Scrolling through a Museum
When you think of a museum, what do you envision? If you’re like most people, you might imagine a wide-open room with a high ceiling, branching out into other rooms, with a variety of art hanging on the walls, each room quiet except for the faint whispering of a tour guide.
Throughout my life, I have been drawn to these kinds of spaces. I love the feeling of walking around and carefully observing the details of each piece. My mind always imagines the artist working meticulously on every aspect of their creation. I feel connected to the artist, almost as if I were watching them bring the work to life right in front of me. For instance, a couple years ago I had the opportunity to visit Florence. During the trip, my sister and I made it a priority to stop at the Accademia Gallery to visit Michelangelo's famous piece of monumental art, The David. As we were walking through the museum, I observed a number of works; however, I will never forget the feeling I had when my eyes, from across the room, fixed on The David for the first time. I stood there mesmerized. The placement of The David—as the focal point at the end of a narrow path lined by other art pieces—added to the effect, making it catch my attention almost immediately and seeming to heighten the status of the work.
Until that moment I had never stopped to think about how the museum space itself can lend significance to an artwork. And that early reflection on museum spaces has intensified during the pandemic, when all these world-renowned museums, like the Louvre or the Metropolitan, have been transferred online.
I remember when I first saw an ad to visit the Louvre museum for free, virtually. This space offered the opportunity for anyone across the globe to experience the world’s culture from the comfort of their own home by moving through a virtual space, scrolling from work to work. I was intrigued but also hesitant to explore what I felt might be a poor attempt to recreate virtually the experience of going to a museum in person. Without the live space itself, that experience, or anything even resembling it, seemed to me almost impossible.
Nevertheless, I finally decided to check it out. I aimed to “enter” the virtual museum with an open mind, but in all honesty, I was very underwhelmed. As someone who has been fortunate enough to visit the Louvre in person, I felt that this online exhibition failed to capture the glory and honour that a live museum has to offer works of art.
An online depiction of a well-known artwork seemed to me no different than simply googling a picture of the piece.
This semester, however, I saw another announcement about a virtual exhibition, this one taking place in Warren G. Flowers, the art gallery of my own school, Dawson College. The title of the exhibition was Resistance & Resilience, and it featured artists discussing their experience of immigrating to Canada. The curator of the exhibition—Rhona Meier, an art historian and independent curator who has overseen numerous exhibitions at Dawson—described this exhibition as exploring social issues such as “structural violence, racism, erasure or conflict with mainstream Canadian identity narrative.” Each artist shared some of the challenges they had faced in their immigration experience and embodied these challenges in their varied works, which included paintings, sculptures, photography and even digital paintings.
Interested in expanding my perspective on the physical and virtual spaces that art inhabits, I reached out to Meier for an interview. But before we spoke, I decided I would experience the exhibit for myself. This time, to my surprise, as I watched and listened to each artist introducing their work, and as I took in the works themselves, I could feel the impact of these personal stories. The whole visit seemed surreal, simply because it was all taking place from my own home. Yet somehow, despite the lack of a physical space around these artworks, they were conveying emotion and meaning to me.
In our interview, Meier agreed that “it is irreplaceable to see art in person because that is the way it is meant to be seen.” The ability “to go to the Metropolitan Museum and look at different works and draw connections between each one is monumental,” she said. My mind immediately went to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; those who have had the opportunity to observe the Mona Lisa in person are often shocked by its small size—before they realize that its modest canvas actually lends the painting added significance, revealing the attention to detail that Da Vinci managed to fit into such a limited frame. Yet Meier emphasized that there are also added benefits to this new online forum. Notably, since the virtual world is far more accessible to a wide range of people, emerging artists can find platforms for the first time online, and a far greater and more diverse group of spectators can appreciate their work. As Meier put it, “art is a precarious field”; the space in which the art is shown cannot matter too much because artists need to be adaptable. And the accessibility of an online space “gets people to experience pieces that they would have otherwise never seen”.
As well, online spaces create the possibility for innovations in how art is presented. There is more room in a virtual world, for example, for the artists to step in and give a face and a voice to the person behind the work, as I experienced in the Resistance & Resilience exhibition. My ability to see videos of the artists and to hear their first-hand accounts of the reasoning behind their choices of medium, or their explanations of the importance of certain details, helped me to capture more thoroughly the significance of each piece. When I asked Meier about this, she very clearly stated that “spatial relationships exist as well” online. She pointed out how all art works are set on a “stage”, whether that be an online platform or a museum, and it is the stage on which one experiences the pieces, and for Meier interactions between such stages are important.
Moreover, Meier pointed out that online the artist is not only limited to interaction with spectators, as the virtual world allows artists to converse more easily with other artists in their field. In that sense, it creates a network of people because there are more “connections and contacts” to be made online. Suddenly, there is a “sense of community” drawn from what seemed like a disconnected space. This is the power of an online exhibition.
All in all, according to Meier, it is not only what a space allows but also what the artists make of the space that matters. Meier thought back to some of the artists that she had worked with and pointed out how some “will just stay in their niches” and continue doing traditional art, whereas others “will take on the challenge” and explore what this new platform has to offer.
As traditional artwork attempts to shift online, other artists are exploring a new form of artwork that aims to create an innovative museum experience in a virtual space. At the same time, online exhibitions are probably not about to revolutionize art altogether. As Meier reasserted once again that “art was meant to be seen in person” and the live experience of art is “irreplaceable”. Going to a museum is an experience in itself, and the ability to navigate among tangible artworks in an open space carries a unique significance to it. Yet perhaps the same could be said, in a different but no less meaningful way, about engaging with art online.
At the end of our interview, Meier thought back to a comment that an artist made to her once, to highlight what she refers to as the “paradox” that exists within online art. During the exhibition, an artist told her that they felt a greater sense of intimacy in the virtual space because of the greater numbers and diversity of people who were attending. Yet, at the end of the exhibition, this same artist also felt more of a sense of solitude, because her show had not involved any in person engagement with the community, nor any live engagement by the community with her artwork.
I could relate to what this artist was saying. As I logged off from the Resistance & Resilience exhibition and returned to the reality of sitting alone in my room, I appreciated the wonderful job the artists and Meier had done in introducing me to important new voices in an innovative way, and in creating a new community around these works. I wondered if perhaps the online exhibitions that seem to fail are the ones that simply try to recreate the museum space entirely online, as with the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museums, rather than envisioning a new space that would be a better fit in a virtual world. But I could also still imagine, with longing, the day when I would be able to peer at Da Vinci’s minutely precise brushstrokes in the small frame of the Mona Lisa, or to behold The David at the end of a narrow path, where its prominent placement caught my eye and invited me to step closer.
Image: Screenshot from Resistance and Resilience online exhibition