Digital Museums

Jen Lennon

When I first opened Google Art Project, I went straight to the Phillips Collection because it’s the museum I’ve probably visited the most in my time in DC. I’ve looked at the Google Art Project before, and I have to say, it’s come pretty far in the past year. It seems like a ton of new museums have been added. Anyway, I went to the Phillips Collection, and I flipped through the images looking for something specific: the Rothkos. At the Phillips Collection, there is an entire Rothko room. It’s actually pretty small and only a few people are allowed to go into it at once – something that they actually pretty strictly monitor. The first time I went I didn’t get why and I thought it was kind of dumb, but I liked that at least it wasn’t packed when you were in there. But each time I’ve gone back, and since I’ve learned a little bit more and started to appreciate the pieces more, I’ve grown to love the Rothko room. Interestingly, I couldn’t find the Rothkos on Google Art Project. It showed most of their permanent collection – none of the Pollocks that are on display now. And one certainly couldn’t replicate the Rothko room, so maybe that’s why they’re not there. Maybe they didn’t even want to try.

In one sense, I’m still sort of protective of the idea of museums. There’s something that can’t quite be replicated about visiting a museum, from the architecture to the reverence to the fact that art is literally surrounding you. I also like that a trip to the museum means meaningfully taking time out of your day to visit some art or to expand your mind. In this case, then, the digital reproduction of great art works would take away some of the aura that Benjamin talked about. However, I also think that there can certainly be value in posting these things online, as well. It’s not as if it makes the physical museum disappear. And there’s definitely a sort of cultural divide, much like the digital divide, where some people don’t have access to great museums or the time to visit them. In basically every city besides DC, it costs money to visit a museum. So in these cases, I’m glad that the art exists somewhere for them. This offers the ability for people to be inspired by art who might not have been before. And maybe, for a group of people who have never visited a museum, this will have an aura of its own. If the first time you see a great work of art is on a screen, wouldn’t that sort of re-calibrate your expectations?

Another thing that the Google Art Project made me think about was curation. Museums (and galleries) have curators who thoughtfully put together exhibitions. As I mentioned already, the current main exhibition for the Phillips Collection isn’t included in their entry on the Google Art Project. What does this mean for the idea of digital art museums? Does it lose some of that curatorial thoughtfulness? I think it could be an opportunity for a new kind of curation. Maybe certain groupings would work better together online than they would in physical space. Maybe museums could work together to make exhibitions. I also like the idea of getting smaller museums online – or from even more faraway places. The digital museum could be really cool, and it’s own entity, if put together thoughtfully for its own medium as opposed to merely digitizing another. It seems as if sculpture and street art wouldn’t translate well online, which is a shame. But what could? Or could there be a way to make these fit in a better way? Google seems to be on its way, as I mentioned before, they have already made big strides on the site. I look forward to seeing what it becomes.