The real and the virtual

Can't get to Paris? No matter, you can still wander around the Musée d’Orsay. There's also the bonus of no tourists standing in front of you.

Can't get to Paris? No matter, you can still wander around the Musée d’Orsay. There's also the bonus of no tourists standing in front of you.

Where do you get your kicks – gazing intently at a beautiful object in a glass case, or exploring it and manipulating it on a computer screen? Over the last two weeks I have enjoyed two stimulating conferences which, taken together, have debated this question.

As Marguerite Hill has told us in her blog, the first conference, Material Histories: Antipodean Perspectives, revelled in the sanctity and meaning of the object. Kirstie Ross and Kate Hunter explained that while the study of letters and diaries has told us much about the experience of the First World War, objects provide an emotional immediacy that is at a different level. Pieces of lace sent home to a love by a soldier on the Western Front, or Dorothy Broad’s woollen doll made in the likeness of her fiancé speak of relationships between battlefield and home in an intense way. Speaker after speaker at Material Histories suggested that no image could ever do full justice to the actual object. People would always come to visit museums to see such objects. The virtual world of the museum website could never be an adequate replacement.

At the National Digital Forum, Vikram Kumar of InternetNZ took up the debate from the very start. He began by playing a clip from a TED talk by Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Campbell spoke of his love of being a curator working with fine objects. He suggested that by standing in a hall of beautiful things from 14 centuries of Islamic culture you could begin to understand that culture. Nothing could replicate the authenticity of such objects. This, said Kumar, was the challenge of those who worked on the web.

The answer came back fulsomely in subsequent sessions. The first to tackle the question was Piotr Adamczyk from the Google Art Project. His initial foray was not reassuring. He showed what happens if you collect together tiny thumbnails of thousands of art works into an abstract pattern. When he applied this to covers of Time magazine arranged chronologically the result was bands of colour which raised intriguing questions about why dark colours dominated at certain periods. But the effect was to obscure, not illuminate, particular objects. Then he went to the other end of the scale and, using the amazing power of 7 billion pixels, he showed what an object might look like really close. Suddenly you saw things in the art works that you could never possibly have seen by just looking at them on a wall. In a sense, the Google Art Project was creating new works. And you could put together your own exhibition from the over 30,000 paintings on the site, and suggest new connections and influences. Using Google Street View (or rather, in this case ‘Museum View‘, you can even wander into a gallery and replicate the museum experience.

Then Tim Sherrat and Chris McDowell showed how by harvesting data from a range of institutions, images about people, place, events, or even objects, could take on so much more meaning. Their context could be explored in all its richness. Questions could be asked and answered which you could not do by the simple act of contemplation in front of a museum case.

Sarah Barnes from Sydney took the debate further. Her focus was on bringing particular places to life. Using digital technology, she adorns those locations with sounds and images from the past projected in huge scale onto outdoor walls. She showed as an example the story of an inner-city Sydney hotel, the Australia, with a project called Last Drinks. For Sarah, the digital resources of the internet were crucial and added immense richness, but, ironically, they only had power and pertinence because they were experienced at the actual place where the past events happened. The digital, in other words, was made meaningful by the real.

Those who worked in museums remained uncertain. At the end of the day Aaron Cope from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum asked us all ‘Is the building an expensive perk?’. He questioned the view that things touched by human hands have magical powers and almost suggested that it was a self-protective dogma of the old-time curator.

I have to say that I ended up with Sarah Barnes. It is always hugely exciting to go to Waitangi and see the very place where the treaty was signed, or stare at the actual signatures on the treaty itself. At such moments history does indeed live. But afterwards I like to go back and explore on the web, learn what the ink on the treaty would look like at 4,000 pixels or find out about the full human context which surrounded the event.

Where do you stand – virtual or real, or a bit of both?

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