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Virtual Museums

by Emily Magnuson

André Malraux selects photographs for La Musée imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum, 1947)

Online institutions: André Malraux and Google’s Art Project

It’s been 60 years since André Malraux opened the doors to his musée imaginare, claiming that the history of art had shifted from the hallowed halls of the classical museum to the more conceptual realm of ‘that which can be photographed’. Last month, however, it seems that his conceit has found a foothold in reality – or in virtual reality, at least. In early February the ever-expanding Google empire took over a new territory with the launch of their Art Project. In doing so, the corporation appears to have re-ignited a conversation begun in 1947 by the French statesman’s seminal essay on the ‘Museum without Walls’. In essence, Malraux has been Googled.

In collaboration with 17 of the world’s top museums (among them Tate Britain, the Uffizi, the Met, MoMA and the Reina Sofía), Art Project allows anyone with access to the world wide web to wander ‘street view’-style around the museum and galleries’ collections. One thousand and sixty-one works are available and, of these, there are 17 special gigapixel masterpieces, one selected by each museum to offer the opportunity to view a canonical work more intimately than would be possible in real life. This roster of art-history all-stars includes few surprises – Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Whistler and others are heralded as the main attraction of your virtual visit.

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A reflection of Google’s camera in a mirror at the Palace of Versailles

While the project, despite its occasional technical difficulties, appears to be a very good thing, it still begs a larger question that was introduced by Malraux: does the advent, and now exploitation, of the reproducible image make our ability to apprehend art any more, or less, real? What do we really gain or lose in this virtual reality?

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Detail from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Written in the decade following Walter Benjamin’s influential 1939 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Malraux’s essay considers how the invention of mechanical reproduction – and specifically photography – signalled a new manner in which art is experienced. He proposed a new kind of institution – which he called a supermuseum – whose collection encompassed any kind of work of art that could be photographed: ‘In our Museum without Walls, picture, fresco, miniature, and stained-glass window seem one and the same family. For all alike-miniatures, frescoes, stained glass, tapestries, Scynthian plagues, pictures, Greek vase paintings, “details” and even statuary have become “colour-plates”.’ According to Malraux, the Museum without Walls was an imaginary architecture built on the capabilities and proliferation of photographic reproduction. Photography had released the art object from its objecthood and, perhaps most significantly, from its ritual. For Benjamin, this advance undermined the ‘aura’ of the unique work of art, but for Malraux it inaugurated a new era of art appreciation – the art book standing as example for all that the work of art stood to gain from the advent of the reproducible image in its ability to carry the ‘revelation of the world of art’ beyond the physical walls of ‘real’ institutions.

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Detail from Manet’s In the Conservatory (from the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

Yet there is something different happening for the work of art in this age of digital reproduction which appears to reinforce the historical canon of art history, whereas the mechanical world that Malraux imagined seemed to level it. For Malraux, mechanical reproduction presented a sort of universal critical function, where all works – regardless of size, context or medium – could be compiled and examined in order to expose a greater genius behind the style of a work of art and of a period of history. In the Museum without Walls, the mass of works presented was seen to free us from the necessity of a tentative approach to the past by ‘revealing’ a style in its entirety, by opening up the question ‘What is a masterpiece?’ through looking at a work not so much as a comparison with its rivals as with ‘reference’ to the ‘family’ of images to which it belongs.

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Detail from Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (from the Museum of Modern Art, New York)

And yet now, 60 years later, we seem to have turned back the clock on this idea of the reproduction as a means of critical revaluation and as equalizer – not necessarily for the viewers of works, but for the work of art itself. The very nature of Google’s approach to digital reproduction, in explicitly varying the levels of detail between different works, re-invigorates the canon we’ve sought to challenge in the last century. Far from being re-examined or challenged, the historical heroes of art history are, literally, clearer to us in this digital architecture. No ‘real’ museum would ever choose a presentation which so adamantly reiterates faded ideas of the genius and the definition of the masterpiece without a critical framework. Such issues are happily forgotten when confronted with Google’s mantra of access to all, but it is worth questioning whether the age of digital reproduction – and its ability to stratify our vision of art – is really doing us, and the museum, any favours. 

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Detail from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (from The National Gallery, London)

The public, albeit larger, is no longer challenged to re-think what, and why, as they did in Malraux’s fantasy. They just want to look, and in this way we appear to be losing traction in the evolution of the ‘museum’ and its critical place in shaping our apprehension of art, imaginary or otherwise.