How to save public art museums (a modest proposal!)


Image by Jessica Pamp.

To study the visual arts, you have to travel. And although we have excellent reproductions, we still believe that there is a difference in kind between looking at the original work and seeing even the best copy. Public art museums flourished by presenting many loan exhibitions and attracting many visitors from far away. But covid has made travel much more difficult, if not impossible. And the ecological problems created by intensive air travel are serious. The crucial question then is what can be done. My goal in writing as a philosopher is to provide constructive analysis. Is there a way to preserve our vigorous museum culture of public art without requiring so much travel? To discuss this issue, consider a six-step slippery slope argument. Each step on its own is seemingly plausible, but taken together, these steps lead to an unexpected conclusion.

The first step.

When the Louvre is crowded, see mona-lisa is difficult. Here’s how to avoid the problem. Buy your ticket in advance, arrive early at the Louvre, enter through the side door and walk very quickly to the Salle des Etats. Then you’ll have a few minutes almost alone with her before the crowds arrive.

Second step.

You are very nearsighted, and therefore without solid glasses you cannot see anything at a distance. But when you wear your glasses, if you enter the Louvre early in the morning, you can see mona-lisa.

Third step.

You can only go to the Louvre in the middle of the morning, when it is very crowded. Fortunately, however, you brought a periscope, which allows you to look over other people. Just as you can see the moon through the optical apparatus of a telescope, you can see mona-lisa with this simple technology.

Fourth step.

Webcams allow you to watch anywhere and anytime directly from your computer. For example, a webcam shows Andy Warhol’s grave at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery near Pittsburgh. . Try it now! If a similar publicly accessible webcam were installed in the Salle des Etats, then you could see mona-lisa from anywhere at any time.

Fifth step

Rather than leaving the lights on in the Hall of States, the curators make a recording during the day and play it back at night. After all, when the gallery is deserted, there is no need to watch every move. There is always a short delay to see what is visible on the back wall, even if you are in the gallery. Now, this delay is a bit longer. You see mona-lisa remotely a few minutes or hours ago.

Sixth step.

Imagine that a remote viewing system is installed in all the galleries. We would then have an entirely virtual Louvre. All the works visible in Paris would be accessible online. A webcam allows you to see distant places. The webcam plus recorder allows you to see distant places at earlier times. When I look at my desk, which is close at hand, it takes a very short time for the light to reach my eyes. When using the Louvre webcam from Pittsburgh, a little more time passes. But of course, the light we now see from the stars has been traveling for a very long time.

Have mona-lisa, you have to be in the Louvre. But you can see a representation of her anywhere. Our analysis undermines this basic commonsense distinction. Where if somewhere it goes wrong? If glasses let you see it, then can’t you also see it through a periscope? And if you can see her in that mirror image, why not use a webcam? You can already see some things that are very far away: the moon, the planets and the stars. Right now you can’t see mona-lisa of Pittsburgh because there are a lot of physical objects between you and the Louvre. But just as a mirror lets us see around corners, a webcam lets us look from Pittsburgh to Paris.

If the sixth stage conclusion is unacceptable, then at what stage is this argument unacceptable? Slippery slope arguments can be tricky. And philosophers pay great attention to perception. We can for example agree that the webcam makes it possible to see things from a distance. But does this experience constitute the vision of these things? Maybe looking at the webcam image is like looking at a photo. Perhaps, however, it’s more like being a myopic person using solid glasses. It is not easy to resolve this discussion.

So far, only philosophers would be concerned with this argument about perception. But this situation has changed. If travel is more difficult and museum crowds are unhealthy, then maybe we should create virtual museums. And so right now there is a real incentive to change our ways of thinking. There were two ways to gain visual knowledge about a painting. You can see it, or you can look at pictures of it. Sometimes photographs can provide additional or better information than the direct gaze. Because mona-lisa is under bulletproof glass, you now get a clearer view from good photography than from direct observation at the Louvre. However, to look at such a photograph is not to see the painting. But this situation could change. New technologies like the webcam can complicate our thinking about perception. The glasses considered at stage two or the periscope mirror at stage three are also inventions, just more familiar because they are much older.

For several decades, we have been waiting for this virtual museum. In 1997, in New Zealand, I reviewed an exhibition shared between a museum in that country and a gallery in Holland. Since most examiners could not access both sites, we were given a CD-Rom allowing us to virtually advance, turn left or right, advance or retreat in the galleries of the two hemispheres. And so I discussed both exhibits in my review. The remote viewing system has been improved a lot, and now the virtual museum is more attractive. When in 2021 I reviewed a Rembrandt exhibition in Basel, I was able online to easily walk around the galleries virtually, view the floor layout, and take a close look at individual works in Pittsburgh.

In the public museum, looking at art is a social experience. You can talk with a friend and hear other people’s conversations. This is why the birth of the public art museum is linked to the development of the public sphere in the construction of modernist democracy. But today’s technology makes it possible to enter the public sphere from your study. Thanks to Skype, you can talk remotely with other people even if you are alone in your room. And you can share texts you read or pictures you see. If traveling remains difficult and entering crowded public spaces unsafe, would people believe that seeing a work of art online counts as seeing that artifact? Would you still go to the museum just to see what’s best seen on your computer? If you could browse the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in London and the Hermitage online, would you still travel to Manhattan, London and St. Petersburg? Museums depend on admission fees. But if these funding sources were drastically reduced, then, just as some news sites now charge for Internet access, museums could adopt this policy. And if those museums couldn’t charge as much as they currently do for physical admission, maybe they’re making up the difference with more attendance.

Currently, museum exhibits are often overcrowded. This problem could disappear, because online museums would be accessible to everyone. Of course, just as distance learning only works for people with good home access, online museums wouldn’t work for everyone. Perhaps the curators could be inspired to redesign the museum. Loan exhibitions involve the moving of expensive and labor-intensive artworks. Museums need expensive, fully staffed buildings, often in high-rent neighborhoods. And even our largest institutions have only limited space for permanent collections. But online museums might show full reservations. These can be full exhibitions by any artist, including estate or site-specific works. And the museum could be physically located anywhere. In the Edward Hopper online exhibition in 2020 at Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland, the website offered a good close-up view of individual paintings, interpretations by scholars, a walk both with visitors and in the empty galleries , and an eight-minute video of a Swiss rapper, Laurin Buser. The experimentation that I am describing speculatively has already begun.

When the coronavirus shut down movie theaters, audiences turned to streaming. With a big screen and comfortable seating, you might prefer watching movies at home. Still, some people like to go to the theater. But films are not made to be screened in a particular place. The paintings were made to be seen by onlookers standing nearby. But of course, for a long time, changes have taken place in the way art is presented. Beginning in the late 18th century, the art museum took old European altarpieces, African masks, Chinese scrolls, and artifacts from all visual cultures and transformed them into works of art. This change involved detaching them from their original context and focusing attention on their common characteristics. Many people were skeptical about the ability of these artifacts to survive this drastic change. Even if an altarpiece is physically unchanged, they argued, when it is moved into the museum, its original sacred function is gone. The change I now imagine could be just as dramatic, and so its implications are not yet easy to fathom.


My quoted reviews are: “The World Over, City Gallery, Wellington”, art forumFebruary 1997: 99. On Rembrandt, On Edward Hopper: My book on art museums: Museum Skepticism: A History of Art Exhibition in Public Galleries (Duke University Press, 2006).


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