Norway Preserves ‘The Scream’ for Future Generations by Burying Digital Copy in Arctic Coal Mine

The Munch masterpiece joins digitized art and artifacts from more than 15 countries in the “futureproof” Arctic World Archive

The cold and isolation of the Svalbard archipelago helps preserve the Arctic World Archive's contents. Norwegian National Museum / Vidar Ibenfeldt

Regardless of what disasters afflict the world over the next 1,000 years, Edvard Munch’s iconic depiction of human suffering, The Scream, should be around to greet whoever’s left. As the Local reports, Norway’s National Museum has placed a digital version of Munch’s masterpiece, along with copies of around 400,000 other objects, in an Arctic coal mine for (very) long-term safekeeping.

Technology company Piql created the Arctic World Archive (AWA) in 2017 as “a safe repository for world memory” designed to last more than a millennium, according to the project’s website. The digital trove features the entirety of the museum’s collections, as well as offerings from other cultural organizations around the world.

“At the National Museum we have works from antiquity until today,” says director Karin Hindsbo in a statement translated by the Local. “We work with the same perspective on the future. The collection is not only ours, but also belongs to the generations after us. By storing a copy of the entire collection in the Arctic World Archive, we are making sure the art will be safe for many centuries.”

Per the Art Newspaper’s Christian House, staff took photographs of the museum’s paintings, works of architecture and other artifacts, then transferred these images to specialized analog film. The medium is designed to keep works readable even as technologies change.

“The only thing you need to read the film is light,” Rolf Yngve Uggen, the museum’s director of collections management, tells the Art Newspaper.

In addition to The Scream, other works preserved in the archive include The Baldishol, a medieval Norwegian tapestry representing part of a calendar, and Harald Sohlberg’s 1914 painting Winter Night in the Mountains. Also featured is a ball dress that belonged to Queen Maud, who ascended to the throne with her husband, Haakon VII, in 1905.

AWA vault
The AWA vault is buried deep in an old mine. Arctic World Archive

The dry, cold and low-oxygen air in the archive helps preserve the plastic film rolls on which the digital images are stored. Storing the images offline, in a remote location, also protects them against cyber attacks.

“It’s like being on another planet,” Uggen tells the Art Newspaper. “It’s like the final frontier.”

Located on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, east of Greenland, the archive now contains digital replicas of treasures from more than 15 countries. Among the organizations storing copies of artifacts in the AWA are the National Archives of Mexico, the Vatican Library, the European Space Agency and Brazilian multimedia archive the Museum of the Person. A number of corporations have also stored records in the digital repository.

The archive’s designers took into account potential threats from wars and natural disasters, as well as technological and societal changes. According to the AWA’s website, the “futureproof and technology independent” archiving technique is designed to withstand strong electromagnetic energy.

A similar safekeeping venture—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened in 2008 to store samples of the world’s diverse crops—is located near the AWA. The vault currently contains more than one million samples and has a maximum capacity of 4.5 million crop varieties. After its entrance flooded due to extreme weather in 2017, the Norwegian government upgraded the facility with new waterproof walls and a service building for emergency power and refrigerating units, as Helen Briggs reported for BBC News in 2018.

Both archives are located in former mining sites deep underground, below layers of permafrost but far above sea level. The Svalbard archipelago is difficult to access and sparsely populated, with only around 3,000 residents, most of whom are clustered in the city of Longyearbyen.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.