What Experience is More Real: That of a Virtual Museum or an Institutional Museum? The Google Art Project and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

“The Art Museum invites criticism of each of the expressions of the world it brings together; and a query as to what they have in common.  To the “delight of the eye” there has been added… an awareness of art´s impassioned quest, its age-old struggle to remold the scheme of things.  Indeed an art gallery is one of the places which show man at his noblest.” (15)

André Malraux. The Voices of Silence (1951)


Deriving from my readings of Jean Baudrillard´s Simulacra and Simulation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin´s Remediation: Understanding New Media, Marc Augé´s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, and Emily Magnuson´s article “Virtual Museums” I aim to elucidate what experience is considered to be more “real,” visiting a virtual museum or a physical museum.  Using as case studies the Google Art Project and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I postulate that both are considered to be what Augé´s calls non-places, that is to say, non-anthropological spaces.  Moreover, Bolter and Grusin regard non-places (physical and cybernetic) as hypermediated spaces.  Converging these concepts, I propose that virtual users and active participants of the Google Art Project and the Guggenheim Bilbao are who, in their personal engagement with the piece of art in these highly remediated spaces, are responsible for creating the real.  In the era of the hyperreal as defended by Baudrillard, by evoking an immediate and authentic emotional response as proposed by Bolter and Grusin, the visitor achieves a sense of reality.  This is a gateway to establish an open dialogue with the work of art, participating in a distributed global agency and art network system.


Walter Benjamin in his important essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”[i] questions the loss of the aura in the work of art and its authenticity as a result of reproducing the photographic image.  For Benjamin, the uniqueness of the work of art is bounded to the fabric of tradition (4).  However, as he states, there are two fundamental reasons that explain the decay of the aura.  On the one hand, for the contemporary masses it is important to bring things closer spatially and humanly as provided by reproducibility, accepting the loss of its original aura.  On the other hand, to destroy the aura of a piece of art is the mark of perception that points out the “sense of the universal equality of things.”  Therefore, reproducibility promotes the extraction of its uniqueness and impacts how it is conceived and perceived in reality.  In consequence, the adjustment of reality to the masses and the masses to reality is a process of constant readjustment and with unlimited scope as Benjamin foresaw (4).

Some years later André Malraux, as President Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, used the photographic image as the way to engage art and cultural history in his book The Voices of Silence (1951).  He deducted that Western Culture was governed by an imaginary museum, that is to say, a conceptual museum that was structured as an abstract projection of an ideal “cultural encyclopedia” of specific works of art used as models (Irvine Malraux 1).  Malraux also postulated the role of the postmodern museum as a collector of diverse cultures and histories presenting them in unity and establishing an open dialogue with a specific collection or exhibition from its predecessors and its contemporaries.  He asserted “By the mere fact of its birth every great art modifies what arose before it” (ctd in Irvine 3).  Also, Brian Arthur in his book The Nature of Technology defends, in a technological context, the importance of the contribution of the prior art in the creation of new art, “an invention is a new combination of prior art” (9).  So it has been clearly established that a work of art is in a constant negotiation with the world of art, the history of art, and its materiality as well as being a good that carries cultural, social, and symbolic value.

For Malraux the museum was a medium to promote democratic and nationalist cultural identity, and it was instantiating the idea of an imaginary museum where the museum functions as the interface of the cultural encyclopedia (3).  As Martin Irvine asserts, the museum function does not work as a neutral or pre- or non-technological state, but as a network of functions and meditations implemented in a historical continuum of technical systems that also include the architectural design of the museum (Irvine The Work of Art 2).  With the Google Art Project, Malraux´s concept of the “Imaginary museum” or the “Museum without walls” has been put into practice on a virtual / technological large scale.  At the same time, Malraux’s emphasis on the institutional museum as a carrier of cultural identity and history is still nowadays an extremely relevant component on the construction and location of a museum as seen in the case of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.


