“Digital Museums and Virtual Audiences” brought together varied and knowledgeable panellists from multiple facets of the art world to discuss how institutions can respond to technology.
The talk touched on technology’s possibilities as well as its potential disruptions, and how museums can engage with audiences both online and offline. Art Radar presents a report on the topics raised by the discussion.
Digitalisation and museums
At Art Basel Miami Beach 2017, the panel conversation “Public/Private: Digital Museums and Virtual Audiences” brought together Shannon Darrough, Digital Director at MoMA, artist Rachel Rossin, philanthropist and publisher Alberto Ibargüen, and collector and virtual museum founder Joel Kremer.
The panel was opened by moderator András Szántó, a cultural strategy consultant based in New York, who began by foregrounding the premise of technology and its structural implications for how the event was being held. In what Szántó termed the Conversations series’ “year of exile” at the Miami Botanical Gardens, most of the audience was live streaming – that is, they were themselves a virtual audience. The notion of physical versus digital presence would be a recurring theme of the discussion.
In his opening remarks, Szántó discussed our contemporary moment, the impact of technology and how this relates to museums:
I think we all think our time is unique. That we are living on the cusp of history, of momentous change. In terms of digitalisation and museums, we are now finally seeing major changes in the institutional ecology of art because of technology. The question to be asked is “Why is this happening and why now?
The answer is fourfold and relies on a combination of factors. Firstly, audiences are demanding technology as part of the museum experience. Secondly, the nascent generation of museum leaders are themselves digital natives. Thirdly, and linked to the second point, internal resistance within institutions is melting away. Szántó gave the example of the ‘old school’ curators – perhaps once resistant to technological encroachment in the museum, but who are now very active on Instagram and seeing the type and scale of new audiences that that kind of platform can generate. Finally, and most importantly, technology is finally catching up with us.
Where technology has made a great impact upon our day-to-day lives, as in the case of Uber and the taxi industry, disruption within the art world has thus far been less obvious. Art is the most complex form of information that humankind has created across millennia. Compared to apps like Uber, as a form of data, art represents a very real challenge. However, from searchable databases and interactive gallery displays to social media platforms and virtual reality applications, digital innovation is starting to leave a deeper mark on the museum world, which has been comparatively slow to embrace new technology.
In the words of panellist Alberto Ibargüen, President and CEO of the Miami-based Knight Foundation (founded by publisher brothers John and James, they fund journalism and arts initiatives), we are now in the “Gutenberg moment” in which technological change has revolutionised the authority of the current order, but we are still processing the capacity for such disruption to affect our understanding of the world. The Internet has released a similar rush of energy and democratised information as did the printing press in the 16th century – for better or worse.
Technology to engage with art
It was noted that what is important here is to make the distinction between three types of technology:
- Technology that generates utility, e.g. Uber is useful
- Technology that generates creativity
- Technology that generates engagement
Technology that generates engagement, that is a level of comfort and ease when engaging with art, is, according to Ibargüen, where a museum can benefit from digital innovation. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Shannon Darrough, Director of Digital Media, is concerned with how to integrate technology into the museum. In his opinion, the use of digital in museums goes in two directions: either as an artistic gesture or project – the digital act in and of itself (for example, the work of panellist Rachel Rossin which uses VR to create immersive institutional experiences) – or as an aid to the curatorial communication of art and its ideas.
Darrough is concerned with how technology can be utilised to streamline the public-facing aspects of the museum – its website, ticketing, apps, and how these platforms provide a service to users and also meet its mission. At MoMA, they are thinking about how to get their content out in a meaningful or useful way, rather than using technology for its own sake. Thus far, digital initiatives at the museum have included putting their collections and exhibitions online, as well as the full exhibition history dating from 1929, with installation images and documentation all digitised.
Whilst they are taking steps to get art’s stories out into the work, Darrough believes that the museum is a physical, social experience – where you can watch, be, share authentic moments and interactions with both the artworks and the people around you. In the sense that MoMA (and other museums) aim to cultivate that authentic experience of presence in front of an artwork, does the quality of technology, for example virtual reality headsets, match that of the art? Both Darrough and Rossin believe that there are powerful barriers to total immersion as promised by virtual reality, not least of the “bad relational aesthetics”, as Rossin puts it, of the headsets themselves, which disable the social element of museum experiences through their disembodiment.
As Szántó asks,
Will we ever have a virtual experience of museum’s that is as satisfying as physical?
Expanding digital interaction
When dealing with new technology as an infrastructural challenge to museums, as Ibargüen notes, “The biggest mistake the newspapers made, was to think you could turn a book into a movie.” Museums should not aim to translate the three-dimensional experience of art into a flat screen. Instead, the goal is to extend and share the information, a sense of appreciation, and a level of interaction that might go beyond access to the physical object.
As the Director of his family’s collection of Old Masters, the Kremer Foundation, and co-founder of the Kremer Museum, Joel Kremer is attempting to do just that: to use technology to share the paintings with as many people in as many countries as possible. Whilst he also does not think technology heralds the end of the physical museum, he is realistic about the limitations of the Kremer collection – material (the paintings are fragile and cannot travel often), cultural (there is perhaps less interest in Old Masters than previously) and institutional (despite an extensive conservation and loan programme, there are limits to the museums that could present a full collection show). VR technology magnifies the reach of the works in a significant way, and in a way that his ‘peers’ – the Stedelijk or Rijksmuseum – struggle with. Where a traditional national collection has slow-moving investment committees and acquisition budgets, the Kremer Museum is able to leverage their collection exponentially, and has founded education initiatives across the globe, in particular in India. He says:
We are privileged to have access to museums and collections. Billions can’t – and technology will give them access to them.
Digitisation, curation and audience
One aim of the discussion was to reflect upon what is at stake as museums digitise. In simple terms: the museum’s business model, its audiences and its role as a cultural authority. The panellists are all so-called “techno-optimists”: they can see the potential of technology. As has been seen in other industries, however, technology can lead to a side stepping of authority. As Szántós asks, “to what extent do museums need to co-author the institutional experience with their audiences?”
In the sharing economy, what is going to be the role of the curator in the future? Whilst there is a need for museums to acknowledge and embrace democratisation, it is also important not to lose site of curatorial expertise. At institutions, curatorial decision-making still takes place first, and then asking how digital can complement, extend, augment or amplify these narratives. A curator’s role will still be to engage audiences, give context, encourage learning and understanding – social media is seen as a good platform to encourage interaction and dialogue with audience.
Whatever other changes, technology has brought about the transformation of the once-hierarchical structures of major museums, where the emphasis now is on interdisciplinary, user-focused and collaborative thinking. As Kremer concludes,
Digital, by definition, is now not something you do on the side, it’s not siloed – it’s in every facet, element and department of an organisation.
In our post-disruptive moment, we may be yet to set the complete digital transformation of art institutions. Nonetheless, the panel provided fruitful and thought-provoking discussion of how museums are adapting to technology, the issues they face, and what might still be to come.
“Public/Private: Digital Museums and Virtual Audiences” took place on 8 December 2017, as part of Art Basel Miami Beach Conversations.
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