The Freer Gallery of Art: Adapting the Museum to the Virtual Space

Over the past five or so centuries, the art museum has undergone several adjustments in display technique, and ultimately the experience prescribed by that construction.  There has been a large amount of scholarship done on the theory behind museum design among which a focus has been placed on the experience of the museum as a ritual, even spiritual, practice. However, the external structure of the museum and the arrangement of the collection housed within have always remained integral to the ability to contemplate and appreciate the art as imposed by those in charge.

With the increased emphasis on technology in our world, it is not a surprise that art museums would want to follow the trend in display. While art museums have been digitizing their collections to their websites for some time now, they are beginning to take the next step towards complete virtual access. The Google Art Project, a collaborative initiative between Google and some of the most prestigious museums across the globe, is allowing site viewers to navigate through these same museums via the Internet. Using Street-View technology, visitors to the Google Art Project can virtually explore the museum’s galleries in high-resolution as if walking down the physical halls of the museum space. Not only that, but visitors can focus on specific pieces of interest, zoom in to see the most minute of details, and expand wall placards to learn more about the work itself. They also have the opportunity to save the views they like most in a personalized collection that can later be shared and commented on.

Although the Google Art Project is an amazing tool for the exploration of museums both at home and abroad, museums that may be too costly to visit in real life, the project may also create a substitute for the physical experience. With that in mind, the digitizing of museum space could potentially make museums themselves somewhat obsolete. Additionally, the tool seems to upset the sanctity of the museum experience where an individual can lose themselves in a place devoid of the pressures and haste of the real world. For centuries, the museum has been treated as an almost divine space in terms of architecture and purpose as it promotes quiet contemplation and worship of the art of masters. The plan and organization of an art museum is designed to initiate a sort of conversation between the viewer and the artwork. Viewing art online is the antithesis of that traditional experience; the Internet can be accessed nearly anywhere, at anytime. The vast space of quietude omitted from the experience, it is almost impossible to focus solely on the contemplation of the artwork at hand.

Since the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is part of the project, I plan to visit the institution both physically and virtually. I will document the two experiences and compare the atmosphere in which the art is viewed, and how it impacts the reaction and connection made to the art. In writing this paper, I will then draw from the scholarship on museum theory and experience as a way to analyze the success of the Google Art Project when translating the exhibits into the virtual space of the website.

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