The Materiality of the Immaterial: Collecting Digital Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Juhee Park, Victoria and Albert Museum, UK, Anouska Samms, Victoria and Albert Museum, UK


Museum practices were not originally designed with digital objects in mind. They were developed to handle physical objects that are perceptible by touch. Yet the physical elements of digital objects do not solely represent how they function and perform. For instance, although it is a smartphone’s external metallic case that we can touch, the phone cannot function without its intangible elements, such as apps. Media theorists have argued that even if digital matter cannot always be physically touched or rendered visible, it should still be considered a form of material and not just an abstraction. This understanding does not easily sit within traditional museum practices and the typical notion of the museum “object.” As an initial output of the research project Content/Data/Object within the V&A Research Institute (VARI), this paper aims to provide a conceptual framework to better understand and explore the material natures of digital objects in a museum context. Through the incorporation of media theory, different applications of digital materiality will be utilised to demonstrate how the “digital object” challenges what is understood within the museum as material and what is understood as digital. This is significant, as a broader understanding of both the technical natures and “performative natures” of digital objects, from a media perspective, provides additional insight into what should be maintained within and around an object within the context of the museum. The V&A’s acquisition of the iPhone 6 as a case study will show how this theoretical understanding of digital materiality can be applied in practice. Findings from the analysis of data collected through an internal workshop, a public engagement event, and interviews with V&A staff, will inform suggestions for the museum. Moreover, it will not only contribute to the museum’s collecting strategies, but also has wider ramifications on documentation practices, conservation, and strategies around display.

Keywords: contemporary collecting, digital objects, digital materiality, performative materiality, Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)


In 1985, the Centre Pompidou opened an exhibition curated by French Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, which conveyed how telecommunication technologies were beginning to impact every aspect of life (Hui, 2015: 131). What is now known as “the digital” is what Lyotard regarded as telecommunication technology. The title of the exhibition was les Immatériaux / the Immaterials. However, as Hui (2015) explains, “the title might foster the misleading impression that Lyotard understood the digital as immaterial; on the contrary, the immaterial, to Lyotard, is fundamentally material.” Hui (2015) goes on to clarify that the original title of the exhibition translates New Material and Creation, which was ‘strategically chosen in order to disrupt the modern concept of matter. According to Lyotard, the immaterial designates a new material, which could not and should not be the continuation of the traditional conception of matter.’ It is this argument that we will address in this paper. Through the incorporation of media theory, we will utilise different applications of digital materiality as a critical lens to demonstrate how the “digital object” challenges what is understood within the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) as material, and what is understood as digital. Here, media theory is utilised to build upon different conceptions of materiality that have been explored within museology. This is significant, as a broader understanding of both the technical natures and “performative natures” of digital objects, from a media perspective, provides additional insight into what should be maintained within and around an object within the context of the museum.

The V&A started collecting digital objects from 1969, for instance a series of computer-generated images, and this collecting of digital forms has only expanded as they become increasingly embedded within our daily lives. Content/Data/Object (CDO), launched in 2017, is a three-year research project within the V&A Research Institute (VARI), supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The project aims to articulate the challenges faced by the V&A around its various digital objects. Although we as users, developers, consumers, designers and museum practitioners may engage with digital technologies daily, the collection and maintenance of digital objects within the V&A, and within the museum sector as a whole, is an area still in its infancy. The V&A’s acquisition of the iPhone 6 has been chosen as an area of focus to reflect the V&A’s institutional ambition to collect design of the present moment and to raise questions around the social, political, and economic impacts that digital objects have on society through design.

As an initial step resulting from the project’s first year, this paper aims to provide a conceptual framework to better understand and explore the material natures of digital objects in a museum context. In order to collect and maintain such objects, in reference to Lyotard, museum practitioners need to be aware of the new notions of materiality that are embodied within digital forms. A theoretical discussion on digital materiality will be presented first, highlighting the complexities of applying it within the V&A through data collected from an internal workshop, a public event, and interviews with V&A staff. This theoretical underpinning will not only contribute to the museum’s collecting strategies but also has wider ramifications on documentation practices, conservation, and strategies around display.

