Virtual museum tours: Time for an upgrade?
Spinning off last week’s discussion of catalogs in the age of digital production, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities (and limitations) of visiting shows online. So I spent some time clicking on the virtual-tour links in Ian’s post from Beijing’s National Art Museum of China. (“360-degree scans of a 19th Century room here; a more contemporary room here.”) More locally to me, there are examples such as Zurich’s E. G. Bührle Collection, the Kunstmuseum Basel and Le Louvre. That’s a very random sampling. But of these four, I like the Buhrle’s best, if only because one can click on each image and get a full descriptive text, and then click again for a screen-size image.
Still, I think there’s a lot of untapped potential here. Because as with digital art, the standard by which we judge virtual tours is set less within the artworld than outside it – animated movies, console videogames, virtual worlds/MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), etc. My closest friend is writing her PhD dissertation on Second Life, and I used to do a lot of videogaming, so maybe I’m over-demanding. But these museum virtual tours would benefit greatly from being true walkthroughs (not just 360-degree views from fixed positions). Also the images often pixelize into near-abstraction as soon as you zoom in. And the viewing screens tend toward the tiny. (Yeah, yeah, I know, bandwidth issues. But museums could just offer users different bandwidth options, as do many streaming-video sites.) Now, I’m not a museums expert, so I’m betting that there are some best-practices examples out there and I’d love to see them. If you know of any, drop me a line (email@example.com) and I’ll update this post with links to the best ones.
On a related note: A friend of mine was stunned to witness a major international curator sprinting through a huge retrospective in a few minutes with a video camera in hand. Sometime later that day, during an apparently dull conference, that curator was spotted “visiting the exhibition,” already downloaded onto on the de rigueur white MacBook. Maybe what’s needed here is a sort of MuTube, where people upload their walkthroughs of museum shows for those who can’t make it in person.