The Musée Imaginare

Contemplating the realization of André Malraux’s Musée Imaginare through the Google Art Project, I am left debating the consequences of our construction of art and the museum structure. I am torn in weighing the pros and cons of the physical entity of a museum and all it entails and the digital museum presented by the Google Art Project. Initially, my first response that the Google Art Project  was hesitant because I felt it detracted from the experience of actually “seeing” the art, the authenticity of seeing the actual art piece in person was gone. Looking at the Post-Impressionist gallery from the MOMA  after a recent visit to the museum, idea of presenting only 17 of the museum’s more famous pieces appeared to be a negative aspect of the technological reproduction of art for mass consumption that was spoken about by Benjamin and Malraux. However, thinking back to the physical structure and presentation of these pieces in the MOMA, I wonder how much the impact these famous pieces such as Van Gough’s Starry Night actually had. First of all, the majority of the paintings displayed in Google’s interface could mostly be found on the 5th floor of the MOMA, the top floor. Secondly, I found myself better able to explore the photos with the zoom in/zoom out focus than I did while actually at the museum, in which crowds of people surrounded paintings, particularly the famous ones. While this gave me the chance to explore artworks within the museum I was unfamiliar with, it leads me to wonder how much the experience of museum is a form of gaining Bordieu’s cultural capital and how much is truly appreciating and experiencing the art. Using Baudrillard;s notions of simularca and simulation as an example, the Mona Lisa at the Louvre has been reproduced thousands, if not millions of times. We are used to seeing it on stamps, on TV and in books among other media outlets, reality of actually seeing it in person is diminished and at times it appears nothing more than a commodity in which western society has attached cultural capital.

The Google Art Project on the other hand, gives access to art from all over the world the the interface to explore and discover history that they would not have otherwise and to an extent curate a collection of their own that is entirely based the museum structure. Below are possible implications of the The Google Art Project and Google’s involvement in art interface from a blog site for Curator Journal in an article entitled The Google Art Project: a new generation of museums on the web?

  • The gigapixel scans enable a kind of encounter with the art that is not even possible in the galleries. As Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, recognized, the ability to engage with the work of art in this way transforms the web experience from an informational one to an emotive one. High definition/high resolution video and images are a good example of how the web and digital media can be used to complement, rather than imitate, the encounter with the artwork in the gallery.
  • Image recognition may just be the answer to how we’ll deliver location-based services in museums. These can be based on a combination of panoramas (Street View or Photosynth or other: may the best technology win!); image recognition à la Google Goggles; and OCR of labels. Lost in the Louvre? Stop, look around with your phone’s camera, and it will recognize where you are and show you your location on a map.
  • Museums will collaborate more on the web: sharing content, links, and enriching each others’ online experiences; however, for this to be workable, we need a technology solution that makes our content “phone home” so we can accurately track traffic to our assets, and also a cross-platform CMS that allows us to manage our content on multiple sites and platforms, both those under our control and not, from a single central point.
  • MAYBE we’ll get Google maps of the interiors of museums from this, and our visitors can enjoy a consistency of interface and quality from museum maps that is not possible today.

All of these new technological transformations have a huge impact in the way we experience art. Image recognition, Google maps and the ability to use web/smartphone resources takes the notions of hyperreality, simulation and the museum without walls in the type of technological revolutions referred to by Benjamin, Malraux and Baudrillard. By using technology in association with museum trips could foster more interactivity and perhaps make the experience of viewing are more “real” by providing background and insight that allows for a self-created experience and navigation of the museum rather than a more passive experience.