By Carter B. Horsley
The primary function of museums is to protect,
preserve and augment their treasures and their secondary function
The educational role of museums has often been
a matter of controversy between "high-brows" and "low-brows,"
the former arguing, from a somewhat elitist viewpoint for cherished,
undisturbed rapport with art objects, and the latter arguing,
from a more egalitarian viewpoint, for popular culture and the
widest possible audience, crowds be damned.
In recent decades, the latter have been more
successful and museums not only have seen their attendance soar
but have also ventured into various commercial ventures such as
gift shops and the like in their perpetual quest to raise funds
for many important purposes.
This symposium, which was opened to the public
at $30 a ticket, brought together the directors of the worlds
four largest museums, one of which is the Metropolitan.
Philippe de Montebello, the Mets director,
was the gracious host, having just returned from a trip to Paris
and, more interestingly, Persepolis in Iran. He was joined on
stage by Pierre Rosenberg, President-Director of the Musée
du Louvre in Paris, Robert Anderson, Director of The British Museum
in London and Mikhail Piotrovsky, who succeeded his father as
Director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The panel was the second discussion held at
the museum to explore such issues. The first was held in April,
1998, at the opening of the museums electronic resource
center, the Lita Annenberg Hazen and Joseph H. Hazen Center for
Electronic Information Resources in the Thomas J. Watson Library
at the museum, which claims it is "the first of its kind
in any art museum in the United States and abroad."
Mr. Montebello, who professed a fondness for
his cell phone and Palm Pilot, but would like to hold the rope
for the lynching of "whoever designed Microsoft Money 98,"
charmed the audience with comments about the concerns of some
museum people who "favor a measured" response to new
technology being "no longer considered prudent, but retrograde."
Noting that over the next decade, there will
be a billion people on the Internet and that fiber optics will
be able to transmit in one second every issue of The New York
Times (eliciting many groans in the audience), Montebello
cautioned that "technology may be ahead of the current needs
of museums," which "feel enormous pressure to demonstrate
forward-looking technology in a savvy way."
The need to boast that an institution is on
the "cutting edge" is tempting, he suggested, citing
the recent use of portable computers for visitors to take through
the galleries at "The American Century" exhibition at
the Whitney Museum of American Art that opened in April, 1999.
Museums, he said, need to control technology,
"not the other way around." While he expressed some
skepticism about "the new rhetoric" of technology as
salvation for museums, he said "it is useful," adding
that if technology can lure what he called "cuspers,"
people on the verge of going to museums," "then three
cheers for it."
Our purpose is to "detain visitors and
make them linger, he continued, while technology tends to "speed
up" things and instead of encouraging concentration it spawns
"I dont feel beleaguered by technology
for I am confident that the object will always win," Montebello
proclaimed. "If technology seduces the surfer and induces
a thirst for the real," then being "wired" can
be an "imaginative playground" and helpful, Montebello
said. He added, however, that a "mediated visit" can
never be as meaningful as "a direct experience."
Pierre Rosenberg, whose long red scarf draped
over his shoulder was a bold complement to the dark red socks
worn by Mr. Montebello, summed up Mr. Montebellos concerns
concisely when he asked whether museums should "lead or follow."
He made an analogy between the difference of going to the cinema
and seeing a movie on television, on the one hand, and, on the
other hand, seeing images on the Internet and seeing the real
art in a museum.
The Louvre was an early adopter of Internet
technology, opening its own website in 1995, but Rosenberg admitted
to being "less optimistic" than some about its potential.
"Nothing replaces the eye of the scholar" and while
some of the new computer databases are quicker they are not necessarily
better than some of those compiled in the 19th Century, he said.
While his remarks at the symposium were relatively
brief and not too detailed, he handed out two papers that documented
his institutions quite impressive involvement with technology.
Robert Anderson also took a long perspective,
recalling that when photography began in the 19th Century, some
carped "Painting is dead!"
Andersons outlook was also rather sobering,
especially with regard to a widely shared dream, one to which
Rosenberg referred in his comments, of an "encyclopedic"
resource. While he did not go into details, one assumed he was
conjuring catalogue raisonées being available on every
artist and accessible for free on the Internet, a goal devoutly
dreamed by some.
