April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Ethnographic Methods and New Media Preservation

Piotr D. Adamczyk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA


This paper explores how ethnographic techniques, increasingly used in studies of human-computer interaction, can be applied in the preservation of new media art. Special attention is paid to examples of new media that require a high degree of audience participation.

Keywords: new media, preservation, ethnography, urban probes


An often-repeated finding in human-computer interaction (HCI) research is that user experience is tightly coupled to understanding of underlying technology. In systems where function is largely dematerialized and processes are obscured, an audience for new technology often reverts to interpreting their experience through familiar models of system behavior. This applies equally in many new media art pieces as it does in human-computer interaction.

What distinguishes new media art pieces from other forms of HCI is their reliance in part on a self-conscious use of technological tropes as a prompt for novel user experience. HCI has its roots in human factors engineering with its focus on measurement and optimization of performance of routine tasks. Consequently, the goal of many HCI design cases, even in novel pervasive and ubiquitous computing environments, is an interface or tool that melts away to provide seamless interaction with services. To a much greater extent, media art is experienced through a seamful interface, or one that exposes the physical nature of the underlying technology, and addresses directly the uncertainty in sensing technology and the transformations made to data as it migrates across network infrastructures (Chalmers and Galani 2004; Chalmers, Bell et al. 2005). These kinds of interfaces promote moments of reflection and lead to compelling user experiences that are difficult to study using traditional HCI methods.

Increasingly, when confronted with these systems, HCI researchers turn to ethnographic methods for understanding user experience. Ethnographic methods are those traditionally applied to the study of human social processes, but have been applied successfully to human interaction with technology and socio-technical systems (Suchman, Blomberg et al. 1999). Defining the category broadly, HCI methods that touch on ethnography include Urban and Cultural Probes, Bodystorming, and physical Wizard-of-Oz prototyping. Urban and Cultural Probes (Gaver, Dunne et al. 1999; Gaver, Boucher et al. 2004; Mattelmaki 2005; Paulos and Jenkins 2005; Graham, Rouncefield et al. 2007; Lucero, Lashina et al. 2007) are methods employed early in the design process to allow researchers to gather relevant data on social practices surrounding technology in public spaces. An urban probe is often composed of low-tech interventions meant to interact with the normal flow of a disengaged public audience; for example, stalking the flow of traffic around a trashcan in a plaza in San Francisco with video to inform the design of an augmented trashcan (Paulos and Jenkins 2005), or scattering matchbooks around Portland, Oregon with a URL for those who pick it up to visit and give their opinion of the city (Paulos and Beckmann 2006). The data collected by these methods suggest the spatial distribution of various kinds of behavior present in a population, and can help designers make more informed decisions about how to develop and deploy new technology.

Similarly, a cultural probe can consist of a set of prompts and technology, distributed among members of the community of interest, meant to collect a better impression of local culture. With Situationist dérives as an influence, cultural probes are often rooted in attempts to capture sensory or affective memories; for example, a packet of postcards, maps, and a disposable camera each with a request to gather a bit of data - e.g. take a photo of the first person you see today (Gaver, Dunne et al. 1999). Bodystorming (Bell, Chalmers et al. 2006; Jacucci, Oulasvirta et al. 2007) is a way of exploring the affordances and constraints of a physical space by actually being in the place where the design is intended for use. Perhaps this is not a radical shift for many designers, but it is a significant step out of the laboratory for HCI researchers. In a related technique, physical Wizard-of-Oz prototyping, system functionality is only simulated through mockups or by acting out the functionality of the entire embodied user experience, the buttons pressed, the commands given to the system - all in hopes of saving time in technology development and exposing the interaction model to closer scrutiny.

These methods have been used in studies of both functional and artistic application of novel technology (Iversen and Nielsen 2003; Hulkko, Mattelmaki et al. 2004; Paulos and Beckmann 2006; Boehner, Vertesi et al. 2007; DiSalvo and Vertesi 2007), and suggest moments that are important, seamful points of interaction that inform user experience.

New media art has matured to the point of establishing a canon (e.g. Leopoldseder, Schopf et al. 2004), and explores novel methods of embodiment and engagement (Munster 2006) of enough interest to museums to warrant a number of preservation and archival programs. For example, the Variable Media Initiative (VMI) tries to account for the mutability of media with an approach called “permanence through change”, and the V2 Institute for Unstable Media (V2) has a model that tries to document every aspect of the design process of a piece so as to allow for a smooth recreation.