The Google Art project brings in the democratizing idea of opening a virtual museum that would allow the global audience to visit some of the most prestigious museums in the world while eradicating the elitism and nationalism that normally accompanies the institutional museum.  On the other hand, a museum such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao promotes an experience that goes beyond the museum’s physical limits thus extending the museum function to the entire city of Bilbao.  Therefore, is the experience of visiting an institutional museum more real than seeing it in Google Art Project?  Emily Magnuson argues in her article “Virtual Museums” that, despite the original concern about the role of the Google Art Project as a potential competitor of the physical museum and besides being an excellent project, it still does not respond to a larger question 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?”  Along the lines of Magnuson´s question, the purpose of my essay is to explore what makes the experience of the virtual user while navigating the Google Art Project as well as the visitor who experiences a visit to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao more or less real.  Using the postmodern theories of Jean Baudrillard and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, I propose that due to the fact that there is not a referential and empirical reality but multiple realities, that is to say the hyperreal as Baudrillard defends, the real becomes what the viewer / visitor experiences as immediate, authentic, and emotionally attaching, as Bolter and Grusin postulate.

According to Jean Baudrillard in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981), the real is no longer referential and empirical but the result of miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks that can replicate it an unlimited amount of times:  “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these.  It no longer needs to be rational because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance.  It is no longer anything but operational.  In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore.  It is the hyperreal, produced from the radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2).  Therefore, for Baudrillard there is not one code of the real but a multiple production of the real.  Reality is not based on a previous referential model to simulate.

In opposition to Baudrillard, Bolter and Grusin in their book Remediation argue in relationship to hypermedia and transparent media that these two are opposite manifestations of the same desire:  the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real.  Instead, the real is defined in terms of the viewer´s experience; it is that which would evoke an immediate (and therefore authentic) emotional response (53).

The Guggenheim as a Cultural and Social Hypermediated Non-Place

As Martin Irvine defends, the museum is an institution that is a social construction (an abstract implementable function) in a physical space that serves as a medium for cultural transmission.  Therefore, cultural institutions are always nodes in systems of mediations, validating and validated by media technologies and other institutions, social classes, and the political economy of culture (Irvine 2).  As representative of a cultural institution with a wide global network and distributed agency, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened its doors in 1997, rapidly becoming an architectural symbol of a worldwide globalized design due to its innovative use of curves that captured the light of the Nervion River.  The building was designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry under the auspices of the Basque Government and the Salomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.  The Guggenheim Foundation also has with museums in Venice, its most emblematic museum in New York City´s Upper East Side, and its latest project in Abu Dhabi.  As French anthropologist Marc Augé has asserted in his book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, there is an intrinsic relationship between globalization and its architectural manifestation:  “Leading architects have become international stars, and when a town aspires to feature in the world network it commissions one of them to produce an edifice that will stand as a monument, a testimony providing its presence in the world, in the sense of being wired into the system.” (15)

Frank Ghery affirmed that the reminiscence of the curves of fish in his innovative museum design were thought to capture the light, contributing in this way to integrate the Nervión river and the city of Bilbao into the building:  “the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light” (Wikipedia).  The arrival of the museum revitalized this northern city in the Basque Country which had a long tradition in steel manufacturing and shipbuilding and had suffered from decay in its local economy.  The Guggenheim provided the city of Bilbao with symbolic capital expanding its museum function as a cultural interface and its culturally remediated space[ii] function throughout the city.  According to Pierre Bordieu, “symbolic capital” is to be understood as economic or political capital that is… recognized and legitimate, a credit which under certain conditions, and in the long run, guarantees “economic” profit (The Production of Belief 262).  This symbolic capital was also translated into “economic profit” as to promote the city to the status of a cultural and global center for Modern Art as part of the Guggenheim Foundation Art Museums.  It also promoted an Urban Renaissance with the restoration of several renowned buildings in Bilbao.  The construction of a new walking boulevard next to the river opened the city to the Guggenheim and the museum to the urban space where people can gaze at the river, the city, and the Basque mountains.  Basque culture, gastronomy, and identity were internationally represented through the reflection of the Guggenheim.  Then, the museum function of the Guggenheim was implemented by what Bordieu calls “the objectified state” becoming the holder and owner of cultural goods objectified in material objects and media, such as paintings and monuments, that could also be conducted as economic capital for the Basque government and the city of Bilbao.  (Bordieu Forms of Capital 243-6)

