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Preservation of Digital Art & Cultural Heritage. A graduate program at Bern University of the Arts

Tabea Lurk


L'article présente le programme d'études post universitaire Master en Sciences appliquées BFH de préservation d'Art numérique & de patrimoine culturel (MAS PDACH) qui a commencé en 2013 à l'Université des Arts de Berne. Il explique comment la structure d'une qualification fiable est construite en combinant, de façon stratégique, différents domaines de connaissances tels que la conservation et la restauration, les sciences de l'information et la technologie des médias.

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1Digital technologies are naturally applied to our private lives, everyday work and culture. Artists, designers, architects, musicians, theorists and cultural institutions increasingly rely on digital technologies, produce data, store, and distribute digital content in different ways. Though they seem obliged to preserve cultural ideas in a broader sense and in terms of heritage, they need to be able to keep track and document what they have originated (communicated, tweeted etc.). In consequence, conservators need to be prepared for continuingly changing digital preservation requests. They do not only apply digital technologies as potential tools (cf. computers for work) but also need to understand data structures, principles of maintenance of software applications and longevity of digital technologies (

  • 1  A simple example might be the format of animated gif, which is almost extinct today. This image fo (...)

2Besser 2004) in order to accomplish conservation actions in terms of sustainable preservation. This obligation becomes especially challenging when they have to preserve what they have acquired or taken responsibility for. Often there is no proper representation of these objects in the analogue world (UNESCO 2003).1


  • 2  C.F. Warda, Durant et al. (Ed. 2012).
  • 3  Digital objects are considered as complex if a) no straightforward description is available how to (...)
  • 4  Whereas digital archiving normally follows the Open Archival Information System (CCSDS 2002), this (...)
  • 5  Cf. La Torre 2000, Maier (2004), Terranova (2005), Hemsley et al. (2005), Krysa (2006), Gutsch (20 (...)
  • 6  Cf. Christenseen-Dalsgaard, 2001; Simanowski, 2011.

3While digital technologies seem to be perfectly integrated in conservation-scientific analyzing processes and documentation, archival routines such as mass- and retro-digitization of historic documents (including books, and photographs), the preservation of media such as film, audio- and video tapes,2 suitable approaches for complex, born digital objects are scarce.3 Even simple incoming control within the acquisition process or within monitoring routines are complex, since inspecting a computer normally means that the machine is not only reading but changing its status by writing to hard disk. Specific security regulations need to be applied in the field of digital conservation for preventing the risk of a loss of authenticity and integrity.4 Furthermore digital artworks, content, or goods of cultural relevance (heritage) are no longer only/primarily found in classical archives but also appear in the widely ramified networks of the Internet, on community platforms, and subcultural blogs and even in commercial, mainstream portals such as Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and many more.5 In this context trusted sources are of high importance. Provenance of resources, as the W3C Incubator Group (2010,1) states in their final report, “is a record that describes entities and processes involved in producing and delivering or otherwise influencing that resource. Provenance provides a critical foundation for assessing authenticity, enabling trust, and allowing reproducibility.” At the same time, the focus is increasingly shifting from interests in storing and conserving historical materials towards a broader reflection of proper ways how to bridge semantic changes that are induced by historical, technological or habitual changes in the addressed user community.6

4A growing number of institutions, collections, and conservation networks have indeed started to take charge of this hot topic (Rhizome, INCCA, EMG, DOCAM, “Matters in Media Art”). Nevertheless there is still a lot to do. Regarding education and post-graduation programs, there is a clear need for scientifically structured programs and learning modules, which teach accepted methods that point beyond personal experience or “acting as desired”. Historically grown values such as the protection of originality, minimal intervention, reversibility of application etc. can be reached on a high quality level compared to classical conservation and restoration only, if the education covers knowledge from related disciplines such as information science and media technology, art and media history, technology ethics and aesthetics.

5Our aim in starting an extra occupational course program was to develop a successively growing specification for this specific need. The MAS PDACH is conceptually led by the principles of the E.C.C.O. (2010) understanding of lifelong scientific learning and competence-based teaching. Even though we are only at a starting point and have to attract participants in order to accord credibility for a longer term, our intermediate aim is to provide sustainable profession on a higher education level.

The three pillars of digital conservation and restoration

6In order to constitute a reliable, targeted qualification, which is capable of strategically closing gaps in the field of digital conservation, the MAS PDACH combines experiences of three fields: Digital Conservation & Restoration, Cultural Informatics & Media Technology, and Theory & Digital Media Culture.

