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Why conserving games is an all-new, important challenge for art museums

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In order to adequately conserve video games and their hardware, museums will have to develop an expertise for it that is on par with conserving marble sculptures, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's curator of film and media arts, Michael Mansfield.

Speaking to NPR, Mansfield said adding video games to a museum collection involves more than just storing the cartridges and hardware in humidity-controlled vaults. They have to be kept in working order so they can be studied and enjoyed in the future, and museums need to develop the know-how to achieve this.

"There's the hardware and the software — the console and the code of the game — both are needed to experience the game as it was designed to be experience," Mansfield said. "You really need the architecture of the [PlayStation 3] to play [Flower] into the future. They can't be separated.

"Game controllers — they are more or less living objects with parts that move and heat up and cool down and vibrate," he said. "We have to get a better understanding of exactly how these things live, and that they continue to function well into the future."

In addition, museum staff need to work to conserve the less tangible aspects of games, too. For example, even if a museum manages to get a massively-multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft working, the game itself — without the community of players — would not illustrate the experience players have with it.

The Smithsonian is tackling the challenge of preserving digital art like video games through its Time-Based Media and Digital Art Working Group, an initiative that aims to develop long-term and comprehensive preservation strategies for time-based art.

The Smithsonian announced earlier this month it acquired Flower and Halo 2600 for its permanent collection.