Curating The Intangible

by Jessie Roberts

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The iPad app Planetary, as visualized above, “turns exploring your music collection into a sci-fi adventure — albums are turned into planets, which orbit around suns representing artists.”  The Smithsonian’s National Design Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, recently acquired the app as well as its source code, marking “the museum’s first foray into intangible items”:

“The impetus for the acquisition,” says Sebastian Chan, Cooper-Hewitt’s director of digital and emerging media, “is that software has become one of the most significant arenas of design.” Code, the underpinning of any app, may be digital and insubstantial; you can’t touch it. Yet we interact with apps daily and their design affects our behavior.  …

Cooper-Hewitt curators plan to create a new version of Planetary containing information on the museum’s 217,000 artifacts. A majority of the holdings are in storage, about half of which are viewable as images on the museum’s website. Chan foresees Planetary as a tool allowing visitors virtual access to the entire collection.

Andrew Webster elaborates:

This is the first time the museum has acquired a piece of code, and it has also worked with the original creators to make the source code available to everyone, in an attempt to preserve software as if it was a living thing. … The museum hopes that the decision to add both the software and the code to its collection will not only help with issues of preservation, but also potentially change the way similar institutions view software in general. “We liken this situation to that of a specimen in a zoo,” says Chan. “Open sourcing the code is akin to a panda-breeding program.”