Online interface, a new space? or just an extension?

What is the value of physical museums? What if the online museum could replace the offline museum? When talked about the physical museums, the first thing came into my mind is education. One of the most important functions of the museum, not only for the museums in the U.S but the museums around the world, are set for mass education and spreading knowledge. Instead of persevered as private collections, art and historical pieces became national treasures and the meanings of the pieces also were transmitted by the museums to the public. However, the trend of transmitting did not stop at the point when the treasures could be viewed inside a public space, but it was developed to online education. Now, the art and historical pieces could be viewed by anyone at anywhere. The educational function of the museums spread and developed by the new technology and anyone can have a close look at the art pieces online. Online museums largely enlarge the scale of worldwide visitors.

However, showing pictures, or setting up a “platform” for artworks, did not match the entire goal of mass education. Museums’ functions for collections, preservations, and interpretations are much more than a collection of pictures.  Even though web design assist curators introduce and interpret the context of historical or art pieces, the process of interpreting and arranging artworks in a specific space is different from online interpretation. When viewing artworks online, users’ view and thoughts were all limited within a screen and all of the visual space and pictures are 2D instead of 3D. At the same time, the environment of viewing artworks is totally different, texts are all shown in a page or a paragraph, designers’ logic and thoughts are inevitably rooted in the websites, and therefore, users’ have little space for exploring and wondering. For example, when I walk around in space, I can explore the art and history and follow my thoughts, finding something interesting and go back to another space and find connections. However, when I view artworks online, my thoughts will be interrupted by the time spent on controlling the mouse and the navigations of the websites.

The online collection forms a new process of learning and interpretation. With the enlargement of the online collection, I have the same question that whether the interpretation would be different if all the artworks will be viewed online before visitors view it in a museum. When visitors get “familiarity with reproductions”, how could they interpret the artworks when they see the original one? Would they focus more on the size, the frame, or the width of the artworks? or will they put more emphasis on the meaning of the artwork? If an artwork was copied precisely that even a crack could be seen when the visitors stand in front of it, will the viewers be surprised at the size of the artwork is only 2′ 6″ x 1′ 9″?

screenshot of Mona Lisa

I believe that online museums will never take the place of physical museums. Even though multimedia experience enriches the online experience, people are addicted to the original pieces. Reproductions are replicative, and the original pieces are irreplaceable and special, even though without physical space of the museums, the original pieces hold historical meanings and values by themselves.


  1. Mona Lisa.jpg, retrieved from
  2. Kim Beil, “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye.” Afterimage 40, no. 4 (February 1, 2013): 22–27.
  3. Nancy Proctor, “The Google Art Project.” Curator: The Museum Journal, March 2, 2011.