How much does the physical setting in which works of art are presented matter? Works put in contest of their original physical setting (such as churches and homes) can change the perception of the objects, as context endows certain values.
In the same way that a temple can plays a key role in the interpretation of the art within, the museum organizes the visitor’s experience, and the guest engages in an activity much like a ritual. The objects in the museum become its voice and face, and the decorative elements form a logical whole as an iconographic program that clarifies purpose. Although the museum is a ceremonial monument, the conventional art historian may ignore the meaning the work acquires in the museum, insisting on the viewer’s own experience of the art shaped by the artist’s intention.
One modern idea is that works should be viewed one by one in an a-historical environment, a neutral space without distractions. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is the prototype for the modern art museum, as its ritual forms translate to the idea of individualism and freedom. Because the MoMA belongs to an age of corporate capitalism, it addresses us as private individuals who value an experience in subjective terms.
The visitor often follows a main ceremonial route, on which certain works are given more weight, as they mark culminating moments in history. A walk through the permanent collection of the MoMA, for example, is like walking through a labyrinth, which is a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. The form organizes ritual activity and an experience of internal drama.
Our fast-paced lives are full of and often depend on technological advancements, which have taken hold in the museum world and allow online art viewing. “Google Art Project” was released this February, allowing users to take virtual walking tours through parts of seventeen top art museums, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum. One can view high-resolution images such as Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus and other masterpieces. Some institutions decided not to participate, while others only show a few rooms.
Overall, it is no substitute for seeing it in person; however, new technological improvements are under way to make the experience even more realistic. The internet has changed the museum’s relationship with the public, but will this program prevent people from entering the museum and take away from the “museum rituals” such as the MOMA’s labyrinth?
Although nothing can undermine the power of seeing a work in person (or can it be undermined?), the new program allows art lovers to explore their interests and decide what and where they want to visit. The program also allows those who don’t have access to museums to develop their knowledge of art. Museums today must welcome technology to expand the learning experience. Although it raises some suspicion, overall, the tool has been beneficial and boosts appetites to see more art, raising interest and museum attendance and democratizing art through technology.
The New Britain Museum of American Art provides useful online highlights of the permanent collection and overviews of current and upcoming shows. What do you think about the increasing digitization of museums? What are the benefits? What are the downfalls? Would seeing a museum online quench your thirst for seeing in person? Or entice you to visit? Should the NBMAA put its galleries online? What do you want to see?