V. Time-Based Media Waits for No One: Creating Collections Management Policies and Procedures

  • Corrie Brady

Time-Based Media are works of art which “employ technology like film, video, sound recording, and software as artistic materials.”1 This medium consists of the physical components and the temporal elements of the digital technology. Because of its performative nature and complexity, wherein content is represented physically and digitally and requires a specific level of care and maintenance to properly function, traditional and current museum practices cannot fully support this material. However, the practices of modern museums should reflect the needs of digital technology and its objects because it “must be fully materially understood to collect.”2 The institutions which collect Time-Based Media into their collections should create Collections Management Policies and Procedures to specifically address how to properly acquire, loan, exhibit, and ultimately care for the objects.

Time-Based Media

Time-Based Media (TBM) consists of physical components and digital elements resulting in a digital, time-sensitive, technology. TBM is comprised of three major physical components: the information carrier, the playback equipment, and the display equipment.3 For example, the information carrier could be a VHS tape which stores the data of the images and sound in its film, the playback equipment could be the VHS player which processes the data on the tape, and the display equipment could be the TV which exhibits the processed data to the viewer. The original configuration of the three elements of TBM “cannot survive for an extended period of time unless the equipment undergoes continuous and carefully managed change.”4 The technology used to showcase TBM can have a short lifespan due to its inherent vices.

A Destructive Nature

TBM risks becoming obsolete through the degradation of the hardware and equipment. These two challenges can be reconciled with the proper care, storage, and techniques of its stewards. Obsolescence originates from the decay of the physical hardware and can result in outdated and unusable equipment. If the equipment ceases to function, the components will “no longer be able to be exhibited as originally manufactured.”5 There are challenges if the equipment continues to go unused as well, whether it is obsolete or simply not exhibited, due to its improper storage. The electrical component of the equipment, known as the electrolytic capacitors, contains a gel comprised of electric energy. This material is inherently corrosive, to itself and to other materials, and will leak out of the capacitors and damage the objects.

The destructive nature of the electrical equipment involved in TBM, and one of the factors contributing to obsolescence of the materials, can be combated through emulation of the equipment. Emulation is software which simulates the functionality of the obsolete system and is a current “active effort to make [TBM] accessible” for a longer period of time.6 This particular technique is easier to accomplish when the media is created with and on one piece of software. Thus, emulation is not a solution for every work of art in this medium.7

Equipment Significance

Joanna Phillips, the Senior Conservator at the Guggenheim Museum, suggests another method of opposing obsolescence by questioning the significance of the equipment in relation to the total work of TBM. “The way in which devices and technologies may or may not be exchanged is dependent on their significance in relation to the identity of the individual work.”8 According to Phillips, museum staff and artists should collaborate during the acquisition process in order to identify which equipment should be considered significant to the meaning of the artwork. It is essential for the museum to work with the artist during this process in order to provide “crucial information on whether the equipment has a purely functional value or if conceptual, aesthetic, or historical values are attached to a specific device.”9 An example of an artist who placed these values on their artwork was Nam Jun Paik. Phillips claims the most vulnerable works of art are those which are reliant on their equipment because the components are unique to the overall work due to the designed or manipulated nature created by the artist.

The Guggenheim Museum initiated a categorization system for the significant equipment of TBM in their collection. The system places the playback and display equipment on a scale from one to three: one is dedicated equipment, two is shared or obsolete equipment, and three is variable equipment. The assigned numbers ensure a balanced approach to actively determine and manage the inherent change over time while the TBM retains its identity.10 Proper detection of equipment significance requires a framework of collection care and a reliance on the artists, or artists’ foundation if they are no longer living, to decide on the power and identity of the work and its equipment. Phillips’ argument throughout the article further justifies the need to create policies and procedures surrounding TBM and its various complexities.

Collections Management Policies and Procedures

Collections Management Policies (CMPs) and Procedures work in tandem with the Collections Management Plan. The plan sets the tone for the policy and consists of a definitive statement on the needs, gaps, and priorities of the museum’s collections. In the case of this paper, the needs and priorities are for TBM in the collections of museums that aim to preserve and care for this medium of artwork.

