The 'Virtual Flanerie'

Color publications are still vital to a museum’s reputation in the field and economic well-being through catalogue sales, however the invention of the internet in the late 1980s and the incorporation of images through a dedicated HTML tag in the early 1990s radically changed the entire spectrum of information sharing. As more and more content was added to the internet and the search capabilities continued to develop, a web visitor could navigate through an increasing sea of information on their own accord. This freedom far surpasses that of even print publications in which a reader could skim both content and imagery from any multitude of journals to retain whatever information they so choose. The participatory and visitor-led nature of the Internet takes some power away from the museum’s curatorial team who carefully edit what is on view and how it is on view. The Internet, by contrast, has no such concern and wasn’t even originally designed to contain images. Those as its benefits became clearer and its usage spread, museums as well as other cultural institutions were almost forced to embrace it.

In a sense, the Internet allowed the visitor to become a more participatory agent in cultural consumption and the Internet almost mimicked the way we consume art, even in the galleries. Typically, visitors do not interact with the museum “as classrooms for in-depth learning so much as smorgasbords of content with which to construct their own meaning and associations…[therefore,] museums should not discount this mode of learning ‘out of fear of being unable to control the results’” (MacArthur, 2007). Perhaps the Internet could provide a complimentary visitor experience in addition to more tradition modes of in-person visits or museum-published catalogues. Even today, museums strive to incorporate more meaningful and interactive content to their online platforms in the hopes of engaging with the public in new and innovative ways. In 2006, New York Times art critic Carol Vogel wrote an article titled, “3 Out of 4 Visitors to the Met Never Make It to the Front Door.” Already well into the Internet age, this fact proves the impact that the Internet would eventually have on museum visitorship even surpassing the capabilities of print dissemination. 

Museum of the History of Science website

Museum of the History of Science homepage in 1995.

Museum of the History of Science website

'The Measurers' special exhibition homepage.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Launches MetPublications

MetPublications landing page.

So when did museums start embracing this new technology? In 1995, The Museum of the History of Science, an affiliate of Oxford University, became on of the first physical museums to start sharing their collection online with digital images. When the site first launched, pure novelty seemed to dictate the goal of the site, which was to create an experience that could rival that of the physical space (Bowen, 2010). Though perhaps by ‘rival’, what they really meant was to create an experience that was simultaneously intriguing rather than equivalent. In addition to simply placing their collection online, the museum also ingeniously incorporated a special exhibition into the site—The Measurers: A Flemish Image of Mathematics in the Sixteenth Century. They really were ahead of their time in this particular addition as it has become more and more standard for museums to have special and temporary content on their sites. This additional feature really did prove that the space of the museum has been expanded virtually. As Carol Vogel recognized through her article, the web visitor can almost be an equally as engaged visitor as those in the gallery. The task for the field is “not whether museum should utilize media, but how best to use it to enhance audience and conceptual accessibility” (Dierking, 1998). A modern day bridge between print publication and the Museum of the History of Science’s early foray into adding permanent and temporary content is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s program MetPublications. This online feature has added in bulk and will continue to upload full digital copies of all museum-publications since the museum’s founding. Similar to The Measurers site still being active and in its original format, the Met intends to make available past and out of date publications to connect time and scholarship with current online visitors and researchers.

While some museums were quick to embrace the new media platform, others were more hesitant because of the still ongoing debate over authenticity. Though with the advanced experience provided by the Internet, the wherewithal of the visitor must come into play to recognize that a virtual experience is not a substitute for one in the flesh. In their defense, “Many visitors—even those who are not sophisticated users of technology—recognize that computers…provide both varying degrees of depth of information and options that improve visitor flexibility and choice” (Dierking, 1998). This autonomy over the absorption of information is ultimately what museum administrators want—an individual and meaningful encounter with content. In her article “Media, Art Museums, and Distant Audiences”, Ruth Perlin addresses the issue of virtual authenticity when she argues, “There is increasing confirmation from a variety of studies that audiences are able to differentiate between what they are experiencing through the media and the separate, but often simultaneous, experience of the art. Looking at art and looking at a media presentation are not the same thing. Nevertheless, each experience—separate or intertwined—has its own reality and is thus an ‘authentic’ experience” (Perlin, 1998). The continued growth of the Internet and its use by the art world confirms these studies, and contemporary projects including those of Google, continue to develop the idea of a media experience being both unique and distinctly intertwined with that of an in-person experience. 

Street View Trolley

Street View Trolley at the Iraq National Museum.

Google Art Project

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Petrie Court on Google Art Project.

Google Art Project

Detail of Boticelli's The Birth of Venus

During the 2000s, Google’s experimental technologies significantly augmented and transformed the idea of a virtual experience. Starting with their Street View technology, CEO Larry Page and Project Engineer Luc Vincent were toying with the idea of large-scale documentation of what most people can experience—the street. People around the world were able to see at the universally recognizable street level what another location looks like, and therefore have an ‘experience’ of being there. Though to Perlin’s point, the viewer knows that this new virtual tour is only a technical likeness rather than an atmospheric one. With the popularity of the Street View solidified and growing, the team decided to move off the road and inside by creating a fleet of camera trackers including the Street View Trolley, a condensed scale of the vehicle technology capable of navigating through doors and hallways. For the casual Google user, this provides a base level introduction to the variety of museums that have authorized image capturing of their galleries. No contextual or scholarly information is given, just a peek inside some of the most culturally significant buildings and institutions in major cities around the world.

Where Google more explicitly enters the academic sphere is with the Google Art Project spearheaded by Amit Sood at Google’s Cultural Institute in Paris. Using the concept of the indoor Street View, the Google Art Project enhances that technology and provides an contextual and academic framework for the ‘virtual flanerie’ to uniquely explore a museum, a gallery, an artist, and even a work and jump quickly between its art historical significance, its in situ orientation, and even its construction. In an interview with the Guardian, Sood discussed the beginnings of the project and how it has evolved and worked with the cultural sector. He says of the beginning phases of the concept, “It really started out as a question: How do you take all these different tools that Google has and alter them for the cultural sector?” (Sood, 2013). Sood then admitted that one of the hardest issues to overcome was the idea of curation. As previously mentioned, the power of the web in the context of art museums was the power of the visitor to autonomously explore in a way different from a sequential publication or curated exhibition. Sood explained, “We really didn’t want to come in and say: hey, we’re going to curate all of this for you. The idea was that we would give the museums the technology, and then they choose what they want to put up online” (Sood, 2013). The project continues to be an experiment with a truly non-commercial agenda, which has allowed some of the resources Google’s technology brings to enhance what museums don’t have the funding to provide—notable the gigapixel imagery of some of the worlds most recognizable masterpieces. The extreme detail provided by this image technology has an intrigue that Sood thinks can even inspire a proper visit. In response to a question on how this technology affects ‘brick-and-mortar’ museums, he says, “I think…there is renewed interest on the internet about art and culture…It’s more in front of you; you’re more exposed to it, and you’re more inclined to want to go and see the real thing” (Sood, 2013). This notion of wanting both a virtual and ‘real’ experience again proves Perlin’s claim that both can be uniquely authentic and that it is up to a discerning visitor to recognize the idiosyncrasies of both. 

The 'Virtual Flanerie'