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Art in the Virtual Age

The Potential and Limitations of Online Museums

“The Starry Night” is arguably one of the most famous pieces on display in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA. The painting, completed by Vincent van Gogh in 1889, hangs on the fifth floor of the building next to a piece by Henry Rousseau and in a room filled with works by Cezanne, Gauguin, and other painters who define the beginning of what is known as art’s modern era. Visitors can stand close enough to see the brush strokes, the color globs, and the layering, but not to breathe on the work or touch it, understandably.

On, the museum’s official website, I can view van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” in more detail than I would ever be able view it in the museum itself. I can virtually stand on the fifth floor of the museum without paying the $14 student entrance fee. And I can listen to the audio description of the painting that would normally be included in the audio guide. In addition, I can browse the entire collection, including pieces on view and in storage. I can donate. I can purchase items from the MoMA Store. Apparently, I can do everything I might want to do at the museum, on the Internet. But I still want to go to the museum in person, as do 3 million other visitors every year. This is largely the result of what Glenn Lowry, current director of MoMA, calls “a healthy symbiotic relationship between our online presence and our presence in real space.”[i]

The digitization of art

In the last 40 years, museums have transitioned from physical to digital and from digital to virtual. These transitions lead to questions of whether or not the museum in cyberspace is a viable substitute for the physical museum. The response by most museum directors and artists is “no.” The intention of a museum is to “document, educate, and preserve” and the museum’s Internet counterpart cannot perform these duties autonomously.

In light of its mission of “establishing, preserving, and documenting a permanent collection of the highest order that reflects the vitality, complexity and unfolding patterns of modern and contemporary art,”[ii] MoMA has extremely high “virtual potential.” Contemporary art continually experiments with new media and digital displays, but this potential still relies on the physical museum.

MoMA was the first museum to truly embrace “white box” architecture in which art was meant to be seen against a white-walled, minimally detailed, and evenly lit background.[iii] In 1929 MoMA opened in an entirely temporary building which adjusted spaces and galleries based on artwork demands. In 1939 it opened in a permanent building which did the same thing. Over the next 50 years, the museum underwent several renovations, some done by International Style architect Philip Johnson, and acquired buildings along 53rd Street while maintaining the “white box” mentality. In 2004 architect Yoshio Taniguchi’s version of the museum reopened with, yet again, the same philosophy.

MoMA transitioned to the Internet in 1996 under new director Glenn Lowry. The public’s accessibility to the entire collection, on view and in storage, was important during the 1997 onset of the architectural renovation. The process of digitization required collaboration with information technology companies in order to create the technological infrastructure. The Musée D’Orsay in Paris was the first museum to achieve digitization by partnering with Process Systems to provide its visitors with the ability to digitally browse 4,000 images in a computer room within the museum.

The ultimate “white box”

Today the computer is the ultimate “white box.” It privatizes the relationship between the viewer and the work and takes the painting out of its framed, public context. The Google Art Project, in which Google originally partnered with 17 museums to create high-quality virtual museum space and digitally reproduce a chosen piece at a gigapixel of resolution, epitomizes this experience. The visitor walks on museum floors alone and, after encountering a work of interest, clicks to examine the digital reproduction against a black background.

The “Museum View” tool now features 51 museums, with the White House as its newest addition. The project also allows visitors to drag paintings into personal galleries, which further privatizes the relationship between the individual and the chosen works. Users can then share this personal gallery with specific people or make it available for public viewing in which the paintings and accompanying comments are now perceived not as a museum creation but as a customized collection. This is the point at which the physical museum foundation seems to disappear into the cloud.

I would not characterize this as a substitute for the art museum experience but rather as a continuation of interest and engagement. Google Art Project visitors must first interact with the museum in which the painting hangs before they can decontextualize it by putting it in their own collection. And on the Google Art Project interface, museum collections and museum view take priority over sorting by artists or paintings because the project would not exist without the museums. Thus the highest-quality virtual museums and their 18 million visitors require, first and foremost, the foundation of the physical museum—even on the Internet.

The continual software updates of the Internet imply impermanence, a word that sometimes irks contemporary artists working with such technology. Therefore, the correspondence between MoMA’s physical infrastructure and its virtual infrastructure on the Internet can be seen as an “artistic necessity.” Even contemporary artists who increasingly use digital media and video still rely on a museum’s physical capacity to properly display their works, and MoMA has this capacity.

Three million visitors come to MoMA every year because they want to see the art and the building. And while the definition of art in the age of the Internet has expanded in the last 20 years, artists still want to display physically within MoMA’s walls. They not only strive toward artistic prestige but also want to preserve their work inside of an art museum, a gap that the Internet still cannot fill.

Julia Eckstein is a science, technology, and society major and economics minor at the University of Pennsylvania.


[i] “Digital Age-Digital Museums: Will the Minnow Swallow the Whale?-Glenn Lowry,” available at

[ii] “MoMa | The Museum of Modern Art,” available at

[iii] Terence Riley, “Taniguchi and Associates: Expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA (1997-2004).” In Suzanne Greub and Thierry Greub, eds., Museums in the 21st Century (New York: Prestel, 2006), 24.

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