Digital Materiality

The definition of “digital,” let alone “digital objects,” is blurred, and slippery. In part, the divorcing of hardware and software, tangible and intangible, promotes the idea that what we cannot see, or what is not perceptible to touch, is immaterial. Digital matter is often understood as floating in the ether, challenging our understanding of the shared common knowledge of matter and the laws of physics as something concrete, visible, and tangible. This raises the concern that if digital is seemingly immaterial, how can it be collected, and what should be collected?

Digital objects cannot be collected if they cannot be fully materially understood. However, this is further complicated by the fact that there is not one absolute definition of digital. Geismar (2018) argues that digital objects can only be understood if we recognise that they are often in flux and that digital matter operates within a spectrum of tangible and intangible materialities. Although this is at odds with traditional practices of categorisation around objects, it is crucial for museums to recognise that the structure and nature of digital forms manifest within a continuum of materialities. This understanding of digital matter is necessary to strategically collect and maintain digital objects for future generations.

Within the field of museology, much emphasis has been placed on expanding how “the scope and character of materiality has come to be understood” (Pearce, 2010). There has been an emphasis on human-object engagements so that an examination of an object’s materiality includes not only its physical affordances but also the sensory modalities in which the object is experienced (Dudley, 2010). Susan M. Pearce (2010) argues that artefacts are things that are “actually used by people and are part of how sensory apprehension is impacted by, and impacts upon, objects.” Therefore, objects are part of, what Pearce calls, a “performative social dynamic.” We will later return to this idea and argue that it can be expanded through the application of media theory, and its different demonstrations of “digital materiality,” illustrating the human-object engagements of digital objects.

Within the museum sector the term “digital materiality” is employed and understood in different ways. Within data curation, examples include how heritage objects are reflected within digital infrastructures such as databases and collection management systems, and how data is used to reveal the relational continuity of cultures across digital and physical domains (Shep, 2016). It is most commonly understood as a method where digital technologies are utilised to increase access to tangible, physical, heritage objects – often, non-digital. In the case of the Manchester Museum, haptic interfaces have been developed to provide inclusive access to visually impaired visitors, achieved through tactile feedback (Sportun, 2015). In this respect, digital materiality is understood and incorporated as a tool to convey non-textual qualities of objects, e.g. the texture and depth of three-dimensional objects. Within this example the concern around digital materiality is about adding, or conveying the sensorial experiences provoked by objects when access to the object’s material form is restricted. However digital materiality as understood within the field of media theory, sheds light on the seemingly immaterial material affordances of digital objects themselves, often through their physical, technical affordances. Here digital materiality becomes less about gaining a sensorial experience to objects that already possess tangible, visible forms. Instead it can be used to provide an awareness of the materialities of digital objects that are not always rendered visible or cannot be physically touched—making the seemingly slippery matter that floats in the ether, perceptible. Once this materiality can be acknowledged, collection practices can be adapted to preserve, as argued by Lyotard, a new material.

Within the field of digital humanities, the mid-1990s to early 2000s marked a shift from interpreting digital objects as virtual and immaterial, to acknowledging digital objects as material (Shep, 2016). Four conceptions of digital materiality were defined: forensic and formal (Kirschenbaum, 2008) and distributed and performative (Drucker, 2013). These four distinctions refer to the nature of digital objects—their tangible, technical components and their seemingly immaterial, intangible matter. Understanding these different digital materialities together highlights how these seemingly opposed elements inform how the other is perceived, revealing their interconnected nature within a continuum of materialities. Therefore, before we draw our attention to making the invisible materialities of digital objects visible, we must also reflect on the technical and physical components of digital objects.

