Robin Wright

Robin Wright

Last updated on 30 January 2024

The Born Digital Cultural Heritage Now #BDCH23 conference was held at ACMI in Melbourne, Australia from 29 Nov to 1 Dec 2023. It was a forum for researchers, practitioners, artists, historians, cultural theorists, and industry professionals to discuss the challenges of collecting, preserving, and accessing born digital cultural heritage material. Much born digital cultural heritage material such as media art, video games, web content, discussion forum and bulletin board posts, architectural documentation and other digital data created over the last twenty to thirty years is no longer accessible. This is the result of a range of technical and non-technical issues including hardware and software obsolescence, media deterioration, content abandonment, institutional and business decisions, archival practices, legal restrictions, and cultural and audience changes. The #BDCH23 conference focused on how these issues are being addressed in different contexts and the impact this loss on our culture and society.

The #BDCH23 conference was the third event in the Born Digital Cultural Heritage series arising from the ARC funded projects Play it Again: Preserving Australian Video Game History of the 1990s and Archiving Australian Media Arts: Towards a method and a national collection It brought together academics and practitioners from across the world to consider issues around born-digital cultural heritage from a range of disciplinary perspectives.

The keynote speakers at the event included: Melanie Swalwell, Professor of Digital Media Heritage at Swinburne University of Technology speaking on Research Consortia in Digital Heritage Research: The ‘Archiving Australian Media Arts’ Project and Beyond; Sean Cubitt, Professor of Screen Studies, University of Melbourne who spoke about Emulation and Infrastructure and Dragan Espenschied, Preservation Director at Rhizome whose talk was titled Software is Stuff Unlike Any Other. The full program is available at and abstracts for the presentations by all speakers are at

One of the key themes that arose from the various presentations included the impact of different cultures, business and legal structures, and collecting histories in various parts of the world on attempts to preserve and provide access to born digital material. Each situation required different approaches. Also, even though some born digital material is no longer accessible due to technological evolution, much contemporary business information is now being moved to the ‘cloud’ with little consideration of its long-term availability. Speakers from the GLAM sector discussed the difficulties arising from the collection and planning for long-term access to historical media art and video games held on floppy disks and the evolving challenges of using AI and emulation to help with providing access to this material. One of the issues that arose was the importance of documenting how preservation and access is being done in the contemporary environment to provide information for those who will work with the material in the future. Sean Cubitt spoke about the ethics of archiving and the impact of current decisions about what to preserve or exclude. He noted that ‘everything digital is subject to loss’ and that we will only know what the archive will have meant in time to come. For example, the archival life of a film is no longer about the original object but becomes an ‘evolving digital file that preserves various states of decay’. And what are the lost affordances when for example software changes.

Representatives from GLAM organizations spoke about the importance of speaking with artists’ collaborators and having ongoing relationships with software developers to ensure future access to digital material. This brought up questions about the repair, reconstruction and restoration of digital artworks and the value of keeping versions currently not readable which may potentially be recoverable in the future. Asti Sherring from the Australian National Museum discussed artworks with dynamic properties and how exhibiting institutions can become part of the story of an object and possibly a co-creator. Katherine Mitchell from the V&A in London spoke about how their 2009/10 exhibition Decode explored the degradation of software-based art and recorded the latent history of software failure and the difference between the aspiration of conservation for material objects and the ephemeral nature of ‘unruly digital objects’. Every instance of software failure in the exhibition required staff to make socially embedded and mutable decisions, which were recorded, revealing the otherwise hidden effects of museum policy and the broader failure of the overall ‘Modernist’ project of the museum.

The final afternoon included a panel session on Information Futures with Patrick McIntyre, CEO of the NFSA, Seb Chan, CEO and Director of ACMI and Professor Melanie Swalwell discussing how to meet the future challenges of digital preservation for born digital material. The discussion included the problems of exhibiting screen-based games where the experiential narrative is different depending on players and therefore can’t be easily preserved. What assets will institutions need to collect to be able to re-create new versions of these games in the future? There was also discussion around the impact of the end of the current era of ‘search’ technologies. AI searching relies on plausibility instead of branching structures, with searches on our phone already informed by the context and this may produce fundamentally different ways for institutions to provide access.

Overall, the event revealed the complexity of future born digital archiving and the expanding list of challenges facing organizations dealing with this content. There are difficulties finding staff with necessary skills, different ideas about what is an object, finding new ways to connect acquisition, preservation and access, and the need for digital literacy and storytelling skills. A collection of complex digital objects is now a collective enterprise. The requirements for collecting and preserving born digital cultural heritage are becoming better understood, but as technologies continue to change, there will be ongoing challenges for all of those engaged in the attempt.


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