"Art Museums, The Internet and New Technology"

A Symposium at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 10, 1999

By Carter B. Horsley

The primary function of museums is to protect, preserve and augment their treasures and their secondary function is education.

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 world’s four largest museums, one of which is the Metropolitan.

Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s 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.

Directors of the Louvre, Metropolitan and British museums

Pierre Rosenberg, director of the Louvre, left, Philippe de Montebello,

director of the Metropolitan, and Robert Anderson, director of the British Museum

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 museum’s 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 distraction.

"I don’t 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. Montebello’s 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 institution’s 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!"

Anderson’s 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 1970’s, 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 we’ve added a computer facility," he continued, noting that he recently overheard two children in one of the palace’s 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 Rembrandt’s painting of a "Man in a Golden Helmet" were declared not to be a Rembrandt, what changes is not the painting but "you."

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 collections.

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 Louvre’s 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 museum’s 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 study’s 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 "virtual" museums.

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 come.

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 this night.

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