Integrating Bilbao in a global network of museums and promoting Basque and Spanish artists in the museum also encouraged that the international artwork exhibited in the museum mediated the global into the local and vice versa.  While enjoying the worldwide permanent exhibitions of Richard Serra among many others, visitors can go to the museum restaurant and enjoy some delicious Basque Txakoli white wine and some “pintxos,” the local equivalent of one-person Spanish tapas.  Marc Augé affirms that these architectural projects refer, in principle, to the historical or geographical context.  However, they are quickly captured by worldwide consumption:  the influx of tourists who come from all over the world to sanction their success, making of this large-scale projects (Tschumi at La Villette, Pei at the Louvre, and Ghery in Bilbao…) have their own particular local and historical justifications, but in the final analysis having their prestige coming from worldwide recognition (15-6).


Using Linda Kelly´s description of a “connected museum,” the Guggenheim could be considered a connected museum because it offers physical, mobile, and online spaces that offer the visitors a flexible, mobile, vibrant, and changing environment providing them with the instruments to have a personalized experience of the museum.  By placing the visitor in the center of the museum visit, the visitors are no longer passive recipients of information but active participants of the museum’s extensive function (69).   Consequently, in terms of its physicality, the Guggenheim successfully engages in a symbiotic union between the exterior and the interior allowing the visitor to become an actor/ actant[iii] of a larger distributed network of agency that goes beyond the museum and city walls.

The museum has 11,000 m2 of exhibition space distributed in nineteen galleries.  The most well known is the Fish Gallery, 130 meters long and 30 meters wide, which is right underneath the tower thus simulating that the Gallery is embracing the tower and incorporating it into the building.  The grand entrance of the atrium provides the visitor with a monumental feeling that is emphasized by the different volumes of the stone, the curves, the titanium, and the tall crystal walls.  The area is articulated around 300 m2 of space and 50 meters of height.  The outside terrace is accessible from the atrium and has a view of the river and the garden, and it is linked to the monumental tower that integrates the De la Salve Bridge as part of the overall building (Wikiarquitectura).  Augé asserts this type of globalized architecture aims to transmit the illusions of a current dominant ideology and plays part in the aesthetic of transparency and reflection, height and harmony, the aesthetic of distance, which deliberately or not, supports those illusions and expresses the triumph of a system in the main strongholds of the planetary network acquiring a utopian dimension.  This architecture alludes to a planetary society that …aims to be a society of transparency (16-17).  So, how does the Guggenheim provide their visitors in this utopian dimension, this aim for transparency, this interfaceless interface, and this experience of “real” while walking in the museum?  Marc Augé argues that in the era of Supermodernity there are two different kinds of spaces, what he calls “places” and “non-places.”  Places are anthropological spaces that can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity, and the opposite are non-places[iv].  According to Augé a museum would be considered a non-place (62).  Non-places are normally hypermediated spaces where individuals tend to have little interaction with other individuals[v] and therefore interact with the space using written text and narratives (McKay 163).

