Hold on, the statue’s buffering: Virtual museums for a post-physical world

Culture Life

Image description: The Guggenheim in Bilbao 

It was a pleasant sunny afternoon in Bilbao on the day I paid a visit to the Guggenheim. I’d been planning my trip to Spain for three months, and it would be a grave error for anyone remotely interested in art to skip one of the country’s largest, most well-designed museums. No queues at the ticket office – for once! – and the €6.50 ticket was now complimentary. The catch, of course, was that I was nowhere in Basque Country itself. Far from it: in the midst of lockdown in Singapore, I was free to wander the halls of among the world’s most iconic museums to take in Cubist paintings, Richard Serra sculptures, even strut along its north and south terraces.

On the face of it, virtual museums hardly seem like an adequate substitute for the real thing. This isn’t to say that they’re a net negative in accessing art, history and culture. People all around the world are certainly better off for having the chance to view artwork, artefacts and installations where huge travel costs, time and temporary special exhibitions would otherwise stand in the way. Amidst a pandemic, virtual museums might even be the only way to appreciate many specific works of art. Nonetheless, a huge component of experiencing a museum simply cannot be replicated online for the vast majority of visitors from home.

The most arresting and emotive of brushstrokes now look muddy and haphazard in their high-resolution snapshots

There’s something uncanny about traversing the Guggenheim one click at a time. You don’t move through space, as with Google Maps, but rather jump between different points on a pre-defined route to view your surroundings in a 360° panorama. The level of photographic detail isn’t fantastic either, resembling the quality of the latest iPhone… from 2013. Occasionally details are obscured or artists’ names a tad hard to read, and rather than walking up to the relevant wall panel, you’ll have to scroll to zoom in (you weren’t thinking of doing this on a mobile phone, were you?!), with the camera’s field of vision changing dizzyingly fast. At other times entire works are blurred out, presumably for copyright reasons, unless I was lucky enough to chance upon an incredibly to-the-letter exhibition on censorship.

Still, I was grateful to be viewing Jean-Michael Basquiat’s Man from Naples, Google’s cameraman maintaining a respectful distance from the work. Your eyes are still drawn to the striking red-and-blue head of a red pig, before wandering over numerous other phrases, thoughts and symbols scrawled playfully over the rest of the canvas. Curious as to how this fit into the rest of his work, one click brought me to an informative write-up of the painting, with the possibility to read a concise biography of Basquiat too.

It is difficult to feel small, to feel awed, when the object of admiration must appear within the confines of a laptop screen

Yet the digitally-derived ability to scrutinize the painting down to the most minute detail was less of a benefit than a necessary corrective to a shortfall of my experience, namely my inability to establish what material the work had been painted on. This normally simple, albeit subconscious judgment: get up close, see how the light bounces off the work, the texture of paint on canvas, is simply inaccessible from your browser. The most arresting and emotive of brushstrokes (I recall my encounter at the Tate Britain with the Romantic J.M.W Turner’s paintings of ships at sea) now look muddy and haphazard in their high-resolution snapshots, while some of my favourite works are downright disappointing.

Other artistic forms are rendered even more poorly on a two-dimensional screen. Fully appreciating sculpture does not just require being able to take in their material composition, or moving about to see them from multiple angles, but entails their presence and how they interact with the gallery space itself. This phenomenological dimension is ill-suited to most virtual forms: even the most immersive of videogames have difficulty embodying their users in three-dimensional space. In some sense these constraints surrounding virtual museum visits boil down the inherent limitations of hardware itself: it is difficult to feel small, to feel awed, when the object of admiration must appear within the confines of a laptop screen.

There’s something inherently humanistic about museums in any form

The choice between visiting a virtual museum and no museum at all is clear. What the surging popularity, if not necessity, of these virtual avenues of experiencing art, has done is to expand and intensify an existing conversation surrounding the nature of art and museum-going itself. My focus on the virtual equivalents of existing museums, in some sense, reflects a ‘tyranny of the physical’ from my past travel experiences, one that many dedicated virtual galleries and museums have sought to overturn. Even while writing this piece, I continue to glimpse exciting new possibilities surrounding virtual galleries – a new Instagram account documenting the use of tape as ‘pandemic architecture’, a somewhat-serious suggestion to a friend to browse art online for their virtual date, a course-related suggestion to visit an exhibit on environmental history hosted by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society rather than a museum.

Nonetheless, I’ll miss my museums. I’ll miss the sense of wonder from laying my eyes on a beautiful work for the first time, the excited discussion with a companion, annoying my family by stopping to read every panel, the ache of your feet by the time you reach the third floor, even the little trinkets in the gift shop. It’s not just museums that have gone virtual, of course – many parts of our lives continue to move online for the coming months. There’s something inherently humanistic about museums in any form, and it’s the physicality and materiality of life which remains lamentably elusive.

Image credit: Jennifer Martin on Unsplash

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