Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait, 1889

“If people can see the images online, will they still come to the museum?”

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During last week’s broadcast of The Kojo Nnamdi Show, art critic Tyler Green referenced a question that’s been floating around museums for nearly two decades: “Well, if people can see the images online, will they need to come to the museum?” It’s okay to groan if you’ve heard this one before. Green’s answer: We’ve seen an increase in attendance since museums have started putting their collections online, therefore these efforts—at least indirectly—have encouraged more people to visit and see art firsthand for themselves. So why won’t this question die?

Some museum types are so tired of this “bad weed” query (I’m looking at you, Richard Urban) that they’ve compiled a list of 18 research studies detailing the connections between online and onsite visitation. Paul Marty (Urban’s colleague at Florida State University) long ago crafted his own curt answer: “Maybe you haven’t heard, but ever since the State of Florida started putting pictures of beaches online, nobody vacations in Florida anymore.”

How do you like to answer this question? What ways do you find most effective for convincing your boss, coworkers, and the people holding the purse strings, that digital efforts are worth our time?

I very much enjoyed listening to passionate articulations from Green and the other guests of the Tech Tuesday broadcast, Peter Dueker (head of digital imaging services at the National Gallery of Art) and Anne Goodyear (co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art). Host Marc Fisher lobbed many more skeptical musings their way, some of which I’ve heard before and others that seemed frankly outlandish:

  • Are (high quality) digital images really distortions of the painter’s art? Do they show too much? Do they send the wrong message about the meaning and power of these works?
  • Is a computer screen the right frame for a painting?
  • What is it that you can learn about a work of art when you’re able to magnify each of those individual elements and does it reach a point that’s sort of too much? …Is Google bringing us too close to art?
  • We pay a lot of attention… in museums as to how artists want their works displayed. Does that simply go out the window when it comes to digital reproduction?
  • …(If) the digital experience or the online experience, the at-home experience, becomes every bit as or perhaps more satisfying in some ways than going to a museum, do you…worry that the business model behind the presentation of art in museums could be dismantled?
  • Do any of you have concerns that that experience of visiting the artwork…is at all diminished by the free availability of these images?

Check out the archived broadcast for yourself to hear how Dueker, Goodyear, and Green deftly tackled each one.

The Kojo Nnamdi Show (June 25, 2013)
A Masterwork on Your Screen: Museums Digitize Collections
Listen | Read transcript

Note: Collage created from a high-res download (freely available at NGA Images) of Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, (1889).

10 thoughts on ““If people can see the images online, will they still come to the museum?”

  1. Hi Dana and am enjoying your posts.

    I think this discussion begs the bigger question – are online/mobile visits to museum increasing while at the same time attendance at physical sites remains stagnant? I can’t find evidence of increases in physical visits to museums and was wondering if you had any up-to-date research on this issue?


    1. Lynda, here are a couple of sources finding increases in museum attendance (in the U.S.):

      “A majority of museums in the survey (52%) reported increases in annual onsite attendance—in some cases, a boost of 20% or more—while just 28% experienced declining attendance; the
      rest maintained a steady level of visitors. This is the fourth year in a row that a majority
      of museums reported increasing annual attendance.” (April 2013, American Alliance of Museums:

      “In our recent quick survey on attendance trends, we asked respondents how their museum’s attendance has fared over the previous five years. Over half reported increased attendance, nearly a quarter reported decreased attendance, and the remainder said levels were about the same.” (July 2012, Museum Audience Insight:

      “While science museum and aquarium attendance remains strong, art museums are seeing mostly flat growth, with spikes in visitors for extraordinarily popular exhibitions like the recent “Picasso Black and White” at the Guggenheim…In 2011, art museum visitors declined 6.6 percent, according to Morey Group data. An American Alliance of Museums survey found an uptick in attendance, but did not factor in the effect of one-time blockbuster visitors.” (March 2013, New York Times:

      “In 2011, 171 science centers and museums reported total attendance…56% of respondents reporting an increase over the previous year.” (Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated:

      The Museum Analytics site is a good source of data for social media, however, its onsite and online visit numbers haven’t been updated since 2011:

  2. In the summer of 1994 I was at NGA with my sister, who lived nearby, sitting on a bench in an exhibit looking at the art and listening to the tourists. The exhibit was, if I remember correctly something to the effect of: “Conceptual and Experimental works from the Vogel Collection”. I remember sitting on this bench near one piece that was a wooden dowel tied to a piece of string and hung from the ceiling, and another that was a mass of rubberized horse hair. Not kidding. You can’t make stuff like that up. Years later I can certainly draw comparisons to what I heard that day and comments you might find at the bottom of many blog posts. “I could make that!” or “That’s art?”. But no digital experience I have had since that day has surpassed this memory I have; of sitting in a gallery with my sis, looking at art and listening in on tourists talk to someone they know, sometimes in a whisper and more often than not in disbelief, about what they were seeing. It’s a great memory and one that’s not easily replicated or replaced by a screen.

    1. I think it goes deeper than being in the same room as the art (as opposed to a digital reproduction in your home). Your story really gets at the social experience of being in the same room as other human beings. In this case, it is a shared memory you have with your sister but also a memory of “listening in” to people’s candid opinions about art. There is something to be said for the thrill of eavesdropping—the things people say in a museum to one another (i.e., not crafted for public consumption) are often so much more interesting than a faceless, context-less online comment.

  3. As the director of a historical society library, I have found that digital images actually inspire more interest in the original items. Researchers are often tremendously excited to see a real letter or diary created by someone who lived in the past — especially if that person is meaningful to them in some way (an ancestor, a prominent citizen, a well-known writer, etc.). As we become increasingly immersed in the digital world, the fascination with “real” things will likely grow proportionally. Libraries and museums can capitalize on this by providing visitors with a unique and enjoyable experience. As the informational function of hard copy library collections is assumed by the web, libraries can focus on creating inviting and attractive spaces in which people in communities come together.

    1. Geoff, I’m glad you mention letters and diaries. When it comes to fragile documents, sometimes our interactions with the digital can be even more intimate than with the “real.” For example, I recall working on interactive kiosk for a display of the Gettysburg Address in which we enabled zooming functionality. In a blog post about the project, I wrote: “Each time I see the work in progress, I’m moved by how close I can get to Lincoln’s own handwriting.”

  4. It is still fun to come at museums at see the artworks in person. I remember a mobile app that also acts like an art guide where it tells me where a specific painting or any art can be found. I hope there is also an app that shows tourist spots of different countries. Oh, btw, for those curious, the name of the art guide app is ArtGuru.

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