In this blog, I explore the weird, wonderful world of museums and GIFs and contemplate their future together.
Recently the United States National Archives began what may be an emerging trend in the evolution of digital technology use in museums: they launched their very own GIF channel. A visit to the channel is a fascinating if duplicitous experience. As some of the most important moments in U.S. history are brought instantly to life with the hover of the cursor, the visitor may feel at once moved and taken aback at its simultaneous power and goofiness. GIFs are very much the on-trend method of internet messaging expression in recent years, so the question must be asked: how are museums GIFing themselves, and are they going about it the right way?
Let us back up several paces for a moment, in the interest of leveling the playing field. A GIF, short for Graphic Interchange Format, is an image file format that is created via the compilation of several still shots of a scene, action or animation that are then bound together and played on a loop at a fairly fast speed, somewhat like a miniature digital flipbook. Here is an example from the National Archives. The file format was invented in 1987, and has exhibited such amazing potential to captivate its audiences that it remains as relevant and popular as the internet itself.
GIFs and museums have an interesting relationship that can be explored from several angles. An important point to keep in mind while traveling down the GIF wormhole is that many GIFs available online were created by a person who may consider them to be a work of art, or a design representational of their creative skills. There are, therefore, sites dedicated to the promulgation and sharing of GIFs that identify themselves as carefully curated digital GIF storehouses using the language of museums. GIFMuse is an excellent example.
To further complicate this museum-GIF history, many artists have begun to use the fairly antiquated image-creation medium as a new fine art genre, designing works that have been regularly exhibited in recent art shows. This fine art GIF movement has led many to question the platform’s feasibility as a valid space for artistic innovation, which is an entirely separate discussion in and of itself.
Nevertheless, the popularity of the simple yet effective GIF image file format remains, and cultural institutions have taken note. Regardless of whether or not museums fall into the ‘GIFs are art’ camp, several have seen its magical power to animate and entertain, and jumped on the bandwagon — although not in the way that GIF artists might like.
Harnessing a mix of creative marketing tactics and the growing museum interests of the Tumblr community, many museums successfully turned a portion of their most well-known works into GIFs with the help of their loyal digital followers in the early 2010s. Although in many cases the labor these followers performed was rewarded via a dedicated exhibition of the GIFs in the museum space, the moral implications of this use of public volunteer talent could be considered suspect.
GIFs have been given the autonomy they rightly deserve as an extraordinarily simple, succinct and effective form of information sharing. They are being given important roles in museum exhibitions that direct focus to the GIF as a form of film or photography. They are being used as a microcosm of the history of digital technology. They are being aggregated into subcategories, much like other visual and performing arts.
A part of this history is likely to cause discomfort: the relative invisibility of the artists and creators of these increasingly important GIFs. These carefully crafted microfilms are so easily shareable, it’s often hard to know their true source. One could also say such things about most of the images accessible via internet search engine, although in recent years, image reproduction and reuse rights have become a major focus of internet 2.0.
Will there be a time when an exhibition displays GIFs with full artist credit alongside paintings and sculptures? Will the time come when GIF animators are lauded for their work just as photographers and graphic designers are currently? Who should fight for these creative contributors to the digital community? Given their long flirtation with one another, perhaps we should be looking to museums for the answer.
Featured image courtesy of the US National Archives.
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