Despite hosting large numbers of visitors and employees, a museum of large dimensions such as the Guggenheim does not promote social and human interaction and is therefore considered a non-anthropological space.  However, the museum’s interfaceless interface is used as a surface[vi] to transparent media as first encountered in the atrium where tourists are welcomed to use the Zero Space room “Zero Espazioa.” As Alexander R. Galloway affirms, an interface is not something that appears before you but rather a gateway that opens up and allows passage to some place beyond (30).  Consequently, as Galloway states, the Zero Space opens the door to guests to interact with laptops and plasma screens that guide them to the virtual visit of the Guggenheim.  With curated routes to visit the museum as well as detailed information about temporary and permanent exhibitions, the virtual visit opens the window to the “real” visit.  After being informed what are the best ways to explore the space in the digital world, guests are ready to start their journey.

Throughout the museum other forms of media are offered to the visitor:  audio guides, the Guggenheim iPhone app, plasma screens with detailed information about the current exhibitions, multimedia information points, and designated educational spaces where the visitor has educational tools such as panels, interactive software, audiovisuals, audio clips, illustrations, images, and reading rooms.  The focus of each educational space varies from the social to the political, economic, artistic, or architectural perspective with interactive materials available for the users making of this museum a highly hypermediated space (Guggenheim).  As Bolter and Grusin affirm, non-places are sites for experiencing the reality of mediation:  “Frequentation of non-places today provides an experience – without the real historical precedent – of the solitary individual combined with non-human mediation, between the individual and the public authority” (179).  Like the Guggenheim, non-places are hypermediated spaces where the strategies of remediation are put into practice.  Either by using a transparent digital application to get to the real thus denying the fact of mediation or by generating the real by multiplying mediation to create a feeling of fullness and satiety of experience in people, both strategies desire to make individuals evoke it as reality (53).

This evocation to reality is also indebted to the excellent execution of a detailed, remediated, and curated work.  All artwork that integrates the permanent and the temporary collection is displayed in an open negotiation with all other works of art, overcoming the physical boundaries of the Guggenheim and integrating the urban city into the museum space.  This stimulates a synergetic relationship between the architectural limitations and the physical space provided to the visitor.  The museum is a space hypermedia and transparent media and both aim to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real so the active involvement of the sightseers is necessary.  The permanent collection integrates the eight sculptures ofweathering steel by Richard Serra´s The Matter of Time that allows the visitor to perceive the evolution of a relative simplicity of the double ellipse to the complexity of the spiral (Guggenheim).  The famous Puppy that welcomes visitors at the entrance of the museum as well as the Tulips is by Jeff Koons.  You can also find works by Eduardo Chillida and José Manuel Ballester among others.  The temporary exhibition presently on display includes artwork produced by Yoko Ono and Ernesto Neto.  All artwork exhibited either in the outside area or the inside space becomes part of a larger narrative that incorporates the city and the visitor should incorporate and personalize it.  As Tim Boon asserts, the visitor must construct their own narrative when experiencing the museum:  “Narrative theorists argue that people make sense of their everyday experience by constructing narratives, that is, by linking separate components into connected strings of meaning.  These are often related to stories and narratives that are already familiar to them. (…) It is clear that the kinds of sense making that visitors enter into in museums may also be thought of as the construction of narratives, as they incorporate what they encounter into how they already think” (422).  In consequence, the idea of spatial storytelling defended by Michel de Certeau[vii] is applicable to the act of creating a new narrative when walking in a museum such as the Guggenheim which requires an active visitor to interact and create meaning to the art pieces exposed.  Meaning is created in every encounter between the visitor and the work of art as stated by Roland Barthes[viii], affirming that meaning is not imminent and pre-existing in a cultural product but “instead it is created anew in every encounter between the reader / viewer / listener and text (ctd Boon 421).

So active visitors of the Guggenheim are demanded to create their own meaning of the artwork as well as a narrative with the collections and the inner and outer space.  In this aim, the city of Bilbao conforms an additional factor which emerges as a symbol of a globalized network.  The reality of the experience should be drawn from the viewer´s involvement, practice, and capability to apprehend art in a more or less real way.  According to Baudrillard, we live in the era of the hyperreal so no referential reality exists.  Therefore I believe that the audiences of the Guggenheim would take as real the experience that makes them feel an immediate, authentic, and emotional response with the artwork.  The overall impression of the individual´s reality is a product of what he / she apprehends and engages into open dialogue with and, by extension with the museum and the city, creating, in this way, their own personal narrative.  The Guggenheim´s museum function goes far beyond the limits of the city of Bilbao and positions it in a global network of holders of symbolic value.