These approaches work well for many pieces of new media art – however it happens to be defined - and there are several successful case studies of the VMI and V2 frameworks applied to new media pieces with various underlying technologies and modes of presentation: video art, interactive screen-based art, installations. However, all of these efforts focus on a preservation of the system state and documentation, and not as strongly on preserving the interaction model that an audience builds with the piece. Storing an instance of the work may not include describing an audience behaviors piece for recreation or reinterpretation. And though the system can be faithfully reconstructed, aspects of the piece, including intentional ambiguities or unintentional flaws that led to a particular interpretation or use, could be overlooked.

In this paper we examine three instances of New Media / HCI collaboration that can only be realized with the active participation of their audience. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Vectorial Elevations is a site-based piece of "relational architecture" that has to be controlled by the audience to be complete. George Legrady's Pockets Full of Memories creates an on-line database from digital scans of physical objects offered by participants in the gallery and on-line. Blast Theory's Can You See Me Now? transforms a city into a game board where runners chase virtual audience members through the streets. We show how, even when used together, the VMI questionnaire and the V2 interaction model can still miss important aspects of audience participation, aspects which may be available to those interested in preservation of these works through ethnographic methods. More than highlighting seamful system features, ethnographic methods can yield a better understanding of how people interact with media art and what elements of the system may contribute to their decisions. In such a way, an ethnographic analysis can also expose the elements of a novel technological experience that would need to be carefully considered for preservation

Direct Control – Vectorial Elevations

Site-based methods (Kwon 2002) have come into new media art from, among others, conceptual and land-based art practices of the 1960’s and 70’s. New media often add telematic elements where cameras, monitors, sensors, and actuators allow for disembodied experience and immediate control of technology in remote locations (Manovich 2001), bringing the experience more in line with HCI.

Vectorial Elevations by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer consists of a set of high-powered searchlights deployed around the rooftops of public squares and a Web site for the remote control of the searchlights. The Web site available through terminals available on site and through the Internet includes a 3D model of the site where users can compose patterns of searchlight beams. The designs submitted by local and remote participants are cued, the searchlights are brought into place, and the pattern is documented through webcams. The documentation is then placed on a Web site, and participants are e-mailed a code where they can see their light pattern in space.

The choice of venue for instances of Vectorial Elevations is culturally charged, with searchlights surrounding iconic buildings imbued with deep institutional histories. But as we elaborate later on, the site specificity of the pieces is not as important to Lozano-Hemmer as the “relational specificity” that is created in the site; however, he acknowledges the power of these references on the spectators.

Lozano-Hemmer has constructed an environment where the interaction with the searchlights is constrained physically by the site, but more importantly, undetermined in terms of the behaviours that are allowed by the users or the interpretations of the patterns of light. Spectators are unaware of the person contributing a pattern or the meanings they are ascribing to their choices. Vectorial Elevations functions as a mediated conversation in a public space, inscribed on and around the buildings.

Content Providers – Pockets Full of Memories

In new media pieces the classical archive is often translated into a database with the attendant practices of curation, permutation, and information mining controlled either by the artist or, increasingly, by the audience. George Legrady keeps this potentially dematerialized practice of collection grounded in physical cases with Pockets Full of Memories. Museum patrons scan images of small objects that they have with them at the exhibition. These objects are then tagged and ranked along a number of dimensions by the patron. The scanned images, along with their collected metadata, are then placed into a projected visualization according to a self-organizing map algorithm creating an ever-changing arrangement of the collection from the participants.

Legrady’s piece is a commentary on database culture, the elevation of the everyday to something worth preserving, and the impulse that tries to make informative connections among everyday minutiae. The audience here is implicated into the data processing substrata, choosing to contribute their small (perhaps precious, meaningful) objects willingly into a system that can only hope to partially represent the artifacts that make up the collection.

An interaction with Legrady’s archive is a social act – one that acknowledges the past use of the piece by other audience members and also the connections made between a personal contribution and the network of material referents no longer present in the space. This immediately connects the easily manipulated and transitory digital representations with the material world. It also makes the interaction with the piece part of an ongoing dialogue, one that needs to be accounted for in any preservation effort.

Engagement – Can You See Me Now?

