Art and GLAM: Promoting Creative Uses of Archives

By Zach Coble

Interactive image by Dan Oved and Camilla Padgitt-Coles.

Zach Coble is a 2018 graduate of ITP and works at NYU Libraries as the Head of Digital Scholarship Services.


Sketch by Dan Oved

GLAM is the alluring acronym referring to complimentary work performed by galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. Also called cultural heritage organizations, these groups have a fundamental role in society as stewards of our cultural record. While there are important differences between them – for instance, libraries prioritize access to information while archives seek to preserve it, and museums want visitors to engage with collections while galleries want visitors to buy them – there are many fundamental similarities guiding their missions and work. Unsurprisingly, artists have long taken an interest in GLAM organizations, whether as a muse or as an object of critical inquiry. While much important work has resulted from this, it is crucial to understand the complex, interdependent components of cultural heritage work. This article surveys past creative work in the GLAM world and summarizes some of these core functions as a bridge to discussing how technological changes have presented new challenges and opportunities for artists seeking to engage with cultural heritage organizations.

The Archival Turn

Many artists have engaged with cultural heritage materials in recent years, a trend which has been called the archival turn. It is worth noting that while the term “archive” has become a term of art in these conversations, it is used broadly and encompasses the work of libraries, museums, and galleries as well. There are complex motivations behind these pursuits. Jacques Derrida’s 1995 book, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, and Hal Foster’s 2004 article, “An Archival Impulse,” were especially persuasive in describing the allure of archives and in charting the philosophical and cultural map that many artists sought to navigate while engaging with “the archive.” These authors, and many others, argued that in a capitalistic society where material goods rapidly accumulate, it can be difficult to determine what is important and what is not. Archives, in comparison, have been curated and have the appearance of authenticity and authority. In a world of information overload, they have meaning and value. Thus, the activities associated with archiving – collecting, organizing, and presenting documents – became appealing to artists as a way of processing a complicated world. The act of curation became an artistic gesture. In this light, the artist can be selective and both project meaning onto and extract insights from the archive while also fulfilling what Derrida calls the western impulse to search for beginnings.

While there is much that can be illuminated by artists seeking inspiration, source material, and sites of intervention in archives, it is a delicate process to calibrate the lens of the artist with the rich history of theory and practice of a different profession. Before calling a collection of documents an archive or adopting the identity of an archivist, it is important to develop a nuanced understanding of the professional training, theory, and praxis that informs their work. If a digital archive disappears a year after it was created because the artist has moved on to a new project and the web hosting fees were not renewed, was it really an archive? Similarly, an archive does not necessarily need to conform to guidelines for provenance or respect des fonds, but the artist should understand these concepts and be able to explain why these standard practices are not being followed. To ignore these issues or to gloss over them lightly is insincere and potentially problematic.

To be clear, the pollination of artists in archives, and cultural heritage organizations in general, has produced real benefits. Creative works using archival documents, whether by modifying them or placing them in a new context, has brought fresh perspectives and given works new meaning. Many of the formative art movements of the twentieth century, such as Dada, Constructivism, and Surrealism, drew from archives to successfully challenge long-held beliefs of vision and time. This practice has evolved alongside changing media technologies, as seen in contemporary artists such as Susan Hiller and Walid Raad , to use archives as a mechanism to question the objectivity and objectification of institutions and historical progress. Indeed, artists have been instrumental in raising vital questions about what can be archived and what cannot (e.g. ideas, thoughts), as well as structural questions about what an archive is, how it is created and by whom, and how these power dynamics conflict with notions of authority and authenticity.

Core Functions of Cultural Heritage Organization

Given the complicated nature of GLAM work alluded to above, it will be helpful to provide more context for some of the core activities involved in the stewardship of cultural heritage materials. While this summary is necessarily brief, it is intended to provide a better understanding of how these organizations function. As such, there are many activities involved in stewardship and I will group them into four categories, with a particular focus on their application in digital environments: acquisition and appraisal, description, discovery and access, and preservation.

Acquisition and Appraisal

Acquisition and appraisal involves the policies and practices that go into building a collection. It is impossible to include everything in a collection, so organizations need some way inform their material purchasing decisions. It is common for libraries, archives, and museums to create collection development policies, which provide guidelines to help staff in making purchasing decisions and also help articulate how the selection of an item serves to fulfill the organization’s overall mission. 

Materials are increasingly acquired in born-digital formats, despite the fact that there are not yet scalable and sustainable approaches for the stewardship of these items (e.g. digital preservation and metadata creation). Additionally, born-digital content is often licensed by a third party and not directly owned by the GLAM organization, which creates restrictions on how users can access and use these materials.


After an item has been purchased (or licensed) and before a user can search for it in the catalog, it must first be described, with metadata. Describing resources is a technical and sometimes bewildering process, but absolutely essential if users are to find the information they need. Cataloging is the process of creating metadata to describe what an item is and how it can be used, and includes providing standard information like title, author, and subject, but is frequently extended to a seemingly endless degree. For example, if describing a geospatial data set, you might want to provide information about its format (is it an SQL database or a CSV spreadsheet?), its size (1MB or 10MB? 1,000 rows or 1 million rows?), and related materials (are there corresponding shape or layer files?). This data is described using metadata standards that often resemble a computer language so that the data is machine readable and can be scaled, which creates a standardized way for users to instantly search across all items in a collection.