The Google Art Project as a Cultural and Social Hypermediated Non-Place

The Google Art Project was first launched in 2011 by the head of the project Amid Sood.  He claimed that he wanted to offer the opportunity to millions of people who do not have direct access to art galleries to experience it on the web.  While growing up in India, he did not have the chance to live near a main urban and cultural center so he wanted to make it possible to upcoming generations.  His idea of a virtual gallery which would grant large masses to experience some of the best art institutions of the world also contributed to broadening the world of art´s spectrum on the Internet.



As claimed by Marshall McLuhan´s Understanding Media, when a new medium is invented, its role is that of a container for previous media format (ctd in Galloway 31).  Since its beginnings, the Google Art Project was a media hybrid[ix] that implemented existing software such as Google Street View, Picassa, and Giga-Pixel high-resolution photographs to create its technical architecture (Wikipedia).  The digitized and high-resolution photographs allow the virtual visitor to zoom in and explore the work of art in great detail.  This fact completely dispossesses the work of art of its original “aura” as stated by Benjamin as well as from its symbolic value (Bourdieu) and nationalistic overtones (Malraux).  The format of the website, as Irvine affirms, removes all sense of scale and historical context since all images are of the same size and presented in a horizontal plane giving the illusion of equality (Irvine 29).  The disposition of the images displays a similar idea of that promulgated by Malraux and “the imaginary museum.”

This imaginary virtual museum does not make distinctions of volume, size, color, time period, or artist creating a visual impact similar to that of a collage.  The “infinite scroll” vertically or horizontally creates the illusion of an invisible interface.  It is also relevant that it also promotes, to my understanding, a feeling of what Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky calls “defamiliarization.”  For Shklovsky “Art is thinking in images” and therefore the purpose of art is “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”  Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of the object; the object is not important… Art creates a “vision” of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it (3-5).  In the case of the Google Art Project, the user is aware of this unfamiliarity produced by placing the work of art in a decontextualized format and, therefore, virtual users are expected to perceive the work of art as a “vision”; a product of their perception.  In consequence, their understanding of what is the “reality” of their experience is based on their ability to capture the artfulness of the art piece and transcend the virtual space as well as being able to evoke an immediate feeling, an authentic emotional response that goes beyond the virtual platform.  Shklovsky affirms that when a work is created “artistically” then its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception.  As a result of this lingering, the object is perceived not in its extension in space, but, so to speak, in its continuity (5).   Effacing the piece of art as continuity and attaching it some emotional and personal value makes of the virtual perception a path to equate the physical-mental journey undertaken in an institutional museum.

In the spectrum of its meta-museum function, the Google Art Project has recently provided their users with all of the necessary tools to be involved in the piece of art as continuity far beyond the Google Art Project interface.  The portal has made significant changes to improve their main table of contents, allowing the user to tweet, post on Facebook, email, or share in other social interfaces their favorite piece of art as well as their customized art gallery.  Also, their new faster navigation and new search features make it easier to filter data, artworks, and related events.  Adding new partners has contributed to adding 40,000 pieces of art and about 250 museums in more than 40 countries have joined this common project (Lardiois).  With the idea of implementing the museum function far beyond its gateway and placing the work of art in a continuity opened to new dialogues, other educational instruments have been added so direct access to YouTube Videos and Google Art Project Cultural Institute documentaries and videos are available.


An excellent example can be seen when entering into one of their major featured projects, such as the one dedicated to “Women in Culture,” offering the user multiple windows to works of art and museum collections related to the topic all around the world as well as the latest lectures in this case featuring the recently hosted “Profiles in Peace” by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.


