The Digital Dark Age is Coming


How Technological Progression is Hitting Archiving Hard

Martin Franklin


Sitting in a dusty corner of an office next to the ominous MI6 building in London is a filing cabinet containing 50 years of the photographic history of the world as seen through the eyes of the musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The first western orchestra to cross the Iron Curtain to perform in Russia during the Cold War era in 1956, their first orchestral tour to China, views of the streets of New York in 1970 as the musicians visit a revered instrument-maker’s shop. Moments in time, people and places all now gone or changed, never to return.


Changes in Photographic Documentation

You’d probably assume that the 50 year span covered by this archive would be from the current date backwards; we’re now in an era where everyone has a camera in their pocket, right? But my research into the collection uncovered a disturbing reality – as we enter the digital age, from the 1990s, the items change in their nature and format from accessible, beautiful prints of social photography from the 50s to 70s, into harder-to-view slides, PR shoots, then transparencies, to… nothing. There is no contemporary collection of social photography cataloguing the life and times of this modern global performing orchestra.

This history exists, but as files uploaded to a multitude of Facebook timelines, still lurking on cast off mobile phones, casually tweeted or posted to Instagram accounts, scattered across chaotic networked drives.

It gets more complicated with other media. When trying to retrieve master copies of historic audio recordings they arrived back from the replication plant in Germany on Exabyte tape. Ever heard of Exabyte? No? Our audio mastering experts laughed and told me they threw out their last player capable of turning this back into audible form a decade ago.

Let’s not even get started on the minefield of video formats – DigiBeta, DVCam, Umatic, miniDV, Betamax – and then the once popular, but now redundant codecs that this video may have been encoded  into (if you’re lucky).

This situation is by no means rare in cultural organisations. Even the BBC has more analogue reels in their archive than the playheads of the last remaining players would be able to cope with for digitising. Our shared, recorded history will be lost however you look at it. Only the moments chosen by curators will be passed on – you’ll get Lady Di’s wedding and the London Olympics but you won’t get the Battle of the Beanfield or anti-Iraq-war protests.

The dark age is coming. History will be lost to us.


Archiving Practice in Today’s Businesses

In business, learning and evidence is important because all information can be used to improve the bottom line, develop skills and create new value or compelling products. So, what happens to culture organisations, the custodians of shared experience and social expression, with no means to preserve media records? What happens when they don’t remember what they did a decade ago, let alone 50 years in the past?

Our shared history is lost by a structure that exhibits a kind of cultural Alzheimers. The ability to learn and grow impaired by management focus on survival in the Now.

The systems of collecting and preserving archives are very much in the hands of the new breed of digitally savvy archivists and curators employed by major museums and galleries.

My own small archive project has been squeezed into snatched moments during the course of a busy year where I went through the process of starting a relationship with the Google Cultural Institute (GCI). Part of Google’s altruistic programme to digitise and share valuable information, the GCI hosts a vast store of high resolution media and shares it online via each organisation’s curated exhibits.

Accessing the ephemeral 21st century archive still presents a problem, but we have collected a few key moments in time. We can now present a London that is getting back on its feet after World War 2 and emerging back into the world with its cultural voice intact. The London Philharmonic Orchestra journeyed to Moscow and St Petersburg in 1956 and continued to cross borders to China and the USA through the 1970s and up to this date. (Our first tour to Japan takes place this September).

The London Philharmonic Orchestra can be found on the Google Cultural Institute here.


Featured image (B&W): Colin Busby


martin franklin

Martin Franklin

Martin is the Digital Projects Manager at London Philharmonic Orchestra. He brings with him over 20 years experience in leading digital innovation in the arts and culture sector, and a background in audio and media arts.

In 2006 he founded the Digital Media Centre, devised the first gamified mobile app for Oxford Dance Festival and created the international recruitment event, “Virtual Open Day” for The Place/London Contemporary Dance School. He was a founder of the Digital Berkshire business network.

He has hosted a decade of conferences on sonic arts, community radio, digital performance; trained hundreds of people in production and authoring skills – and podcasted everything.

Author: Naomi Curston

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