Museum Without Walls (reprise)

In response to the earlier post of the same title, and deserving more than a brief comment…

I am really glad you mentioned Andre Malraux. Long before he wrote “The Museum Without Walls” in 1965,  19th century novelist Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard & Pécuchet, a fictional pair of ambitious although amatuer librarians, checked out of their weary professional life as clerks and attempt to catalog the knowledge of world. Aby Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas project in the 1920s is another notable example of such an effort although Warburg actually did amass a vast collection of art historical images to represent the all of humanity’s essential symbolic and visual leitmotifs. Spanning the late 20s-late 30s Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project is essentially a catalog of his own urban observations,  fragments of experience that he recorded with the zeal of a librarian on a vast archive of hand-written index cards. It represents the essence of a real city in a specific time and place, in the form of a hyplinked index which is now searchable thanks to the Harvard University Press. In 1948 Walter Lippmann visited the National Gallery of Art and surmised that inevitably there will be a bifurcation of the “physical sanctuary” for real objects and a parallel network of “representations and editions” that are more widely distributed and available to study.

“One can imagine, I venture to think, that the museum of the future will have two departments–one the sanctuary where the unique objects, the irreplaceable relics, are preserved and exhibited for the veneration and the enjoyment of those who make the pilgrimage; the other department in effect a library for the student, the scholar, and the amateur, where they can find, as in any library, collected in one place and readily accessible to them various editions of the unique objects which are scattered in the sanctuaries all over the world.”

In the late 90s the Smithsonian Institution launched its own “Museum Without Walls” and now has a well-established initiative called Smithsonian 2.0. More recently the Brooklyn Museum has made its entire digital catalog available by publishing its collections API. This allows developers to create a wide range of web and iPhone applications that interface with it. These ideas made more viable with the advent of the internet will inevitably transform the museum from the inside out and the ways in which the public experience a museum’s content.

All of these efforts question the status of iconic architecture, the ‘aura’ of the artifact, the role of the curator and the essential sense of place and context that define so many physical museums. I imagine however that there are also models where the two are seamlessly integrated and reinforcing one another. This is a deep topic and we will be exploring it in the weeks. Please continue this line of investigation into precedents and possible futures.


10 responses to “Museum Without Walls (reprise)

  1. This seems to be a very important conversation right now in many fields. Currently, the most relevant question in the publishing world has to do with digital and online technologies usurping the physical. Inventions like the Kimbel are stirring up debate. The emotion that surfaces during these conversations shows us how attached we are to our objects. Tim calls it the ‘”aura’ of the artifact”, and I think it’s something that’s more important in our daily lives than we may suspect. This discussion could take me in all kinds of directions, but two aspects strike me as relevant to our class:
    1. What is the wider meaning of “aura of the artifact”? Is this beneficial or detrimental? People seem to shy away from connotations of exclusivity, but, coming from an art background, I can’t help but think how important the presence of an object can be.
    BUT since accessibility, which seems to be the primary benefit of the ‘Museum Without Walls’, is indeed important:
    2. What is the next best thing to interacting with the actual object? Does an image really cut it? What will be the next delivery system of this substitute (basically, what’s even better than the internet)? Obviously this is going way beyond our class, but I think it’s a good stretching exercise to think about, think about how we’re falling short, and imagine how we could improve.

  2. Walter Benjamin writes extensively on this subject of “aura”. One place to start is his essay titled “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. This is a widely read text in academia. Less known is that early American art museums debated their position on this subject long before Benjamin in the late 19th century. Historian Stephen Conn in “Museums and American Intellectual Life” (assigned reading) writes about how American museums closely watched two European models that they could chose to emulate. One was the collection of public museums and galleries at South Kensington in London, “art laboratories” that emphasized intellectual accessibility through a demystification of the arts, emphasizing process, design, manufacture and the applied arts. These museums included photography, models, drawings and sketches, i.e. the artifacts of process. The other model was the Louvre in Paris which positioned the art object as something sacrosanct, a masterpiece, worthy of canonization, having aura, originality. The Louvre was a place of “fine arts”, a refuge. I bring this up because all too often people assume that the debate is new and even attributable to the proliferation of media, the internet and other recent phenomena, when in fact the debate is at least as old as the very notion of a modern art museum.

    • Exactly! I guess that’s why I thought it would be fun to ask “what’s better than the internet?”. Because in one of the most recent incarnations of this debate prior to now, the idea of an actual virtual museum would have been inconceivable. So I guess I’m asking us to imagine the as-yet-unimaginable. Pretty exciting.

      I guess this is in danger of getting into Borges territory, too.

  3. On a quick, secondary note, it’s interesting to see that my museum, the Cooper-Hewitt, is adopting this concept, too, with its expansion program (RE:DESIGN). As part of its RE:EDUCATE initiative, the C-H seems to be conceiving its website as an online museum in itself, the Online National Design Museum, rather than just a support resource.