  • 7  As opposed to classical IT-Support and archiving strategies, which apply procedures to collections (...)

7“Digital Conservation & Restoration” is based on conservation ethics and restoration principles. It applies state of the art concepts such as protection of the original substance, examination before execution, and strict documentation of all applied procedures (including primary documentation at the code level). It strengthens analyzing and explaining competences in regard to the adequacy of applied resources and preservation measures.7 Safeguarding, monitoring and consideration of potential threats are explained.

  • 8  Central to that is the OAIS – Open Archival Information System (CCSDS 2002). It defines the AIP – (...)
  • 9  As Constantopoulos, Dritsou (2006, 1) state: “Preservation policies against technical perils emplo (...)

8“Cultural Informatics & Media Technology” combines elements from different fields of information science. Starting with identification tools and methods for external observation, non-invasive analyzing and monitoring routines are explained.8 Basic understanding of file formats, data structures and semantics among digital/ information-based terms are taught. Procedures in secure back up technologies, classical preservations strategies, and sustainable safeguarding techniques are explained.9

9“Theory & Digital Media Culture” raises awareness for different fields of history, theory and ethics of media. Prospectively legal aspects shall be integrated.

  • 10  Internet means resource and material in this case.

10It becomes obvious that, this program does not only attract conservators and restorers. Therefore the MAS PDACH addresses members with different professional backgrounds. First and by its nature it addresses people wishing to improve their knowledge in safeguard digital objects. In addition to conservators and restorers, custodians and curators of archives and cultural collections, museums, and galleries additional professionals are invited to participate. Thus the MAS PDACH wants to support people working creatively, artists, designers, netizens, bloggers, and media artists, who move freely in the digital world. They use their digital working environment as basic capital and need to document/secure it permanently.10

11Last but not least the MAS PDACH intendeds to get into contact with people who need know-how about the conservational safeguarding of digital cultural goods due to their professional function. One might mention management groups, [IT] consultants, persons responsible for the administration of cultural institutions etc., who all need to come to future-oriented (strategic) decisions.

Objectives and implementation of the MAS PDACH (PDACH)

12Due to the cultural diversity of digital objects, codes and artifacts the production of cultural values addresses a wide range of application. The MAS PDACH provides support for questions concerning selection and appraisal processes. It helps to develop digital collection policies, teaches planning preventive safeguarding measures, monitoring/supervision of digital stabilization and preservation processes, and the development of sustainable decision-making procedures typical for dedicated collection segments.

13Following the logical structure of conservation principles, where objects are first phenomenologically observed, identified/described, analyzed, and appraised according to their historical, artistic, and cultural, before examination, the MAS PDACH starts with the CAS module on “Identification of Complex Digital Objects and Cultural Value”. This topic is especially important since appraising digital data/objects differs fundamentally from material-based facts, even though analogies can be shown. In the field of documentation, provenance is of growing importance. The CAS “Identification” is followed by the basic needs for written documentation – addressed by a CAS module on “Documentation of Complex Digital Objects”. By documenting the observed objects in depth a broader understanding on a technical level will be possible. Concerning the structures and principles of documentation, there is a need for additions to the classical conservation-based requirements.

14Admission to the advanced MAS modules is only possible if both CAS modules have already been completed successful. The MAS modules teach preventive safeguarding measures on a higher education level and give insights to the supervision of digital stabilization and preservation processes. Teachers conduct the development of sustainable decision-making procedures for the transmission of complex digital objects, such as digital artworks and cultural goods, with close support. This is based on specific studies, which are related to the work practice and experience of the participants. Whereas the first of the MAS-modules focuses more on verification of sources and technical safeguarding of digital objects, the last module concentrates on concrete preservation procedures – based again on the case studies of the students.

15CAS I and MAS I as well as the CAS II and MAS II are symmetrically related to each other: following the sequence of studies means to pass the same topic several times, but on a different level of training, skills and understanding. The recurring structure encourages competences and strengthens the learning processes. Specified workshops are related to the work practice and support the applied experience of the participants.

16Breaking down the semantic learning outcomes to an accountable structure of achieved credits (ECTS), we end up with the following curriculum structure: The master’s degree consists of 60 ECTS. Fundamental knowledge about digital objects is taught in the first two modules – “Identification” and “Documentation of Complex Digital Objects”, which contain 12 ECTS each. Both comprise a self-contained CAS Certificate. The advanced studies consist of two MAS modules (each 12 ECTS) and a Master thesis (12 ECTS) with an increasing amount of self-instruction.

