The Clever Humbug of Kiosks
By Joan Altabe

It's been said that America's great cathedrals are its museums. In Augustan splendor, they beckon us to walk up their marble steps, pass beneath their Ionic porticos and enter... Huh? Their kiosks?

You read that right. More and more, our monuments to master painting are turning into commemorations to kiosk computers. The great architectural statements that are our museums now lend themselves to gadgetry. Behold, the age of the virtual museum. You're in the museum revolution. Repositories of our riches have evolved into hi-tech demo rooms, interactive expos, splashy schemas—motor-driven, voltaic, juiced. Museums are the penny arcades of the 21st century.

The transformation from viewing paintings in pigment form to seeing them as pixels began about a decade ago—the result of a 1992 grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Museum Collections Accessibility Initiative. It figures, doesn't it, that a publisher bent on diluting the reading experience would come up with a way to adulterate the museum experience?

And the adulterations are spreading. According to The Museum Computer Network, there are more than 1,000 museums worldwide in the network. Kiosk attractions include video and audio clips, computer animation and manipulable 3-D models, not to mention "behind-the-scenes information on how museum staff members—like conservators and curators—bring the art to the public." In the words of Katherine Jones-Garmil, assistant director of information services and technology at Harvard University, this kiosk stuff is "not just focused on the collection, but on the working of the museum itself."

Isn't that inside baseball prattle? What has the working of a museum have to do with the art experience?

Granted, some museums use computer technology in the service of art better than others. Katherine Peckham in the High Museum education department notes that the kiosk there—a.k.a. The Visual Arts Learning Space—offers the four basic elements of art for study: color, line, light and the arrangement of these—all of which correspond to work on exhibition.

Former High Museum director Ned Rifkin has called the use of such multimedia technology in art museums "just another tool in the tool box for people involved with educating through visual culture, a way to advance the mission of museums."

At least the High's kiosk tries for art appreciation; although I worry about the focus on art's parts and not enough about the effect of its whole. I worry about dumbing down the art experience into baby bites that won't add up to the repast it is. How can a touch-screen computer convey, say, the weariness of the small servant child in Rembrandt's Girl With a Broom as she stops her labor to sip some water? How can electronics get across the look in her eyes that says she's seen more of the world than a child should? How can any kiosk information tell you better than Rembrandt that this child has had no childhood?

And what of Turner's renderings of mist and wind? What machine can show better than he how to give shape to shapeless things? Turner doesn't need an intermediary to have you imagine, for example, that you smell the smoking coal in his Keelmen Heaving Coal by Moonlight. You have only to gaze at the painting.

But, like Rifkin, Brooklyn Museum director, Arnold Lehman—who recently mounted a Star Wars exhibit, and before that a Hip-Hop show—doesn‚t worry about bastardizing art by popularizing it. As he told me, "I believe very strongly that popular culture has an important role to play in museums, as we experience major changes in our many opportunities to receive visual stimulation in so many other ways... It goes to that old adage that you entice people with something they feel comfortable with and then give them the dose of medicine."

Art as medicine? Yikes.

I saw the museum revolution for myself in 1993, when a kiosk, complete with interactive compact discs—including digital audio and full-motion video —was unveiled in the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

To hear museum curator Joan Kropf tell it, then, "This exhibit will truly enhance the visitor's experience by making learning enjoyable."

As far as I'm concerned, Kropf missed the point of a museum, and so will museum-goers who play computer games in the name of art appreciation.

In this world of high-tech, a museum is another world, built of shadows, of specters, of phantoms of the mind. In a museum, you can see a far horizon in an inch of paint, a city in a foot of canvas. A museum is a temple to alchemy, not electronics. It's a house haunted by history—the art in it being an endless performance, a placeless, timeless thing.

Art conquers death. How can such a thing be contained in a kiosk? Putting museum art in a kiosk is turning it into Phineas T. Barnum's emporium of curiosity, where the byword was "clever humbug."

If you ask me, this kiosk business is all about that, business—gate receipts, not art.