exhibitions. Several scientific studies have investigated the human mind’s ability to recall memories accurately over time. In 2007, a study found that negative emotions experienced during a particular event can increase one’s ability to recall this event (Kensinger 2007). However, the ability to recall specific details associated with the event decrease, even more so than those in an event in which the subject has neutral feelings (Rimmele et al. 2011). In his doctoral thesis research, Farhan Sarwar found that juries are more likely to believe that an eyewitness’s testimony is accurate if the eyewitness is confident in one’s own memory, but that confidence is not a reliable indicator of accuracy (Sarwar 2011). The human brain can also insert false memories or distort existing memories. In one study from 2013, subjects participating in a mock jury were played an audio recording describing a crime. When later asked to describe what they had heard in the recording, 15% of the information provided by the subjects were details that were not present in the recording but that would fit a typical description of the type of crime in question (Lacy and Stark 2013).

The field of conservation has used oral history methodologies to interview artists for many years; however, the focus of artist interviews is to guide the museum as to how to exhibit or preserve an artwork in the future. When conducting interviews for the purpose of documentation of retroactive iteration reports, the purpose is to capture fine details from past exhibitions. Furthermore, the interviewer must always maintain a healthy skepticism that the details provided may not be accurate by no intention of the interviewee. With this in mind, an industry that may provide a more appropriate model for interview methodology is journalism.

Several journalists from a range of publications and specialties were interviewed about their approaches to interviewing sources. These include Brian Beutler, Crooked Media; Kriston Kapps, The Atlantic CityLab; Phoebe Doris, The Washington Post; Sommer Mathis, Atlas Obscura; Brad Plumer, The New York Times; Kay Steiger, Vox Media; and Jeff Young, The Huffington Post. Several of those interviewed suggested starting interviews by having subjects describe the entire event in their own words at the beginning of the interview and to follow up with questions after hearing the full account. The journalists emphasized that it is also essential to corroborate statements with physical documents, such as e-mails or correspondence, or with other individuals’ statements. They then advised that, at the end of the interview, thank subjects for their time and ask the interviewees for permission to contact them again for further clarification.

The majority of journalists consulted suggested recording interviews and conversations, with the subject’s permission. Many conversations can occur at unexpected times and in informal settings; thus, cellphone apps and computer programs can be useful. TapeACall is a subscription-based app available on the iOS and Android platforms that uses the three-way conference calling feature on cellphones to record both incoming and outgoing phone calls. TapeACall saves the recordings in an account on an external server but can be exported via a user’s e-mail, Dropbox, or Google Drive account. AudioNote is an app available for iOS and Android platforms as well as Mac and PC desktop operating systems (as of the time of this article, the iOS version is free, while the Android, Mac, and PC versions are available for a small subscription), which allows the user to annotate recorded audio with text linked to the timecode for the audio file. There are also several desktop computer programs that offer the capability to record video chats and calls. Google Hangout has a built-in screen recording function that works across all platforms. For users of Mac computers, QuickTime offers a screen recording function that can be used for any video call, and Ecamm offers a free Call Recorder program that records Skype video calls.

The methodologies and tools suggested by the journalists consulted proved to be invaluable in the creation of retroactive iteration reports at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a result of this research, The Met was able to augment its documentation for the past exhibition of the collection. The information collected during this research project expanded on the institution’s understanding of a number of artworks in the collection and will prove itself essential the next time that these artworks are requested for loan or are slated for exhibition.


The author would like to acknowledge the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for its generous support of this research project. In addition, the author would like to extend sincere thanks to Nora Kennedy, Meredith Reiss, Catherine Burns, Paul Caro, Robin Schwalb, Doug Eklund, Ian Altveer, and other colleagues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the many journalists who agreed to be interviewed and graciously answered the author’s many questions.


Kensinger, E. 2007. Negative emotion enhances memory accuracy. Current Directions in Psychological Science 16: 213–218.

Lacy, J. W. and C. E. L. Stark. 2013. The neuroscience of memory: implications for the courtroom. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 14 (9): 649–658.

Oral History Association. 2009. Principles and best practices for oral history. Oral History Association. www.oralhistory.org/about/principles-and-practices/ (accessed 04/10/18).

Rimmele, U., L. Davachi, R. Petrov, S. Dougal, and E. A. Phelps. 2011. Emotion enhances the subjective feeling of remembering, despite lower accuracy for contextual details. Emotion 11 (3): 553–562.

Sarwar, F. 2011. Eyewitness testimonies: The memory and meta-memory effects of retellings and discussions with non-witnesses. Department of Psychology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.

Alexandra Nichols
Sherman Fairchild Foundation Fellow
The Metropolitan Museum of Art