Cultural Heritage Online: What do we lose when exhibitions go digital?

For the past decade, cultural heritage institutions across the globe have been dabbling with the digital realm by employing multimedia technology in their galleries and reevaluating the significance their online presence. The shuttering of museum doors for most of 2020, however, forced a reckoning with the virtual in a world where isolated publics could only connect with others through their screens.

In this new scenario, curators and educators rose to the challenge and developed many innovative offerings for the COVID audience. Leveraging the interactivity of the internet, exhibitions were adapted to be mediated by computers, tablets, and cell phones. Museum professionals also began to rethink collection narratives and alter traditional curatorial practices, building instead on certain strengths of digital culture such as transparency, diversity, access, and communication. Larger institutions with the wherewithal to finance more involved projects, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, tapped into spherical 360° imaging technology to invite audiences to explore the museum in ways that were not possible before.

Among those that have embraced the digital in both their virtual and physical spaces is the National Museum of Korea (NMK). Currently, there are several Virtual Reality exhibitions of past shows available on the NMK website as well as a voluminous YouTube channel with videos of conferences, gallery talks, and promotional material dating back to 2013. Though their engagement with the digital started well before the pandemic, the general public has never been as keyed into their online presence as it is now.

Browsing through one of the more recent VR exhibitions, I came to appreciate the progress that had been made in the user experience and the thoughtful additions that made “visiting” the show more enjoyable. For example, as you move through the virtual exhibition space, there are colored buttons that, once clicked, open up a small text, video, or clickable link to the artwork’s collections page. This gives the viewer much more control over how deep or shallow their engagement with different aspects of the exhibition are and capitalizes on the immediacy and customizability that the digital format provides.

National Museum of Korea’s Gaya Spirit-Iron and Tune VR exhibition screenshot.

The flexible and accessible nature of the online exhibition experience is a definite advantage for museums looking to broaden their audience and make their collections relevant. But what happens when our encounters with culture and art are filtered through code and digits?

Presenting anything that was meant to be engaged with in person in a digital format is inherently going to be difficult. Seeing a real object is unambiguous – you get a sense of the scale, texture, and its relationship to space vis-à-vis your own embodied vision. Viewing an object on a screen inevitably distorts those qualities and, pardon the Benjamin reference, lacks the ‘aura’ of the phenomenological thing. For what we lose of the visceral encounter, we are compensated with the ability to spend more time with each image, to explore in depth small details that are not visible in dimmed exhibition settings and view facets of objects that are hidden when they are placed in static displays.

Viewing a porcelain jar in person in 2019 (left) and the collection entry for the same porcelain jar on the Brooklyn Museum website (right).

Yet beyond the pros and cons of real or virtual exhibitions, it is important to remember that the functionality of digital technologies is also a form of interpretation. A digitization, though often seen as an immaterial, virtual replica of the ‘real object’, is in fact a collected set of information packaged with interpretive frames and metadata. Even the most austere digital version of an artwork has reference points external to the object itself that, for instance, allow it to appear seamlessly on a variety of operating systems, screen resolutions, internet browsers and platforms. What is needed is a conceptual shift away from thinking about these digitizations as simple replications, and instead understanding them as multi-modal transvisual products of an entangled network of human and computer analysis.

This distinction is important especially when we consider how digital culture has been overlaid onto real objects in museums settings to create experiences that are disconnected from the object itself. The Ten-story stone pagoda from Kyŏngchŏnsa temple site, dated to 1348 CE, has been repurposed every Wednesday and Saturday evening since October 2020 as the matrix on which the museum projects a light show of the Buddhist legend “Journey to the West,” stories of Buddha’s life, and videos of the four seasons. While the second level of the pagoda’s platform does indeed contain bas-relief carvings of Xuanzang’s journey to India, the multi-media façade flashes across the entire surface of the pagoda at such speed with little didactic information as to completely isolate the pagoda from its specific 14th century context. On these nights, this national treasure is reduced to a movie screen.

Screenshot from promotional video for the video projection on the Ten-story stone pagoda from Kyŏngchŏnsa temple site by the National Museum of Korea.

In a world where the internet has redefined human behavior through algorithms, accessibility, and scale, exhibits in both the physical and the virtual realms must respond to the new expectations of their diverse audiences. Online tours, Augmented Reality exhibitions, multimedia in galleries, and even VR video games are ways in which the NMK has chosen to adapt the museum as it becomes part of a new digital culture ecosystem. In an effort to attract contemporary visitors, the museum has created content that embraces interactivity and accessibility, but it has also decontextualized some of the most significant objects in its care. Scholars, curators, and educators working in digital spaces with cultural heritage objects must be attentive not only to the opportunities of digitization but also to what gets lost when our engagement with our objects of study are mediated by a screen.

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