With the increase in computing technology moving off the desktop into ubiquitous and pervasive applications, artists have begun using these systems to examine issues of surveillance/sousveillance, the invisibility of labor in high tech scenarios, and the reconfiguring of public space into “smart” spaces. Similar spatial interventions are common in the Public Art practices of the 1970s and 80s (Lacy 1995), but extend the possibilities and allow for a deeper sense of engagement and obscure the hand of the artist to an even greater degree.

Blast Theory and their collaborators at the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham have deployed several such systems. For Can You See Me Now? on-line participants (at the museum/gallery or via the Web) navigate a rendered model of the game area – a region of the physical city instrumented with Wi-Fi coverage. A group of people, “runners”, are then deployed into the city with the task of chasing down the virtual participant, visible to them through wireless handheld computers augmented with GPS coverage. It’s a game of tag really, but one that merges the physical site with the virtual in compelling ways. The players have an audio connection in addition to text chat, transmitting a live stream of heavy breathing and coordination commands to the various audiences of the piece. Runners are immediately implicated with forces of power and control in the site, but their knowledge of the space is sometimes incomplete with GPS and Wi-Fi failures.

None of these elements is preset in the system: this allows for dynamic game instances and a live platform for computing research. And while the piece requires involved participation from several publics and would not exist without their meaningful engagement, the designers of the game have made very little effort to define styles of audience participation. As we discuss below, perhaps counter-intuitively this lack of specificity in the games rules leads to a good understanding of the interaction model between the various individuals and system components.

Approaches to New Media Preservation

The preservation of new media art complicates existing museum accession and conservation practices. The multiplicity of formats and modes of display open to artists has added work and introduced new layers of nuance to an already qualitative and subjective practice (Irvin 2006). With the growing recognition of how preserving new media art can relate to artist’s intent (Odegaard 1995; Dykstra 1996), audience engagement and participation (Marontate 2005; Martinon 2006), and naturally the media involved (Laurenson 2001; Real 2001; Laurenson 2006), preservation efforts have tried to provide guidelines and frameworks to ease the process.

The Electronic Arts Intermix has a rather comprehensive approach to preservation of digital art. Starting with documentation, inspection, and assessment of the state of the various digital components, through data storage best practices, and strategies of migration, emulation, and encapsulation, EAI’s approach handles the entire life of a piece. The New Art Trust, along with The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Gallery in London, has developed an initiative called Media Matters (NAT) which analyzes the requirements of Time-based media works of art, especially their curation, exchange, and display. As with many other new media preservation tools, there are several questionnaires and reports for the loaning institution and exhibiting venue to assess the needs of accurately displaying and preserving the artwork.

Another such questionnaire is part of the Variable Media Initiative. The stated aim of the questionnaire is to provide the kernel of information for new media preservation efforts on a case-by-case basis, and to provide structured data in such a way that the information can be shared by other museums and galleries and compared across works and genres. The questionnaire divides the process of preservation into a description of the original version of the work and how a work is to be presented in later recreations. Four strategies are available for future versions of the work: storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation. Reinterpretation is a useful extension that frees the preserving institution from many of the thorny debates around emulation and migration, and gets more at the core themes of a work rather than any particular choices of presentation.

Unfortunately, as with other qualitative surveys, the data collected is highly contextualized: the same answer to a given question across surveys is not comparable without a deeper understanding of the particulars of a piece and the artist. The authors of the questionnaire admit that there are questions and debates that cannot be anticipated in the questionnaire format, but still hope to derive firm guidelines for future exhibitions – a potentially problematic perspective when the questionnaire is both a formal data collection tool and an “ethical will” to guide preservation efforts.

V2 has explored a more formal documentation model called Capturing Unstable Media. The formal component is the Capturing Unstable Media Conceptual Model or CMCM. It provides an ontology for documenting the various objects and actors that go into the creation and execution of instances of new media art. An important extension is a robust interaction model – for interaction between the work and stakeholders – that is lacking from most of the other preservation efforts. Unfortunately, this is the least developed portion of the documentation scheme.

The model for interaction in the V2 framework is a message-passing metaphor between a set of actors. This relationship is further categorized by its interaction synchronicity, interaction location, user number, interaction level, and sensory mode. The most interesting for purposes of comparison to HCI’s ethnographic methods is the interaction level element. Potential values for this field are Observational, Navigational, Participatory, Co-authoring, and Intercommunication. Though broad, using these categories can be a useful first step in considering models of audience participation in new media. The authors do point out that in the V2 framework “the description of interaction with an occurrence should refer to the minimal interaction that is needed for the occurrence to function as its creator has intended” (V2). However, the more complex elements of interaction are left for qualitative description and developed through “well chosen documentation.”