Matthew Kirschenbaum (2008) developed forensic and formal materiality and draws on the work of science and the identification of the nanoscale as the precise threshold between the material and the immaterial. Through this, bits and bytes that were typically acknowledged as immaterial, changeable, and invisible, could be visualised through technologies such as magnetic force microscopy (MFM) and even identified as leaving physical traces on digital objects, such as the bit pattern cut into a computer disk (Kirschenbaum, 2010; Shep, 2016). Forensic materiality refers to the physical evidence of the digital object, revealed in the traces, inscriptions, sealants and residues—for example, chemical degradation—which may have left its mark through different processes of production, distribution, and preservation (ibid.). For instance, although we rarely distinguish a new iPhone 6 from other versions by sight, the differences among the same model are already inscribed during varying processes of production, which might be accessible and visible through instrumentation.

Formal materiality, conceived to be understood in relation to forensic materiality, explores the architecture of digital media and their symbolic forms (e.g. codes, the structure of individual software programs, or metadata encoding) (Drucker, 2013; Shep, 2016). Kirschenbaum argues that the architecture of digital objects, even in this symbolic form, is essential in constructing the object, and that it is itself material. Kirschenbaum (2008), quoting Nicholas Negroponte (1995), states that, unlike an atom, which has mass, a bit “has no colour, size, or weight, . . . It is a state of being . . . For practical purposes we consider a bit to be a 1 or a 0″‘. In other words, “bits are symbols to be set and reset, set and reset, on again and off again, over and over again.” (Kirschenbaum ,2008). However, this symbolic form is material. It is formal material. Without it, there would be no digital object. Without it, the digital object as we know it would not be constructed. Through the lens of forensic materiality, the formal materiality of a digital object’s architecture, such as the history of the iPhone 6’s iOS updates, as constructed through bits, can be revealed at a physical, concrete level through traces and residues. In this case, it is through the use of forensic materiality that this seemingly solely symbolic matter can be rendered visible, illustrating how these materialities inform each other. In addition, if we can discover the reasoning as to why and how the iOS has been updated, for instance, cyber security concerns, then these symbolic bits can further reveal hidden intentions of the digital object, that in turn dictate the ways we engage with the object .

Whilst forensic and formal materiality emphasize these technical manifestations of the object’s material, the human-engagement with the object and the materialities that this involves, can be best acknowledged through distributed and performative interpretations of digital materiality. Within these explanations, our common understanding of material is challenged. Here, the condition of physicality is detached from an absolute understanding of material (Hui, 2015). As mentioned previously this builds upon Pearce’s understanding of a “performative social dynamic” of objects, whereby the materiality of the object also consists of how it is impacted by and impacted upon. Whilst forensic materiality reveals the traces left on a digital object, it does not refer to the user’s interaction which may have contributed to this “digital wear-and-tear” that manifests itself as residue. Therefore, in understanding digital matter, we must continue this work within a museum context by reconceptualising materiality to include performance, and not solely ontology, in order to illuminate how the object functions. By understanding how the object functions, we gain a fuller understanding of the meaning of the object and its design.

Johanna Drucker’s (2013) identification of distributed and performative materialities expands a definition of digital materiality to encompass a performative quality of material. Distributed materiality takes into account the complex interdependencies of a digital object that allow it to function, such as servers, networks, software and hosting environments, within the cultural domain. Drucker argues that because materiality depends on relational processes, digital objects cannot be mistaken for isolated, singular objects. We can imagine a future where the iPhone 6 may not be able to connect to the current environment of a digital ecosystem, for instance, when it is no longer possible to access certain mobile applications or specific digital media platforms, perhaps because the companies and developers may have decided to stop maintaining them, rendering them obsolete. Distributed materiality encourages museums to consider this scenario. As with Pearce’s notion of a “performative social dynamic” that is considered within museology, here too Drucker uses performative materiality to highlight what an object is by understanding what an object does. Like Pearce, Drucker’s performative materiality recognises how the technical, physical conditions of a digital object are produced as an event. However, this does not solely include human interactions, as Drucker argues that an event could be the processing of code, the transmission of signals through a system, as well as the dissemination of a digital object through these systems by different human users globally.