CAS Identification of complex digital objects

17Since the MAS PDACH hasn’t been yet completed the first iteration (4 years), things are in flow and can still be optimized/expanded. The current state of the program might be sketched out on the base of the first outcomes: The “CAS Identification of Complex Digital Objects” (CAS I) started in 2013 with the aim to give students the ability to identify and describe digital objects, learn parameters for appraisal of cultural values (originality / authenticity) and identify meaning in a broader sense. Participants learned to relate digital technologies, file- and later coding format, digital object structures and technological approaches with specific historical phenomena and meaning. They became critical about what they see – since in the digital domain, what you see (e.g. virtually on a screen), is not necessarily what you get or have (in terms of stored data).

  • 11  Especially the part of intellectual property rights is currently rather weak; nevertheless it is p (...)

18In order to learn how to relate principles of conservation science to digital preservation strategies, the CAS module of 2013 initially introduced digital life- and archiving cycles. Afterwards the module provided basics in (sustainable!) collection management, taking into account legal requirements and the ethics of conservation.11 This seemed important since digital archiving is closely related to further objectives of the concrete collection. Some objects might be maintained in different ways depending whether they are located in a more technical or rather artistic context/collection. After consulting digital archiving and preservation principles, the identification of digital components or digitization processes was examined. The technological base of specific contexts was researched and analyzed as well as its history/tradition. Significant properties were defined and described. The objects were contextualized in their production or consumption process as well as in the context of the addressed segment of digital culture. Identification of technical properties was related to conservation-ethical questions and discussed in groups. In the case of (software) applications or objects with multiple components, the importance of the different elements/components were examined following the concept of work-logic (Enge, Lurk 2013).


  • 12  Scope and extent of the case studies depend on educational background and interests/skills of the (...)

19Illustrating the wide range of case studies and examined questions, results of the first years students might be mentioned.12

  • A participant from the Library of ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) has compared selected preservation strategies for mass digitization based on the checklist of DIN-31645 (Norm for Long Term Preservation, 2011) and the checklist of Digital Data Management (Digital Curation Center, 2009/13). Both were evaluated (in terms of feasibility) regarding the digitization processes of the “”-project of the ETH.

    • 13  Until now all data of the 3D-CAD-scanning is stored as original dwg-file. Since the format is prop (...)

    A participant from the Archeological Institute of the Kanton Basel Landschaft has developed a method for sustaining the cubical (3D) data of current CAD-mappings in archeology: normally only data of the two dimensional plane is printed on the long-term preserved PDF-A map.13 His script allows him to locate the collected data of the third dimension of the CAD-mapping in a (self-redundant) QR-code on the map.

  • A film conservator considered strategies for digitizing an analogue collection of documentation photographs, which are stored on 694 contact sheets. They contain about 27000 images, taken by a professional Swiss photographer. The images document pedagogical work of dedicated institutions in the period between 1974 and 2000.

  • An historian of the Swiss Red Cross Archive conducted a case study for preserving a mobile App and emulated successfully a test dummy (emulation). In order to consider the completeness of components, which he had identified in a first step, he emulated a cell-phone and installed the App in the emulated (encapsulated) environment. In parallel a DB-dump was installed on a dump-server. In addition he described different preservation scenarios for varying types of collectors, since the database-driven App would require different safeguarding procedures for different interest groups.

  • A conservator looked at an internet-based artwork, which was – as many pieces of that period – based on a macromedia director application. Since current browsers no longer support the plug-in, which is required for display, the artwork seemed to be broken. Within an emulated vintage environment the piece could be executed.

  • Another conservator thought about selecting, structuring, documenting, and preserving artistic and cultural activities on Twitter - including their “Nachleben” (afterlife) in related digital formats such as re-Tweets, websites, blogs. The case study contrasted the Twitter-behavior of a media artist and that of a museum.

  • Last but not least there was a case study on sustaining conservation knowledge about a series of source codes, programmed by an artist for addressing the hardware which controls the mobile parts of his kinetic sculptures. Over the years, the code, hardware and shape have been changing. The knowledge about the different kinetic sculptures is widespread among a continuously changing number of assistants. In order to optimize the information flow, the different areas of knowledge were structured and initially implemented in a media wiki system, which will be able to store related types of data of the same type.

20It becomes obvious that technically there are overlaps between the two modules on identification (CAS I) and documentation (CAS II). They can be attended in different order (starting with module I or II). Nevertheless, the main scope differs significantly.

