The Changing Museum
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ASIS 50th Anniversary Conference
 October 4-8, 1987
 Howard Besser
 University Art Museum
 University of California
 Berkeley, CA 94720

This paper describes the changes taking place as new information technologies (particularly high- resolution image digitization) enter the museum world. Focusing on technological changes on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, the author looks at how these changes are beginning to affect the University Art Museum, other museums, and the public perception of museums and their artifacts. It outlines how high resolution image digitization is changing each important functional area of the museum, and describes how these developments change the nature of museum work in the following areas: information retrieval and collection management; conservation practices; restoration and preservation activities; and finally in exhibition. Drawing upon his experience with the digitizing project at the University of California's Art Museum in Berkeley, the author then speculates about how these technological changes will alter the role of museums in our society (and of the objects we normally expect to find within them). Emphasis will be on how the museum will change from a static repository of information (akin to an archive) into a more dynamic, interactive information source (more like a library). The author then explains how the public's perception of objects normally found within a museum (ie. art, artifacts, etc.) is likely to change.
Current State of Museum Automation

Efforts at museum automation lag about ten years behind those of library automation. It was not until well into the 1980s that museums even began to develop interactive collection management systems. Only recently have issues of cooperation and standardization been raised. Corti 1984 Cooperative efforts at information-sharing between museums (such as the Getty-sponsored Museum Prototype Project) are rather recent and have not been particularly successful. Moves towards standard nomenclature for a shared environment have been slow and limited primarily to descriptive terminology (Chenhall Chenhall 1978 for realia and Art and Architecture Thesaurus Art and Architecture Thesaurus for art objects).

In the past year or two, there has been an explosion of activity in museum collection management, as standards and cooperative efforts develop, costs of computing power decrease, and as vendors design and market systems directed exclusively towards the museum market (Willoughby, Artis, Questor, Cuadra).  But even more significant changes are still to come, as images of the objects themselves become a part of these collection management records. We are already starting to see these changes occur with videodisc-based systems such as those in the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art Videodisc 1984 the Library of Congress, Parker 1985 Price 1984 the University of Wisconsin, Marschalek 1987 and others. Bearman 1987 Binder 1987 Anderson 1985 Cash, 1985 Some have speculated that systems such as these will lead to a significant decrease in cataloging. Rorvig 1986 But the most significant all-around change is likely to come with digitization, where the effects of automation will not only further enhance collection management, Juliano forthcoming but will extend into other important museum activities such as exhibition, preservation, and restoration.

The Berkeley Project
The University of California at Berkeley is designing and implementing a computer system to make digitized images of objects in its Art Museum available throughout the campus on high-resolution computer displays. This system will allow one to view images of the art in its museum collection from remote locations, and to analyze the works closely using zooms, pans, windowing, and dynamic color changes. This is part of a larger project at UC Berkeley to make the contents of all campus visual collections (slides, books, paintings, manuscripts, maps, and other artifacts) available from any computer workstation that is able to access the campus network.

Berkeley's underlying concept is that a good facsimile image of virtually any object owned by the University of California should be viewable from any bit-mapped computer display device anywhere on the campus in the highest resolution and the best color that that device will display. Images will be available on devices ranging from simple IBM PCs with enhanced graphics displays to workstations with such high resolution (2K by 2K by 24 bits of color) that their displays resemble photographs. This means that images from their digitized collections will be viewable from machines in a multitude of different locations: faculty & staff offices, libraries and museums, classrooms, public terminal rooms, and student labs.

This system will resemble a traditional on-line card-catalog with added viewing features. One can approach it by traditional author/artist or title searches, as well as by period, country, school, or subject. Sarasan 1984 One can pull up textual information about each work and narrow queries according to certain criteria. At any point the user can shift from viewing the descriptive text to viewing the image described. The system will also provide routines for close analysis of the images themselves, allowing the user to zoom in and out, and to view split-screen displays. It will also provide routines allowing users to alter images and to try to answer "what if" kinds of questions about the works.