However, Drucker’s distributed and performative pair allows us to understand the invisible, seemingly immaterial material of digital objects specifically, by revealing the structures that allow the objects to operate, e.g. the invisible networks that are seemingly floating in the atmosphere, that allow for a relational engagement with objects to take place. In other words, and to borrow from Pearce, how an object “is impacted by, and impacts upon” (Pearce, 2010). Whilst all objects can possess experiential elements—even if this is just the visual experience of a decorative object—what makes digital material different from traditional collections are the environments that it operates within. For example, an “analogue,” physical game, such as a board game, is understood by how it is used and played, with a set number of players. However, the distributed or “networked” nature of digital objects operates through servers, at different speeds and within diverse environments—the ways in which the digital object spreads, extends and engages is, in theory, endless. Therefore, the way the digital object is experienced and re-designed through its application by users is also, in theory, endless—which distinguishes it from analogue objects. However, as with traditional tangible heritage, the experiential elements of digital objects are not generally documented in object records in the V&A. The V&A’s collections management system records the iPhone 6’s materials as aluminium and glass. There is no additional information regarding the other material architectures that are necessary to keep the iPhone working and connected to other networks, which influence its design. Therefore, a “performative social dynamic” can be applied to help us consider the invisible material relations that make the digital object what it is, and reveal a design narrative whereby consumers are both users and designers—whether they are aware of this or not. In spite of the fact that the four materialities can be defined individually, it is important to consider them altogether, as they reflect on the continuum of digital material, and therefore, are intended to be read in relation to one another.

The Blurred Definitions of Digital Objects Within the V&A

We delivered a workshop with an internal focus group at the beginning of the CDO research project in April 2018. The aim was to figure out how different practitioners within the V&A understand digital differently and how this affects their understanding of what a digital object is. Invited participants had different professional backgrounds and identities, including members of staff from the curatorial departments, the digital media team, the conservation and collections management department, the learning department, the research department, and an archivist. We played a game called “what do we mean when we say ‘digital object’?” The 18 participants broke out into small groups and were provided with a selection of pictures depicting six V&A objects including the iPhone 6 and one hypothetical acquisition—a meme. The seven items were chosen to critically demonstrate the complexity of defining what a digital object is, for example, the ‘Trafalgar’ chair (Museum number: W.27:1, 2-1958) representing obvious non-digital objects; the Triumph of Amphitrite (246:1/1 to 57-1870), a table-fountain, which was originally made in 1745 and recently reconstructed, in part using cutting-edge 3D scanning and printing technology; Pussy Power Hat (CD.5-2017), a pink woollen hat, knitted from an open-source pattern and worn as a symbol of female solidarity against sexist remarks made by current US president Donald Trump; The Liberator (CD.40-2014), a 3D-printed gun; Minecraft (B.94-2015), a packaged video game; the iPhone 6 (CD.2-2015), and a meme, which is a digital image shared on digital platforms. The participants were then asked to categorise these objects using traditional terms that described the material conditions of the objects. The main intention of the game was to receive feedback from V&A practitioners about what makes an object “digital,” and whether the current language and understanding of material remained applicable.

Within the workshop there was a disagreement around one of the V&A acquisitions—the “pussyhat”—a pink woollen hat designed to subvert a sexist remark by the current U.S. president. The hat was adopted by protestors on 21st January 2017, where an estimated 4 million people took part in sister marches in over 600 cities around the world, forming a “sea of pink” (V&A n.d.) as an act of collective action for gender equality. As the design was distributed globally on various online platforms. One group described the hat as “digital,” with another group contesting this adoption of the word “digital,” as “it’s a pink hat made out of wool! It’s a tangible object, so it can’t be called digital.”

