Powering the Cooper Hewitt: An energy-efficient framework for the future of open collections, collaborative exhibitions and community participation

Samir Bhowmik, Media Lab Aalto University, Finland

Building Open Access to museum collections is energy consuming. “Opening up” involves not only behind-the-scenes mass digitization of artifacts, adding metadata, customizing for publishing online, but also the digital and physical infrastructure of the museum. Additionally, a steady maintenance of “Cloud” collections hosted in high energy-use Data Centers becomes an absolute requirement for dynamic availability online at the cost of energy-efficiency. The swift evolution of digital technology in hardware, software and storage systems also implies a steady monetary and energy investment in upgrading infrastructures. This, to maintain ongoing accessibility to the museum collections and to ward off in-built digital obsolescence. All such initiatives necessitate a parallel and relentless enhancing of the digital and physical infrastructure of the museum. On the human resources level, salaried conservation experts undertaking digitization of a museum’s collections is time-consuming. Translated into wages, it is expensive for smaller museums and cultural institutions to digitize and “Open-up” their collections. It also becomes necessary to quantify the benefits to a museum’s audience and the institution itself to justify the large budgets dedicated to energy-intensive digital infrastructures. The price of Open Access thus, comes at a considerable cost to both cultural institutions and tax-payers and has a substantial carbon-footprint. This paper investigates a sustainable framework for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. It examines the energy-efficiency of its digital infrastructure, its “energy-smart” collections, the transformation of its physical museum building into a “green” museum, and how all this translates into a sustainable “Openness” for the museum’s audience and user communities.

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