Virtual "Explore Francis Bacon" exhibition on the Tate Britain website ©Tate 2008

Fine art of virtual museums

The success of the Tate Britain website has shown how the Internet can promote collections and stored works in major museums and attract a new generation of visitors.

Published on 29 January 2010 at 14:30
Virtual "Explore Francis Bacon" exhibition on the Tate Britain website ©Tate 2008

For those of you who are suffering from heartache, stop by the Tate Britain website and you may find solace in the aesthetic pleasures of the I’ve just split up collection: a series of five melancholic, romantic paintings — including a Waterhouse and a Turner — specifically for designed for grief-stricken lovers. While you are there, you might want to browse the more optimistically themed Rainy Day Collection, or indulge in more morose thoughts by typing "suffering" into the museum search engine— a procedure which brings back a harvest of 84 hits. "The Tate consists offically of four museums, but the website really functions as a fifth one," explains Martijn Stevens, a researcher at Radboud University in Nijmegen, who analyses the impact of digital culture on art museums. A stint at Rotterdam's V2 Institute for the Unstable Media has made Stevens aware of the difficulty of preserving digital art works – sites disappear from the web, software becomes antiquated — so he would like to see virtual museums that offer a more long-term home for these kinds of works. But more often than not the digitizing of existing collections is the only goal — and that is when there is a goal in the first place.

Stevens' research shows that art institutions do not take sufficient advantage of the possibilities offered by technology. Many websites are limited to practical information on transport and opening times, and the occasional scanned exhibition brochure. "Often the best you can hope for is a foretaste of a real physical visit," remarks Stevens. "In the long-term, most museums are aiming to digitize their collections, but this should only be seen as a first phase if they are to play a truly active artistic role in society."

The Tate has succeeded in setting an example with such innovations as a Google Streetview option to display locations shown in famous British paintings, and Art on Demand, which allows web visitors to purchase framed reproductions of works from the museum's collection. Stevens also enthuses about experiments undertaken by other institutions, notably Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo near Utrecht. "But when budgets are under pressure, experimental programmes are always the first to be cut. The collection of physical art works is always the main priority."

Interactivity between collections and the public

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Museums could adopt a more radical approach, but for Stevens, this remains the exception rather than the rule: "For centuries, their role has been to display and preserve. It's a tradition that is not easily displaced." And then there is the question of Internet investment. "At the Tate, there is an entire department devoted to the web. But most other museums do not have the necessary expertise, so they have have to outsource programming and web design." Some of them also worry that displaying works on the web will reduce the number of visitors coming through their doors. According to Stevens, this fear is unfounded: "There will always be a public who wants to see the real physical brush strokes."

But what kind of benefits can museums expect to obtain from more dynamic websites? "They enable them to reach a wider audience, and interactivity helps to build relationships between the collection and the public. They also allow curators to present works in a wider range of contexts, and to imagine all kinds of new themes — a prospect that I find intriguing, because these days, the division of collections according to the dictates of art history is an increasingly time-worn approach."

Exhibition of fragile objects

The Internet also offers an ideal means to exhibit delicate objects that museums are reluctant to take out of storage. As a successful example of this type of initiative, Stevens cites the Accessorize! online exhibition created by Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, which gives the public a close-up view of fragile fashion accessories made of such materials as ostrich feathers and tortoise shell. "You could never get that close at a real exhibition. Exhibits like these are almost always shown in display cases."

Apart from boosting sales of prints and reproductions, Stevens does not see how websites can generate additional revenues for museums. He also points out that "demanding payment for access to online collections simply never works." It is on this basis that he believes that public authorities should play a greater role: "If they are willing to pay the storage and upkeep costs for a Rembrandt, I don't see why the shouldn't provide more support for web applications."

Finally, institutions could also make use of digital technology to encourage artistic production. "Museums are are finding it increasingly difficult to finance acquisitions. They don't have the means to compete with Russian oil tycoons at auctions and fine art sales. However, they do have the resources to invite large numbers of artists to participate in online projects." In conclusion, Stevens takes the view that technical advances should pave the way for a paradigm shift: "Museums should be more willing to take risks and to let go of traditional concepts. They have to become more open and more flexible if they are to reflect the changes that are taking place in modern society."

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