InterCommunication No.15 1996


The Museum of the Third Kind 4/6

What can be said of the present day Museum in the Net? Every museum director, curator and art dealer knows that the Internet is where you can display your wares to perhaps a 100 million users. There are currently thousands of public museums, university art centers, private galleries, artist groups, cultural entrepreneurs, private dealers setting up Web sites, mounting online exhibitions, publishing catalogues and critiques, and establishing archives and collections, in the dataspace of the Net. Art viewing online looks like replacing art viewing on the hoof. And maybe more significantly, the collection of paintings of one of the very earliest galleries in Europe, that of prehistoric cave paintings at Combe d'Arc in the Ardeche, was accessible in all its majestic authority on the French Ministry of Culture's home page ( within just one month of being discovered.
There is little to be said about putting material works of art out on the Net. Of course there will be distortion in any transposition from the concrete art object to the ephemeral digital image, and picture resolution is still generally rather weak. At the same time, as the designers of Chartres knew, the back lit image is intrinsically more arresting than the light reflecting surface. And it is no small thing that the great wealth of artworks and historical artifacts built up in public and private collections around the world, sometimes as the result of colonial theft and pillage, can be returned to the world with an accessibility that is truly global. As network navigation in virtual space becomes more available, no one's geographical location will be too remote to prevent them visiting the British Museum, the Prado in Madrid, the Temple of Konarak, or the Museum of Modern Art in Caracas. This is the Digital Museum of the First Kind.
Then there is an art destined for what we might call the Museum of the Second Kind, which is not originated in pigment, canvas, or steel, but which is composed of pixels from its inception, digitally destined from the start for the computer screen, which slips easily into the Net for instant world wide consumption. Aesthetically it is hardly different from painting or drawing in the traditional sense. A picture is rendered, forms are composed, a work of aesthetic finality is created. You may navigate it but it is basically a closed world. In both cases the Net remains a delivery system, an archival source, a catalogue of holdings. It neither challenges the traditional plastic arts nor renders them redundant. It simply extends the repetoire of artistic images and ideas, reaching those parts of the globe that other gallery mechanisms cannot reach. It is current practice to call such projects the "digital museum" but such a term can only be provisional and is, in fact an oxymoron since "digital" speaks of fluidity, transience, immateriality and transformation, while "museum" on the other hand has always stood for solidity, stability, and permanence.