Described on the V&A website as a “modest material object” (V&A n.d.)—within the Department of Design, Architecture and Digital (DAD), the hat is considered a “born-digital object.” Although the object may not be constructed from formal digital material of “0s” and “1s,” it could be argued that the hat’s performative social dynamics, which allowed for its dissemination and use, reveal a digital materiality. These collective actions were not only demonstrated through the physical wearing of the hat during political demonstrations, but it was the very process of production of the pussyhat that informed this collective defiance and made the visual output possible. In other words, the performative relational exchanges online reveal the meaning of the hat and reflect its design and creation. Although the V&A acquired only one pussyhat, the object should not be understood as an isolated artefact. The one hat becomes a symbol of protest when understood as a small part of a global collective mass, which would not have manifested without its performative engagements within digital platforms. By understanding the object’s relational and experiential materialities, we are able to grasp the design’s wider cultural significance.


Photos of the so-called pussyhat on a wall.

Figure 1: Can the hat be digital?


An interview with Corinna Gardner, Senior Curator of Design and Digital (DAD), again revealed how the digital materiality of digital objects has influenced specific departments within the V&A, in this case DAD, and their understanding of digital matter. This is generally informed by the collecting rationale of a specific curatorial department. Gardner was asked to group the same seven items from the workshop and to mark them on a scale of how “tangible” and “intangible” they appeared to be. She put four items—the pussyhat, the 3-D printed gun, the video game, and iPhone 6 generally in the middle of the scale (Figure 2). Within the department of DAD, it became clear that in positioning the 3-D printed gun and the pussyhat somewhere in the middle of the continuum of materiality, they too are regarded as digital objects. According to Gardner, the justification behind this was that the gun is a “physical expression of a digital file” and that the hat is a “physical expression of digital design.” Similarly, the meaning of the design of the video game and the iPhone 6 was not solely conveyed through the physical plastic and/or aluminium cases—which are documented as their material forms within the museum’s collection management system—but also through their experiential and intangible elements—the “seemingly immaterial” which can be read in terms of distributed and performative materiality. This demonstrates that the nature of digital objects challenges traditional, and often rigid, museum classifications around the curation and the management of tangible objects. As the V&A’s understanding of material expands, so will its identity—as reflected through its collections.


Print outs of various items like the pussyhat, taped to a wall.

Figure 2: Digital or not?

iPhone 6: A Witness of the V&A’s Changing Identity

Museum collections reveal the history and future of the institution, constructing its unique character. Looking at collections enables people to understand what a museum regarded as important at different times in its history. From a museological perspective, the iPhone 6 bears witness to the V&A’s changing identity. It witnesses a shift from collecting the beautiful to the social.

The V&A’s founding history and collections obviously associates itself with the British monarchy—Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Albert supported the establishment of educational institutions at South Kensington (Burton, 1999) as the museum was principally built for “educating designers, inspiring manufacturers and reforming the taste of the public at large” (Trench, 2010). Henry Cole, founding Director of the V&A, in the mid-nineteenth century, described this as making “the public hunger after the objects; . . . then they will go to the . . . shops and say, ‘We do not like this or that; we have seen something prettier at the . . . Museum,'” (ibid). Since then, the museum has developed an international reputation as a museum of art, design, and performance where “the rare, the old and the beautiful” have been collected (Trench, 2010). Traditionally, objects on display within the V&A’s permanent galleries are not objects that were readily employed or engaged with practically, as Trench (2010) states that:

The V&A is full of swords and armour that were never to be used in a fight, porcelain to be shown rather than eaten off and clothes to be worn only on rare occasions. What you see are often the relics of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous display.

Yet today, the museum considers contemporary digital design as reflective of wider global structures. The way that users engage with, and ultimately reshape their objects is further exemplified by the development of digital objects. Here the design of the digital object itself further evolves through the engagement of the user. The acquisition of objects such as the iPhone 6 and the Pussyhat, as discussed above, demonstrates the evolving identity of the museum itself as it responds to the design of the contemporary moment.

