My mother grew up in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. Art wasn’t exactly part of the daily curriculum and she didn’t finally step into an art museum until she moved to Boston as an adult. However, when she was in Catholic school, a particularly plucky nun passed out 8 x 10 prints of classic paintings to her eighth grade class and asked them to reproduce them in a drawing. My mother was handed Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) and Vermeer’s Young Woman With a Water Pitcher (1660-1662). From that moment forward, my mother was hooked. The world spilled onto canvases in swirling colors and patterns—and that nun had opened the door.
Suppose the nun had stuck to a prescribed curriculum. Suppose reproductions of art were deemed “less than,” and she would have to take her students to the art museum in order to expose them to art; no small feat from central Pennsylvania.
Because of that nun, and because of my mother’s love for art, my mother always took my brothers and me to art museums when we were kids. My brothers liked the sculptures, I liked the paintings. I don’t kid when I say I’ve been getting lost in art museums since I was six—school tours would often have to circle back to drag me from a John Singer Sargent. From there, my own obsession developed through an encouraging high school English teacher, countless college semesters of intensive art history, and hours spent lost in the vast halls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If not for that nun, it’s hard to say if any of my fascination would have developed. I am a direct product of the benefits of accessibility, at whatever level of technology is available.
My studies and my interests prompted me to take a curatorial studies course in graduate school on the theory and history of exhibition design, where I could explore more than just art and artists, but artistic affect and audience engagement. I wanted to see the other side of things, the side where all the aspects of exhibition design come together consciously to create an effortless experience. We discussed any number of exhibition theory topics—from Foucault to the Armory Show—but it was when we caught up to contemporary exhibition standards that the discussions grew interesting.
On a homework assignment for the final class were two articles about the “virtual museum” and a link to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s virtual tour. I read the articles, digested them with a grain of salt, and took the online tour. It was mesmerizing to be suddenly dropped in the middle of the gem room, staring at a pale fleshy string of asbestos in the complete virtual silence, in the complete actual silence of my house. No, it was not a substitute for the real experience of a gem room—there’s something palpable in the air in those rooms that cannot be denied and, no, cannot be replicated through virtual reality. All the same, it’s a beautiful tool, a slice of accessibility to a museum that I’ve never been able to go through without being crowded and jostled by herds of seven-year-old schoolkids.
In class, we dimmed the lights and turned on Google Art Project. Our professor directed us to the virtual tour of the Uffizi in Florence and I was, once again, slightly amazed that a few keystrokes and clicks could virtually transport you to world-renowned institutions. The conversation, however, turned rapidly to the technology’s limits, questioning who actually uses these kinds of tours. I was game for a lively discussion—the technology is limited—but that’s not what I got.
“These can’t be used as substitutes,” I kept saying. “There’s no way that this is going to match the actual experience of going to the Uffizi, but it’s still incredible to be able to see these halls on your computer.”
My remark was rebutted in record time. “But it removes the implied history that comes with actually going to the place,” my professor said simply. I tried another tack.
“So this lowers the intimidation factor. A lot of people don’t go to museums because they’re afraid of the fact that they don’t already have the knowledge of the place, the history of it. It’s intimidating if you don’t because there’s a sense that you’re expected to know it. Here, there’s no intimidation. There’s no judgment.”
“But I doubt that people who haven’t done their research would go looking for a virtual tour of the Uffizi.”
I stared at the room in disbelief. “I think we have to remember that we’re coming from a very snobbish perspective. We’ve all studied art.”
I was summarily dismissed and the conversation traveled its pessimistic route without me. When my classmates could find no mission statement for Google Art Project, I dug one up, a blog post that touted accessibility. Amit Sood, the head of Google Art Project, wrote: “It started when a small group of us who were passionate about art got together to think about how we might use our technology to help museums make their art more accessible—not just to regular museum-goers or those fortunate to have great galleries on their doorsteps, but to a whole new set of people who might otherwise never get to see the real thing up close.”
It is, I think, an honorable mission. One that has countless practical uses for students, art fans, and art newbies alike. But as soon as I finished reading it aloud, a classmate said, “But we have to keep in mind that Google doesn’t really care about art.”
“What’s the point of it at all?” my professor asked with a laugh. “It’s not going to be all art. We don’t want that. The Getty tried to do that and I was resistant to it. Who’s to say the Getty should get to determine what’s art and have that database? It’s the same with Google. I don’t want Google to say what’s art.”
“Well, it’s better to have something than nothing,” I said. It was the last I spoke in that course.
To me, it seems that the technology is limited, but it’s not without value. To them, it seemed that the technology is limited, therefore it is without value. I can understand the limitations: a virtual museum is not a substitute. But it’s not meant to be a substitute, it’s meant to be a tool, a chance to explore and to learn in areas one might never experience. It’s hand-crafted for the insatiably curious.
After all, isn’t that who art is for?
Art critics have dictated for so long that one way is the “right” way to look at it, and the other the “wrong” way, so the experience can be intimidating.
I admit, when I came to graduate school, I was going to write my master’s thesis on smartphone technology in the museum space, generally from the cynical perspective that nobody looks at art anymore. Within a week of serious research and field work, that viewpoint shifted considerably. In fact, it took a 180. So to sit in that classroom with everyone around me begrudging these technologies that I had once begrudged and then found myself to be wrong—it wasn’t comfortable, that’s for sure.
My total change of heart came with the realization that I am an art snob. There’s no way around it. I can look at a Rothko and totally, 100% get it. I don’t take that for granted. Someone walking into a museum for the first time probably isn’t going to pick up on those cues that took six years of study to understand, and there’s intimidation in that notion, that thought that is everyone around me understanding this? What am I not seeing that they are? What’s wrong with me?
On the other hand, you don’t need six years of study to appreciate a Rothko. Just last week, I stood before a Rothko with a friend. I studied art, she studied business. I look at it for the color values, the illusion of depth, the brightness levels that make the patches of color vibrate on the canvas. My friend looks at it for its deceptive simplicity and its almost unknowable appeal. We both see something different in it, but art critics have dictated for so long that one way is the “right” way to look at it, and the other the “wrong” way, so the experience can be intimidating.
Technology in the museum space lowers this intimidation factor, erases this notion that there is a “right” way to experience art. There isn’t. Art is inherently subjective, for both the creator and the viewer. We pull out of art what we put into it, and no two people will interact with a painting the same way. That’s the beauty of it all. By opening the virtual doors to a museum so an art newcomer can see the Uffizi from the comfort of their own home, the subjective experience of art expands to a wider audience, one that, as Sood says, might not have otherwise had the chance or the desire to go out looking for it.
My classmates were saying that you shouldn’t rely on an experience that is less than the true experience, which, fundamentally, I agree with. Museums are beautiful things, but not everyone can get to them, and museums are getting wise to that. They are opening their doors to the digital world to become true public institutions. Should we begrudge them that goal simply because the virtual tour doesn’t show you exactly what you want to see?
My professor switched to the Smithsonian tour and took us into the mammal room. She clicked on one of the dialogue cards and a giraffe sticking its tongue out came up.
“See? How weird. Funny what they chose to focus on. I didn’t want to see that.”
Any why not? I thought. Am I the only one who finds this spectacular? Am I the only one understanding this? What are they not seeing that I am? What’s wrong with them?
It’s a spectacular thing, having this access to this art. No, it’s not the real deal, and nothing will ever replace that. Never. It’s just not possible. But why not have beautiful, full-res pictures of some of the world’s most renowned art? What’s the harm? It’s not the full picture, but shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that we have it at all? Even if there were only one painting on Google Art Project, it’s something, and it’s something beautiful.