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Conserving the Future

March 20th, 2013

Conserving the Future: Determining Significance in the Digital Age

Caitlin Zant

            The issue of conserving digital material is a subject that does not seem imperative to today’s discussions on the ethics of conservation, but in our digital world as more media and data is stored in digital formats, ethical and interpretative questions must begin to be discussed. Along with the basic methodological issues surrounding digital media and data stored in “the cloud”, conservators must begin to discuss possible interpretive issues that will present themselves in the future. All of these questions and issues boil down to one basic question: How do future conservators determine significance in digital media?

            Today, conservators have to discuss the issue of significance and determine the importance of an object of material culture before beginning the process of cleaning and restoring/preserving and artifact. This helps determine the order in which objects are conserved. Essentially, conservators have to determine which objects are “high priority” and why. Besides these initial details, other questions have to be asked in order to determine this: What academic values does an object have? What cultural value does it have? Who is funding your efforts, and what are their motives for conservation? These questions, along with many more, must be asked when beginning the process of conservation (Nason, 1987). How then, do these questions and issues transfer to the future of conservation in a digital age?

            While many of these beginning steps in the process of conservation will most likely still be relevant, many more questions will certainly arise. Our world today is so digitally geared, the sheet volume and digital information available to future conservators will likely be overwhelming. Today, everyone has access to an infinite amount of digital media. With Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, wikis, and discussion boards on line, information is shared across the internet at an incredible rate. Anyone and everyone can post information online or store information on USB drives, in “the cloud”, and in any other type of digital media. When attempting to determine significance, how does the conservator gather an idea of what is important to conserve? Today, we do not consider what someone shares on Facebook important or significant information, but would this type of information be considered important pieces of cultural heritage to our future society? 

            This brings up the question: what is cultural heritage? Since we are moving into an increasingly digital world, not only will important government documents be saved for archivists, but it is possible that information produced by the masses will be available for conservators to preserve. This brings an exciting thought to the future of conservation. If a methodology for preserving this digital media is developed, it is potentially possible for future conservators to gain a better understanding of our cultural identity.

            Today we rely on objects and artifacts that have survived intact enough to provide information about societies of the past, but many times, these objects can skew our perceptions of the past. Conservators can only work with what they are able to conserve, and researchers use these objects to interpret certain sites or societies of the past. Because of the degradation of different materials, some objects are not preserved enough to even show a record of existing (Caple, 2003). Without these artifacts, certain areas of a society’s cultural heritage cannot be preserved; a true picture of the society as it actually existed cannot be determined. In the future, with the sheer amount of digital information being stored today, future conservators potentially have the opportunity to gain a more complete understanding of our cultural heritage than we have of many of the societies that have come before us. This also demonstrates the importance of determining significance of digital media. In order to make conservation of digital media manageable, a method of determining significance must be addressed.

            While similar to questions today’s conservators face, future conservators will have to face an entirely new realm of ethical issues, and questions revolving around determining the significance of digital information in order to begin conserving it. Though these issues do not seem very significant today, these are questions that will have to be answered in the near future. Although this article asks more questions than it answers, it brings to light questions and concerns that will need to be breached in the future. Maybe today we will not answer these questions; maybe we cannot yet. Regardless, as a community, conservators will have to discuss these questions soon. In one hundred years, what really will be left for our digital conservators to conserve? Will it give them an accurate picture of our world today?


Caple, C, (2003). Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.

Nason, J., (1987). “The Determination of Significance”. In: Material Anthropology, pp. 47-51.

“Saving Our Data from Digital Decay” (2010). ScienceDaily. Nov. 23, 2010. Accessed Feb. 19, 2013. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101116072749.htm>.


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