USF's Museum Blog

The Virtual Museum: Before Virtual

by Megan K. Udell (MA, 2019)

Many museums have closed for nearly five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few are beginning to reopen, though not necessarily at full capacity, thanks to social distancing policies as well as widespread layoffs of frontline museum staff. During the hiatus, virtual exhibits, tours, and programs have been a top priority in continuing to offer services to the public. Today, the “virtual museum” is synonymous with digital objects and online experiences, but that wasn’t always the case.

What is a “virtual museum”?

Virtual museums exist to establish digital access to cultural objects, photographs, exhibitions, and interpretation. Usually, these virtual spaces are a pale reflection of the brick-and-mortar institutions they represent.

The virtual museum is often associated with virtual reality gallery tours or augmented reality experiences. The concept is limited by the technology available at the present moment. As such, contributions made to the virtual museum before the advent of the World Wide Web are largely ignored, despite their importance in developing the foundational ideas on which today’s virtual museums are built.

In fact, the virtual museum is less about technology and more about forming narratives and connections between objects and work from museums around the world. Technology is important to this cause, yes. It is the primary means with which to fully realize the concept of the virtual museum and make these connections, but the technology itself does not make a museum virtual.

MAK Exhibition View, 2016, FREDERICK KIESLER: Life Visions. Frederick Kiesler, Raumstad [City in Space], 1925/2010. Belvedere, Vienna. Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Monsieur Kiesler I am wearing your Endless House. How does it suit me?, 2016. HD-video, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Emanuel Layr. MAK Exhibition Hall. (© MAK/Georg Mayer)

MAK Exhibition View, 2016, FREDERICK KIESLER: Life Visions. Frederick Kiesler, Raumstad [City in Space], 1925/2010. Belvedere, Vienna. Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Monsieur Kiesler I am wearing your Endless House. How does it suit me?, 2016. HD-video, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Emanuel Layr. MAK Exhibition Hall. (© MAK/Georg Mayer)

Virtual Museums in the 1920s

The museum field has been grappling with the ambiguity of the term “virtual museum” for more than thirty years. Since the mid-1990s, the virtual museum has been considered as having the same mission, means, and end result as the brick-and-mortar museum, with the exception that visitors and employees interact with objects, documentation, and museum spaces digitally. As of present, the term encompasses a number of different concepts, including digitized collections, museum websites, and virtual tours. Some insist that the museum can never be truly virtual, since a museum, by definition, requires physical objects. However, his is not held as a universal requirement.

As early as the 1920s, artists were thinking about how to best display objects in an increasingly modern and technologically driven world. In 1925, Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy wrote in Painting, Photography, Film about turning the home into a gallery. He called this “the Domestic Pinacoteca,” the name for the picture galleries of ancient Greece and Rome. He imagined home filing systems for reproductions of masterpieces, hologram-like viewing systems, and devices for receiving radio transmissions of broadcast images to be projected in the home. A year later, architect Frederick Kiesler showed a button-activated progression of projected masterpieces in a New York gallery.

“The Room of the Present”

Moholy-Nagy began work on Raum der Gegenwart (The Room of the Present) in 1930, the installation having been commissioned for the Landesmuseum in Hanover.  The room was never fully realized during Moholy-Nagy’s lifetime, but it was recreated for the Guggenheim Museum in 2009. The gallery included fresh and ground-breaking art for the time: photography, architectural models, film, and a machine called Lichtrequisit, or Light-Raum Modulator (Light Prop, or Light-Space Modulator).

This machine was a novel exhibition technology. It took art off of the walls and into the gallery space. Just by pressing a button, the viewer could activate a grid of metal rods and plates, and the Light Prop would project photographs and films on the walls and ceilings of the room. The exhibition’s incorporation of media in lieu of “authentic” objects reflected and represented the new forms of art emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century. This innovation in exhibition design was something completely new.

The Loss of Presence?

Image reproduction technologies such as photography and film developed rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1935, Philosopher and art critic Walter Benjamin published “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In it, Benjamin commented on the nature of art since the advent of photography. He also addressed the philosophical concerns arising alongside the proliferation of photographic reproduction and mass media. This essay introduced the concept of an object’s “aura,” its “presence in time and space,” which, Benjamin claimed, is lost during the process of mechanical reproduction. This concept remains popular to this day and has been the source of much opposition to new ideas in digital exhibition.

 The cult of the original and the preservation of objects’ auras have long been primary concerns of museums, but since being framed by Benjamin as anti-Fascist resistance, they became nearly unchallenged tenants of museum practice. In some ways, the ethical imperative constructed by this view slowed the development of the virtual museum outside of the creation of digital image repositories. In the next installment of this series, we will look at the evolution of virtuality in the 1940s, and see how Andre Malraux advanced the concept and predicted how we would interact with art, objects, and information in the 21st century.


Editors’ note:  To read this blog post in its original format as well as other posts on Museum Studies alumna Megan K. Udell’s blog, click here.

To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program click here.



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