Bolter and Grusin propose that the cyber space is also a hypermediated non-place as it occurs with physical museum such as the Guggenheim.  The critics maintain that the Internet shares all the characteristics of highly mediated non-places such as museums, airports, or shopping malls, as it fits smoothly into our contemporary networks of transportation, communication, and economic exchange (179).   Moreover, they state that the cyberspace mediates as a digital network as the telegraph and the telephone did before.  As the virtual reality, it remediates visual spaces of painting, film, and television, and as a social space it remediates historical places as cities and parks and as non-places as theme parks and shopping malls (183).  In the specific case of the Google Art Project, this mediates for visual spaces, above all for the art gallery function, becoming a meta-museum, but also as a space for remediated television or film platforms used as extensive educational instruments (posting related videos and documentaries).  It also remediates the involvement of a social space in relationship to urban places, pointing out at the same time that the city is a media space as seen with Google Street View and non-places throughout the incorporation of social interfaces such as Facebook and Tweeter on their platform.  In this manner, The Google Art Project is an entryway to a virtual reality that the user would consider as belonging to the hyperreal and therefore not being referential of the code of the real.  On the contrary, as a hypermediated non-place refashions earlier media and extends its continuity embedded in material and social environments as defended by Bolter and Grusin, granting the virtual participant with the ability to decide what evokes in his interface with the work of art an emotional response that would be considered as “real.”


My aim in my essay has been to analyze what makes the experience of a virtual user while navigating the Google Art Project and an active participant engaging in the visit of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao more or less real.  The final word is given to the user and visitor as to decide the effects that the work of art has produced in the establishment of an open conversation with the piece of art and its extended network.  For Baudrillard, we inhabit the era of the hyperreal where there is not a factual reality and therefore we are subjected to experience the hyperreal.  However, for Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, in the virtual world the real becomes what the viewer / visitor experiences as immediate, authentic, and emotionally attaching.

For many the cyberspace is the product of the hyperreal while for others it is just the product of a series of remediation of previous media.  Nevertheless, in my opinion what accounts to be relevant is how the active participant of this larger network becomes a new node in this major distributed system of the art world.  By conforming its own narrative after a visit to theGuggenheim or to the Google Art Project a sense of the emotional attachment to a specific piece of art, an entire collection or even a major topic (as seen in the example given above with “Women in Culture”) becomes part of the code of the real, of the individual perception of what is real.  As for me, this “real” involvement started some years ago with Claude Monet´s “Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat” (1874) hosted at the National Gallery of Ireland.  During my time studying at Trinity College Dublin, I would often visit this breathtaking painting, sit down in front of it, and initiate a dialogue that has continued through the years.


[i] In Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (1969).

[ii] Augé affirms that real cities and towns are themselves media spaces (Bolter and Grusin 173)

[iii] I use the term under the scope of Bruno Latour´s “Actor-Network Theory.”

[iv] Augé also considers non-places spaces such as airports, theme parks, grocery stores, shopping malls, stadiums etc.

[v]  See A. McKay article: “Affective Communication: Towards the Personalization of a Museum Exhibition” Co Design 3.1 (2007): 163-173.  He affirms that people in a non-place are a collection of solitary individuals (as opposed to a social group) each of who typically interacts with the non-place using written text and narratives (163).

[vi] I borrow the term from Alexander R. Galloway The Interface Effect. Cambridge-UK, Malden-MA: Polity, 2012. p. 30.

[vii] For more detailed information, please see: Tim Boon “A Walk in the Museum with Michel de Certeau: A Conceptual Helping Hand for Museum Practitioners” Curator The Museum Journal 54.4 (2011): 419-29. pp. 424-26.

[viii] Please see Roland Barthes.  S/Z. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

[ix] I borrow the term from Lev Manovich´s book chapter: “Hybridization.” Software Takes Command. London-New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. p.163.

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