Digital graphics cannot be identified, captured or physically stabilised using traditional techniques. To collect them requires curators and archivists to develop new understandings, and to adapt their skills. Defining what the digital poster is, and observing how it behaves, is the starting point for revising our approaches to collecting them.

The following are the key observations about the digital poster that have informed the collecting methods explored by this handbook.

Image files (j-pegs etc) don’t signify the object. Rather, we can think of them as technical artefacts, that would remain even if we switch the computer off, but which require additional actions (opening a file, performing a search, running a software application) to become objects that can be understood. So, saving the file is not enough to collect the work. The functionality of browser and software environments — buttons, palettes, scroll bars — and our interactions with them could all be considered as part of the materiality of the work.

Digital posters may be fugitive. Accessing digital material depends on the interoperability of hardware and software – both subject to ever accelerating cycles of obsolescence. The ability to preserve digital posters indefinitely is therefore uncertain. We are faced with collecting objects that may disappear or change as they migrate to new software and are viewed on new devices.

Digital images flatten the traces of their making. The material textures of the printed poster contain traces of the gestures and processes that produced it. Curators are skilled at working backwards from the final object to understand the materials and techniques involved. When a digital image is compressed/rendered and exported from the software in which it was created, its surface becomes impenetrable to this kind of traditional curatorial enquiry.

Digital posters remain open to intervention and replication. Unlike a physical poster printed from a fixed matrix, the digital poster can be re-manipulated, updated and appropriated. Its content remains open-ended. Furthermore, while traditional posters exist as multiples defined by print runs, the data that defines a digital poster can be endlessly copied or ‘cloned’. In an online environment a digital poster can spread across multiple platforms, propelled by the algorithms used by advertisers and the sharing mechanisms of social media. Its qualities are dynamic and viral.

Digital posters are non-separable from the context in which they operate. Historically museums have collected posters (and objects in general) by physically detaching them from their operative and functional contexts. Context has been understood as something external to the object itself — a quality that is re-introduced through explanation and interpretation (usually in the form of text) in order to bring the object back to life. This disassociation of the object from its context has always been a problematic aspect of the museum collection. With the digital poster we argue that the problem becomes more acute. We observe a more inherent interweaving between the object and context — particularly within the networked environment of the internet. As dynamic and interactive objects, the form and functionality of digital posters is interdependent with the technical conditions and structures of the online platforms they inhabit.

From something static, discreet and (relatively) stable, we find ourselves looking at something that is performative, distributed and mutable. Something that is entangled in context and materially opaque.

These observations suggest a different kind of object to that which we are used to. From something static, discreet and (relatively) stable, we find ourselves looking at something that is performative, distributed and mutable. Something that is entangled in context and materially opaque. It becomes clear that we may not be able to collect a digital poster satisfactorily as a single, contained image. This changes the task of collecting in fundamental ways. In place of the familiar process of selecting an object that has identifiable edges and seems complete, we imagine creating an assemblage of components in order to make a meaningful representation of the digital poster’s multiple manifestations, and processual, iterative states. We could say that we move from collecting the poster to capturing instances of it. When collecting is approached in this way, the collector is tasked at the very beginning of the acquisition process with deciding what constitutes the limits of the object she wishes to collect and what assembly of components create a reasonable whole.

The challenges and opportunities for collecting digital posters as dynamic and interactive objects require the collector to be proactive, rather than simply receiving and examining the object.

This could involve engaging in web archiving to collect digital posters in situ and map how they play out across online platforms. It might involve revisiting and re-collecting a digital poster on a number of occasions as it changes and evolves. It can mean working closely with designers to collect digital work in progress before the traces of process and technique are flattened within the digital surface. It may even mean accepting that digital acquisitions may not be permanent and searching for ways to record the character of a work that could change or disappear in time. Using a range of capture methods, and collecting a mix of file types provides some insurance against losing access due to format obsolescence, and technological degradation.

Next, we explore these ideas further by examining two broad categories of digital poster: posters (or poster-like images) produced by identifiable designers for multi-platform marketing campaigns and self-initiated projects Layered Design Objects, and posters-as-memes that are generated and encountered within the networked contexts of social media Graphic Events.

Read more about the first category here.