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Abstract

It is fitting to think of the half-life of new media using the time-based metaphor of radioactive decay. As a metaphor, an object’s half-life can be a useful way to talk about the potent technological modernity of new media and, like Walter Benjamin’s well-known notion of the aura, call attention to an object’s performativity. However, Benjamin’s aura remains a constant reminder of irrevocable originality whereas remarking on half-life references a quality that changes over time. But what happens after the rhetorical impact of being new has run its course? What is the life expectancy of once-new media and what of its after-life? Both literally and figuratively, when (if ever) does new media become “decayed waste” and where should it go? What are the challenges contemporary archivists face handling decayed media?

This essay probes these dilemmas through a half-life case study. In 1860, a five-foot-wide cutting-edge photograph by the Italian photographer, Tommaso Cuccioni (1790–1864), was donated by a young New York Times art critic based in Italy to a small New England cultural institution. At some point in the twentieth century the monumental photograph became no longer relevant and was entombed in an undocumented and unlikely storage location within the building; it remained buried there until a surprise rediscovery in 2010. The essay establishes the new media valence of Tommaso Cuccioni’s large-format Coliseum print within the context of 1850s photography—a deeply disruptive cultural practice. The focus then shifts to a reception history of this one photograph within one institution from 1860–2015. It offers an exemplary case study illuminating how decaying new media challenge the archives.