Policies and Procedures are two separate documents which work together within collections management as an agreement to care for collections in perpetuity and to minimize risks to the collections.11 The CMP establishes standards and provides a framework for decision-making, such as accepting or denying an acquisition for the collection. It should advance and support the museum’s mission and operations, as well as receive approval from the governing authority. The Collections Management Procedures provide the implementation for the policies in a series of action steps, such as what to do when the museum agrees to loan a TBM work. The designated procedures are formed by the staff and does not need the approval of the governing authority for its implementation. Due to this lack of approval, it is “easier for the staff to adjust or revise the procedures as necessary to carry out the policy.”12 These documents are both created in order to accomplish a specific goal or to address a particular issue, such as one which will “have a significant impact on the collections” via the acquisition, loan, and collections care processes.13

Collections Management Procedures, when developed and prepared, implement the CMP. These documents need to be reviewed and revised regularly to promote the growth of the collection and the museum as a whole. According to the American Alliance of Museums, Collections Management Procedures should be revised more often than the policies.14 CMPs and Procedures should be adapted to reflect the necessary changes after their revision. Due to the influence and the popularity of collecting TBM among museums, this change is imperative for these documents.

Acquisitions and Accessions

The criteria and action steps for adding objects to the collection should be outlined in the CMP and Procedure, as well as the acceptable methods.15 For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s CMP requires the institution to “be able to display, store, and care for the proposed acquisition according to generally accepted museum practices.”16 Later in the document the Met states its Collections Management Procedure for the methods of acquisition. For example: for all purchases, the curator who has recommended the object for acquisition must write a detailed report to justify its acceptance into the collection and a conservator must examine the condition of the object and compile an analysis.


The purpose of a loan is for museums to share information with other institutions and with the communities they serve.17 The CMP is a tool for determining which museums can borrow your objects and the museums from which you will borrow objects. For example, the Met “lends works of art from its collection to qualified institutions… [and] wishes to cooperate with as many qualified institutions as possible.”18 The Collections Management Procedures then further explains that all borrowers must agree in writing to the Met’s conditions for loans prior to the shipment of the object.

Collections Care

The museum cares for its collections which they hold in the public trust and in perpetuity through the proper preservation, conservation, and storage of objects.19 Collections care ranges from the direct conservation of the object to the management of the object records. The museum should always maintain the physical and intellectual control of the objects within its collection.20 The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collections Management Policy states “The Museum shall provide a safe and appropriate environment for the collections, with effective security and environmental control, for the benefit of present and future generations.”21 The Met implements this policy by maintaining documentation on every object within its collection and setting standard guidelines for environmental controls.

Creating Collections Management Policies and Procedures for Time-Based Media

Time-Based Media is a complex medium of artwork and these complexities, mentioned above, should be reflected throughout museum policies and procedures for collections management. The Collections Management Policies and Procedures listed in this section must be required of any museum which collects TBM to ensure the intricacies of caring for and exhibiting this medium of artwork are fully comprehended and best practices are always followed.


The point of acquisition is critical for TBM because the care and procedures of the acquisition process will dictate the future life and longevity of the media and the equipment.22 The proper information and equipment needs to be gathered in order to ensure the care of the physical and digital components of TBM, which would occur during the pre-acquisition and acquisition processes.

Matters in Media Art, a collective information resource from various museums on the care of media art, suggest pre-acquisition questions when acquiring TBM:

  1. What are the conceptual and technical elements of the work in order to provide authentic preservation of the objects?
  2. What equipment is included in the purchase or gift? What equipment does the museum need to purchase in addition to the equipment included, or if the equipment is not included?
  3. Is the required equipment significant to the work?
  4. What are the dimensions of the components and is there storage and/or exhibit space for the work?

Museums acquiring TBM works of art must be prepared to ask questions similar to the examples above, because the collecting of objects in this particular and complex medium “requires a proactive approach” for its care and management.23

Another factor to consider during the acquisition process, which must be reflected in CMPs and Procedures, is the condition of the Time-Based Media. According to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the condition of the objects must be reported based on its function and context. Documenting the “look and feel” of TBM during acquisition is accomplished via a video condition report.24 Cooper Hewitt admits this is not standard practice, but it should be commonplace within the museum sector. Condition reporting the objects with a video recording will allow the institution to properly report the condition of the media itself, not only the condition of the equipment. For example, when the media is viewed to guarantee it is running properly, capturing the video itself is dictating the future life of the objects.


The loaning of TBM to various institutions “provides an invaluable opportunity” to revise the documentation and knowledge of the museum’s collection.25 Matters in Media Art recommends asking the museum that wishes to borrow TBM the following two questions:

  1. Can the borrowing museum install, manage, and maintain the work?

  2. Is there an employee who is familiar with Time-Based Media and/or audio-visual technology for the installation?

Installation expertise, installation documentation, equipment lists, and exhibition formats of the TBM objects should be provided by the lending institution for the borrower.26 These documents ought to be included in CMPs and Procedures as requirements of the loan process due to their importance for the proper installation of TBM by borrowing institutions.

