This handbook explores new conceptual approaches and practical tools for collecting digital posters and graphics. It represents the findings of a V&A project initiated by the Posters Subject Specialist Network, and funded by Arts Council England, investigating ways to address current barriers to collecting material that is created, distributed and encountered in digital formats.
For over one hundred years there has been a rich culture of poster-collecting in the UK, resulting in a broad range of poster collections in museums, archives and libraries. Some of these are historical in their focus. Others maintain a contemporary remit which, today, inevitably means engaging with the digital.
The starting point for this project was the recognition that contemporary collecting is being hampered by the lack of methodology, skills and infrastructure for collecting, preserving and displaying digital graphic material. Consequently, ever increasing amounts of graphic heritage are absent from our collections.The aim of the handbook is to contribute towards the maintenance of ‘live’ collections by providing ideas and strategies for curators in thinking through the decisions and processes involved in collecting digital material and working with the ‘expanded’ forms of the poster that are emerging today.
The poster is dead. Long live the poster.
A new chapter in the history of the poster.
It is common for commentaries on graphic design to proclaim the death of the poster. Indeed, this has been a theme since the late nineteen sixties when electronic communications began taking over many of the functions of the poster as communication and advertising. Today it is the internet that is sited as the poster’s nemesis.
The idea of the death of the poster, however, largely depends on our attachment to a material definition of a poster as a big piece of printed paper displayed in public. When large-scale, full colour pictorial posters first emerged in the late nineteenth century they were singled out as an exciting modern form that brought art into conversation with commerce and the urban environment of the industrial city. In addition to being a functional form of communication, they quickly came to be regarded as collectible art objects, and a specific historiography and status was established around the poster which persists today.
When we approach the poster as an isolated category, however, we risk overlooking the blurring of boundaries that has always occurred between posters and other media. The ways in which posters use words and images that have already gained currency through channels such as cinema or television, for example. Or the way in which posters have increasingly been encountered through reproduction in newspaper reports news broadcasts. Posters are entangled in the messiness of life and the processes of technological change.
In this context, the advent of internet can be viewed, not as an endpoint in the history of the poster, but as the next chapter in its development and re-mediation.
The spectrum of what a poster might be is expanding through digital technology in ways that push the boundaries of simple definitions. Posters are now encountered on our computers and phones. Billboard sites include animated screens. Companies and organisations devise marketing campaigns in which a poster image can mutate across multiple platforms from print to webpages to YouTube clips. Street posters can incorporate augmented reality and may soon use facial recognition software to tailor advertisements to the viewer. Hand-painted protest placards carried in the street go viral on Twitter. Government posters posted on social media are ruthlessly remixed and reposted. Internet memes embody a basic formula of the poster — a combination of text and image designed to capture our attention — even if they are not created by people who identify themselves as poster designers.
The range of collections represented in the Posters Subject Specialist Network demonstrate the many compelling reasons that posters have been collected and the many different social, cultural and political histories that this object type is bound up with. These include histories of design, advertising, transport, political parties, war, social movements, public health as well as the histories of particular companies and cultural institutions. In all these areas, posters, in their expanded digital forms are continuing to play a powerful role in both reflecting and producing the world we live in.
The premise of this project is that, rather than draw a line under the poster as an obsolete artefact, collectors and curators should follow it in to the digital realm. The approaches, case studies and tools outlined in this handbook address some of the conceptual and practical challenges of doing this.
Avoiding the temptation to wait.
It is tempting to defer the question of digital collecting until such time as collections management systems are available for museums and archives that can seamlessly ingest, store and preserve complex digital artefacts.
There are, however, a number of problems inherent in the anticipation that a technical fix for digital collecting will be delivered from above — not least the fact that, while we wait for a perfect system, many years-worth of digital heritage is not being captured. Furthermore, such systems will represent a major investment for collecting institutions. In order to maintain the diversity of collecting activity in the UK, we need to ensure that digital collecting is not confined to resource-rich institutions. This guide explores the possibility of more agile and open source strategies that are within the reach of a greater number of collections and collectors.
It is also important to note that, while future collections management software and infrastructure might facilitate the logistical aspects of digital collecting, they won’t provide answers to the conceptual questions that curators need to ask about the digital objects they wish to collect.
What has become apparent in the course of this project is that developing approaches to digital collecting is as much an imaginative task as it is a technological one. What we need is as many curators and stakeholders as possible to grapple with digital collecting in the here and now in order to develop rigorous ways of thinking about digital objects and working with them.
It is these experiences that will inform useful and appropriate systems and future practice. The findings presented in this guide are offered in the spirit of an invitation to experiment.