The V2 framework is informative, but again, exists as an archive of practice, not purely as a set of guidelines for preservation, archiving, or reinterpretation of the work. The scope is understandably narrow, with a focus on a very complete and detailed description of the resources and relationships between entities in the construction and execution of the piece, but perhaps too little guidance for describing the experiences of an audience with a piece. For example, emulation, conversion, and migration are discussed in the context of preserving the documentation archive, but not as strategies that may be applied to the work as a whole. Again, this is not meant to be an attack on the V2 framework - simply recognition that the goals of the project may not align with preservation of new media pieces that rely on a high degree of audience participation.

A full analysis of these new media preservation frameworks is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, the V2 and VMI approaches are examined more closely through partial applications to the example pieces outlined above. Rather than being case studies, the examples here are meant to highlight elements of audience participation that the methods would miss when applied to similar new media projects. To ground this discussion further, we explore what features might be outside the purview of the existing frameworks that artists might suggest as key when understanding participatory new media. Would an experience be the same if reinterpreted by a new technology? Is it the social experience that is really at stake? Are there less tangible elements in the microculture of participation constructed by the artists that escape existing preservation models? And how might ethnographic techniques further inform preservation efforts?

Questionnaires and Vectorial Elevations

New Media preservation questionnaires face a number of problems when dealing with complex socio-technical systems like Vectorial Elevations. The first instance of Vectorial Elevations though firmly sited in Mexico City’s Zócalo could exist just as well in any large, public urban space.

I am interested in distancing my practice from the notion of the ‘site-specific’, particularly from the postmodern attempts to find and deconstruct essential constituent characteristics of a particular space: I am very committed to the idea that a site consists of an indeterminate number of intersecting imaginary, socio-political, physical and tele-present spaces.” (Lozano-Hemmer 2000)

[Lozano-Hemmer goes on to say,] What is specific is the new behaviours that might emerge during interaction… [and] I wanted the main protagonist of the piece to be the participants themselves.

Taken together, these statements suggest that preservation of this piece may need to focus on the particular performative actions taken by the audience, more than on the physical characteristics of the site. The VMI questionnaire does not address these issues. The closest question is in the Interactive section, “Viewer interacts with…” Possible options include the work, other viewers, performer/s, a combination of the above (explain), and not applicable. The response that comes closest is “combination of the above” which still requires further elaboration.

V2’s interaction model would not fare much better. Someone modeling the interaction might hope that since the piece at least relates to specific sites and histories, the relationships could be structured formally. Lozano-Hemmer complicates this approach.

The grounding is not the history or symbolism of the site, but the participation of the public. Without the public the piece cannot unfold, it cannot exist: it would be like a play without actors. For me, a piece is successful if the behaviours and relationships that arise from participation manage to surprise the artist/ other words, the outcomes should not have been pre-programmed. Instead, the piece should establish some initial conditions, a platform or vehicle where people can do whatever it is they're going to do through the constraints and affordances of the piece itself. (Lozada 2003)

In this way the interaction model of a given instance of Vectorial Elevations might change from one instance to the next.

Though the piece itself can exist outside of a particular physical context, a coup for potential archival and preservation efforts, the artist does rely on cues from the site to make interface level decisions.

For me dependency on participation is a way to ‘ground’ an installation and this helps me conceive interfaces and strategies that demystify the spectacular. The key is to develop pieces that offer some degree of intimacy within an intimidating scale. Also to find participation metaphors that are relatively familiar or self-explaining. Finally to offer a wide range of entry points into the work, attempting to underline the incompleteness, uselessness and indeterminacy of the initiative. (Stocker and Schopf 2001)

Particularly pernicious is the passage on “participation metaphors”. What exactly are “relatively familiar or self-explaining” metaphors for an audience unfamiliar with interaction with contemporaneous technology?