The installation documentation should detail the agreement which was created with the artist and their intent for the display of their TBM artwork. The artist’s beliefs surrounding the equipment and its significance to the artwork should be “recorded prior to loaning the object, and will guide the lender and borrower in honoring what is important for a good installation of the work.”27 Matters in Media Art recommends creating dialogue and documentation with the artist prior to the acquisition and loan of the work. They do not address the instances in which the artist’s input may no longer be available. The installation documentation should also clearly state how to install the equipment. If there are multiple ways to install the work, it must also be noted.

The equipment list and installation components must be written in standard terms by the lending museum, in case those who install the work are not familiar with TBM’s specific and complex terminology. For example: the media is on a DVD, the length of the video component is 60 minutes, the video is in black and white, and the video has sound. Along with the list of the installation components, the video condition report of the components is required. The video condition report allows the borrowing institution to experience the equipment and the media in order to compare it to how it is functioning and running during the installation. The “live document” of the work will “provide a basic framework to understand all of the elements required for a successful install and will maintain the integrity of the work.”28

The exhibition format of the media is lent to the borrowing institutions in most cases. For example, a copy a DVD would be sent on loan in place of the original, master DVD.29 It is important for the lending museum to be in contact with the artist, or artist’s foundation, during the loan process as well. The artist may need to oversee the copying of the media and it should be clearly stated and specified in the loan agreement, and in the Collections Management Procedures, which institutions will provide and pay for the materials for the creation of the copy. A policy and procedure is also required in the instance of a copy replacement during the exhibition at the borrowing museum. The documents should address whether copies will be made for each loan and how many copies will be sent to the borrower for the exhibition. Certain display forms of TBM can cause rapid deterioration, thus a need for the specific action steps outlined in a Collections Management Procedure.30

Preservation, Conservation, and Storage

An important consideration for TBM is the preservation, conservation, and storage of the physical and temporal equipment. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum defines digital preservation and conservation as the long-term care and storage of digital material.31 This area of study is highly specialized and requires knowledge of traditional conservation practices and a deep familiarity with the functions of technology. TBM software will “always be intertwined with external databases, web services, and operating systems,” and museums should either have the means to appropriately preserve the materials in-house or carefully choose the proper conservation laboratory to do so.32

Another factor to consider when acquiring TBM is how the museum will store the equipment and its media. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum believes the media needs to be stabilized via a disk image format because the digital storage of the media within a database is not a long-term solution. This can be accomplished by storing the media on an appropriate preservation format. They also recommend using a disk image, which is a data storage device, such as a hard drive or a USB flash drive. If the process of migrating the media to a hard drive is not completed in a timely manner, the equipment may begin to consist of rare or completely obsolete components. The process of migration also requires “material connoisseurship,” similar to conservation and preservation.33

Another storage necessity for technological equipment is the removal of electrolytic capacitors and batteries from the devices. The electrolytic capacitors, mentioned previously, can leak a gel which will erode the equipment and other objects. The museum should account for the extra storage space required for storing the components separately. Cooper Hewitt uses the recapping technique, which is the replacement of the electrolytic capacitor when TBM is exhibited. A CMP and Procedure would outline the proper and best practices, such as where and how to store the objects, for the ultimate care of TBM equipment.


The exhibition of TBM’s display equipment will eventually result in the failure and obsolescence of the components due to the continual operation of the equipment and the media.34 The significance of the equipment, discussed above, needs to be determined in order to discover if the value of the materials is greater than the function it serves in the work. This would be decided by the particular artist, the artist’s foundation, or the museum if there is no one to consult on the artwork and should be documented through a plan of action steps in the Collections Management Procedures. If the equipment is not significant to the TBM work, spare equipment can be used to substitute and replace the originals. CMPs and Procedures would benefit the museum in this situation because they will be more prepared if the equipment of TBM were to cease running or existing by collecting spare materials and ensuring the longevity of the artwork.

The Importance of Creating Policies and Procedures for Time-Based Media

Time-Based Media is a complex medium to acquire, loan, and exhibit in a museum. The need to have Collections Management Policies and Procedures is prevalent throughout the sections above. There are various situations and processes to consider when acquiring TBM and best practices are required in order to appropriately and correctly care for the objects. The objects must be fully materially understood by museum professionals before they are acquired or loaned.35

The Variable Media Network

The Variable Media Initiative was created by the Guggenheim Museum in 1999 to preserve media-based works: their efforts later formed the Variable Media Network. This “groundbreaking methodology” was one of the first that sought to define “acceptable levels of change within any given art object and documents [the] ways in which a work may be altered for the sake of preservation without losing that work’s essential meaning.”36 This process is initiated by analyzing the equipment independently from its medium, such as TBM. The Network strives for artists to partake in this process in order for the work to be converted to a different technology if the original format becomes obsolete. Therefore, the artists “must envision acceptable forms their work might take in new mediums, and to pass on guidelines for recasting” the work in its new form once the original has expired.37 Once the guidelines have been established by the artist, they should be readily available to the appropriate museum professionals and should be included in the Collections Management Procedure as an outside resource to reference. The Variable Media Network also defines the differences between reproduced and duplicated material for digital technology objects. If the material is reproduced, it is a copy of the original master of the artwork and can result in the loss of the quality of the image and/or sound. If the material is duplicated, it is a copy which will not result in differences from the original. The Variable Media Network explains definitive terms and overarching situations in order for museum professionals to better understand digital technology and the necessity for standards to exist for TBM.

