What is More Real: the Virtual Museum or the Institutional Museum?

Estefanía Tocado

Walter Benjamin´s concern with the loss of the “aura” attributed to artwork closely related to its uniqueness and undetectable fabric tradition, was with the loss of the aura attributed to the artwork (4).  Therefore, technical reproduction, especially in the case of photography and film image, made artwork accessible to the masses at the cost of losing its authenticity.  Moreover, photographic reproductions allowed the dissociation of cultural objects from its material origins (“Malraux” Irvine 3).  On the opposite side of the debate and strongly influenced by Benjamin´s ideas, Malraux organized the project of an imaginary museum that would function as an abstract projection of a “cultural encyclopedia,” a term later used and investigated by Umberto Eco (2).  So the piece of art through photography and art books would promote a sense of national identity.  Mostly, this nationalistic discourse would promote and implement its cultural and artistic patrimony as symbolic capital.

With the Google Art project, Malraux´s idea of a museum without walls has been put into practice on a large scale.  However, this project lacks Malraux´s nationalistic tone.  On the contrary, the virtual museum opens the door to a global audience erasing the social elitism associated with the museum.  Nevertheless, is the experience of visiting a museum (institution) more real than seeing it on Google Art?  As Emily Magnuson postulates in her article about Virtual Museums and the Google Art project:  “While the project… appears to be a very good thing, it still begs a larger question that was introduced by Malraux:  does the advent, and now exploitation, of the reproducible image make our ability to apprehend art any more, or less, real?  What do we really gain or lose in this virtual reality?”

According to Baudrillard, simulation is not a referential thing or substance but the generation by models of the real without origin or reality:  the hyperreal (1).  To simulate is to pretend something that it is not possessed, therefore absent.  The real does not need to be rational because it is not confronted to an ideal or a negative instance.  All referents are abolished blurring all the boundaries between the false and the real, the real and the imaginary (2-3).  Taking into consideration Baudrillard´s postulations as well as answering Magnuson´s question, it seems to be me that the reproducibility of the image in virtual reality does not make our ability to apprehend a specific piece of art any more or less real because there is not a real referent to compare against.  That original reality attributed to the photographic image or the piece of art does not exist.  The romantic idea of the aura and the authenticity attributed to the piece of art comes to the audience as mediated on the virtual world as it is in an institutional museum.  In the physical museum, the artwork has been selected by a curator, has been displayed in a specific room, establishing in that manner an open dialogue with the other works of art exposed.  Moreover, each individual piece has been catalogued according to its creator, forcing the entire collection of that specific artist to enter into a larger dialogue with all the other works that are present in the museum.  Finally, all artwork exposed has to establish a symbiotic relationship with the physical space of the museum and its architectural limitations.  Therefore, the visitor captures a specific moment when they visit the museum which is not a reflection of a tangible reality, but only what they have experienced and perceived while being there.  In the case of a virtual museum such as Google Art, its team has chosen what artwork should be part of their catalogue, how to display them, how to organize them, and how to present them to the audience.  Nevertheless, there is a major difference.  While the virtual project lacks the symbolic capital and cultural value attributed to the museum (the institutionalized state that Bourdieu refers to), the museum implements it and promotes it as a representation of a cultural capital and in many cases as a sign of national identity.  So the artwork actually represents the objectified state in the form of cultural goods.

Returning to Magnuson´s last question, it is unclear if we lose or win in this virtual reality.  While the virtual user has the ability to become its own curator and choose how to experience a specific collection, what order to follow, and what pieces of art to meticulously observe, it also loses some of the emotional experience of visiting an important museum.  Personally I believe that with the virtual museum we are winning the opportunity to make art more accessible to a larger audience, but above all to establish an open and individualistic conversation with the piece of art that cannot be experienced in an institutionalized museum.  In the virtual world, we can study in detail a specific work of art, stare at it, and find ways to make it ours; make it more personal.


Works cited

 Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Media Theory and Cognitive Techonologies. Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 25 March 2014.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. New York: Schoken Books, 1969.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic goods.” Media, Culture and Society 2 (1980): 261-293.

—. “The Forms of Capital.” Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital.” in Soziale Ungleichheiten (Soziale Welt, Sonderheft 2). Ed, Reinhard Kreckel. Goettingen: Otto Schartz & Co. 1983.183-98.

Irvine, Martin. “Malraux and the muse imaginare.” Media Theory and Cognitive Techonologies Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 25 March 2014.

Magnuson, Emily. “Virtual Museums.” Media Theory and Cognitive Techonologies. Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 25 March 2014.