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Museums in the Age of Digitisation

Pratibha Rai


In 1880, Alfred Maudslay, a young Cambridge graduate, embarked on an exploration to Central America. On his way to Copán, famed for its colossal carved stelae, Maudslay uncovered a significant find at Quiriguá, Guatemala. Draped by time in their moss shrouds were ancient Mayan monuments bearing cryptic hieroglyphic inscriptions. For the next decade, Maudslay devoted his efforts to securing copies of these monuments, not only for the sake of preservation but also through his conviction, though unconventional at the time, that the Mayan writing system could be deciphered in the future. In order to do this accurately, he employed the latest technologies available to him – namely, glass plate photography and plaster moulds. Maudslay created over 800 glass plate photographs, and 500 casts of the monuments, which have proved indelibly valuable for scholars. A decade after his first visit to Quiriguá, Maudslay anticipated that his copies preserved in museums would likely outlive the survival of the original structures themselves. In a sense, his premonition proved true, as many of these ancient monuments were later lost to looting, destruction, or natural erosion. In a few instances, Maudslay’s casts remain the only extant documentation we have of specific inscriptions and monuments. The repository of Maudslay’s work now rests in the British Museum, where his legacy of preserving ancient artifacts using technology has been reinvigorated through a collaboration with Google Arts and Culture. His staggering collection of photographs is now accessible through ultra-high resolution digitization and can be viewed with exceptional capacities for zoom. Furthermore, the casts have been 3D scanned to make them accessible for closer study; enabling the viewer to tilt, zoom and even modify lighting in order to read the inscriptions.


Around the world, digitization is increasingly metamorphosing the face of museums in the 21st century. It provides not only an accurate method of preservation but also encapsulates the memory of the ways in which humans have preserved objects in the past. The playground of innovation that digitization offers makes it a natural ally for ambitious Cultural institutions. The Louvre in Paris for example, with its inexhaustible collections, provide free online tours around some of its most acclaimed exhibits like its Egyptian Antiquities, with information about the valuable artefacts literally at our fingertips. Even a cursory look at the Louvre’s YouTube channel exemplifies how digital networks are becoming not only a platform of outreach but also a stage to express a historic museum’s place in the modern world; articulating its style, personality, and purpose. An exciting innovation this year in the cross-fertilisation of art and digitization has been the launch of the digitally operated art centre, “Atelier des Lumières” in Paris. The former iron foundry was installed with 120 video-projectors and 50 Nexo speakers to enable visual and audio immersive exhibitions, such as its launch exhibition featuring Gustave Klimt’s artworks. The exhibition provides the experience of walking inside artistic works themselves, in this case, over 3,000 works featuring Gustav Klimt, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and Ego Schiele. Art has perennially evoked our contemplation and participation; but with technology now capable of calibrating sensory experiences through data and artworks no longer contained in frames, this interface between art and technology enables a dynamic rethinking of the centuries old interface between artist and observer.


By the Google Cultural Institute’s fifth birthday alone, its network had harvested collections from over 1,000 Cultural institutions and museums. It is now possible to enjoy Monet’s masterpiece; his water lilies, in fine “gigapixel” resolution and to zoom in so minutely, that one can identify where Monet layered his brushstrokes. A personal highlight is the possibility of virtually walking inside the opulent beauty of the Doge’s Palace in Venice under conditions that, as a tourist, are practically unheard of – in complete privacy. Under no duress to weave amongst crowds, one can take as much time to plunge into the divine diversity and drama of Tintoretto’s ‘Il Paradiso’, and even to finely pick out his smaller-scale paintings such as his ‘Portrait of Doge Pasquale Cicogna’ and the action of his Allegories. It seems timely – even necessary – that digitisation is expanding accessibility outside metropolitan areas, into entirely distant continents and socio-economic backgrounds, especially during a climate of municipal and state funding cuts. Digital experiences of artefacts are certainly not meant to displace the experience of visiting a museum – rather it expresses a commitment to inclusivity in culture and extends the dialogue that it can bring.


During the Met’s ‘Global Museum Leaders Colloquium’ earlier this year, which assembled directors representing a diversity of region, size and type of institution (state and private), digitization in museums was voiced as a ubiquitous concern. The immediacy of the issue is understandable as the rate at which museums are transforming through digitisation generates a number  of fundamental questions. As museums and online platforms become more involved, how are we to view digital simulacrum of material artefacts? How do national museums fit into the globalising narrative of digital organisations? What are the best ways in which we can employ technology to rescue artefacts from natural and man-made disasters? And by making artefacts indestructible to the ravages of time and conflict, what effects might this have on their value for us? Online content is proving that its power exceeds the ambit of solely preservation but also promulgation; giving agency to a modern form of community, one which perceives renowned museums around the world as not only houses of memories but commemorations of humanity’s most defining capacities. The agenda then is that of preserving the beauty of Humanity with a capital ‘H’ against hostility and fracture. Digitization may well help protect Humanity’s most significant monuments from the peril of human and natural devastation. It remains an on-going challenge for the future to find equilibrium between digitization and museums. However, digitization has proved that it can help our museums face contemporary problems defiantly, empowered with a conviction shared by Auguste Rodin in his ‘Cathedrals of France’(1914), “notre âme en tout ce qu’elle a de meilleur” – our soul in all that is best.



Pratibha Rai is studying for the MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford. Her writing has been featured in The Oxford StudentOxford Culture Review, and Oxford Writer’s House.