Of course one pays a price to use digital technology today. Digital requires far more storage than videodisc, and is at this time much more expensive. However, prices are already falling dramatically, indicating that digital should be much more affordable in several years. Lynch Brownrigg 1986 digitization This can only encourage the exploration of its many uses in the near future. Bearman 1987

Museum Management

This technology has many applications for museums and archives in areas beyond what is normally thought of as automated collection management. Up until now, staff at these institutions must carefully track and monitor the physical condition of their objects. They have had to fill out lengthy condition reports (describing scratches, dents, and discolorations) on a periodic basis, as well as every time the object was moved or loaned out. One of these condition reports might take up to a day to complete, and still could not capture all the imperfections in the object. But with this digitization process, the computer can compare before and after images dot-by-dot to detect even minute scratches or fading as a result of atmospheric conditions. This will eliminate an enormous amount of tedious work that goes into creating the condition reports, and will make them far more accurate. Similar technology is currently in use at the National Archives to track even slight changes to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. Jet Propulsion Laboratory 1984

Preserving Image Collections
A primary objective of museums and archives has always been to preserve original material from deterioration caused by exposure to light, changing temperature, and human handling.

By allowing remote viewing of high resolution surrogate images, a digitized system makes possible the preliminary identification of materials of interest. For many peoples' purposes, identification is the only access they need; the material itself can remain undisturbed.

The decreased handling of sensitive objects that will result from better preliminary identification, will both save wear and tear on sensitive materials, and free up staff time previously spent pulling and replacing items for activities such as preservation. A University of Texas study Rorvig 1986 has suggested that if users have access to images of objects they are interested in, less textual description will be necessary, greatly reducing the labor cost of cataloging. This savings could then be redirected towards preservation.

Beyond this, a digitized system can be used to create preservation copies of two-dimensional objects whose original material is unstable or deteriorating. In the past, the only way to save a nitrate photograph was to take its picture on acetate-based film. This copy would (hopefully) last another several hundred years, and would reflect any deterioration that had already taken place in the original. But with the new technology now available, one can take a digital photograph of the original, restore it to its original state by removing scratches and restoring colors and shadings, Lynch Brownrigg 1986 conservation produce an 8 X 10 review print, and store a high- resolution (4K by 4K or more) archival copy in a digital form that will last indefinitely. (Though this preservation copy may have to be transferred  from one medium to another as the media deteriorates, the digital information will not change.) Thus one can create preservation copies which actually look better than the originals.


For Restoration, this technology allows one to view what an object could look like with molds or stains removed, or if a particular restoration process were performed. Cappellini et al. 1984 It also allows one to view changes that were made in the object in the past. For example, researchers have used this technology to speculate that the Mona Lisa probably wore a necklace at one time, and that restoration work had definitely been done around her eyes. Asmus forthcoming


In Exhibition, this technology allows museum users to view images of works not actually on display, to juxtapose images in new ways (essentially taking on some functions that are usually exclusively reserved for curators), and to view bibliographic references and explanatory information alongside the images.

In the past, computers incorporated into interactive exhibitions have followed the pattern of programmed instruction; elaborate branching routines were pre-selected according to a set of paths that the viewer was likely to follow. The coming generation of high-powered workstations, digital imaging, and windowing allows the exhibition to provide a highly complex web of information where the viewer post-selects sets of information. For example, in an upcoming exhibit of an 18th century Japanese painter and poet, viewers at the University of California's Art Museum will be able to navigate through a network of images of original paintings and Japanese poetry, english translations and commentary, index terms, descriptive text, bibliographic information, and explanatory information. Each small piece of information will have pointers leading to many other pieces of related information, which in turn will have pointers to still others. The viewer can choose to display any number of the totality of pieces of information on the screen at any given time (given the 1K X 1K screen resolution and a limit of about 20 simultaneous windows open), and in any given juxtaposition to one another. It is likely that viewers will explore many different ways of combining information which were completely unanticipated by the designers of the system.

Art Research

These changes will be particularly profound for institutions closely tied to particular research fields (ie. art museums and art history research). As should be evident from the previous description, researchers at the University of California will be able to study images of art objects from any high resolution computer display terminal. Currently, Berkeley has about 20 computer rooms (many of them allowing round-the-clock access) spread around the campus, and when this project is implemented, any and all of these can serve as laboratories for individual and group study of art. In addition, high-powered workstations are located in various departments, and in instructors' and researchers' offices. Some people even have lower-resolution versions in their own homes. In the near future, the campus will be outfitting selected classrooms and auditoriums with the hardware for projecting these images on a screen.

The University of California system will incorporate many features useful for traditional classroom and related art history instruction and research.