Some technical guidelines are provided in the text of several interviews. “The main design specification was that the interface should be accessible across platforms, across browsers and without the need for any plug-ins” (Lozano-Hemmer, 2000). These technical details are interesting inasmuch as they further expose the focus of the work being so much on participation and not on specific forms of technology – another helpful point for preservation efforts. For example, the VMI Storage and Emulation strategies are not appropriate for this work. Based on interviews and the patterns of subsequent deployments of Vectorial Elevations, Migration and Reinterpretation are more in line with Lozano-Hemmer’s practice: “While I am a great fan of [Wodiczko’s and Haacke’s] work, I am more interested in temporary, minor histories that can be established with relationships between the site and the public” (Adriaansens and Brouwer 2002). And of the two, the Reinterpretation form of the questionnaire asks the more appropriate questions for the installed, interactive, and networked options. For example, “Adjust dimensions according to artist's instructions on site-specificity?” and “Should future visitors manipulate the work in a way previous participants couldn't but which is consistent with the spirit of the work?” get closer to the issues of future display that appear in the artist’s interviews. A mix of cultural and urban probes, perhaps studying the acceptance of augmented technology in a particular urban environment, could fill in some of the gaps in the questionnaire approach, giving insight as to how a new audience might manipulate a piece.

Media and Pockets Full of Memories

In some ways the preservation of Pockets Full of Memories should relate closely to that of time-based media (Laurenson 2006) or technology-based installations (Real 2001; INCCA 2004-2007). The piece is deeply concerned with archiving, and in significant ways it is already self-documenting. But the material it collects and the physical construction of the installation are only part of the work. Important to Legrady are

[b]asically the conventions of how we classify information, the information itself, and the play of their relationship. In this artwork, the public provides the information, so what we end up with is an overall picture of the community of who came to the exhibition. It's a kind of data sampling of a particular group of museum visitors. (Legrady 1998)

The complicating element here is the focus on the particular audience for the piece. The interactions with the piece are determined in part by the conventions of information classification with which they are familiar. If these change, so does the model of interaction. And even if an accurate model is captured, it is still unclear how useful this might be when applied to future exhibitions. To continue,

One has to recognize that within the framework of the digital information communication environment, an interactive artwork’s intrinsic value as art experience lies in a synthesis of two components: the first consists of the content and information flow of the work, all aspects of which are normally determined by the artist, and the second consists of the conditions of its delivery, exhibition and reception, aspects of which are beyond the control of the works author. (Legrady 1998)

If a new audience has different impressions of tagging or ranking, the interaction model that accompanied the archived piece would no longer be informative. A deeper understanding of the contemporary role of information and organization would be required to make a new instance resonate in similar ways. This could be gained through iterative testing of a migrated interface or through a physical wizard-of-oz technique.

In contrast to Lozano-Hemmer’s more open approach to technological choices, HCI-driven preservation decisions of Legrady’s work would likely be shaped by the belief in the interface, not the specific media or the database, as a catalyst to particular forms of audience participation.

My sense is that all information can be recontextualized and made to have meaning in one way or another. That's where interface design comes in, the design of the digital environment through pictures, layout, sounds, symbols, timing, and movement. All these things influence how the particular information will mean something (LeGrady in Speiker n.d.).

This places the work firmly in the Emulation strategy for later recreations. The questions from the VMI Emulation form are much better suited in this case. For example, “Should the work be ‘reset’ to erase any trace of past participants, and new visitors allowed to leave their traces?” is immediately informative. Later recreations of the work have started with new databases, while a newer series has maintained the database of objects across instances. Well-crafted cultural probes directed at the museum audience could also give insight as to how the parts of an interface relate to their own archival practice. It is important to note that these probes should not be read as prototypes of the piece, or as focus group studies meant to measure reception. Instead their use should be bounded as information gathering techniques directing preservation decisions, especially when emulation is an available strategy.

Novelty and Can You See Me Now?

Some of the ethnographic HCI methods used to study novel features of Can You See Me Now? could be used to answer important preservation questions. For example,

Our study reveals the diverse ways in which online players experienced the uncertainties inherent in GPS and WiFi, including being mostly unaware of them, but sometimes seeing them as problems, or treating them as a designed feature of the game, and even occasionally exploiting them within gameplay. (Benford, Crabtree et al. 2006)

These strategies to handle the technical deficiencies in the system help expose elements of the piece that might not come across using the VMI questionnaire or might not be major points in a V2 interaction model.

When the GPS failed, some users would retrace their steps, falling back on a familiarity with the technology and their surroundings. Clearly these elements have an impact on how the piece is received, through the impressions forming in the minds of the audience based on the behavior of other participants. But how is this to be captured using preservation methods? Extending the issue, there are of course technical questions of intentionally degrading the performance of future, and likely more accurate, systems, but also the more complex problems of handling user familiarity with a technology, and technology failure, and incorporating all of these points as a part of a successful experience. In fact, so much of the experience of the game is outside of the control of the designers – the experience of the game is even more contingent on the construction of an environment than in Vectorial Elevations or Pockets Full of Memories - developing methods that would poll the audience and their social interactions seems integral to any preservation effort.

