Real Museums in a Digital World

A guest article by Prof. Michael Seadle

As a regular museum visitor and as a professor for „digital libraries“, I integrate the relationship between the physical and virtual in my thinking and in my research. Seeing the original of a famous painting like the Night Watch in the 1960s was an important event for me. In those days there were fewer museum visitors and one could actually get close enough to see details. I have been to the Rijksmuseum since the 1975 attack so damaged the painting. The repairs were successful in so far as a layperson can tell, but the painting now hangs behind a wall of glass and has such crowds around it that it is scarcely possible to see it with any clarity. Today I am more inclined to look at the digital version of the painting, which is freely available from the Rijksmuseum website. With the digital version I can see as many details as I want, and with a projector I can see it in something like the original size. What I still cannot do is to see the painting in the original size with the same level detail as the original. That will likely come.

Color is often an issue with digital images. Not all screen are tuned to give correct color, and with paintings it is not even always clear what the original colors are. Again the Night Watch is an example, because the colors have changed over time. The painting was so dark at one time that people imagined that it was a night scene. Cleaning helped, but the colors remained fairly dark. In 2011 the museum set up new lighting to make the painting look more as if it were a daytime scene. The same transformation could have been done by manipulating the light in digital images. Now the original has in some sense been manipulated with external measures to give a new appearance. Altering the light has not changed the popularity of the painting, and providing digital alternatives has not reduced the number of visitors who crowd the museum to see the original. Perhaps the opposite.

Many museums have digitized elements of their collections. Some offer only lower-resolution images, both for copyright purposes and because they want to continue to give some incentive for people to come to the museum. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has long made their photographic collection available digitally — not just the works that are currently on display, but many works they have no space to display. New physical exhibition space is expensive to build and to maintain. Digital exhibits cost relatively little. Works hidden for decades can take on a new digital life that may lead to a physical display in the future.

Looking below the layers of paint with X-rays is possible in digital versions. The right technology lets scholars learn how artists changed the painting while creating it, which would only have been possible earlier by physically removing layers of paint. In the Berlin Gemälde Galerie there is an exhibit of Rembrandt’s „Susanna and the Elders“ with images that show that Joshua Reynolds had substantially altered it.  The real original suddenly no longer is either a real Rembrandt or the actual original. The interaction between the real and the digital has changed our perceptions.

These are only a few examples. There is no real dichotomy between the physical and the digital. Today they work together.


(header image: Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the ‘Night Watch’.)

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