Curators in cyberspace
by Robert Fulford

(Canadian Art, fall, 1996)

(Please note: At the end of this article you'll find links to all the Websites it mentions.)

Maxwell Anderson, the cyberphile who runs the Art Gallery of Ontario, has a way of speaking that implies he's in touch with the future and most people aren't. But even for Anderson, the remark he dropped during a speech at the Ontario Association of Art Galleries meeting in Toronto last June was brashly futuristic. "Remember multimedia?" he asked the audience. It came out like "Remember disco?" or "Remember hot pants?"--as if he was pawing through the mounds of our memories, searching for broken shards of implausible yesterdays.

Remember it? I, for one, didn't have much trouble. Ten days earlier, a few blocks away, I had watched squads of sales people peddling multimedia products at a big trade fair called, in fact, Multimedia 96. This feverish activity reflected the large investment corporations have made in the most popular form of multimedia, CD-ROM, which combines words, pictures and sound on a disc played by a computer. Only the other day, the idea of the CD-ROM was so hot that every new book project or movie elicited from someone the question, "Is there a CD-ROM in it?" Southam Interactive has put about $500,000 (a sizable amount of money) into the definitive Marshall McLuhan CD-ROM, offering (all) his major texts plus lots of video and sound--which means that Conrad Black, who recently acquired the Southam empire, is a CD-ROM publisher whether he likes it or not. At this moment there are people doing master's degrees in CD-ROM production at New York University, striding confidently into what they believe will be a prosperous, information-rich future. And many millions of nervous customers are wondering when they will have to acquire CD-ROM players. Yet Anderson was suggesting that the multimedia business is yesterday's news. Apparently he expects the CD-ROM to recede into the mists of time before most people get around to using it.

In the digital world, there are few pleasures so satisfying as declaring something obsolete. Nicholas Negroponte, the smug guru of MIT and Wired magazine, may write like a tongue-tied dolt when predicting the future, but his prose springs to robust life when he sees the chance to dump some form of technology (like the fax machine) into the garbage can of history. Still, Maxwell Anderson could well be right. The CD-ROM may turn out to be no more than a transitional tool, a tiny misstep we took while stumbling toward a world in which most people will consider the Internet as normal as the telephone.

At that same OAAG conference, a more impressive bugler also blew taps for the CD-ROM--no less a figure than Pierre Landry, associate curator at the National Gallery of Canada and editor of the CD-ROM version of the gallery's Canadian collection, which he's been preparing since 1994 and hopes to put on sale early next year. It's hard to say how much it will cost the National Gallery, but with salaries incuded the investment runs far beyond half a million dollars; if it follows the normal CD-ROM pattern, only a small fraction of that will ever be recovered. Yet even Landry, while reporting enthusiastically on his project at the conference, acknowledged, "I believe CD-ROM may be at the end of its lifetime. All the hype has now focused on the Internet--people don't want to do CD-ROMs." He doesn't go quite as far as Anderson, who sees it as a thing of the past. Landry thinks it's a thing of the present, though not necessarily of the future. He leaves the impression that he hopes the present will last long enough to let him get his 12,000-image, multiple-disc CD-ROM on the market, at a price now unknown but sure to be over $200.

IF THE CD-ROM DOES DIE, the killer will be obvious: the Web. All the hopes that were invested in the CD-ROM a couple of years ago are now being transferred to cyberspace, that fabulous region that everyone wants to enter, no one knows how to navigate, and journalism finds impossible to describe.

A few years ago, American journalists, copying Vice-President Al Gore, decided collectively to call this phenomenon "the information highway." That was the clumsiest and most inept metaphor created in our time. A highway is centrally planned, it can be mapped, it is always patrolled, and it has a beginning and an end--all characteristics that are famously lacking on the Internet. Far from resembling a highway, the Internet is more like a web spun by spiders whose judgment has been marred by the use of illegal substances. That's not an original fantasy. In the 1950s scientists fed marijuana to some spiders, let them spin their webs, and turned the results into a cover story for Scientific American. The webs were wildly imaginative, random, sometimes beautiful, and only occasionally capable of catching a fly. As an image for the Internet, that's a lot closer than a highway.

But the Web--free and unpredictable, a force that offers endless possibilities to a world starved for optimism--has captured our collective imagination. In fact, a single thought about the Internet grows more powerful with each passing moment: be there or be square. It is now a truth universally acknowledged that if your company or your university department or your magazine isn't on the Internet with its own Website, you are missing a beat, maybe the beat. After all, Margaret Atwood has her own page (which explains, in charming verse, why she won't write a blurb for your book), and so do the people who run the B.C. ferry service and most CBC programs and Maclean's and the Paris Review and any aquarium you care to name. The art department of the Okanagan University College at Kelowna, B.C. maintains a superb Website, which offers Bob Belton's quirky chronological account of the visual arts in Canada, from prehistory to the present; it's a perfect document for the Internet, where it need never go out of date (unlike a printed book) and can be corrected and expanded at will.

