Case Study
door Simone Vermaat

For the last few decades museums have been collecting installation art works produced with non-traditional materials and media, such as video, film, computers, light and sound. The conservation of these works raises numerous questions. The rapid outdating of media technologies, interactivity, and the site-specific character of installations present a challenge to commonly accepted views on long-term conservation, documentation and presentation. Relatively little research has been conducted in this field, and the problems demand a very specific approach in comparison with traditional forms of art. Authenticity and outdating, artistic intention, and interpretation are important factors which play a role in decision-making on conservation measures. Setting up an installation satisfactorily requires in-depth insight into the artist's working method, collaboration with technical specialists and intentions, and the significance of the materials and techniques.

Conservation of conceptual art or kinetic art, for example, is becoming increasingly common in museums, but there are no guidelines or manuals as to how it should be done. It is very important that methods and ethical views should be developed specifically for the conservation of modern art. Conservation goes much further than simply preserving the physical object; in fact, for installation art simple preservation may even be fatal. Unlike kinetic art, installations are often not self-destructive, but due to the use of widely varying media technologies installations are just as perishable.

A museum that wants to present its installations again after a few years, let alone decades, of preservation, should be prepared for a severe disappointment. Without instructions, without accurate registration and with outdated equipment, re-installation can prove to be a huge puzzle. In 2002 the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN) and the Netherlands Media Art Institute conducted a joint study of a puzzle of this kind: the re-installation of a complex multimedia installation called 'Virus of Sadness' by the Dutch artist Lydia Schouten. The objective of this study was to compile a list of the specific problems involved in the documentation, registration, conservation and presentation of installations. The results of the study and a subsequent expert meeting led to a plan for an international and interdisciplinary project.