The context of purchasing the iPhone 6 in 2015 was based on DAD’s Rapid Response Collecting scheme. DAD formed in 2013 in order to systematically respond to and collect contemporary design objects that reflect “design and society” (Long and Gardner, 2014). Consequently, it is considered the “department of public life,” with Rapid Response Collecting aiming “to ensure that the collections reveal the reality of contemporary design and manufacturing for future researchers by acquiring objects in timely response to global events” (Long and Gardner, 2014). Therefore, as Gardner (2015) explains, the significant values of the objects in Rapid Response Collecting “are not rare or of exemplary craftsmanship—they are nodes in global systems of huge complexity and with important social consequences.” The supporting documents that can be found within the V&A acquisition file for the iPhone 6 includes articles on issues around hacking, concerns around the privacy of the user, and references to iPhone mania. Again, this highlights the design and user emphasis that is privileged by the DAD department, and the wider, global implications that the design of certain objects can bring about, thereby reshaping cultures both in real life and online.

Drucker’s description of performative materiality can be applied to the collecting rationale for DAD’s acquisition of the iPhone 6: the understanding of materiality here operates between “relational and contingent social values as they are expressed through various ideologies and economies of production on the one hand, and experiential, physiological, ultimately bodily encounters with incarnate phenomena on the other” (Drucker, 1994). It is this understanding, to again reference Lyotard, of a new notion of materiality that is reflected in DAD’s Rapid Response Collecting. This embrace of the ways objects are embedded, or distributed and performed, within complex global systems, reflects an understanding of the processes that develop a seemingly new and seemingly immaterial digital materiality.

With this understanding of digital materiality, what suggestions can be made to improve the maintenance of digital objects within the V&A, in relation to the institutional intention of further engaging with various stakeholders, reflecting diverse aspects of contemporary society?

iPhone 6: It’s Our Phone

As soon as you purchase an iPhone, the design is there to be customised and personalised—whether this takes the form of bejewelling the tangible handset with a luxury cover or simply entering in your friend’s phone number. This customisation reflects the user’s life patterns and needs. The approach that the V&A took to collecting and documenting the iPhone 6 privileges the tangible, physical components that are visible to the eye, as the handset, headphones, adaptor, cable and box were collected. At times, this contradicts the Rapid Response Collecting’s original intention of responding to the object’s shifting design through its user engagement and functionality in the present moment.

In July 2018 we started to collect research from different stakeholders and potential visitors around the collecting of the iPhone 6 at a public engagement event, which was part of the Electronic Visualisation and Arts (EVA) conference in London. 31 responses were collected from this event. It is important to mention here that the event was designed to collect the opinions of the public; yet, the participants’ professional identities were not representative of the overall population. This was due to the event being part of the EVA conference, which is predominantly attended by digital artists, engineers, and researchers. People were invited to respond to intentionally ambiguous questions in order to challenge typical assumptions of what material is, and what a design museum would traditionally collect: “which material should we (the V&A) collect?,” and “which parts of the design should we collect to tell the story for the future?,” and “how and why should we collect around the experience (interaction/interface) of the smartphone?” We encountered feedback stating that the museum should collect personal stories and lived experiences relating to the iPhone 6 numerous times. Some comments referred to “ethnographies of phone usage, photos, videos, tracking data,” with the argument being that the physical smartphone cannot be separated from its experiential elements.

The data reveals an interest in the personalisation of the iPhone 6, which could be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, the collecting of the performative materiality of personal/subjective memories around the iPhone 6, and secondly, the collecting and displaying of the personalised user-experience revealed at the level of the body through an individual’s sensorium.  In the instance of memories, Fischer and Lubar (2014) state that “the value of the artefact is determined by the extent to which it allows us to tell important stories.” Distributed and performative materialities of the iPhone 6 can be uncovered through the stories and memories of its various stakeholders (e.g. makers and users or both). Therefore, a paradigm shift in collecting practice within museum sectors from solely a tangible object-focus to include a “seemingly immaterial” focus, such as people’s stories (e.g. oral history), should be considered and perhaps influenced by approaches similar to those of archival institutions (Rhys, 2011).