But the gleaming promise of the Internet has arrived in the museum world during a period of extreme vulnerability and discomfort. Like all public institutions, museums are worried, for excellent reasons, about how much government support they can count on. More important, they have in many cases lost confidence in their traditional role and are yearning for a larger space in the public imagination. They have always known that much of the population regards "museum" as a synonym for "dull"; today, however, they feel called upon to take this problem seriously. So the museums that are moving onto the Internet, or trying to improve their presence there, hope it will spread their influence, enlarge their constituency, and inform the public that they are, despite everything you may have heard, entirely cool.

To begin accomplishing this task, each museum must consider two questions--what will the Website offer, and who will pay for it? The second question, unhappily, is easy to answer: for the foreseeable future, the museum will pay. Internet users may buy some products from the gift shop, others may eventually become paying members, and sponsors will pay some costs in return for advertising on the Website. But for most museums, all this will be marginal. A Website almost certainly will be the opposite of a revenue source.

That can change. Maxwell Anderson says, "There are two eras--before digital cash and after digital cash." We are now living in the BDC era, but eventually there will be a way to spend money easily by the Internet. A few people are now using Visa or American Express for Internet purchases, but credit cards don't begin to fill the need. Many people dislike having their Visa numbers floating in cyberspace, and in any case credit-card accounting is too clumsy for the Internet. This is a world where some charges may be counted in pennies or, conceivably, fractions of pennies. At the rate the Internet is being used now (and it grows every day), even the most modest fees could add up to significant revenue for those who understand how to use it. A site visited 100,000 times a day will produce interesting sums even if each visitor pays only half a dollar. We don't know how digital cash will work, but some of the cleverest people in the world are giving it their best efforts (count on them). And once Internet users start paying for what they see, the nature and design of Websites will change. So will the place of museums on the net, and not in ways that anyone can now predict.

In the meantime, most museums are involved in cyberspace or planning to be. One of the explorers charting this unknown region is Maria Piacente, a student in museum studies at the University of Toronto. In the course of preparing an MA thesis on the planning and effectiveness of museum Web pages, she's looked at some 200 of them. She's noticed that they fall into three categories (she's not responsible for the category names):

(1) The brochure: This is a purely promotional site, no more than four or five pages, an electronic version of the folder many museums hand out free to visitors. It can be put up at minimal cost and with minimal imagination. A freelancer will design it for $500 to $1,000, and a server company will keep the pages electronically available for $50 to $100 a month. Those who visit it can learn the nature of the museum and the collection as well as opening times and other details.

(2) The virtual gallery: This can cost vastly more money but won't necessarily require a lot more imagination. It recreates parts of the museum on-line: reproductions of the art objects and sometimes views of certain rooms allow the Internet user to skip across the collection, making "a virtual visit." The Detroit Institute of Arts, for instance, has the highlights of its collection on-line--and so has the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan in Penticton. In these museums, captions accompanying the illustrations are more or less the same as those in a catalogue and seldom reflect any attempt to redefine the material for a new audience or provide a fresh context. What the viewer sees is usually a small-screen echo of the museum itself. But there are exceptions. The National Gallery's Website recently celebrated the arrival of five paintings from Sadye Bronfman's estate by putting up reproductions of them, accompanied by chatty little essays that Peter Di Maso, a curatorial assistant, wrote for the net audience.

(3) The creative site: Ideally, this kind of site gives the museum a new identity for its new environment. The site slowly emerges as a parallel institution, expressing the museum's goals in ways that are uniquely appropriate to the Internet. That can mean everything from games and quizzes to original research done only for the Website. Dial up the Exploratorium in San Francisco and you can follow the dissection of a cow's eye in minute detail--this isn't a version of a museum exhibit but something planned, photographed, and explained for the Web. The Royal Ontario Museum Website, which has been attracting international attention, has a section that teaches Egyptian hieroglyphics by allowing Internet users to write in hieroglyphics, something that isn't available when you visit the ROM itself. If you dial up the site of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, you're invited to become an on-line member of "the virtual museum," which allows you to visit certain areas of the site that are otherwise closed. Membership is free, but you give your street address, e-mail address, and family income in return for a password; you'll soon begin receiving messages about other services and products, including those available at the on-line gift shop.

A few fine art museums fall in this category, because they use their Websites to move beyond the display of the collection. The Website of the Whitney Museum in New York has a section where artists show work created for the Web; it may include animation, sound, video, and clickable art (e.g., click on the eye in a photo portrait in order to see an extreme close-up of the eye). The Dia Center for the Arts in New York has a site that specializes in linking the user to other sources, such as newsletters, but it also provides a way to show new art.

