The Challenges of Ephemeral Works Behind the scenes


As the Registrar the largest part of my job is locating and securing the content (physical and digital objects) which curators will display in an exhibition. As the Media Majlis is a museum that heavily relies on digital or digitized content, this raises many challenges. These challenges typically fall into one of two categories: ownership or use. This is because a large amount of content seen in the museum’s exhibitions were originally considered ‘ephemeral’ and only meant to last a short time before being discarded or becoming obsolete. These types of content can include several different forms of media or art, both physical and digital. These forms range from newspapers and newsreels to television advertisements, comic strips, campaign posters, fliers and more, all of which are often used within an exhibition. Why then is it so challenging to legally secure the right to exhibit items such as these if they were only meant to last a short time?

Despite being no longer in use, copyright regulations and requirements over these forms of media or art remains.  It is then my job to find the holder of the copyright and request its use in a museum exhibition. The initial challenge relating to ownership, requires the establishment of who the copyright owner actually is, which can range from one or more companies or individuals. As the number of people involved grows, the more complicated things become—each entity or person involved must be contacted and give their approval. Once copyright has been established and secured there may still be the issue of securing a ‘usable edition’ of the media, which (surprisingly) often is not held by the copyright owner.  

Several aspects contribute to difficulties in copyright authentication. One major problem is that large corporations—the makers of mass media—often do not have a reliable way to contact them. For example, Netflix is a well-known streaming source whose shows and films our curators may want to include in an exhibition, however, the only way to contact them is through a generic ‘info@’ email address. These generic email addresses are rarely responded to by any large company.  Going around the streaming service and finding the original producer or director can be equally as difficult when finding content from different regions. For example, shows that are from South Korea often only have a physical address for the production company and sometimes a phone number. This creates multiple layers of challenges: international calling, language barrier, sending a physical request letter, wait time, confirmation of receipt, and the list goes on.

Other copyright ownership challenges arise when a company dissolves or the contract between the company creating the media (e.g., an advertising agency) and the client ends, leaving the produced work in a gray area of unknown ownership. Take for example the HSBC Eels Cultural Difference advert from 2002 (below). This was a digital object for the museum’s exhibition Unraveling Persuasion (fall 2021–spring 2022). The company that this was made for, HSBC, is a well-known international bank and still operational and provides an ‘info@' email, but I was unable to find information on the advertisement company who created it. After contacting a chain of five different advertising companies, each denying ownership and each referring me to another company, I was still unable to learn who actually owned the advert and its copyright. At this point the only thing to do was to acquire the digital edition and put together an ‘orphan object’ claim (in other words substantiating that the object, the advertisement, is an orphan as no legal title can be found or substantiated).

Still from HSBC’s Eels Cultural Difference advertisement, 2002. Courtesy of HSBC via Vimeo. 

Acquiring a digital edition of an ephemeral item is the other major category that these challenges fall into. And is most impacted by the aspect of the object’s actual use. This relates to the original use of the content and requires that there be a digital or physical copy still in existence. Because of the nature of ephemeral works, they are often not made with the highest quality materials nor saved/preserved. This makes finding the material often difficult. The location of where the original work was released, as well as its age, play major factors in whether there is a copy to be found. The older the original material, the more difficult it is to find a good quality edition or image. Additionally, locations including the Gulf region do not have large archives or databases of ephemeral material, meaning that there is far greater reliance on individuals with private collections to collect, care for and share these works.

Image of Munira Ramadan, c1975.  Per poster of image on Instagram “found in a stack of old Sudanese sports and culture magazines”.

Take for example the circa 1975 magazine featuring Sudanese athlete and football referee Munira Ramadan, (above), for the exhibition Is it a beautiful game? (fall 2022). This magazine has only one reference image and one currently known source, Jannis Stürtz. Stürtz is not the copyright owner nor involved with the magazine’s production in any way; however, they were able to find and digitize the magazine from their own private collection of old Sudanese magazines, sharing it on their social media account. Without this posting, I would never have been able to locate the magazine.

Still from Apple's 1984 television commercial for their Macintosh computer, 1984. Courtesy of Apple Inc. via F.I.L.M. Archives Inc.

Digital material can be a challenge in regard to locating high quality versions of original work. As technology progresses older formats obsolete. Converting older formats (e.g., Betamax, 8inch floppy disc, etc.) can degrade the quality of the image, which makes the material shown in an exhibition appear to be in poor condition as compared to more recent material, even if it is identified as the highest quality format that can be provided by the copyright owner. This can be compounded by the use of HD screens which can only make older material ‘look worse’. While planned obsolescence is the nature of ephemeral works, Apple’s now famous 1984 commercial took this to an extreme—it was only aired once, on American television during Superbowl XVIII (January 23, 1984; still above). The only remaining copies of the commercial come from recordings of this one-time airing, which subsequently makes all future versions a copy of a copy, further degrading the quality.

Ultimately, it is difficult to secure works that were only meant to last a short time.  Every one of the examples above proved to have complications in different areas, requiring large amounts of time researching who the copyright owners were and if it would even be possible to find a version to include in an exhibition. These challenges of ownership and use are present in all ephemeral works no matter what the medium is, and each challenge is as unique as the work itself, which means there is no single solution to this issue.

___Further discussion of Apple’s 1984 commercial and its place within western advertising history is discussed in John Tylee’s Game Changers in Western Advertising, in Unraveling Persuasion: Voices and Conversations, the museum’s publication accompanying its fall 2021–spring 2022 exhibition Unraveling Persuasion.


  • Author credits

    Alden Cormany

    Alden Cormany is the registrar at The Media Majlis. Her professional experience includes work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and as an art handler in the Washington D.C. area working with museums including the Glenstone Museum, Washington Historical Society, and the Shakespeare Library. Alden holds a MSc in Museum Studies in Artefact and Material Culture from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, researching the digitization of objects. Alden served eight years in the United States Marine Corps where she was a Motor Transport Operator.