♦ The University Art Museum in Real Time & Cyberspace

There is also the question of accessibility to both the physical and online structures. The physical experience cannot be replicated. Nor can the intangible experience online. They operate under different but connected languages.
- Claire Bui

             Louis Kahn                                                Yale University Art Gallery
             Yale University Art Gallery (1951-53)      Homepage (2004)

On the homepage of the Yale University Art Gallery, the welcoming image is an aesthetically pleasing shot of the longitudinal space of the interior with nice graphic controls that pulls the viewer in. The image is formatted to not only fit the proportions of a computer monitor but the eye of the visitor. The language of the site is one of action and movement. There are implicit and explicit contradictions that pop up in not only the site but in the virtual space of the museum. There is no way to physically tour the museum from the computer nor is the online collection archive completely transparent and interactive.  It simultaneously exceeds and reduces itself as a framing device. It is important to be aware of the distinction between the physical and temporal site of the museum.

In the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s critique of the concept of parergon, he states the frame on a picture and drapery on a sculpture is much more than ornamental.[1] The use of framing not only holds the work in but is also a kind of disruption. It emphasizes not only explicit and intrinsic aspects of the work but the form of the frame itself. The architecture of a physical museum and virtual spaces of art are basically framing devices. However, there is a tension between both of the “structures” and the artwork inside, that pushes and pulls at each other. Also, the visitor’s interactions with both of these spaces are completely different and relatable.  There is an emphasis on the space of the internet being much more democratic and interactive than the actual physical location or space. There is a strange sense of transparency that seems to be definitive in describing virtual space of online museums. Still, it appears that these virtual spaces not only “reinforce but challenge the authenticity and institutional authority.”[2] This paper will be a case-study of university art museums in conjunction with the internet and how they shape our museum experience.
The rising necessity of the internet as a global tool for communication and presentation has become integral to the practice and future of university museums. As the university museum or gallery is a very curious type of institution, it has the potential to be a truly radical place. The environment of the university traditionally encourages scholarship and debate. It not only has the resources of the university and faculty, but the students as well. Furthermore, it has the ability to give a voice to the tone of the institution and students. So as education in the university has become more and more linked with new technology, so has the university museum. This is not only specific to university museums but in museums in general. Yet, more often than not university museums are lagging behind in the use of the internet. It is often hard to locate not only the websites of many of these institutions but the interface is often clumsy and outdated looking. As the website is fast becoming the primary tool of mediation between much of the public’s perception of the museum, it is important that it stay constantly “up to date.”

Palazzo Brera (c. 14th Century)                       Brera Floorplan

The physical structure of architecture in the university museum is also just as framing as the internet.  It not only delineates but imposes physical and ideological borders.  Still, the inherent tension between the exterior and interior functions of architecture on the art objects can also be illuminating for the visitor. The tangible objects activate the space but structure has the ability to create a dialogue with it as well.  For both the internet and the museum there is a thin line between being a visitor and viewer and the space in-between. This is not a new byproduct of the internet but has existed since the origins of the museum. As the study and collection of objects of nature, man, and wonder grew in size, there became a need for a physical site to hold these things. This idea would evolve into the modern conception of the museum.

    One of the earliest established university art museums was the Pinacoteca di Brera. This gallery is home to an extensive collection of centuries of Italian art and Old Master’s work from around the word. It is located in a former noble palace in Milan, Italy. The Brera palace was built on the site of a fourteenth-century convent that was eventually handed over to the Jesuit order who converted it into a school. The gallery was officially established in 1776 by Maria Theresa of Austria. It was used to further the educational goals of the academy. Part of the curriculum was drawing from real paintings and plaster casts. In 1809, the site was officially opened up to the public.

The structure of the building takes much from classical and neoclassical architecture elements. Additionally, the visitor is not just faced with the historical weight of antiquity but the former function of the site. Furthermore, the building has a courtyard plan with rooms around it that are filled with artwork. The arrangement of the work is in long, gallery spaces which suggests a teleological progression of history. As the visitor enters they are subtly guided by the arrangement of the objects and spaces.  There is a focus on volumes of spaces in the layout plan over open loft like places. This suggests a very contemplative atmosphere on the interior while the open space of the courtyard suggests a more active community of visitors. There is a separation of not only the objects but the actions of visitors as well. Also, the exterior and interior of the site is very classical and has the sculptural spaces of antiquity. At the same time, there are definite changes. In some of the niches there are implicit references to the orders. For example, the columns are embedded in the wall and not freestanding. In current days, the Brera still serves as vital educational resource to the university.

By the early twentieth century in America, the practice of building a university museum had become more commonplace. For example, the University of Virginia Art Museum was established in this time period. The structure was built in 1935 by Edmund S. Campbell. The entire campus has not only a big debt to Thomas Jefferson but to Palladio as well. There is a refinement and clarity to the museum structure that references antiquity. For example, there is a temple portico entrance. As the visitor walks through this imposing gateway they are immediately immersed in artwork. The foyer of the museum is even spaced wall to wall with work. Furthermore, there are additional side gallery spaces. The layout of the building is separated into clear volumes of space. There is an association with this kind of classical Greco-Roman structure with a sacred or untouchable site. The structure of the building is physically elevated as well. Both the Pinacoteca di Brera and the UVA art structures reference and frame a specific type of arrangement and history. 