When it works, that kind of art moves beyond the institutions that create it. Two years ago, at the Offenes Kulturhaus in Linz, Austria, the Canadian artist Vera Frankel put together an international Web project, The Body Missing, which now involves fourteen artists in Germany, Austria, and Canada. They all address a single subject: the works of art that were stolen for Hitler during the Second World War and never recovered. People sitting before their computers move through an imagined site, listen to artists talking about the art theft, then make their way into a series of imagined spaces to watch the artists interpret the theme. The Body Missing was displayed on a series of monitors at the Ontario Association of Art Galleries conference, where it left everyone with an expanded notion of the Internet's possibilities. "Communication" and "information" are the words usually invoked in predicting what the Internet will accomplish. But those terms are inadequate to describe what happens as artists begin consciously to create works that will exist only in digitalized form and never as physical objects--works that would, in theory, make museum buildings irrelevant.

I WRITE "IN THEORY" because of course no one imagines anything like that happening. The meaning of a museum lies in its objects and what it does with them. Museums are collectors of objects, which they store, display, and interpret. Museums are also publishers. The Internet can probably help them perform those functions--Pierre Landry predicted, for instance, that future museum catalogues will be published mainly on the Internet, rather than in the costly book format now used.

But there are certain dangers, and the outlines of them are discernible whenever directors and curators begin to discuss this subject. One is the risk of focusing on "information" rather than art, and forgetting the difference between the two: the first can be aesthetically neutral but the second raises profound issues of judgement. Another is the temptation to lose touch with reality and focus instead on what post-modern theory likes to identify as "the simulacrum," the imitation of life that offers to replace reality, in theme parks or TV shows or on the Internet.

At times, museum directors dealing with the Internet appear to be playing out, in their working lives, a version of post-modern theory. Listening to them talk, one has a sense of having trod this ground before, notably in the essays of Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and other princes of post-modern discourse. There is, for instance, the emphasis on what is said about art rather than art itself--in postmodernese, "the elevation of the discourse over the object." There is the embrace of the artificial, as represented by digitalized images. There is the focus on information as a thing of value in itself. And then there is the simulacrum. Baudrillard, the French sociologist, insists that the border between art and reality has vanished and both have collapsed into what he calls "the universal simulacrum," which at a certain stage, as he sees it, loses all relationship with reality.

I thought of Baudrillard when reading a report compiled by Cliff Quinn of the BC Museums Association. It seemed to suggest that in this field, museums have been uncoupled from reality. Last spring the association conducted a survey of Internet use by cultural heritage institutions, to determine whether the net will be helpful in marketing. Quinn learned that thirty-three B.C. heritage institutions have Web pages, but in most cases the museum doesn't know what to do with the page and can't say whether it's doing any good. "Excitement generated by the medium is intense," the report says. " abysmal." One respondent, discussing e-mail, said: "In my opinion, this is the way of the future and those who do not adapt to the new technology will be left behind." That seems also to be the approach to the Internet: web for web's sake. "Many institutions indicated they were using the Web. Almost none could indicate any clear relationship between their Web presence and activities in the real world." Strangely, B.C. Websites receive few visits from those who should be most interested, the creators of other Websites. "Many colleagues admit that they have very little time to visit other museum Websites, and that when they do they are often disappointed, and rarely take the time to make a complete visit." The report also says that none of the respondents could identify tangible benefits, except perhaps "better visibility with funding agencies." On the other hand, there are institutions, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, which not only claim to be able to measure the impact of a Website but celebrate its effectiveness. Last winter, the AGO invited people to enter their thoughts about Canada in the Website connected with the Oh!Canada exhibition, a kind of fun-fair extrapolation of Charles Hill's big Group of Seven show. Many, many people entered many, many words, and the fact that those I read were universally fatuous makes no difference to the director of the AGO, Maxwell Anderson. He says it was a great success, as measured in the number of "hits" at the Website--the number of times people visited the site.

He sees a great future for the Web and the AGO, of course, and there's no reason to decide now that he's wrong. When he gets down to discussing how it will work in future, it turns out that he's making careful plans to serve art and the public. The AGO must be on the net, he says, because "it is an essential tool today with young people." But it must be a way of reflecting the gallery's mandate by making "the encounter with the original work of art as rich in texture as possible." A school class planning a trip to a museum, for instance, will first make a virtual visit to study the collection's resources and even the floor plan. That way, the students should arrive at the museum knowing what they expect to see and why they are going to see it. The rest of us can use a good Webpage in the same way--you could dial up the Philadelphia museum before going to see the Cézanne show, and get a good sense of it before looking at the actual paintings. The unique experience that museums can offer us is direct observation of the objects themselves, and it seems logical that an intelligent Website will heighten that experience. "I consider the technology a bridge to that experience," Anderson says. If he can make the story come true he may well be, as he imagines, one of the pioneers of the 21st-century museum.

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