Another factor that focuses attention on the dangers of putting digital collecting on hold is the realisation that the possibilities for retrospective acquisition are uncertain. Paper posters have traditionally been collected by both institutions and private individuals. For museums, archives and libraries there has often been the opportunity to collect posters at a later date. Posters have come to light decades after they were produced, stored in the plan chest of private collectors or stuffed under beds in personal archives. When we turn to collecting digital graphics, these second chances become less likely — or at least much more complex. Digital works increasingly operate within a culture that replaces ownership with access. The idea that anything is accessible anytime online changes the motivation to collect and archive within the personal sphere. Personal cultural material is now embedded in proprietary software and third party platforms where responsibility for its longevity in a fast-changing technological environment is ambiguous. Certainly, the ability to capture an online object within the context that makes it meaningful recedes as time passes. As we will explore later, digital collecting is best approached as a process of rapid response.
The activity of collecting digital posters looks to the future in preserving cultural heritage from the digital sphere, but contemporary collecting is also a process through which we engage with the present. Understanding digital posters by collecting them contributes to understanding the new digital horizons of our lives and ensures that the activities of the museum, library and archive remain relevant to the realities of contemporary life.
The research presented in this handbook represents a collaboration between poster curators, the web archiving team at the British Library/UK Web Archive and Rhizome, a non-profit arts organisation who have developed Webrecorder, a free, open-source tool for capturing the web. Other key interlocutors have include Sara Day Thomson, Research Officer at the Digital Preservation Coalition, and Lozana Rossenova, PhD Researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image at London Southbank University, whose research is jointly supervised by Rhizome.
Research activities have included bibliographic work, conversations with colleagues across the Subject Specialist Network, detailed interviews with digital practitioners, as well as practical hands-on workshops trialling collecting tools, and user-testing sessions that explored the possible scenarios in which researchers and visitors would encounter this material. Ideas have been developed and honed through seminars and roundtable discussions within the research group, and have been presented for wider feedback at a number of conferences and symposia.
This work feeds into a wider conversation about the challenges of digital collecting. It is providing insights into how tools such as Webrecorder could be augmented to support contemporary curatorial practices in museums and archives, and how smaller collecting institutions can collaborate productively with the UK Web Archive.
SUMMARY/SCOPE OF CONTENTS
A key premise of this work is that tackling theoretical questions alongside practical questions are key to developing approaches to collecting that approach digital object on their own terms rather than seeking to accommodate them within systems, methods and vocabularies developed through tactile knowledge of physical objects.
This guide is intended to contribute towards a theoretical underpinning for collecting digital posters and to offer practical steps for acquiring digital posters.
In the Approaches section we present some initial ideas for thinking about the characteristics of digital posters and then explore two scenarios for collecting digital posters in further detail. Layered Design Objects looks at collecting digital posters directly from individual designers and practitioners. It investigates how curators might understand and collect the creative processes of digital design and how we might go about capturing works that are updated over time and which exist distributed across multiple platforms. Graphic Events looks at collecting digital posters from within the context of social media. In addressing digital posters that operate as viral memes, it proposes re-imagining the poster as a plural object - a set of iterations and interactions rather than a discreet work – and considers how we might go about capturing them. Each collecting scenario is supported by case studies that apply the theoretical points discussed to the decisions and practical steps involved in collecting a particular poster.
Our case studies have been selected to address a range of scenarios in which born digital posters and graphics are created and encountered. By looking at the online marketing of the National Theatre, we trace how the poster has expanded into digital media within the design department of a cultural institution long celebrated as a patron of the poster. Posters have always balanced the functions of persuasion and information in varying measures. David McCandless’s iconic data visualisations offer an example of self-initiated graphic expression developing within the ‘information age’, using eye-catching techniques to present data and encourage debate. In the second two case studies we move from the work of identifiable designers to collective, viral forms of graphic production and distribution: the poster as a meme. This is particularly pertinent to the ongoing collecting and study of the poster as a tool of protest and activism.
In the Tools sections we introduce two pieces of open source software that can contribute to collecting and interpreting digital posters. We discuss what they do, show they can be applied and offer step by step guides to using them.
The focus of the research presented in this guide has been on the challenges of capturing posters that inhabit an online space, or where an element of the work that constitutes the poster exists online – rather than works that are simply created digitally or which exist in a digital format. Just as the hoardings of the industrial city were a defining factor in shaping the emergence of the modern poster in the late nineteenth century, the interactive environment of Web 2.0 can be considered the most significant environment shaping the digital poster today – and one which presents the most significant challenges for collecting.
Even for printed posters on the street, the internet is becoming an increasingly significant context. In the era of the smartphone, online and offline are no longer partitioned. In the early days of the web, the internet was ‘another place’ – something we sat down at a computer to access – now cyberspace and physical space intermingle in real time. Posters encountered on the street are photographed and shared online and advertisements in real space seek to drive viewers to websites and apps. Analogue posters frequently have an online component and if we ignore this hybrid quality their acquisition is incomplete.