LivingArts: The Virtue of Virtual


In a recent meeting with volunteers from another gallery, I was asked a question that I have heard many times before.  Are my [staff] and I concerned that technology-based resources (like audio guides) will replace the work that we do?  The same can be asked of museums as virtual exhibitions and image access expand exponentially across the internet.  The short answer is always no.

One of my most memorable museum experiences was walking through the doors of the Met in New York and finding myself in a place I had imagined for years.  The soaring architecture and the anticipation of seeing vast collection of centuries of art from around the world was thrilling. I was there for a conference and had five days to explore.  I saw the whole museum; I took five hundred photos, and have amazing memories of what I saw, but that first feeling is one of my favourite parts of the visit.

Being immersed in such a space is a feeling that I often experience when I visit galleries and museums for the first time.  It is the result of absorbing everything about a place, and is about so much more than just the individual artworks on display.  Art-experiences, and thus art-education are about objects, which can be reproduced, but also include context, personal interactions, emotions and connections that go beyond just looking at a single visual object.  

I have been thinking a lot about virtual arts-based experiences lately – online content, virtual tours and video conferences. As technology brings the world to our doorstep, the possibilities for innovative, interactive and multimedia programs continue to grow.  Museums can share exhibitions and collections with visitors anywhere and those virtual visitors can access information in so many ways, but I wonder about that real-life experience.  Is there a way to recreate that first sensation, and what does it mean if we can’t?

Take the Google Art Project for instance.   Not only can you view artworks from around the world and zoom in to see the individual brush strokes, but you can enter many major galleries to see the work in situ, to virtually wander through an exhibition and consider works that are hung together.  You can see the architecture of these major museums and explore actual (virtual) spaces.  There are even options to curate your own collection.  

As another example, I recall watching a video of someone walking through a Robert Rauschenberg exhibition a few years ago (which I have not been able to find) that was such a great way of experiencing the show – not just as individual photos of artworks, but seeing the scale of each piece in relation to the others, how the curator laid out the show, which works were installed together etcetera.  My understanding was so much greater, even though I had seen most of the works before.

Finally, there was an Anselm Kiefer exhibition in Montreal years ago that I will always regret not seeing.  How happy I would be to take a virtual tour of that show!

I have already imagined a number of online tour programmes for visitors outside our walls that can feature works that are no longer on display, or can bring artworks to audiences who cannot visit them in real life.  These resources allow artists to access the legacy of art-making the precedes them in many ways and allows for integration of this legacy into their own education-based activities.  There are endless exciting possibilities!

My hope and goal in all that by sharing virtually what cannot be shared in reality viewers will be as excited as I am about art and museum experiences, and will take the next step and visit an artist’s studio or a museum near them as a result.  The virtual is an entryway, please take the next step!