We argue that designers should explicitly consider four potential states of being of a mobile participant: connected and tracked, connected but not tracked, tracked but not connected, and neither connected nor tracked. We then introduce five strategies that might be used to deal with uncertainty in these different states for different kinds of participant: remove it, hide it, manage it, reveal it, and exploit it. (Benford, Crabtree et al. 2006)

Here technical decisions and limitations lead to a classification of at least four user experience states that would also need to be maintained. This kind of information could be simulated using migration, and given the evolution of some of the technology used in various instances of the game, the artists seem comfortable with this prospect.

The central contribution of this example is to show how the ambiguity and under-determined aspects of the user experience can actually lead to clear guidelines about important elements that impact future experience with the piece. This uncertainty in design goals is even stronger when we consider how these very public pieces expose seams between the controlled and real life settings.

Due to their unusual appearance and actions, for example zig-zag running patterns and ritualized taking of photographs of empty spaces (the locations where they caught online players), performers attracted considerable attention from passers by. In Cologne, groups of children ran alongside the performers […] and in Tokyo some online players subsequently visited the physical game zone in order to run with the performers who have chased them. (Benford 2005)

And given the appreciation of ambiguity by the game designers (Gaver, Dunne et al. 1999), and their other pieces like Uncle Roy All Around You (Benford, Crabtree et al. 2006), the technical choices that maintain a degree of indeterminacy are more than a system trait worthy of preservation: they are central to any model of participation.


Considering the kinds of interaction required of participants to complete Vectorial Elevations, Pockets Full of Memories, and Can You See Me Now?, there appear to be real gaps in existing preservation models for new media. The gaps may not appear at the levels of documentation or accession in a museum context. Instead, the most easily missed elements are those that only come to light through use, those that describe the participatory context, and the more intangible elements. Consider the choices of venue for instances of Vectorial Elevations. The Zócalo in Mexico City and plazas in Lyon, France and Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain would all seem to suggest that a pattern of open public spaces would be required. A V2-style documentation would handle the individual cases well, reflecting the intricacies of dealing with such broad, open spaces, the arrangement of technology, and computer systems-level deployment diagrams. But it does not concern itself with why a particular site was chosen and what the expectations might be from an audience. A VMI-like questionnaire would let future re-interpreters of the piece know that it would be all right to adjust the dimensions or technology - but, as we have discussed, without the kind of directed explanation that has proven invaluable in similar HCI design cases.

We may be judging the VMI questionnaire approach too harshly. Caitlin Jones from the curatorial staff at the Guggenheim and familiar with the development and deployment of the questionnaire, has said that "it has proven to be not super successful as a data structure [...] but it's proved invaluable in terms of talking to artists." (Jones 2006) But even if the questionnaire succeeds and does engage the artists in a conversation with accession experts, it still leaves an ambiguous and misleading data structure in its wake – especially when it comes to pieces with requirements for audience participation.

We should also acknowledge the different motivations for preservation in HCI and New Media. For HCI, ethnographic methods are often used to better describe or evaluate features of a technological experience that are ill-suited to more empirical approaches. This kind of evaluation, which in some cases brings with it an implied design determinism where an experience can be made measurably more poetic or more meaningful by simply tweaking the interface or changing the interaction model, may be incompatible with arts preservation. Outside of empirical aesthetics and the phenomenological connections between preservation and HCI, this way of valuing audience experience may not align with the values of artists, curators, or preservation experts.

As qualitative methods, ethnographic techniques like those described here are flexible enough to fill the gaps in existing preservation frameworks. The work of planning, executing, and interpreting probes and similar approaches does not require specialized technical knowledge, and may be particularly useful when pieces have scant or conflicting preservation demands. The thread running through each of the examples is the embracing of the complex relationship a work has with an audience as something that can inform preservation efforts. True, the descriptions for these elements might be quite variable and the resulting preservation models may require significant interpretation - but without a significant effort to develop models of participation with new media pieces, we run the risk of creating well-meaning preservation plans that can obscure facets of the work by focusing too strongly on technological choices.


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Cite as:

Adamczyk, P.D., Ethnographic Methods and New Media Preservation, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted