Thursday, October 20, 2011

From the object to the non-object

Above: a view of Georgetown College from 1892. Below: the Cochenour Gallery, the Dr. Donald L. and Dorothy Jacobs Collection, and the Anne Wright Wilson Fine Arts Gallery, three exhibition spaces on the Georgetown College Campus.

In the Curatorial Studies class over the past few weeks, we've moved from curating objects to recording information to be placed on the smartPhone app "Take it Artside!" that we helped bring to life last year. (The app was launched in 2010 and GC art is one of the founding educational partners. See info here.) The third part of this transition is to move from the object and its record to the non-object and its story, that is, the oral history. Well, truth be told, the oral history is an actual object, in that it exists in a digital file, but its essence is truly the conversation with others. And readers of this blog will hear more about this project in the coming weeks.

As we transitioned through these projects, though, we engaged in a discussion about "the object." We asked if art, science, history, or any museum needs objects. We read Rainey Tisdale's attempt to answer this question. We mentioned Steven Conn's recent query articulated in a U Penn podcast where Conn points to museum experiences and, in our "museum age", the blending of culture, politics, and commerce, when we venture into a museum and purchase a replica or memento experience in the gift shop!

In museum circles, there is a divide between those who feel the object is essential and those that do not. Take, for example, Google Art Project. Truly, seeing John Constable's Salisbury Cathedral via GoogleArt affords me the opportunity to see a digitization of the canvas. I can see evidence of Constable's brushwork in a way that I cannot, even when I am standing directly in front of this magnificent work in the Frick Collection. There's an enhancement to my experience when I see the canvas through the monitor or screen of my computer. But, this is not a substitution for the painting. I have seen Constable's painting first hand and, after several views of it, I feel I can begin to know about it. And, I can appreciate this opportunity to view a digitization of the painting. But, I also know that this digitization is not the painting itself.

So, you might heed caution against using an app as a substitution for the work of art (or other authentic object). The object - the painting, the sculpture, the installation, the work itself -- is necessary in order to live the experience in most cases. Unless you're David Hockney.

To move from viewing art to educating us about it, I think that one of the most interesting applications of technology to the museum experience is as this type of enhancement that we see hinted in the Google Project. Recently, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has connected works of art -- through technology -- to educational purposes. Their fantastic new app affords viewers "a multimedia exploration of Warhol's art and life, combining archival materials, letters, images, film, video and audio clips. It sheds light on more than 50 works that span the artist's career, including Silver Clouds, Sleep, Mao, The Last Supper and Self-Portrait. See information on the Warhol app here.

So, to return to the question above: is the object necessary? Given some of the information above, what do you think?

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