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A Year of Digital Strategization for Building a Digitization Strategy

Since March 2019 when I started at Street Art Museum Amsterdam, the museum has been busy researching and experimenting with options to develop a digitization strategy to preserve its collection between now and 2020. As museums everywhere scramble to digitize, stay relevant, and increase accessibility to their collections, Street Art Museum Amsterdam is, likewise, striving to produce new and original content which keeps the collection outside the white cube in novel ways, for purposes of heritage and archival research, and enjoyment for everyone. At the end of nearly a year of research and experimentation, we have formulated a coherent and consistent way to preserve the collection before it is destroyed by gentrification initiatives over the next five years.

There are, of course, several perspectives on how to document and preserve street art, not all of which are in line with the movement’s true ethics and intent. Recently, for example, on November 7th, 2019, Street Art Museum Amsterdam was invited to Kempering garage in Bijlmer to offer consultancy along with heritage specialists, a group of residents, officials and employees of Imagine IC, for preliminary inspections and discussions about the future of the building. The parking garage was an important building of the original, and at the time super-modern urban development plan of the Bijlmermeer. The building has undergone alterations from its original form over the years and it is now in a derelict state. The meeting took place with the purpose to gather stakeholders to discuss the importance of the building and what in it should be further studied, documented and/or physically preserved, in order to save the memory of the building and the dynamics that it houses.


Some consultants suggested preserving everything in the garage; others suggested tearing certain walls out of the garage and rehousing them in museums -- obviously an incredibly costly, time-consuming, and environmentally damaging option. Others suggested making facsimilies of the graffiti and, once again, isolating them from their street settings behind closed museum doors. Both of these preservation strategies essentially contradict street art's fundamental character by isolating street art and graffiti from its intended setting, with or without consent of its creator, and charging admission to view it, rather than allowing free public access to it.

At SAMA we believe that Street Art and graffiti are essentially temporary and connected to the location in which they are created. Therefore, we advised that the garage itself has meaningful heritage value, taking into account the graffiti and street art existent on it, as a place where these artistic practices were possible and frequent, being a ‘safe’ space to do graffiti in a city like Amsterdam, where there are very few spaces where Street and Graffiti artists can paint legally. SAMA does not believe that physically preserving the graffiti throughout the building is not significant from a heritage perspective, but rather that documenting the connection between these pieces and the existent environment -- such as the temporary and makeshift housing created by the people who use this space as a shelter -- is far more valuable and consistent with the original ethics of graffiti. We, therefore, suggested the use of Immersive technologies to document the space in order to preserve the garage as a whole, giving the notion of scale and space distribution to the viewers, and also showing how the graffiti helps to compose the building atmosphere as it is today.

Following the meeting, with ideas and input from guests, an evaluation is taking place under the supervision of Imagine IC. The demolition will only take place after considering input on the existent options from residents and heritage specialists. At the moment there is an exhibition about the Kempering that can be seen in the Vitrine van Zuidoost at Imagine IC.


Following on that logic, SAMA has opted likewise to preserve its collection in virtual reality. As a strategy distinct from those just mentioned, virtual reality will allow us to respect the characteristics which make street art unique, while ensuring that once our collection is fully documented and archived, it will be openly accessible, just as street art is meant to be, while also presenting a far more ecological and sustainable solution to preservation than transferring and storing a collection in a museum archive would be. Furthermore, through preserving Amsterdam Nieuw-West’s heritage in VR, SAMA can also contribute to digital heritage itself; as digital technology progresses and current equipment becomes obsolete, the cameras and headsets on which it exists can be given to archives and read later. Using virtual reality allows us to take direct hands-on control of how and when to document and share our collection, while pushing us to stay current and agile, requiring us to work with specialists and consultants who are in the cutting edge of technology that is becoming more and more a permanent fixture in every aspect of our lives.

2019, for Amsterdam, seems to have been the year when virtual reality suddenly exploded throughout the city -- including vr experiences, vr cinemas, gaming conventions and escape rooms, trainings and seminars, and the fifth annual VR Days Europe in Amsterdam, which I attended on Friday, November 15th. Thanks to this new surge in popularity, SAMA has been able to develop and field test its new ideas with three different experts. Just in time for production of Bastardilla’s monumental mural, “Memories,” we hired Rufus Baas and Bob de Jong from MediaCollege Amsterdam to film Bastardilla’s work in progress, including bringing the 360 camera in the lift with the anonymous artist as she painted -- a literal world’s first. It was important for us to record production of “Memories,” as, despite having many large, multi-storey works in our collection, it is our first and last monumental piece; what we learned through the process is that intentional advance design and storyboarding can have incredible results. With no point of reference for recording street art in virtual reality, we have had to develop strategies as we go, and are proud to claim another world first.