At the end of the 1970s, the British
Museum undertook the creation of a database of its collection
of about 7 million objects. By the end of this year, Anderson
estimated that about 1.8 million objects will have been entered
and the project is not likely to be completed until 2020.
The British Museum, he continued, has launched
a "Compass Project" that is intended to have information
available for the public about 5,000 objects when it goes on-line
late next year. It has also installed a "virtual reality"
exhibit about the famous Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in Athens
but decided not to put it in the same gallery as the celebrated
marbles but in another smaller one.
Mikhail Piotrovsky observed that when the Hermitage
made the museum free for children, who now constitute 50 percent
of its visitors, many of its guards complained, but while the
children were intent on scurrying to the cafeteria Piotrovsky
mischievously observed that they did have to pass 12 sculptures.
"Now weve added a computer facility," he continued,
noting that he recently overheard two children in one of the palaces
galleries saying to one another that maybe one of the workstations
was free now and they could go back to it. "Technology,"
he mused, "may be the antichamber for the museum."
Mr. Rosenberg of the Louvre remarked that studies
have indicated that if someone has not visited a museum by the
age of 20 it is highly likely he will never go.
Mr. Piotrovsky said that the Hermitage will
launch its own website in June, 1999 with about 1,000 images.
"It is difficult to decide how many to show and one must
also be protected," he said, adding that it was investigating
how to "watermark" the pictures it places on the website.
He, also, took somewhat of a contrarian view
about the value of technology and the arts, or at least museums.
Maybe, he suggested, it can stop some people from coming to museums,
a comment that drew great applause at the packed symposium.
What if the technology of reproducing images
gets so good that the copy is indistinguishable from the original,
a member of the audience asked. Mr. Montebello replied that if
Rembrandts painting of a "Man in a Golden Helmet"
were declared not to be a Rembrandt, what changes is not the painting
Part of the "magic" of a museum are
its "social aspects," the hint of accumulated history
and the response of other people, Mr. Anderson declared.
The directors were not shy about the commercial
potential of technology. Pierre Rosenberg, for example, noted
that the Louvre has sold 600,000 copies of a CD-ROM about its
One member of the audience asked the panel
if they would put the E-mail addresses of their curators on their
websites, a question which evoked considerable laughter in the
audience. "One has to be careful," Mr. Anderson commented,
as "curators have limited time."
The Louvres web site (http://www.louvre.fr)
now gets about 11,500 visitors a day (as compared to 15,000 to
20,000 "real" visitors daily at the museum) and contains
600 photographs of the museums major works and 60 "virtual
panoramas" of its galleries. It is available in French, English,
Spanish and Japanese.
The "collections" web pages are about
one third of all those accessed at the site while the "virtual
visits" comprise about one quarter. Although the site was
launched in July, 1995 with only 100 objects illustrated, it was
not until November, 1998 that it grew dramatically to its present
600 objects, which was accompanied by a dramatic increase in site
traffic, according to a museum document.
The site has collected several thousand responses
to a visitor survey. The survey indicated that the 25-45-year-old
group was the most responsive to the site. Interestingly, the
United States had the most visitors, one third.
More than 25 percent of the visitors who responded
to the survey continued their education to the post-graduate level.
The average site visit was less than 10 minutes.
Almost two-thirds of the studys respondents
believe that the site does not replace the museum, but makes one
want to visit it.
While the glories of CD-ROMs and the Internet
are sedentary pleasures for most people, the panelists generally
welcomed the spreading of ideas, particularly aesthetic ideas,
and eager to spread the good word any which way about art. The
great "paradox" of museums is not how to excite one
individual, but the masses.
While many scoff that too many museums have
turned themselves, or a good part of themselves, into bazaars,
there is no denying the slocum that an educated consumer is the
best customer. The genuine concern of some art observers that
reproductions can cheapen originals somehow probably misses Mr.
Rosenberg's point that it is important to instill an aesthetic
appreciation early, indeed, by virtually any means, now including
The real concerns about copyright were alluded
to briefly and obviously merit full attention and discussion,
but it was encouraging to hear already about "second generation"
websites and the acceptance that many more generations are to
In this lickety-split new information world,
bravery is not so important as participation and, gasp, hard work,
and, ultimately, reflection. First impressions are significant,
but understanding based on self-doubts, re-examinations and the
trial of time is more important, at least for the connoisseurs