The Yale University Art Gallery was built following World War II and during a time of increasing technological modernity. This world was rapidly defined by new technological and mechanical inventions such as the radio, television, automobile, and airplane. The architecture of the time reflected this through form and function. In the Yale University Art Gallery, which was built from 1953-55 by Louis I. Kahn, the structure itself provides not only a physical open space for visitors but “explicitly stresses the human hand” as well.[3] The form of the building is composed a longitudinal open space with a tetrahedral ceiling that doesn’t hide the electrical wiring mechanism. It is also composed of man made materials such as steel, glass, and brick. There is definite focus on the materials of the structure over explicit support in the exterior and interior.[4] 

Still, the viewer is able to see how the pieces of the building are put together. Implicit in the open space is the idea of an active community space as opposed to volumes of spaces. For example, this encourages not just individual but group interactions with the pieces. In comparison to the separation of spaces at the Brera and UVA museum this arrangement is completely opposite. There is a contrast between the surface of the structure which implies a solid and sturdy physical presence and the openness of the interior. The rise of technology made building and construction much easier and harder in the twentieth century. There was a struggle between reconciling these new inventions with the traditional forms of architecture. Kahn didn’t hide the technology behind old forms but integrated them visibly. He sought to build a sturdy structure that would be adaptable as technology changed.[5]

There are also virtual museums that are not even linked to specific tangible buildings such as Adobe Museum of Digital Art and Virtual Museum of Canada. In the Adobe Museum they have hired the architect, Fillipo Innocenti to build the “museum” and it is also apparently as close to theoretically physically stable as possible.  So, it could possibly be built in real-life. Despite not being linked to a real physical structure it attempts to mimic one. There is a consistent trend of virtual spaces using the vernacular of not the internet but of physical movement and structures. It can potentially create an environment that resembles an actual museum tour or give the viewer the power of the curator.  For example, in online collections similar to the one on the Yale University Gallery website the visitor can click and choose the order of the work they want to see. They also have the power to zoom in on the work. Also, the website of the Pinacoteca di Brera website the visitor is able to have a virtual “tour.”  Each floor of the site is described in detail and corresponds to a highlighted portion on a layout plan. In addition, there is a selection of work from each room on the right side of the browser page that can be expanded.                                                      Tate Britain Entrance, Google Art Project (2011)

Also, the Google Art Project is a massive online project undertaken by seventeen museums so far to offer digital tours of their site. These museums range physically all over the word. For example, the project includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Tate Britain in London. Yet, at the same time there are no actual physical actions in real physical space except the clicking of a mouse and movement of the eyes. The Google Art Project utilizes a similar interface to their Google Street View program. So, the use of a “360 degree” camera while it is convenient is still limiting. For example, in the Google Art Project there a very clearly guided sense of where you are and despite the high resolution there are problems with the color and lighting. Also, the pieces you are able to view and spaces you can “visit” are chosen for you.

Many of these museum tours are manipulated. It is potentially more so than the physical structures of museums. There is a gap between the immersive and physicality that is prescribed to the internet and the actual actions done. It “appears to be an accurate representation of real space in real time but it is not. For example, in many virtual tours there can be a slight lag time while the screen changes that give a manipulated treatment to the image. The physical museum experience cannot be interchangeable with the virtual space of online museum sites. It is closer to a “museum of the person.”[6] There is no clear cut separation between the viewer and object. The “interactive” site become not just a mediator between the viewer and object but integrates them. The meaning of the object online becomes inseparable from the viewer.

The nature of the internet is that it is constantly not only changing but contradicting itself which has only become amplified with the rise of new software and social networking websites and tools. Also, it accessible to only those with internet network and different internet speeds can make a difference as well. That is the same between the university art museums and their websites. Both structures frame a specific set of data or information in a visually pleasing and inviting way theoretically. Yet, these structures creates a rupture or break as well. They lie somewhere in between audience participation and audience division.

Both the websites of the Pinacoteca di Brera and the University of Virginia Art Museum have simple layouts. Yet, at the same time there are elements of utilizing the internet for greater global connectivity as well. Both sites feature a sort of virtual tour. The UVA Museum virtual exhibitions web link isn’t instantly seen but can be found under the main sidebar. The link takes you to a separate page where you are faced with a series of information and questions as well as the power to click on certain images.  The Brera features it prominently on their main page. It goes through every room and shows specific highlights from the collection. Both sites do not have their entire collection photographed online. For example, UVA’s site has a selection by the staff of one thousand objects from their twelve thousand object collection.  Still, there are elements of the internet being utilized. Also, as UVA is potentially in the midst of adding on a massive addition to their structure, it will be crucial for them to update their webpage.

