AIGA, previously known as the American Institute for Graphic Arts, is the professional association for design. Gifted to the Denver Art Museum in 2006, the AIGA Design Archives represents the largest and most comprehensive holding of contemporary American communication design in the world. Consisting of approximately 12,000 physical artifacts created from approximately 1980 to 2012, the collection recognizes award-winning entries made to the organization’s annual competitions. The materials reflect major design trends as well as many of the most renowned designers within the United States during this time.
The collection is a celebration across all disciplines of communication design—packaging, corporate communications, brand and identity systems, typography, editorial design and illustration, and experience design, among others. It also includes a broad range of materials including: bound and unbound paper-based objects, metal, textiles, glass, plastic, multimedia, electronic media, and food- and toiletry-based packaging. These physical objects are utilized by the Denver Art Museum as an exhibiting collection and, in so doing, serve to educate future generations on the antecedents and evolution of this confluence of art and commerce.
Employing established best practices, the paper, plastic, and textile objects were relatively straightforward to document, house, and store. Conversely, due to their unorthodox and/or complex nature, the packaged food and toiletry items as well as the electronic media proved otherwise.
Food and toiletry items contain liquids, solid matter, and gel substances that are problematic. Packages or containers can leak or explode, and the contents can attract unwelcome museum pests. The color and appearance of the contents, as seen through translucent packaging, are often integral to the intended design appeal. Colors can shift over time and contents can shrink or evaporate. For these reasons, preserving unified design elements has inherent challenges.
Representing the rising importance of digital culture from the 1980s on, the collection contains over 700 electronic media objects, including video motion graphics, websites, and interactive CD-ROMs. Like all electronic media objects, they pose the preservation challenges of deteriorating storage media and format obsolescence. In addition, they bring to the forefront issues related to their commercial origin, which complicates copyright licensing for preservation and display purposes. AIGA also had loose standards for the form in which electronic media items were collected, so the materials exist in a wide range of formats and varying levels of completeness.
The challenges posed by the food and toiletry packaging and electronic media items have guided the authors to think carefully about preservation, access, and display of these materials in the contexts of an archive as well as a museum exhibiting collection. In this paper, the scope and importance of the AIGA Design Archives will be presented and characterized. In addition, conservation approaches in development for the food and toiletry items and electronic media will be presented, including criteria for evaluation of preservation and access issues, documentation of ephemeral materials, and treatment.