Discovery and Access

The patron finally enters the picture when they search the online catalog for an item or information on a given topic. The success of the search is dependent on the underlying metadata, since that is what is actually being searched. Once an item is discovered, it needs to be accessed, which triggers a new set of questions. If a user wants to access a video, do they need to go to the stacks to retrieve the physical item? Or is it available digitally? If so, is it on a streaming server to view in the browser, or do they first need to download the file locally? If the latter, which codecs are required?


Finally, in order for materials to be discoverable and accessible in the future, they must be preserved. Preservation involves a range of activities, including environmental control (storing items in facilities with low temperature and humidity), conservation (the repair of items to slow decay), disaster preparedness, and reformatting. While the book as a technology has proven to be a resilient form – the Gutenberg Bible is still readable some 500 years later – preserving digital items has an entirely different set of challenges. For instance, how do you ensure that a game made using Adobe Flash is still playable 100 years from now, or even today? One approach is bit-level preservation, or preserving the underlying “bits” of code that comprise the game files. This, however, does not solve the problem of access once Flash is completely obsolete, and so another approach is forward migration. This involves converting the Flash game to new hardware and software environments that are currently usable. Forward migration is ongoing and resource intensive work, and also requires the game to be reformatted to a new language, thus losing some of the game’s original essence. One other approach is emulation, which is hardware or software that replicates older computing environments. Thus, one could build a Flash emulator that runs on modern operating systems (or in modern browsers) and allows the Flash game to be played as it was originally intended.

These four categories are intended to highlight some of the core functions of GLAM organizations. In general, cultural heritage organizations are notoriously under-resourced, and each institution must decide how to allocate limited resources to best support the unique needs of their user community within the context of their organizational culture and priorities.

Digital Cultural Heritage Data

Having given some context to previous inquiries by artists into archives and outlining some of the latter’s core functions, let us now turn to current trends and issues in the emerging field of digital cultural heritage data and some of the opportunities for collaboration.

Digital cultural heritage data includes both material that has been digitized as well as born-digital content. Digitized material includes items that were originally produced in analog form and were subsequently converted to a digital format. This includes projects such as Google Books, which partnered with several university libraries to digitize approximately 25 million books, and, a popular genealogy database licensed by many libraries that turned centuries of birth, marriage, and death records into a searchable database. Increasingly, cultural heritage data is born-digital, meaning it was originally produced in a digital format. Examples include Rhizome’s ArtBase, a collection of digital art including works from the early days of the internet, and an archive that accessions a contemporary author’s papers in the form of hard drives.

As cultural heritage organizations continue to adapt to shifts in technology, new opportunities are emerging for artists to engage with this material. Many archives and museums now include digital representations of their collections online. In 2017 the Met Museum released over 350,000 images and the corresponding metadata into the public domain using a Creative Commons Zero license, meaning that anyone can use this material in any way they want. This is an extensive body of work and a great opportunity to find inspiration or to create derivative works using the Met’s collections. Similarly, the Open Geoportal (OGP) is a collaborative effort among several universities to streamline access to geospatial data. Maps are commonly used in data visualization and storytelling creative works, and the OGP project seeks to provide a centralized search interface for such data and also to make as much of this data as openly accessible as possible. Similarly, a group of GLAM professionals are working under the umbrella of Collections as Data to develop best practices for acquiring, describing, preserving, and providing access to digital cultural heritage data. As researchers in several fields, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, linguistics, and digital humanities, are increasingly asking for large scale textual corpora for model training, many organizations are racing to fill this need. These same corpora can be recontextualized for creative projects, such as Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne’s use of the Enron email corpus in their project, The Good Life.

Socially engaged art and activism is another area where artists can engage with digital cultural heritage data in meaningful and ethical ways. Rising out of the response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the DocNow project, a collaboration among librarians, archivists, and other academics, is developing tools to document social media responses to political and social movements. The DocNow team has taken considered efforts to incorporate ethical viewpoints into the technical tools, including protections to prevent their archives from becoming a tool for police surveillance. Similarly, the team is also allowing individuals represented in the archive to be removed from the collection. In the heat of the moment at a protest that has suddenly turned violent, most people are not thinking about the long-term posterity of a tweet in an academic archive. DocNow has decided that individuals should have the ability to remove content that is potentially incriminating or simply embarrassing to look at years later. This project serves as an excellent model for socially engaged artists interested in the moral and ethical implications of digital cultural heritage data.

There are also opportunities for artists to collaborate at a more personal level. As stewards of cultural material, and often at taxpayer-funded organizations, cultural heritage workers are especially attentive and receptive to user needs. If you are interested in undertaking a creative project using archives, why not invite an archivist to participate in the project or to advise as a consultant? If there are collections you would like to see acquired, services to be offered, or spaces to be made accessible, let them know. Be proactive and have a voice; after all, this is your culture, too.


  • Always Already Computational - Collections as Data. Always Already Computational - Collections as Data. 2018
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  • Tate Papers no.9. Spring 2008.
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  • Documenting the Now Project. Documenting the Now Project, 2018.
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  • OpenGeoportal. OpenGeoportal, 2017.
  • Raad, Walid. The Atlas Group Archive. 2007.
  • Tallon, Loic. "Introducing Open Access at The Met." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 7, 2017.