Why Digital Museums Need “Walls” Part 3: Transforming the Online Museum

This is the third post in a 3-part series on reimaginging André Malraux’s Museum Without Walls and what it means for the future of digital exhibitions.

The first virtual museum was a prototype of online database museum: an image collection with label information accessed through pull down menus or search options. But access is utilitarian rather than aesthetic, informative rather than experiential.

In his book, Malraux mentions the time when paintings were mere decoration and statues were interfaces for divine communication. Art objects did not always have the aesthetic and conceptual impact they have achieved through mere presentation in a museum space. To Malraux, art becomes art when it takes on an added significance through display in an art museum. Pre-historic cave painters did not believe they were creating art. They thought that drawing a buffalo on the cave wall would lend them greater strength in the hunt. These paintings are now revered as beautiful, powerful images rather than tools.

Online museums are currently in this tool-like stage. An equally powerful transformation must occur in the digital space, one that transforms a mere “objective” image of an artwork into an object of meaning and contemplation in itself. We paint our recreations of Picassos and Monets in pixels instead of pigments but the act is essentially the same. We have been putting images of paintings and sculptures online for chiefly utilitarian, not artistic purposes.The online representation of art must become an art in itself.

Art “was always recognized as something different in kind from the world of appearances, for that quest of quality implicit in all works of art inevitably leads it rather to stylize forms than slavishly to copy them.” pg 87 — online museums should be stylized museums, not direct copies.

Bear71 embodies this new stage because the found footage has been transformed from documentation to illumination. It has become stylized. It is no longer the thing in itself but a greater thing fraught with symbolic weight.

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