The construction of new art museum buildings as that of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District naturally gets a lot of attention. But there’s another kind of construction going on that says more about where museums are and where they’re going than any shiny new building: their websites. This may come as a surprise to anyone not professionally involved in museum work, but if you want to know how museums are changing their philosophies and programs at a time of increasing financial pressure and the continued rise of private museums like Eli Broad in Los Angeleswebsites are the most visible and informative places to look.
With their ever-evolving abilities to represent art and effect communication, websites are in fact driving forces in how museums adapt to changing times. In 2013, the excellent site of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis published a white paper by Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, summarizing discussions on the future of museums by directors of art museums. He wrote: “The external force of the Internet and social media – combined with the efforts of museums to create more interactive educational and exhibition programs – leaves no doubt that the two-way relationship between the museum and its audience has the potential to reshape the future of art museums in ways that have not yet been envisioned.
One thing you can say for sure about museum websites is that they have become much more useful. Many museums have put their entire collections online, and many others, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are doing it. Recently, the Whitney Museum of American Art put its collection of over 21,000 objects from over 3,000 artists online in an exceptionally easy-to-use format, with alphabetically ordered thumbnail pages. It’s fun to scroll to see who have been favorites and discover artists you’ve never heard of and wonder what’s become of them. Some sites, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also offer essays on particular pieces, such as “The Reapers” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565). The Met has the Timeline of Heilbrunn’s art history, too, which offers more than 900 scholarly thematic essays on just about every aspect of world art, illustrated with nearly 7,000 objects from the museum’s collection. Regularly supplemented and updated, it makes art history textbooks Janson’s almost obsolete.
Museum websites go beyond words and pictures. They have videos of artists, curators and scholars discussing works. On the Whitney site, Jeff Koons exhibits his sculpture “Modelling Dough” in a video. On the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art media page Hans Haacke talks about art and politics in his work.
Websites are great for people who can’t travel or might be snowed in. The Louvre has an exceptionally informative feature on the Mona Lisa. Along with an audio commentary, it shows details you wouldn’t be able to see in person, including the back of the painting. The Vatican site has a truly amazing way to study the Sixtine Chapel from all angles.
A relatively new development is the publication of exhibition catalogs online. Last year, the Art Institute of Chicago published online “James Ensor: The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1887), which examines an intricate drawing approximately 70 inches by 60 inches rendered on 51 sheets of paper glued together. It contains the usual scholarly essays, but also, most notable, a high-resolution image of the design that reveals details that would otherwise escape naked-eye observation of the real thing.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington has “Dutch Paintings of the 17th Century”, in which each of the more than 120 paintings in the museum’s collection is represented, with a zoom function for images as well as a short essay by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. It also features many videos, including a fascinating one, five-part film about Vermeer with commentary by Mr. Wheelock and narration by Meryl Streep.
The online catalog got a big boost from a Getty Foundation program called Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative, or OSCI, which in 2009 provided grants to eight art museums to create catalogs. Online collections for exhibitions and permanent collections are set to become the standard for museums large and small.
A future that is coming now is cross-exchange between museums. A page from the National Gallery of Art website on “Portrait of a Woman” by Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1460) has an in-depth discussion of painting, as you might expect. But at the end, under the “Related Resources” heading, there’s something surprising: a link to an essay in the Met’s Heilbrunn Art History Timeline, “Burgundy Netherlands: court life and patronage.”
Sooner or later, all museum websites will be interconnected, so that any museum can benefit from the scholarship produced by any other. There is no reason, after all, for the Museum of Modern Art not to link its Jackson Pollock Page on the Pollock pages of museums around the world.
Museums are also trying to broaden and deepen audience engagement with blogs and other socially interactive programs. The Met’s blogs section on its homepage offers entries on a number of topics written by Met staffers. There is also a teen blog, where a recent post, “The Met Rebels” offered a brief discussion of the current exhibition”Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collectionby a member of the museum’s Teen Advisory Group. Where is all this going? The British Museum has a succinct answer in the closing sentence of its About Us page“The website is not simply a source of information about the collection and the museum, but a natural extension of its primary purpose of being a laboratory for comparative cultural investigation.”
In London, Tate director Nicholas Serota predicted in 2009 that while museums may be rooted in the buildings they occupy, they “will speak to audiences around the world – a place where people from whole world will have a conversation. The institutions that embrace this notion the fastest and furthest will be the ones with the authority in the future.
In the report “Tate Digital Strategy 2013-15: digital as part of everything” The paper’s author, John Stack, head of digital transformation at Tate, also noted that “digital publications are set to become a major source of revenue in the future”, which could concern those profiting from online catalogues. free.
We have come a long way from the model of the museum as a sanctuary and repository of great works of art, where the main activity of visitors is silent contemplation. You might start wondering, does the tail wag the dog? As the demand for digital relevance pervades the museum, how does this influence how art is seen, thought about and valued? Do certain types of art lend themselves more generously to digital representation and “comparative cultural inquiry” than others and are they therefore privileged? Will global interconnectivity promote homogeneity and less idiosyncrasy?
And what about its effect on conservatives? Is the idea of the curator as a guardian of objects, and as a person who expresses ideas by collecting objects in galleries, outdated? Certainly, technocratic expertise will be necessary.
For museum visitors, what expectations do these developments raise? It’s hard to argue against education, access, and engagement by any means possible, but something is in danger of getting lost in the flood of technology-mediated information: the idea of coming to work of art naked, disarmed and open to all that it expresses in its real, non-virtual being.