The virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space

[ by Charles Cameron — on the infinite juxtaposition of similars, opposites and related modes of scholarship — in gallery and museum, catalog and library ]

twins & sunflowers

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: the Amsterdam and National Gallery Sunflowers side by side, Jan 2014. Photo credit: Julian Simmonds, Telegraph UK

Please note that what I term here the “virtual museum” is intended to cover both a physical museum or gallery space with available or built in digital affordances and the museum as a completely portable function of the digital network and its devices alone.

I originally wrote this set of notes on February 10, 1997, and have made only tiny changes in the text as presented here — removing one paragraph that was left incomplete, switching the last two bullet points, and placing one “spare” sentence in a suitable context.

As I look back to those days of the Magister Ludi list, and forward to Cath’s progress with Sembl, I have a sense that this document was prescient, the seed of much that is coming into being now, as we speak. Like all such visions, the manifestation has developed over time, but the idea of the ready, multiple comparison of museum or gallery objects, together with supporting documentation, is still fresh: over time the invisible becomes cutting-edge.

To set the scene, here is a quote from Sven Birkerts that had long inspired me:

There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

With that insight in mind, here’s a glimpse of my early thoughts about the glass bead game and the museum:

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That’s right — the virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space

I

What’s going on here is that we’re dealing with a multidimensional space rather than the flat space of a wall or the three dimensional space of a room.

  • Walk-through “real-life” museums necessarily organize their collections in such a way that one work of art is sequentially related to the next. The visitor walks up a corridor, or through a room, and takes in each work in sequence, carrying a little of the previous work trailing in memory — and on occasion stepping back to view two works placed next to one another in a comparative way.
  • In her hand or in his ear, a textual commentary is available: the catalogue. And this is typically consulted in a one-to-one relation, such that picture 63 is viewed and the text for picture 63 heard or read.

The museum is a collection of physical objects with stories which explain them: virtual space is a space of virtual objects with linkages between them.

  • It follows that the virtual museum is a collection of virtual objects and the linkages between them.
  • But what are those objects?
  • We cannot assume the objects in the virtual museum are limited to the objects in the physical museum: if nothing else, the stories which explain those objects will themselves be objects in the virtual museum.
  • Both “collection objects” and “catalogue entries” are represented in the same digital fashion. The catalogue entries, in other words, are objects in the virtual museum.
  • We do not carry a catalog as we browse the virtual museum… “collection” and “catalog” merge.

The virtual museum is its own virtual catalog.

  • And this is because the digital democratization of information which obtains on the web renders the “art object” and the “art-historical text” functionally equal.
  • In fact, “digital democratization” allows for the expansion of presentable content to include not only visual and art historical materials on an equal footing, but also all manner of other texts, the world of literature and drama, architectural renderings, mathematical analogs and explanations, sounds and musical items…
  • Thus the virtual museum need not and should not limit itself to physical objects [eg pictures, sculptures] and associated texts, but can and should contain linkages to other arts and modes of representation [eg musical, literary, historical, scientific and mathematical expressions].
  • Furthermore, the virtual museum need not limit itself to the objects in its sponsor museum’s holdings, but may also contain linkages to the holdings of other museums: indeed — and importantly — web-based “frames” make this possible without the viewer leaving the originating web site.
  • Not just the museum catalogue and reference library, but also the world’s other museums, private collections, text libraries, record libraries and databases are all available as reference points for the items in the collection.
  • Linkage, in other words, is the “new” in our context, while objects and their stories are the given.
  • We do not move from room to room but from link to link as we browse the virtual museum.

The virtual museum can be conceived as an ellipse with one focus in the originating collection and the other in world cultural history…

  • The “virtual proximity” of other bodies of knowledge on the net and web invites the inclusion of multiple reference points outside the collection: effectively, the museum as we know it transforms into a repository of world culture whose special focus is the collection:
  • The virtual museum is thus no longer archeologically or artistically based: it encompasses all forms of expression.
  • The museum becomes an expression of cultural totality.

The floorplan of the virtual museum is an n-dimensional graph of nodes and links.

  • The essence of the difference between the museum and the virtual museum is this: objects in the virtual museum are “next to” a far larger number of other objects than objects in the physical museum.
  • The system of linkages inherent in the structure of the Internet and the World Wide Web expands our concept of the museum by making possible a bewildering variety of new “throughways” between and among the items displayed, and “outside” the museum: thus raising new problems and possibilities in sequencing the experience of the “visitor”.
  • What happens as a result is that linkage itself blossoms from a narrow and largely sequential business into a multiplex affair.
  • The juxtaposition of one artefact with another explodes in an unimaginable freedom, and a system of constraints must therefore be imagined to limit and lead the viewer — through a “garden of forking paths” — to a desired and appropriate outcome.

To understand this is to make a virtue of the virtual … and a cathedral of the museum.

II

The virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space, but the virtual presentation of whatever the museum-as-archetype has been or will be in the labyrinth of human vision.

  • The sequencing the visitor’s experience in virtual space will thus inevitably reflect the topology not only of the collection, but also of the catalog and of the web itself.
  • And this topography brings a new feature to the foreground: linkage. The links between items themselves begin to assume considerable esthetic importance.
  • The museum and the library can no longer be separated, since their contents are intermingled: and the result is that the virtual museum, like the cathedral before it, becomes a speculum mundi or”mirror of the world”.

We live in secular times, and the museum is our cathedral.

  • This could mean, minimally, that the museum has replaced the cathedral as the central space where people congregate in a culturally rich environment. Maximally, and thus potentially, it means that whatever the cathedral was for us — master artwork of combined artworks in many media, ritual space, hub of the city, mirror of worlds — the museum can be.
  • The secular does not lack for a sacred dimension, but offers access to it in a manner that does not demand a specific, local belief or practice.
  • The virtual museum as secular cathedral is the place where all the world’s imaginal trasures come together as offerings, and from which all the world departs imaginally enriched.
  • The museum is thus heir to the phenomenology of shamans, saints and mystics, as well as of artists and their patrons, teachers and students — for it is visited by crowds in which each individual carries a different cultural inheritance, now Italian, now Congolese, now Navaho, now Santeria…

The test of the museum is its cathedral-effectiveness: its capacity to invoke wonder.

  • The virtual museum is thus a special case of the “art form” described by Hermann Hesse in his novel The Glass Bead Game:
  • The elevation of the virtual museum is a sacramental elevation.
1 reply
  1. Derek Robinson (for Nnvsnu the Tsrungh)
    Derek Robinson (for Nnvsnu the Tsrungh) says:

    An extraordinarily eloquent exposition, old friend, you surpass yourself, many thanks.

    Reply

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