This technology can be particularly useful for the close study of images. First of all, it will allow one to zoom in and zoom out to see very detailed close-ups of various sections of an art work. One can also produce split-screen displays to compare close-ups to one another, or to see a detail alongside a full perspective. For example, one can simultaneously display images of human eyes from two different portraits in order to compare or contrast their constructions. This can be very useful in demystifying the actual construction of works of art. Finally, one can use this technology to closely examine a painting for odd strokes that indicate that touch-ups have been done, or that images have been covered up. Asmus forthcoming

This technology can also be used to examine hypothetical changes to works of art. One can change colors on a painting to see how it might have looked if it had been painted in different tones. For example, one could answer the question, "What would this have looked like if the artist had painted with a slightly darker blue pigment?" This tool can assist a student's understanding of how colors function within a painting. Similarly, the Berkeley system will provide routines to simulate restoration techniques. For example, one could look at how a painting might look with its cracks restored, or how another object might look with a mold or stain removed. This will both allow students to see how these art objects might have looked when they were originally created, and researchers to experiment with restoration techniques before actually touching the objects.

The possibilities for using this technology in combination with other techniques is limitless. Recently, a researcher at Bell Laboratories superimposed a digitized image of the Mona Lisa over a reversal of da Vinci's self portrait in an attempt to prove that Leonardo was his own model for the Mona Lisa. Schwartz 1987 A finding such as this could have a profound impact on the history of art.

Eventually, new areas of research (such as pattern-recognition) will be applied to these systems, allowing the computer to do some preliminary syntactical analysis of works of art. The computer will be able to give statistics as to quantities of various colors used and their distribution around the canvas. Later, it should also be able to analyze angles and line-of-sight flows within paintings. Finally, the computer should be able to view the composition of a work of art as a system (similar to a language), and break it down into its inter-relating components to see how they work together (much as computerized language analysis does). Kirsch 1984

Ramifications of These Changes

The main impact we are likely to see from such technological changes in museums is in the area of democratization. As digitization is incorporated into each functional area of the museum, it will either bring the art or artifacts into the hands of more people, or allow people to do more with the art or artifacts with which they come into contact. This democratization falls into two general areas: increased access and interactiveness.

Traditionally art and artifacts have been housed in museums and other collections where access is tightly controlled. This control takes the form of limited hours, admission fees, and limited displays (i.e. only a small portion of the full collection is on display at any given time). On a more subtle level, the control manifests itself by enforcing a kind of elitist way of evaluating and looking at art and other "precious objects."

Under a digitally-based system, the patron will have access to the objects at hours when the museum is normally closed. The ability to pull up images of precious objects on nights and weekends (essentially at any time one has access to a bit- mapped terminal) is not unlike the kind of "instant gratification" that we are beginning to see manifested in more popular art forms such as videotaped films.

Control could be greatly reduced with the implementation of systems such as the one being built by Berkeley. Images of precious objects would be accessible from multiple locations; the patron would no longer need to visit the actual gallery or museum. In the long run, this will likely erode the authority of the museum, as well as that of high culture generally.

The patron will also have access to more materials. Currently, those in charge of precious collections are hesitant to pull material from storage due to concerns about staff time and damage to the material. These concerns serve to limit access to those certified as special scholars. But under these future systems, digital images of objects not chosen for display as part of an exhibition will still be available to anyone, (certified or not) at any time, from computer workstations.

As Walter Benjamin pointed out, Benjamin 1978 being able to appreciate a work of art in a setting other than a museum is a significant step in opening up art to the masses. Of course, living in the latter half of the 20th century, we are already used to determining the setting for our own appreciation of culture. We don't have to go to a concert-hall to listen to music; we can listen in the comfort of our homes (or even while jogging). But one level of democratization that Benjamin did not anticipate was the ability to interact with the precious material (or rather its image), brought on by the computer age.

The interactiveness of the systems currently being built offers the opportunity for participation in many different ways. With the ability to zoom in and zoom out and to compare close-ups, the spectator can begin to make his/her own juxtapositions at various levels. This includes placing close-ups side-by-side, as well as juxtaposing whole objects to one another. By being able to create these new juxtapositions, the spectator is able to regain the power that has been held almost exclusively by curators and exhibition designers. The ability to juxtapose allows the spectator to use his/her own creative input to find new relationships between these objects. The user's creativity can be engaged even further when given the opportunity to alter the colors on images of paintings or photographs, thereby diminishing the authoritative position of the artist.

Changing roles of both museums and art

The democratization resulting from the increased access and interactiveness has critical implications in many different areas. This is particularly true in the changing roles of both museums and the fields their collections represent (such as art).

As a result of this democratization, the museum loses its authority as the only place to view such objects, and will become less of a sanctified place. By encouraging access to all its materials, it becomes less like an archive and more like a library. The museum will shift from being a passive repository, and begin to take on a more active role. There is great potential for the museum to take on a much larger instructional role.

