When is the last time you went to a museum? I have a few friends from anthropology studies who are working in museums or preparing to do so. One just got a new position in digital curation and that, combined with the recent article Alone in the Virtual Museum from The New Yorker got me thinking.
I am a museum visitor and I really enjoy them, though lack of mobility has been a problem. Combine that with a dislike of crowds and sometimes browsing a collection online has been an option for me, but rarely has it been a better option. Rather, I use the web to preview a museum or to visit museums I’ll never walk through. For example, the Motown Museum is only about 20 minutes from my home. I’m curious about that part of Detroit history but not much of a fan of the music, so I’ve never visited. Today I explored the museum’s location in Second Life, including an exhibit about Marvin Gaye. Very nice.
There are countless museum project online. Most large museums have some of their collection on the Web. They can’t replicate the feeling of amazement and gratitude I had walking through the British Museum and realizing I was standing inches away from artifacts I had admired and studied, but they can be interesting and useful nonetheless. In the physical world, you can build a glass case, type up some labels, arrange your collection, and ta da! You’re done. Going back to the Smithsonian museums over the course of 30 years, I knew just where to find some objects because they never changed. Some collections are refreshed and updated more often than others, rotating in objects from what can be vast storage and research areas (I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Field Museum last year and the anthropology collection never seen by visitors is incredible).
Presenting collections online is an expensive and difficult endeavor, though, beginning with choosing a method. Some do a walk-through tour, some produce complex Flash pieces to present exhibits, others have high resolution photographs. Tours need to be updated and redone for new technology, and as the New Yorker author mentioned, the navigation has been jarring. I tried to look through the Egyptian Antiquities exhibit on the Louvre Museum website but the blank “Chargement en cours” slides that came up whenever I turned a corner gave me a headache. The Flash pieces are fine for special exhibits, though they can be too controlling and movie-like, and they can become little documentaries with far more information than the physical museum presents (for better or worse). High resolution photos allow us to see details closer than ever in real life, but they can give a distorted perspective. Also, part of the art and science of museum curation is in arranging collections – by theme, time, group or artist, etc. Photographs lose that context. Second Life museums avoid a lot of these problems, but because of limitations on prim count (the amount of 3D building blocks permitted in an area) and attempts to reduce lag, they can also feel flat and lifeless. Exploring with an Oculus Rift or similar viewer might be better, but again, someone has to devote the resources to building and maintaining the virtual museum. When budgets are tight, it can be hard for big donors — usually from the local area of the museum — to appreciate the value of online tours. It’s good to read that visits to museums are on the upswing and that digital options are not diminishing that; I’d hate to see physical museums going online-only, at least until we have excellent, rich, immersive virtual reality available to everyone.
The article focuses on the work being done by the Google Cultural Institute, which is quite good. They also offer Google Open Gallery for curators: simple collection and tour-building software that anyone can use (you have to request an invitation with a Google ID, but it is not restricted to “official” museums). That’s a great tool not only for physical museums but for collections that don’t have a display space in the offline world. Got something to share with the world? Build your own online museum.