Still, most of the virtual museums mentioned reference  physical objects. They are essentially copies online. As learning in the university has become more and more digitized with online courses and learning supplements, so have their museums. There is a question of whether the online museum can replace the physical museum. It has a potentially greater level and ease of accessibility that the physical structure does not. Yet, there are limits to this accessibility in content, movement, and choice. Does the internet try to universalize aesthetic judgment? Despite the sheer variety of quantity and quality of information available there is a strange level of standardization present on the web.While projects such as the Adobe Museum and Google Art Project still have kinks to work out, they are still very radical and massive undertakings. There is also the question of accessibility to both the physical and online structures. The physical experience cannot be replicated. Nor can the intangible experience online. They operate under different but connected languages.

The changing tools of technology are transforming how art is viewed and displayed. For example, you can download exhibit tours on a Smartphone or become an internet friend on Facebook with a museum. Yet, the issue of new media art or net art creates a much bigger set of issues. How do you show art that can be stored in a flash drive? Its very name is almost redundant because the nature of the work is constantly changing. It requires a different set of practices.  This is art that speaks not only to data systems but in the language and mechanism of it. It is more about process. The role of the curator is potentially at the nexus of this. Also, in the forefront is the rise of software for new media work. These new software and resources include Kurator, Digitalcraft.org and CRUMB, or the Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss. They are both meant to help curators and in a way act as a “translation guide.” For example, Kurator is a free program that helps curate source code.[7] It does this by letting online art works be loaded onto net in source code. Also, there is an increasing amount of literature on the subject. Yet, on the other hand it is hard to track the “critical provenance” of net or web art. Furthermore, art critics, art historians, and curators have already been using “software, systems, and relationality metaphors.”[8] It is important to not only further utilize the rapidly changing technology but also to reconsider its critical language and history.

The relationship the visitor has between university art museums and the internet is both vastly different and potentially enlightening. Each structure presents a specific mode of presentation and arrangement. The future of university museums will be inevitably linked to the internet. As new ways to interact with art online proliferate the institutions will have to decide their role in it all. Yet, at the same time it is important to be aware of the distinctions between the two. They are not the same thing at all. They do work in relation to each other. The space of the internet is so vast and global that there is so much untapped potential. Yet, on the other hand its characteristic decentralization gives it a certain amount of chaos and confusion.

Both the physical structure of the university museum and temporal structure of the internet are framing or shaping devices. They can help bring out explicit and implicit characteristics of not only the work but the environment as well. In their individual spaces they do not only hold work in but create a sense of break. The online virtual museums hold digital replicas of tangible objects. They are copies of an original. They can’t compare because they are not the same at all. Yet, it isn’t entirely clear if they are fundamentally compromising the works. What is potentially quite interesting about these virtual museums is how they can comment and critique on the museum institution. It is easy to dismiss these online experiments as imitations of the physical structure. Yet, they have the power to reinforce the museum institution as well. As many of these university museum institutions are in the process of expansion and transition it is vital for them to clearly define their relationship with new technology.

[1] Lianne McTavish, “Visiting the Virtual Museum: Art and Experience Online.” In New Museum Theory and Practice:  An Introduction, ed. Janet Marstine (Malden: Blackwell Press, 2006), 231.
[2] Ibid., 226.
[3] Sara Williams Goldhagen. Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism. (New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 2001), 41.                                                         
[4] Ibid, 42.
[5]  Louis  I. Kahn. “Order and Form.” Perspecta 3 (1955): 46-63.
[6] Lianne McTavish, “Visiting the Virtual Museum: Art and Experience Online.” In New Museum Theory and Practice:  An Introduction, ed. Janet Marstine (Malden: Blackwell Press, 2006), 227.
[7] Grzesiek Sedek. “Extract from KURATOR source code” LXR Library Functions,” in Curating Immateriality, ed. Joasia Krysa, (New York: Autonomedia, 2006), 63.
[8] Berly Graham, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 42. 


Brawne, Michael. University of Virginia the Lawn: Thomas Jefferson. London: Phaidon, 1994.

Cooke, Sarah, edit. A Brief History of Curating New Media Art: Conversations with Curators.
Berlin: Greenbox, 2010.

Goldhagen, Sarah Williams. Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism. New Haven: Yale University
        Press, 2001.

Kahn Louis I. “Order and Form.” Perspecta 3 (1955): 46-63.

 Kahn Louis I. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, 1951-53: Kimbell Art                         Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1966-72. Tokyo: A.D.A EDITA Tokyo, 1976.

Klonk, Sarah. Spaces of experience : art gallery interiors from 1800 to 2000. New Haven: Yale                         University Press, 2009.

Knell, Simon K., edit. Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and are Changed.                                     London: Routledge, 2007.

Krysa, Joasia, edit. Curating immateriality: the work of the curator in the age of network systems.                     New York: Autonomedia, 2006.

Leslie, Thomas. Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science. New York: George Braziller, 2005.

Marstine, Janet, edit. New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. Malden, Ma: Blackwell                     Press, 2006.

Stern, Robert A.M. Architecture on the Edge of Post-Modernism: Collected Essays, 1964-1988.                         New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.