InterCommunication No.15 1996


High Tech, Museums, and the New Visual Literacy 3/5

What traditional museums cannot do and what, say museum professionals, interactive computers can, is restore the cultural context to a work of art--refer to literature, music, historical events, even politics. In its simplest form, interactive audio/visual tapes provide fingertip access to megabytes of contextual information as visitors physically tour the galleries. More sophisticated interactive computers, CD-ROMs, the Web offer everything from straightforward encyclopedic systems to detailed multiple pathways exploring hundreds of specific topics in depth.
The future, however, is young. and experimentation is very much a part of today's interactive digitized art scene. Some works are scholarly--the Whitney's CD-ROM on Edward Hopper for one; some virtual--The Guggenheim Museum Soho's installation of five separate virtual reality "worlds," including artist Jenny HOLZER's first virtual artwork, featuring" a cavernous world in which souls alternately flee from and engage the viewer." Some works are engagingly informative--The Minneapolis Institute of Art's gallery-based interactive multimedia programs, for example. "We try to contextualized objects for people," says SAYRE.
CD-ROM and Virtual Reality experiences lend themselves nicely to the task. The collective goal, then, is to seamlessly integrate these micro-chipped inter-activities with more traditional museum experiences.
One of the most sophisticated interactive museum experiences can be had in the recently opened Micro Gallery [*3] at National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Modeled after a system installed at National Gallery, London in 1991, the American version exploits a four-year technological growth spurt.
The short story is: visitors who opt to interact with any one of 13 computers in the Micro Gallery can navigate a labyrinth of electronic pathways to access detailed information about a sweep of subjects. A touch-screen accessing system, innovative animation and graphics, high resolution images, 24-bit digitized color and elaborate zoom capabilities combine to educate users in vastly entertaining ways [*4]. "My big emphasis is on content," says Micro Gallery Curator Vickie POTER. "Trying to use the technology as a tool. That's what this is to me, a teaching tool."
Chris RIDING, artist and theorist, is not so sure. Writing of his Micro Gallery experience in London in his critical essay "Drowning by Micro Gallery," Riding worries that "the key to the seduction of the Micro Gallery lies in navigating the information and not in the information itself."