Will Technology Save or Enhance Our Museum Visit?


This post is in response to the New York Times article “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus” by Michael Kimmerman.

The time has gone when museums are the sole places of money laundrying for barons and rogues and of self-improvement for middle and lower classes. For some, museums are sacred cultural Mecca; for others, they merely provide space for socializing, with better wall art.

I do not blame those people looking at artworks through their two by three inch LCD screens from the digital cameras. It is part of the human nature to own things, in this particular case to own (or more precisely to record) the experience of visiting. Louvre or Met or any major art institutions have such an overwhelming collection that for first-time visitors (especially those foreign visitors who may not be able to visit the museum again in another decade),  their desire to cover as many as possible requires “democratizing” the artworks appreciation so that they either spend meagre time on each one or pass a lot to compensate the time spent on some major “famous” ones. After all, sightseeing in Paris will not be accomplished without a visit to Louvre, nevertheless Louvre is not all Paris offers, and to spend three hours in Louvre on 30 artworks sounds less efficient or even produces guilt with regard to the vast collection in the museum.

In the noisy metropolitan areas with so many attractions, one of the fundamental goals of most museums is to brings visitors inside. Thus museums themselves have given up the high-brow attitude of the past and welcome visitors regardless of their motivation. Thousands of people danced in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum at this month’s Target First Saturday event, which also featured live performance and movies occasionally. Behind the liveliness of community gathering events is the new type of museum strategy: Art education cannot be forced, and instead of linking museums with antiquity and high arts (which for some means you don’t comment in case you say something stupid), the museums are sending signals to the public: Just come in, and it is no big deal to visit a museum.

The consequences of such role-downplaying necessitates all the technological devices to attract those casual visitors. (In fact, I am ok with those who keep taking pictures of artworks, but I get annoyed by those who keep taking pictures with the artworks, i.e. pictures of them standing in front of artworks.) In the the blog “Does tech engage or distract?” by Shelley Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum commented that she tends to find technology in art museums rather distracting although she agrees that everyone will engage in different ways and that should be welcome.

I do not want to discuss in length the pros and cons of each type of device, but I think the criteria is simple: anything that brings visitors back to look at the artworks works. In general because the majority of the artworks are visual works, audio devices (in my mind) work better than labels, TVs or touch screens. In the exhibition “Cezanne and Beyond” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, everyone was handed a handheld audio device. I found it indispensable because to hearing the voices of the curator is essential to understand the motivation of paring Paul Cezanne and Jeff Wall and helped me to examine the works of Cezanne from a new angle.

Even spending time in reading labels or watching TVs INSTEAD OF looking at real artworks may be more suitable for some people and should not be depreciated. Good labels reflect incisive curatorial perspective and TVs & touch screens are more accessible to teens. People do learn in this way: Even though such devices seldom inspire people as the real artworks, at least visitors can pick up some pieces of facts of art history or some jargons of painting techniques. The collective of visual/sensual impact, text and audio input make an enriched museum visiting experience. (Should I further claim some picture-takers actually examine the compositions of sculpture more carefully?)

OK. I am going to take my words back in the end of this shout and murmur. Museums are places to learn about art history, to get inspired or to socialize if you prefer, but they are NOT places to obtain art connoisseurship. My artist friend once commented: no label is ever needed for artworks. If it does not speak to you, labels won’t help. I agree. The art connoisseurship or the so-called aesthetic eyes are in-born and can only be sharpened through learning from experts and exposure to great art. If it is not there, no device can help. The greatest strength in art is that it can reach our soul and resonate our deepest emotion DIRECTLY. Neither the primal feelings nor the most subtle nuance could be reproduced in words, video clips or animation flash. Even if with all the tools or devices that one can learn how to identify the difference of the cosmetic eyelines evolved between the middle kingdom  and the 18th century of Ancient Egypt. But does it really matter if one does not simply LOVE and APPRECIATE Egyptian statues? Just a gaggle of facts which can be found in books, or internet with some clicks on iPhone.

The museums are open to all, but the art opens to fewer.

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