  4. One often has to turn to literature (and specifically fiction) to imagine the as-of-yet-unimaginable. I was going the mention Borges but decided he would probably lead us astray. It is very likely in fact. There is a passage by Borges that we might read later in the semester. Borges’ piece titled “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (also cited in the Preface to Michel Foucualt’s “The Order of Things”) concerns the extreme subjectivity in the categorization of knowledge which in turn questions the essence of a museum’s authority as mediator of knowledge to a consuming public. See if you can find it.

  5. Erratum: I meant “Kindle” not “Kimbel” above. Sorry.

  6. The idea of the Museum without Walls is most certainly becoming more popular. Publications in hard format and the internet have proven to be invaluable tools. The quote above that mentions how the museum of the future will be split into two departments, one as sanctuary for unique objects and one for a library / educational resource may perhaps have already begun! After doing research and our site visit with Allegra Burnette, Creative Director of Digital Media at the MoMA, one of the main issues that our group brought up was the separation of their educational / library department vs. their displayed collections. Rather than looking to develop the museum into two separate departments, we are considering how we could bring them back together into one integrated department. This is simply because very few people are aware of their educational resource department and it’s not being used enough!

    As for the “Aura” of the artifact, I think that a physical “sanctuary” for relics I suppose, can never be substituted by an image in a book. In this perspective, I view the museum without walls as a good resource to educate and make people aware of such artifacts whether it be items of art, science, history…etc. Like JennyFlorence states above, the museum without walls is great! for things with limited accessibility. Things like traveling to the sun to see it up close are humanly impossible so we are forced to rely on the museum without walls. However, take for example, a picture of a Bhuddist cave from Dunhuang, China does not give the viewer any sense of what the atmospheric qualities of the space is like. The viewer can’t experience the drastic shifts in temperature from traveling in the blazing hot dessert sun into the cool of the caves; they can’t experience the sense of claustrophobia the low ceiling and close walls give.

    Of course artifacts in museums may no longer be in their proper context as well but at least the museum environment can be adapted to one that is brings visitors an experience that is closer to that of the original intention.

  7. Let me begin by saying I think both digital/virtual projects and physical musuems have a vital role to play. As a caveat, I work at the Smithsonian on a Digital Project–the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. We do online programming with the Smithsonian’s photographs. However, I received my training in material anthropology. One group of people who have been studying for a long while the differences between physical material culture and say text, or virtual objects is material anthropologists.

    I too question many notions of authenticity and “aura”. Two things though. First, it is important to remember that knowledge presented online is just as subjective as knowledge in the museum–putting it out there on the internet doesn’t necessarily make it any less of a metanarrative. Of course, as you all note, some online models (and museum models) present some exciting opportunities in terms of allowing a more democratic process in knowledge-building and making. Second, I definitely believe that physical objects do something different than virtual objects. For example, what is the difference between a digital image of a relative that has passed on (that has been “cleaned up” to remove cracks or flaking, in order to be more clearly seen), and seeing a photo of that relative in person, where the wear and tear of generations of family members touching and looking at that photo (and perhaps writing on it) has created a literal patina of emotional and human history? And how does that physical photo become even more complicated in it’s physical sense when it is being used as a literal embodiment of a deceased relative on an ancestral shrine (where it may be, for example, doused with liquids or food or flowers, etc. as part of ritual, ceremony, or tradition)? It would be different experience to see that photo in each of its spaces: in the field, in a museum (many levels removed from its original context and space), or online.

    I just use the example of photography here, but I think you can see how the implications bleed over into all other mediums. And KellyLo touches upon these issues of contextualization in a physical space or seeing an object in person a bit above as well.

    I look forward to seeing how this conversation develops and I challenge you to look into existing museum studies/material anthroplogy literature that touches upon these issues nicely (Elizabeth Edwards writes particularly well about the materiality of images).

  8. Douglas Crimp’s essay On the Museums Ruin, is very fascinating in the case of what a museum is or tries to do. (Andre Malraux’s the Museum Without Walls in brought up in Crimps essay and Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet is discussed, as well.) The idea that has art moved towards more technological and reproductive mediums, such as Rauschenberg’s use of silk-screens, the museum will become more obsolete. I do not agree this theory, but I feel it raises the question of how museums shift to fit new art forms and mediums. Some examples of the shift in museums architecture can be seen in the Guggenheim in New York and the Bilbao in Spain. These two examples show a new type of museum, whose architecture is just as much part of the art as the objects inside. As a whole, I feel that museum architecture plays a major role in the way we interact and interpret art.

    Crimp’s essay also brings up the issues of reproductive techniques in art, which Walter Benjamin writes about as well in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin examines the use of “mechanical reproduction” in creating art, like the use of film and photography, and its effects on the modern age. For Benjamin, through the process of reproduction an object loses its “aura”. There is a special quality that objects have. I feel that through the overuse of technology in today’s world we lose a great deal of that special quality, through the digitalization of objects and Internet. I think museums need to realize that digitizing their objects is a great resource for people who cannot gain access to the museum, but at that same time museums need to confirm how important actually seeing the object in person is.

  9. Hal Foster has some interesting things to say about this in the “Archives of Modern Art” chapter in his ‘Design and Crime’. I plan on posting about him soon.

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