Around the same time, Amsterdam Impact Hub -- Heroes and Friends selected Street Art Museum Amsterdam to follow a program to learn how to produce a viral virtual reality capsule meant to inspire social action and change. Whereas our work with MediaCollege Amsterdam was mostly just recording the process and the finished work, Heroes and Friends taught us active production to targeted audiences. With Heroes and Friends, we learned the stages of developing a concept and storyboarding, producing, launching and screening a product which we are now confident in sharing -- which we have done at events including El Pez’s 20 year anniversary in London, SDG Action Day 2019 at Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), and with government including Wethouders Touria Meliani and Ronald Mauer.

Finally, in Summer 2019, XR developer, pitch coach and founder of GR Talk, Gabriele Romagnoli, found SAMA on the internet; thinking that our story, collection, and objective of capturing it all in virtual reality was a very original and powerful idea, he wanted to help us realize that goal. He brought us equipment and technical knowledge of recording and editing in the direction of animation, gamification, and entertainment. Gabriele was an asset in presenting our ideas and mission at several international XR events including AWE Conference Munich 2019 and VR Days Amsterdam 2019, in hopes of generating industry support and finding a sponsor for SAMA’s work. Seeing the myriad ways virtual reality is being applied to arts and heritage preservation at VR Days was overwhelming, fascinating and inspiring. We're thrilled to be able to hit the ground running in this rapidly changing technological landscape, and make the most of emerging technologies to bring our collection to larger and more diverse audiences in continually novel and more accessible ways.

All of the work we have undertaken over the last nine months has resulted in the museum forming a coherent digital strategy informed by hundreds of hours of research, collaboration, consultation, trial, error and correction. Our digitization plan will come in three separate stages, with the final outcome being a feature-length virtual reality experience and research archive, freely accessible online through SAMA’s website, and online platforms including YouTube, ARize, and Google Culture Institute.

The first stage will be intensive research into each work, one at a time in order to document and register each piece and its current condition, prioritizing the 50 artworks under most immediate threat of demolition; the objective of this phase will be to build a basic collections catalogue, registered in axiell, allowing SAMA to formally register with Museumregister Nederland by the end of 2020.

In the second phase, by the end of 2020, we plan to have all of the equipment required to edit the VR recordings into thematically linked capsules to create original and exciting content from the basic 360 recordings that comprise the collections catalogue. Once we have registered as a museum, have our library registered and collection catalogue fully formed, the third stage, which will be completed in 2022-23, includes publishing and distributing the collection through VR capsules; as we complete the third phase, we will shift away from street art production into heavier research, technological development and social art, always focusing on grassroots engagement and generating new, innovative content.

Street art has become as common in cities around the world as MacDonalds; despite this huge bandwagon popularity, we still care about people and the true ethics behind the movement when it began. So, we want to use our collection to continue to impact positive social change in this rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, and to cheer up the walls and streetscapes of neighbourhoods such as Nieuw-West, which people typically avoid -- as street art has always been intended to do. Because we have chosen to stick to this ethic in production and preservation, our collection will, inevitably, die and decay through the natural processes, as ephemeral public art does, rather than artificial for-profit preservation behind-closed-doors as is the Moco Museum model, for example. At time of writing, our efforts can be effectively summed up in our rapid response effort to document and archive Skount’s “Destiny” before it is cut up to insert new doorways in the building which is becoming a center to house families of undocumented migrants -- preserving our collection is certainly important for the principle of documenting ephemeral artworks, but additionally, the heritage, histories, and community significance they have accumulated. During this artwork’s life, it has adorned the walls of a community center, kindergarten, a center housing social enterprise startups, and now, an asylum center for families.

The digital preservation plan SAMA has developed over the last nine months has given us a clear methodology by which to begin recording artworks such as “Destiny.”, thanks to support of funding agencies such as Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds. In communities such as Amsterdam Nieuw-West, it is critical that these unrepresented ephemeral histories are recorded to avoid repeating historical patterns of neglecting, obscuring and forgetting marginalized voices and histories. With our digitization plan to register the collection and museum prepared for launch, we are honored to be the first and only cultural institution in Amsterdam working to study, record, preserve, and celebrate the ignored and maligned, but rich history and heritage which exists outside the city center.

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