Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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It was only ten years ago – bringing back to life content from an old website

March 22nd, 2010 by Seb Chan

Ten years ago, one of the first digital projects I had the privilege of working on in a very junior capacity was for the exhibition 1000 Years of the Olympic Games: Treasures of Ancient Greece. Timed to coincide with the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, the heavily sponsored digital component included a virtual reconstruction of Ancient Olympia which was available in 3D (with polarising glasses) in the gallery as well as in 2D online alongside a huge amount of supporting material. A little later there was even a CDROM version (remember them?) that was sent out to schools across the country.

One of the early works by Sarah Kenderdine, now at Museum Victoria, the project was amazing for its time and went on to win awards and a BAFTA nomination.

Up until about 2005 the Powerhouse managed to keep the server that the online component was running on alive. It was built on rudimentary ASP, lots of Flash, some Quicktime VRs, and critically required Zoom Image Server to serve the detailed panoramic images in the FlashPix format. Unfortunately as time passed the ability to keep the site running with all of its content intact diminished and in 2007 we had to turn the whole site off. By 2007 we’d migrated other FlashPix (FPX) content over to Zoomify and the Greek site was the only remnant using the technology and it with server upgrades the older version eventually just stopped working.

After it was switched off the historians, digital archaeologists and museum studies people who used the site as a reference or teaching aid started making contact wondering when the site would come back. Even 7 years after launch it still had a dedicated audience.

So last year we dug up one of the last remaining archival copies of the CDROM and ripped it. We were about to release it as a free downloadable ISO image file – except that when we tested it we found even it had started causing problems on Windows Vista. And of course, back in 2000, no one had seriously considered making a Mac-compatible version.

So we gave up and finally just ripped the videos and the educational PDFs from the CDROM version and popped them up on Vimeo with a basic backgrounder page.

It isn’t the most elegant solution and it is more than a little troubling to think that here’s something that cost a lot of money to make – a mere ten years ago – and only a tiny fragment of it remains usable.

Could we have made better technology choices that would have enabled more effective digital preservation?

Looking back I’m not so sure.

The key components of the site that made it so engaging and bleeding edge at the time didn’t have many (if any) alternatives. Although we’re travelling a much more platform agnostic path at the backend nowadays there’s still many early adopter technologies that we’re experimenting that almost certainly won’t work 5 years from now.

Should we be more vanilla and hold back? Or take calculated risks that some content won’t be able to be preserved?

If you’re interested in seeing what the future was like 10 years ago take a look at some of the videos that took a university render farm days to render . . .

Tags: 6 Comments

  • It seems like a good compromise to get the meat of it out there. Thanks for sharing the case study.

  • Hi Seb
    Here at State Records in formulating our plans for a digital State archive we have grappled with these very issues.
    We certainly advise government agencies to use open standards and avoid keeping information in proprietary formats where possible & there are good techniques like normalisation (using tools like Xena) that work well for preserving documentary type stuff, but of course government creates lots of complex records like GIS or even boring old Microsoft Project – if not that many 3D reconstructions of ancient Olympia!
    It’s tricky advising these agencies on suitable preservation techniques and working out what we will do if they are transferred to us as archives. But you can’t tell government to stop being innovative with technology just because it’s tricky to preserve. Happily, digital preservation is a constantly evolving beast so part of our approach will be to remain flexible and test and try new techniques as they emerge.
    Cheers
    Cassie

  • Thanks for the thoughts on this, Seb. We have the same kind of things going on around here as well. I would probably tend to be of the vanilla promoting type (on a totally personal level), but one certainly can’t ignore how many opportunities could be missed if you don’t take that risk. Or maybe we should all invest in hiring seers ;-)

  • Julian Melville

    Yep, I’ve wondered a few times about where I would start trying to recover content authored in Director on Macs in the mid-90’s. We had enough trouble moving between minor versions of the authoring software, let alone trying to get it working now!

    I suppose one thing is to keep archives of the source material for these types of projects, as often that might be in a more accessible format.

  • Great case study, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately with all of my early university multimedia projects slowly becoming more and more incompatible with current technology.

  • CWhite

    Seb, your experience is not new. The Interactives department spent hundreds of hours and creating interactives for PHM on formats thats are nolonger available – commodore amiga’s, Apple 2e’s etc. The historical content now not accessible – images of Charles Kerry’s Sydney in 1890 and rephotographed in the 1990’s, I think it was call Sydney Then and Now. I sure the images are archived individually but the interactive content is lost. An interesting dilemma that doesn’t appear to have an answer.