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?[/li]
    [li]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).