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More News from the Future–Today

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Next in our series of “tomorrow’s news today”—this article from the New York Times about the National Geographic Society’s archives plan to sell its original black and white prints, and, later color photographs. While the initial sale taking place now in New York includes only 150 prints, Maura Mulvihill, VP of the society’s image collection and sales, is quoted as saying that National Geographic has “decided to hold nothing of that collection back if the right buyers were interested.”

Evidently, it’s difficult to paint too bleak a picture of the future. In the forecasting game Superstruct, players envisioned the future of museums in 2019. One of the predictions was:

“Some archives, after creating electronic copies, are auctioning off original documents, both to build their endowments to support basic operations and because they cannot provide adequate security in the face of escalating theft. This has created enormous tension between the economics savings of going digital, and the unique strength of museums as purveyors of authentic experience and guardians of the real.”

Interestingly enough, society does not cite financial distress as an impetus for the sale. The article implies that its motivation is altruistic—making the collection more accessible to the public. Noting what a pity it is that many of their 11 million images have only been seen by the society’s archivist, the society decided to “open up the holdings to the fine art market” with the goal of “find(ing) a way to get it out into the world.”

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Does this mean this resource, which Mulvihill describes as “vast and amazing,” will be lost to the public and to researchers? Not to worry—the society is digitizing their images, which they note has “cleared the way” for them to sell the originals. (Note the jury is still out on how long digital images will last, not to mention the ongoing an escalating costs of migrating digital files to new formats over time so that they can still be read.)

And to answer the question that museum professionals will inevitably raise—revenue of the sales, the article says, will “support the overall mission of the society.”

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1 Comment

  1. I'm not sure I see an actual problem here. The article notes that they are preserving slides and negatives. Strictly speaking, prints are not originals, in some ways, prints can be thought of as pre-digital digitizations. Considering that the increasing bulk of their archives is purely digital, the preservation of the digitization of the early work is a minor added concern.

    The interesting concern for the future of museums is that this situation points to a future where museums will more often have to decide whether pure data or the physical object holding it is the accessionable object matching the mission (or possibly even the file system metadata in between). Very interesting in this case is that National Geographic does not consider the provenance of having been produced by them sufficient reason to hold on to something.

    As an aside, I am getting progressively more convinced that some of the attitudes toward deaccessioning — such as the fear of objects going to private collectors and particularly that funds raised should only go back toward collections — are among the great misdirections of the field.

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