CAS Documentation of complex digital objects

21The “CAS Documentation of Complex Digital Objects” (CAS II) focuses rather on documentation aspects than identification. It imparts wide-ranging documentation methods and important (cultural) documentation standards such as CIDOC CRM. Beyond classical metadata sets, the description and documentation of actions and processes have priority. Conservation requirements of documentation are applied in a broader sense of commemorative strategies and technologies that allow differentiation between the “original” and digital “replicas”. Software-based documentation systems with a specific focus on database modeling will be introduced. Formal languages for description of technical procedures and actions such as e.g. UML, and tools like Graphviz - Graph Visualization Software are examined.

  • 14  Very often digital systems such as computer-operating systems are capable to generate a “complete” (...)

22The entire CAS module teaches the creation of meaningful descriptions and reasonable observation-based analysis. Participants are trained to decide on the depth of documentation which seems to be appropriate among the feasible options and learn to characterize different elements (according to their significance).14 They practice the application of supportive taxonomies, documentation structures or description systems for specific questions. Even though “CAS Documentation” will not reach the point on which the participants will produce comprehensive complex documentations, the course will discuss appropriate examples. An empiric approval is planned for the MAS-II-module.

MAS Segments and thesis

23The two MAS modules support students to apply their previously acquired know-how to individual case studies. They examine the effects of dealing with digital objects – even if they are just “dummies” (copies of the original digital object).  They have group discussions on sustainable decision-making procedures. Whereas the first of the two MAS-modules focuses on verification of sources and technical safeguarding of digital objects, the last module concentrates on concrete preservation procedures – again based on the case studies of the students. Self-examination becomes more important and the support more personalized.

24In their theses the students reflect their knowledge of conservation principles and the application to dedicated digital questions. They show that they are able to identify values and meaning of digital objects and to transfer the knowledge of abstract models to specific cases. They know how to examine conservation and restoration procedures while considering possible risks and long-term-effects. They show skills in approaching specific problems and communicate their results in an academically documented way to a professional community.


25All CAS and MAS modules are subject to a CHF 5850.– tuition fee each, plus a one-off application fee of CHF 150.–. The MAS thesis is subject to an additional fee of CHF 1250.–


26Beyond the challenging subject of digital conservation the complexity of the program results from the diversity of the students, their skills and interests, scientific educational background and experience. They have seldom been trained in informatics before and we do not offer a “light” version of information science and programming, which enables students to become programmers in 12+ lessons. This means that students need to learn to be honest about their skills and limitations. They need to accept knowledge-based constraints. Then they can understand how far they are capable of speaking the language of information experts and supervise preservation actions which are conducted by a third party.

27Beside proper self-assessment it is important to avoid well known mistakes of the past. Until now familiar procedures such as (in former times) “historical re-naturation” or re-built of “original states” can occasionally be observed in digital preservation too. Due to this re-creation and the different types of emulation, strategies need to be considered very carefully and can anyway only be accomplished on the base of copies of the original digital object (CCSDS 2002). Students need to learn that “making it run again” can mean producing a replica but not necessarily performing preservation actions on the original substance. Basics in preventive conservation need to be internalized in a way that is appropriate for digital materials.

  • 15  Cullen et al. (2000); Hermens & Fiske (Eds., 2009); Laurenson (2006); Rothenberg (2000); Żychowska (...)

28There are historic reasons for the current practice of digital conservation, and so raising it to a scientifically acceptable quality is not always easy or obvious. In a broader sense teaching skills in digital conservation face major questions such as what represents our digital culture in concrete terms and what forms of memory and permanence are possible in a field that includes transient technologies (of memory) such as caches and clouds, among others? Transient objects include transaction-based processes and communicative situations. Objects are subject to change or evolution and therefore involve ‘”open’ open” life cycles. Routines to analyze, document and (later) memorize these data/objects are required. They reflect the internal (data-)structure and the “”behavior” “ of the object. A core aim is to approach digital sustainability and retain authenticity as much as possible.15  

  • 16

29“Digital Conservation & Restoration” is based on conservation ethics and restoration principles. It applies state of the art concepts such as protection of the original substance, examination before execution, and strict documentation of all applied procedures (including primary documentation at the code level). It strengthens analyzing and explaining competences in regard to the adequacy of applied resources and preservation measures.16 Safeguarding, monitoring and consideration of potential threats are explained.

