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
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
schemasmotor-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 agothe 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 memberslike conservators
and curatorsbring 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 therea.k.a. The
Visual Arts Learning Spaceoffers the four basic
elements of art for study: color, line, light and the
arrangement of theseall of which correspond to work
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
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 Lehmanwho recently mounted
a Star Wars exhibit, and before that a Hip-Hop
showdoesnt 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 discsincluding digital audio and full-motion
video was unveiled in the Salvador Dali Museum in
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 historythe 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, businessgate receipts,