InterCommunication No.15 1996


High Tech, Museums, and the New Visual Literacy 1/5

Curatorial voices rise in unison as a litany of consensus conspires to recreate the museum experience. The future happened yesterday and American museums all across the land--from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in California--are busy pioneering new ways to escort culture beyond the millennium.
"Education" is the buzz word. And "audience building," "Innovation." Technology is the tool, the toy, the good guy methodology utilized to get from here to there. Step inside the Super Museum--literally or figuratively. Quickly browse an electronic menu of exhibitions du jour, or settle down to enjoy a digitized journey through time and space. Interactive computers and audio/visual cassettes, CD-ROMs, virtual reality, original art a la high technique, the Web--Cyber-thusiasts salute the Golden Age of Museums; some even quietly prophetize the eventual demise of cultural elitism in an age of equal access, art for all and all for art.
Skeptics fear a disembodiment of the art viewing experience in their micro-chipped future;they warn that digitized museums will isolate users from the more organic experience of interacting one-on-one with an object of beauty;they foresee an emotional void and presage unknowable shifts in the very makeup of a society which experiences the predominance of its art by pixel.
But skeptics are few and far between. And you'll find none in the upper echelons of American museum circles where technology is hailed as a sophisticated marketing tool it. With spirited enthusiasm, museum professionals speak of an exciting, interactive, educational conduit with virtually no limitations, including virtuality itself;they applaud the dawning of an artistic "ism," with as much, if not more, potential impact than Impressionism, Cubism or all the major "isms" combined--which is not to say they don't acknowledge the concerns of the skeptics;they simply don't agree.
The commodification of culture in the new world order is, however, an inevitable consequence. The challenge, then, is to exploit technology in such a way that legitimate, educational, high-tech adventures don't substitute for authentic emotional encounters with original art. Safeguarding soul in a world grounded in cyberspace is no small responsibility.