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is one of many institutions with Time-Based Media works in their permanent collection. Over the last four years, the NPG has borrowed TBM works for various exhibitions as well. “Black Out,” one of their traveling exhibitions, contained a TBM work by Camille Utterback, which is not owned by the museum.38 The work consists of a hard drive, a projector, and a computer. At each venue during the exhibition, discretion was used by the borrowing museum to purchase the required equipment or tools to properly exhibit the work. The museum was also required to coordinate with Utterback to decide which equipment was needed for the work. The NPG also exhibited a show dedicated to Bill Viola, a prominent TBM artist. They exhibited works by Viola borrowed from the artist’s studio and private lenders. Some of the borrowed works arrived to the NPG on hard drives so the NPG had to buy a significant amount of equipment for this exhibit, such as adaptors, wires, hard drives, and computers. The loan agreement created in conjunction with the lending museum required the NPG to purchase and/or supply the proper equipment in order to borrow the artwork. The purchased equipment remains in the custody of the museum and is being reserved for a future exhibition focused on and showcasing TBM.

The NPG stores the TBM in their collection on a Digital Asset Management System (DAMS).39 If the NPG is lending one of their TBM works to another museum, they will provide the necessary equipment for the installation and exhibition. If the media or the equipment for a specific work is older in age, several issues arise for the artworks. There have been instances when the code needs to be replaced or parts of the equipment have become obsolete. The NPG strives to remain in contact and communication with the artist, or the owner of the work, to dictate which components of the TBM can or cannot be replaced.

The National Portrait Gallery is also determining the best way to condition report TBM. Currently, the Registrars complete condition reports on the physical components of the works and the Exhibition Specialist will view the media component and report any issues to the Registrars and Curator. Although the NPG does not have a specific CMP and Procedure for TBM, they have made strides in the digital technology and museum sector by hiring several professionals specialized in TBM, such as a conservator and a curator.

Why Now?

Because the collection and maintenance of digital objects is currently in its infancy stage, the best time to develop policies and procedures is now. If preservation and conservation practices have adapted to the materiality of Time-Based Media, why not the collection practices with its policies and procedures as well?40 Museums should create Collections Management Policies and Procedures which include TBM because action is required now to ensure its best possible care. In order to combat the arising problems of this medium, museums must create CMPs and Procedures in order to guarantee the necessary care required for TBM. If the museum wishes to collect an artwork of this type, they must ensure their facilities have the capability to expertly exhibit, preserve, and store the objects. These requirements should be expected of borrowing institutions as well and are also essential to the care of these objects. Time-Based Media requires maintenance, care, servicing, and repair similarly to other museum objects; but due to the intricacies of the medium and its risk of obsolescence, Time-Based Media necessitates an undivided attention because it waits for no one.


  1. “Designing the Future of Design.”
  2. Park, “The Materiality of the Immaterial.”
  3. Phillips, “Shifting Equipment Significance,” 139.
  4. Ibid
  5. “Designing the Future of Design.”
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Phillips, “Shifting Equipment Significance,” 141.
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid, 152
  11. Simmons, “Collections Management Policies,” 24.
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid, 26.
  14. “Developing a Collections Management Policy.”
  15. Ibid
  16. “Collections Management Policy.”
  17. “Developing a Collections Management Policy.”
  18. “Collections Management Policy.”
  19. “Developing a Collections Management Policy.”
  20. Speckart, “Collections Management.”
  21. “Collections Management Policy.”
  22. “Designing the Future of Design.”
  23. “Guidelines for the Care of Media Artworks.”
  24. “Designing the Future of Design.”
  25. “Guidelines for the Care of Media Artworks.”
  26. Ibid
  27. Ibid
  28. Ibid
  29. Ibid
  30. Ibid
  31. “Designing the Future of Design.”
  32. Ibid
  33. Ibid
  34. Ibid
  35. Park, “The Materiality of the Immaterial.”
  36. “The Variable Media Initiative.”
  37. Ibid
  38. Marissa Olivas, Email, September 24, 2019.
  39. Ibid
  40. Park, “The Materiality of the Immaterial.”