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.

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