This democratization will also have significant effects in changing the role of art in society. Today the study of art and the examination of original images or high-resolution facsimiles is confined to museum-type settings and classrooms. By bringing the study of art out of these settings and into new arenas such as computer labs, study halls, and even the home, the study of art can become less of something that is done only in specialized environments, and more a part of daily life. The erosion of this "specialness" cannot help but change how one views the study of art.

At the same time, the ability to interact with and change the art itself has extremely important implications.

On the positive side, this democratization gives the spectator a sense of participation and input, qualities often lacking in the traditional viewing of art. Being able to interact with and change the object helps to destroy the "aura" that surrounds it and all other art objects, rendering them less special and "holy". As Benjamin points out, Benjamin 1978, 223 this increases our "sense of  the universal equality of things," and we begin to see art objects as just objects.

The ability to actually change the image of the art on the screen begins to remove the authority of the original artist, essentially forming a new creation out of a synthesis between the artist's work as originally conceived, and the user-invoked changes. This will cause a definite shift in importance away from the domain of intentionalism (where we see the meaning lying between the artist and the art piece) towards reception (where the meaning is between the viewer and the piece of art). Holubs 1984

On the other hand, there are many potential negative effects that may result from this kind of interaction with images of art objects. Perhaps the researcher interacting with the artwork won't really give that much input at all. Rather than creating something from a concept, one could say that he or she is merely reacting to a previously- packaged piece (almost like filling in the colors in a coloring book). But this reacting may, in the future, be considered "creativity" in the same way that preparing a meal in a microwave oven has come to be called "cooking".

With the authority of the artist and the sacredness of the art object removed, does art then become even more a victim of the marketplace? In this age of commodification, art might become even more of a consumer product. Silverman 1986 Whatever sells well will be produced. Instead of encouraging individuals to alter pieces of work in their own creative ways, we may end up with a new elite who will control the alterations in ways governed solely by what the marketplace will bear. A case in point is the present-day phenomenon of the colorization of classical films from the 1940s. While Frank Capra is aghast that It's a Wonderful Life has been turned into a color film, Ted Turner claims "I own the films, ... I can do whatever I want with them ... Besides, I like things in color. We see in color. Why didn't they make The Sting in B & W if they're so concerned about historical authenticity? I don't see their point." Ted Turner 1986 Is the logical conclusion to all this that art will become just another commodity like shaving cream, baseball cards, or pantyhose? Will art be reduced to its lowest common denominator like music in elevators?

Confusion of Surrogate Image and Original

Increased access to these images may lead people to confuse the image with the artifact that it represents. Eventually, the image may no longer be viewed as merely a temporary substitute for the original, but rather as a permanent replacement. In this day and age, where time is so scarce, people are less likely to make a special trip to a museum to see an original object if they can see quite a reasonable facsimile from their terminals -- especially if they can "play" with it. Over time, people may increasingly forego the experience of looking at actual art pieces because it's so much easier to view images from a screen. What they will be missing is some kind of presence that cannot be reproduced, and cannot even be adequately expressed in words. It is the same kind of unquantifiable experience that is rapidly disappearing from so many facets of life in our modern society.

Though museum administrators (if only for political reasons) are likely to be the last ones to confuse originals with surrogate images, they may tend to further restrict access to original artifacts since the surrogate images are so good. The originals might then be even more carefully restricted and only shown to "approved" scholars who can demonstrate a specific need to see the original. This will be especially true if museum budgets continue to tighten.

Because of these potentially negative factors, it could be argued that it might be better to provide coarser images. In a sense, a poor surrogate image of an object could be considered preferable to a good one, because a poor image calls attention to the fact that it is indeed a representation of the original. A more detailed image, on the other hand, tends to mask the fact that it is merely a reproduction, and for many people it will be seen as a one-for-one substitute for the original. But it is only because the image is such a good representation that the positive aspects of digitization (such as image comparison, preservation, and conservation) can be realized.

Though image digitization offers the possibility of immense benefits to the museum and its public, the ramifications could be rather devastating. When introducing technology into any new environment, it is impossible to accurately predict its full social impact. All one can do is to outline what appear to be its potential positive and negative effects, and evaluate these before deciding whether or not to proceed. But a clear assessment is only possible in retrospect.


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This paper originally written in Microsoft Word for Macintosh 5.0 in 1987.
It was converted to HTML 4 using Netscape Composer 4.04 on 5/18/98.