People may think that the iPhone 6 is too familiar an object to engage the museum’s visitors in a meaningful way. However, it is this familiarity that can frame a strong affective connection with visitors. Here, the very act of display could be utilised to decentre the iPhone from visitors’ everyday associations of it. Display could instead highlight aspects of design that are taken for granted, are seemingly invisible, or are purposefully designed by the developers to go undetected by the user—aspects that are veiled from daily use. Depending on what the curators want to emphasize and why, material affordances could be isolated within the display to draw attention to specific designed features. Therefore, in order to effectively maintain the design and the meaning of a digital object, such as the iPhone 6, the V&A will need to collect and provoke the seemingly immaterial conditions. Simply collecting the tangible to reflect wider histories of use, function, and social nature is unworkable when only the tangible is privileged (Kavanagh, 2004). However, as Natalie Kane, Curator of Digital Design in DAD, and other participants of the public event highlighted, the museum is still confronted with the challenge of which digital experiences will be represented and which ones shall be privileged over others, and why—particularly when the number of experiences is potentially limitless and varies depending on culture and geography.

Another recurring response in the data collected at EVA demonstrated visitors’ desire for museum objects to reveal the labour and materials that were utilised to produce the iPhone 6—especially when the object has such a contentious and infamous context of production. The feedback included a concern to highlight the cost of human life and material resources. Again, this illustrates the significance of recognising these features as material, as Drucker (2013) states that,

This shift from an approach grounded in what something is to how something works . . . [reveals] the lifecycle of production, use, control, resource consumption, labour, cost, environmental impact and so on—so that an artefact’s materiality is read as a snapshot moment within continuous interdependent systems.

In this regard, the iPhone 6 should be documented and preserved in relation to not only what it is but also how it works through different environments, exposing what is not rendered visible and connecting bodies globally.


Digital materiality when applied as a critical lens to understand digital objects helps demonstrate the complexity of collecting and maintaining the iPhone 6 at the V&A, particularly when current classifications of museum objects on the whole tend to privilege tangible materialities. The continuum of digital material continues to pose varying challenges to the museum, yet as demonstrated, it is vital that digital objects be considered as “material,” in all of its manifestations. The word material is suggestive of perceptible characteristics that require continual maintenance through preservation over time, whether that be an object’s bits—its seemingly immaterial symbolic “0s” and “1s”—or its bodily, social manifestations. As illustrated through the framework of digital materiality, the seemingly imperceptible matter of digital objects can be identified, and therefore, should be collected and maintained. However, the collecting of digital objects, such as the iPhone 6, is a task that will remain unfinished, as the endless differing personalised applications of the object continue to evolve. Because of the infinite material that can be collected around digital objects, this specific collecting activity should be continued through and alongside research, shaped by concrete criteria and priorities reflecting the museum’s institutional obligations to preserve design for our present and future societies. Without collecting the seemingly immaterial material of the phone, we cannot represent how it is designed, and how its design affects us. With this conceptual understanding of digital materiality to be taken as a starting point, Content/Data/Object in its next phase will investigate empirical applications of digital materiality within different areas of institutional.



We would like to give special thanks to our project leads, Marion Crick, Corinna Gardner, Natalie Kane and Richard Palmer, who have given us insightful thoughts, and the V&A Research Institute, Joanna Norman, Marta Ajmar, Tao Chang and Rachel Feldman, who have supported this paper in various ways. The research project Content/Data/Object has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.



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Cite as:
Park, Juhee and Samms, Anouska. "The Materiality of the Immaterial: Collecting Digital Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum." MW19: MW 2019. Published January 28, 2019. Consulted .