“Seat of the muses” — that’s the general translation of the word “museum.”
But as new technology has been changing the way objects related to the arts can be viewed, it is also challenging the idea of where that seat used to be: museum buildings.
That challenge is being led by museum directors and curators looking to reach new audiences and to share their collections with the widest audience possible. They are building new institutions — and seats — with the World Wide Web.
And with the current emphasis on staying home and away from crowds, it seems a good time to take a look at the brave new world of online museums.
The leader in New Jersey is the Princeton University Art Museum.
It has made several marks over the last decade. But one especially interesting development was the institution’s decision to provide online access to its Minor White Photographic Archive.
As the museum notes, “Minor White (1908–1976) was one of the most important photographic artists and teachers active during the 30 years after World War II and a key figure in shaping a distinctly modern American photographic style. The most important collection of primary source material in existence by and about the artist, the archive contains White’s negatives, proofs, contact sheets, journals, library, correspondence, ephemera, and nearly 20,000 prints by White and other artists.”
And since the museum holds the copyright to all of this work it was free to share the images and provide a one-stop link to a major collection at artmuseum.princeton.edu/MWA.
Overseen by Katherine Bussard, curator of photography, and a committee comprising museum and university experts, the site is a work of art in itself — one that both exhibits and informs.
An introduction and biographical chart help put the artist in context. But it is the organization of the images that provides the viewer easy and focused access.
Another site helps the viewer sort through the massive collection White bequeathed to the university in 1976. It offers two approaches: a global map of where the photographs were taken and a list of themes.
The latter is more direct and thematically gathers the artist’s interests. For example there are natural and organic forms: clouds, deserts, coastlines; human-made shapes: architecture, streetscapes, cemeteries, and automobiles; abstract and geometric forms; and the human body: male nudes and male dancers.
Yet together both approaches provide the viewer an opportunity to explore the vast body of work by a major American artist from virtually anywhere.
That’s also true of some of PUAM’s past exhibitions.
Called simply the online exhibition page, the site contains 18 exhibitions mounted at the museum since 2003.
One of the most important is “The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection.” That is the collection of mainly impressionist and post-impressionist works on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum since the mid-1970s. Often on view, they were also the subject of an international traveling exhibition from 2014 through 2016.
Simply clicking the link gives the digital visitor access to the multi-media presentation. Here one reads the book-like copy regarding the collectors and their interests. The page also has thumbnail images of all the works arranged alphabetically by the last name of the artist.
While hitting each thumbnail provides a slightly larger image of the art work and information regarding past exhibitions and scholarly references, other links on the site bring the exhibition to digital life.
Here members of the Pearlman family talk about the collector (with a transcript handy to follow along or to review afterwards), making a person-to-person connection.
Another link lets visitors explore the Pearlman Foundation, see images of the collector, and offers a make-your-own exhibition activity that can be published on social media. And the Highlights section focuses in on several curatorial picks with the visitor having the option of hearing a museum-like tour guide commentary, reading the text, or reading along with the voice.
Those who had seen the exhibition (as I had) will find all this akin to seeing publications in a book or poster. It is, after all, the direct experience with the paint and line that engages the eyes and mind.
Since the exhibition “New Jersey As a Non-Site” examined an arts movement inspired by both New Jersey’s rampant urbanization and industrialization and embraced non-traditional materials and new approaches for expression, it had the promise of using technology to help propel and shade the content.
However, the approach also uses a mainly book-like text and photo format to convey information — without the tone or mood of the time when these innovators created happenings and used electronic media and the world as artistic tools.
However, the online version of another New Jersey-connected exhibition hits the mark: “Princeton and the Gothic Revival.” The museum accurately calls it “a multimedia exploration of Princeton’s Gothic Revival architecture — the campus’s defining visual language — through text, audio, and images.” Accessible via smartphone and computer, the viewer-visitor uses a campus map to go to specific locations, such as Princeton University Chapel, and can hear comments about the building from the exhibition curator and others with expertise on the buildings.
Yet the most developed and satisfying digital exhibition — one similar to Princeton and the Gothic Revival — is not listed as an online exhibition but as a mobile tour titled “Campus Art at Princeton.”
Here the images, text, and voices tell the tale of how the exhibition began and share information on the artists, their intent, and the employed aesthetic approach.
It is also where the museum shows its mastery of online exhibitions and provides a powerful service to anyone in the region interested in art and the public art in the community. It is something to celebrate.
So too are the efforts of other institutions using digital technology to engage anyone with an interest in art, science, and history.
And like the PUAM, they also have a specific focus that makes the sites something more than browsing online.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for example, allows digital visitors to view the history of its exhibitions from its opening to today.
To do so, visit MOMA’s homepage, click the “What’s On” link, scroll down to “Exhibition History,” and there you are.
Leading the list is the 1929 inaugural exhibition “Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and Van Gogh,” touted by the museum as “four of the most celebrated European Post-Impressionist painters.”
The site includes 23 photos of the paintings installed in the small rooms of the museum’s original building and the catalog introduced by the museum’s first — and longtime — director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., who received a bachelor’s and master of arts at Princeton University.
Rounding out the site is a link for each artist that connects viewers to artists’ work in other MoMA exhibitions and in the collection.
Other exhibitions represented by installation photographs or catalog images include the 1933 “Edward Hopper: Retrospective,” 1936 “African Negro Art,” 1940 “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art,” 1944 “Chinese Children’s War Pictures,” the 1946 “Georgia O’Keefe,” the first retrospective of a woman, and thousands more.
All told the online exhibition is both a survey of art and art movements as well as the memory of a specific museum.
But one doesn’t have to stay in the tri-state region to get an online museum experience. Go global and make a virtual visit to those museums on your dream list.
Interested in viewing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos as if walking into the space? Simply link onto the Vatican Museums site (www.museivaticani.va), hit collections, and then museums. There’s the Sistine Chapel as just one of the numerous options that allow viewers to see world-famous works in context or up close.
What about the famed Chinese Terracotta Warriors? Go to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Museum site, where the staff partnered with the Chinese online encyclopedia Baidu Baike to provide virtual tours for viewer. It is at baike.baidu.com/museum/qinshihuang.
For American history enthusiasts, the Smithsonian Museum of American History (americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/online) has online exhibitions ranging from Three Mile Island to Abraham Lincoln to the life of Cecelia Cruz.
And scientists of all stripes can visit take a foreign trip to the Museo Galileo (catalogue.museogalileo.it), the virtual museum from the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy.
One of the most interesting virtual museums to be found is that of a museum that was lost to a fire in 2018, Brazil’s National Museum. It lost an estimated 20 million pieces ranging from dinosaur artifacts to ancient human skulls. Yet thanks to Google the ghost of the museum remains at www.blog.google/outreach-initiatives/arts-culture/inside-brazils-national-museum-google-arts-culture.
Obviously, online museums are in their infancy.
As someone who was on the administration of the New Jersey State Museum and an exhibitions writer for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, I keep thinking that the online engagement will help get people away from their computer screens and out into the world.
But during our current virus-avoiding era, the muse will be happy to join you on any seat that provides access to a new phenomenon that is just starting to take off.
The Role of the Museum
In addition to online access to many of its collections, Princeton University Art Museum has held virtual lectures, classes, and discussions while its physical spaces are closed.
The next online event takes place Thursday, May 7, at 5:30 p.m. and features museum director James Steward. He will give a talk on “The Museum, Citizenship, and the Post-Coronavirus Age” and answer audience questions.
The talk will be held over Zoom. Visit artmuseum.princeton.edu for access.