Share and Share Alike (Part I): Museums and the Digital Image Explosion

[Disassembled kaleidoscope], pl. 1[Mémoire sur la construction et la théorie du symétrisateur : lunette connue sous les dénominations de métamorphosiscope, transfigurateur, jou-jou merveilleux, etc. etc.] ,Lithography ,1818 ,Par L.C.D.G.--below plate mark. The lithographic plates are hand-colored in the Getty Research Institute copy.
Disassembled kaleidoscope, 1818 from the Getty’s Open Content Program


Why are so many museums making digital images of their artworks available online? JiaJia’s previous entry on this blog examined the trend that has made “audiences shift from on-site and local to online and global.” This suggests that the process of digitization and distribution of museum images is inherently a good thing because it gives audiences contact with otherwise-inaccessible objects.


But other effects have resulted from this shift, as well. We should be attentive to these developments because they will dramatically transform how visitors interact with museum collections. They also have significant implications for curatorial practice.

Museums seem to understand how important it is to have a strong visual presence in the digital sphere. Recognizing that web and social media are often the first (or the only) way that audiences today engage with art objects, the Getty, the Rijksmuseum, and other institutions have launched important initiatives that make high-resolution digital pictures of their collections more accessible. Likewise, major museums are developing increasingly creative ways to (virtually) explore their holdings.


But our concern for scholarship, education, and standards of authenticity and contextualized display put us at an immediate disadvantage in the ever-quickening global image race. Moreover, new distribution methods are fraught with countless potential abuses. While we can certainly help ensure that artworks circulate in properly cropped and color-corrected form, the mere fact of their virtual circulation creates opportunities for them to be divorced from their original contexts and shared without information that is essential to understanding their material existence (artist, date, scale, et cetera). Or even in ways that strip away such facts and replace them with misinformation.


Digital image sharing also offers myriad opportunities for us, as curators, to redefine our profession. Think about technologies such as the MP3, which created a societal shift in how we think about experiencing music and forced the music industry into an existential crisis. Likewise, the web has catalyzed a reevaluation of image copyrights and the obsessive control that many museums and other rights holders still maintain over their potentially lucrative assets. Such a mindset seems archaic when files can now be shared with such ease. Institutions, curators, and artists should participate in the ongoing redefinition of the status of the digital image in relation to the object, and also keep pace with intensified image sharing by working to develop reliable ways for images to be traced back to their makers and/or sources (such as more resilient metadata). We should be lobbying Google and Wikipedia to assure that their images are given preference over others that come from questionable sources, are improperly cropped, and so on.


Ultimately, we are witnessing a fundamental change in the dynamics of audience participation, to which museums must respond. Social media users and bloggers are not only having a significant impact on how images of artworks are disseminated, but they are also changing the ways in which audiences relate to actual objects in the museum. If all looking is participatory, I worry that the most substantial consequence of reproducing objects online is that it will make us perceive art differently.


We were already facing a daily deluge of images from advertising, and now there is the endless torrent of online photo streams to contend with. This bombardment clearly has a significant impact on our ability to process and appreciate the minutiae of an artwork: Superficial scrolling and close reading are not the same. High-resolution images on museum websites and Google’s Art Project (as well as its new Open Gallery) allow for careful scrutiny, but there is never any substitute for the real thing, regardless of how detailed the digital image might be. This is partly due to the fact that computer screens are flat and back-lit, and because they mediate our sight in a way that distances us from the benefits of direct experience.


All of this has certainly had an impact on exhibition design, since curators are aware that visitor images of our shows will be spread around the world. I hope to explore this further in my next post.


We curators should learn to display traditional art objects in ways that reflect the changes in perception brought on by digital technologies. But we should also ask how we can leverage the advantages of digital media to express aspects of a work that cannot be conveyed in a museum, and be especially cognizant of the exciting new exhibition possibilities (both online and off) that digital art offers. Whether technology helps us overcome conservation concerns, spatial restrictions, or logistical impossibilities, the digital image has a type of mobility and durability that the object does not. It is also much more open-source and encourages user-generated content—albeit a different type of participation, but one that defines our era.


In the end, we must be clear to ourselves and our audiences that the images we are seeing online—and often leveraging to increase our viewership—are in fact digital translations. They completely lack the original object’s material conditions and the contemplative possibilities offered by the heterotopia of a gallery space. The gallery, for me at least, has provided some of the most transcendent experiences of my life, and the richness of experiencing artworks live and in person is in itself a definitive retort to the impertinent question: If I can see it on my computer, why leave the house to see it in a museum?


– Daniel S. Palmer (@ddotpalmer)

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