30“Theory & Digital Media Culturely,“CAS Documentation of Complex Digital ObjectsC

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AignerAigner, T., Hohenbruck, S., Just, T., & Kemper, J. (Eds.). (2011). Archive im Web : Erfahrungen, Herausforderungen, Visionen: Archives on the Web : Experiences, Challenges, Visions. St. Pölten, [s.l.], [Wien]: Diözesanarchiv St. Pölten; Icarus; Osterreichisches Staatsarchiv.

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1  A simple example might be the format of animated gif, which is almost extinct today. This image format allows embedding a sequence of images within one file in a way that the image is displayed as movie-like visual event. Print each single frame and turn it into a flip book or even shooting a video out of it would be nothing more but documentation. Same happens with the reading experience of hypertext and countless additional phenomena, which can be documented easily in different modes but preservation would mean something different.

2  C.F. Warda, Durant et al. (Ed. 2012).

3  Digital objects are considered as complex if a) no straightforward description is available how to present or reproduce it and/or b) if the object is dynamic and contains embedded programming or components supporting interaction (cf. the definition of "active objects" by Giaretta 2011). In our context we are often confronted with software based control panels, interactive or net-based artworks or cultural phenomena within the networked society.

4  Whereas digital archiving normally follows the Open Archival Information System (CCSDS 2002), this concept is not jet broadly accepted/applied in the field of digital conservation and restoration. Audit-proof storage and archiving of data is instead discussed broadly in the context of digital forensics, criminal investigations, and highly sensitive (business) data where revision periods such as 20-50 years are defined by law. In the cultural domain instead, we still seem to be light years away.

5  Cf. La Torre 2000, Maier (2004), Terranova (2005), Hemsley et al. (2005), Krysa (2006), Gutsch (2010), Theimer (2010) or Aigner et al. (2011), to mention just a few of them.

6  Cf. Christenseen-Dalsgaard, 2001; Simanowski, 2011.

7  As opposed to classical IT-Support and archiving strategies, which apply procedures to collections of data, in the art context these procedures sometimes need to be re-considered case by case. One needs to discuss what seems ethically acceptable. Nevertheless a set of options should be established in different collections. Very often combined procedures are applied.

8  Central to that is the OAIS – Open Archival Information System (CCSDS 2002). It defines the AIP – Archival Information Packaged as data package, which is generated according to specific preservation requirements after the data entered the archive or collection (= SIP - Submission Information Package). The public never accesses these data packages, instead dedicated DIP – Dissemination Information Packages are generated for observation (digital curation) purposes.

9  As Constantopoulos, Dritsou (2006, 1) state: “Preservation policies against technical perils employ techniques that fall in nine main classes: migration of digital content, technology emulation, technology preservation, dedication to standards, backward compatibility, encapsulation, permanent identifiers, transformation to non-digital form and digital archaeology.”

10  Internet means resource and material in this case.

11  Especially the part of intellectual property rights is currently rather weak; nevertheless it is planned to expand this topic as soon as the financial resources are available.

12  Scope and extent of the case studies depend on educational background and interests/skills of the students.

13  Until now all data of the 3D-CAD-scanning is stored as original dwg-file. Since the format is proprietary (AutoCAD drawing file: .dwg ) and thus strongly related to the specific settings during the scanning and analysis process (including parameters of digital measuring instruments and machines), the analyzed source-data may be expected to become obsolete at a specific moment.

14  Very often digital systems such as computer-operating systems are capable to generate a “complete” technically self-documentation. Nevertheless, this does not cover all conservation needs since it is not only important to know all components but especially to understand technical dependencies which need to be bridge technological gaps.

15  Cullen et al. (2000); Hermens & Fiske (Eds., 2009); Laurenson (2006); Rothenberg (2000); Żychowska & Białkiewicz (2007).


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Tabea Lurk, « Preservation of Digital Art & Cultural Heritage. A graduate program at Bern University of the Arts  », CeROArt [En ligne],  | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2014, consulté le 24 juin 2017. URL :

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Tabea Lurk

Tabea Lurk is art historian and professor for digital conservation at Bern University of the Arts (BUA). In 2008 she established the ArtLab of the Department of Conservation and Restoration at BUA. In 2011/12 she formed the graduate program Master of Applied Sciences BFH in Preservation of Digital Art & Cultural Heritage. Specializing in issues of digital conservation and curation, she regularly publishes articles on this topic. In an honorary appointment, she is president of the special interest group on Digital Heritage of the Swiss Informatics Society.

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