Mapping the archive

Messy information: The archive is a mess. Thousands of artworks from hundreds of artists, entangled pieces in different media, sizes and themes. In this mess there are a lot of half forgotten stories about for example The Cold War, the nature of art, and an avant-garde art movement experimenting with fluctuating, intertwining information and structures long before the Internet was an integral part of the culture.

A research cooperation between Aarhus University and KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art is currently producing a digital database on the basis of Mogens Otto Nielsen’s mail art archive. This data needs to be bent, stretched, refined, and placed in some sort of visual web structure.

Between order and chaos: You need a good map if you want to navigate in chaos. Every entry in the archive is somehow connected to other entries, artists and concepts in and outside the archive. A digital, visual map of the archive would be a new and fruitful way of getting a sense of the structure of the archive, to go deeper into the structure, and to unlock the many stories told in pictures, drawings, collages, assemblages, texts, video, and audio.

Digital mapping: A map of artworks, artists, and associations

The digitized artworks are part of a structure of interconnected artists and artworks. A map should therefore illustrate the links and relations between artworks, artists, countries, different themes, related objects and other actors. A map should have some of these characteristics:

Structure: The map should give the user a sense of the structure of this artistic network of artworks, artist/actors, different themes, and associations.

Leveling: The user should be able to oscillate between overview and complexity, the structure and the detail.

Visual: The map should allow the user to navigate through visual elements, making the navigation more free, intuitive, and inspirational than a regular, text-based link structure such as a wiki.

User generated: Users should be able to add comments, missing information, and anecdotes to the nodes/pieces, so that new connects are established. An open-ended map of the archive is very much in the spirit of mail art and its close relative Fluxus.

Association:  The artworks should not just be connected according to artist, country and so forth. The map should be a map of associations that resembles the spread of ideas and artistic concepts in the mail art network.  Associations could be themes; some themes could be about motifs, about topic, or about historical, political circumstances (for example the correspondences between artists in the West and artists in the Soviet Union and East Germany).

A new way of making sense out of nonsense

Museums and other cultural institutions are looking for new ways to organize and present their collections. But cultural institutions are not alone in their search for a better way to store and visualize messy, ephemeral and entangled information. The mapping of Mogens Otto Nielsen’s archive is therefore an exceptional case study for experimenting with digital mapping of messy, entangled art collections.

The archive: The database currently contains about 16.000 digitalized artworks and other artefacts with 7.200 images (scans and photos) from about 600 artists from 42 countries. The artworks are primary paper works (pictures, drawings, collages, letters, and texts), but there are also a number of audiotapes, videotapes, and assemblages (three-dimensional collages). Now, the database is a common (but heavy) Excel sheet with around 2.100 entries with 18 categories (for example name, address, title, description, related artists, date, type, material, and different free and not-so-free associations including related themes). The museum has spend almost two years building and refining the information, so that artworks and chunks of artworks can be tied together in a visual digital interface/map – tied and connected from fixed or free associations made by the museum or users.


The mapping of Mogens Otto Nielsen’s mail art archive is a research project cooperation between Art historian and PhD Fellow Theis Vallø Madsen, Aarhus University, KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art, Kollision, Teater Katapult, Museum of Eastern Jutland, Natural History Museum in Aarhus, and Meaning Making Experience (MMEx). In 2014, the archive will be included in Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s CHAOS database (Cultural Heritage Archive Open System). Also in 2014, “Mapping the Archive” will join forces with ARoS and Heart Art Museum in the “Interact” project (working title).

The PhD research project is funded by The New Carlsberg Foundation, and “Mapping the Archive” is funded by Share Play (European Regional Development Fund) and More.Creative. In 2014, the PhD project received a generous grant from The Salling Foundation (Købmand Ferdinand Sallings Mindefond).

2 Responses to Mapping the archive

  1. Pingback: Mogens Otto Nielsen « Mail Artists Index

  2. Pingback: Mapping archives | From the archive

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