Art in the Digital Age

By Alexandra A Jopp

Science and technology has transformed the humanities through the development of digital media [1].  In art history, in particular, it has created enormous opportunities related to visual culture. This essay will look at digital history and new media and the effects that they are having on the world of art.

The Internet has enabled the mass distribution of text and images around the world. While it has created some challenges related to ownership and copyright issues, it has helped to fulfill many of the goals of the digital humanities. First, the new technology enables more collaboration and cooperation among scholars [2]. Second, it offers more comprehensive coverage of the historical material by, for example, providing links to photographs and documentation. Historical sites, museums, libraries and archives often employ digitization to promote their collections. These holdings, however, must have a purpose, and that purpose depends upon what a given institution is trying to accomplish in preserving the materials and making them accessible. For example, the Ohio Memory Project compiles state artifacts in an online scrapbook that “celebrates state and local history.” This mission is related to the “more comprehensive coverage” goal in that it brings together historical materials from various institutions around the state – archives, museums, libraries and historical societies – to create a large collection of primary source material that otherwise would not all be available in one place. Lastly, it broadens the audience and involves viewers more in the product. In other words, machines become the audience [3].

The digital revolution has brought about immense opportunities to access and interpret information. This, of course, does not mean that all claims about events are equally valid. With so much information and so many interpretations available, one must measure each assertion against the evidence rather than indulge in the undemanding and unrewarding sophistry of grouping all “narratives” together and decreeing that all are products of their respective cultures, each one no better or worse than the next. Online researchers and scholars should focus not only on the format in which to present text and images to the world, but also on how to present the information in the most balanced, unbiased way.

In the art world, more and more museums, galleries, and archives are making their collections available online in various forms. For example, the Louvre in Paris, the Tate Gallery in London and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, have full listings of their repositories and the immense majority of their images available on the web at no charge. In contrast, the Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO), which combines various art collections online to promote collaboration between scholars and museums, charges for access to its content. AMICO, though, provides not only a vast repository of visual data and excellent subject matter but also a database of images that allows viewers to see the art and its relation to the culture in an expansive way, making it well worth the price of “admission” for many researchers.

Corpus Vitrearum, which is dedicated to the study of medieval stained glass preserved in German churches and museums, offers an excellent example of what can be done with collections online. The Eton Myers Collection in the U.K., meanwhile, provides unlimited access to ancient Egyptian art through the creation of 3-D models, while an exhibit at the University of Bristol has digitized a collection of material from the Pompeii Court of the Crystal Palace and offers a virtual recreation of the Court that includes a life-size model of an ancient Roman house with paintings and everyday objects that was preserved after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

While the information provided by the museums online is limited, these digitized projects maintain the highest scholarly standards, and some researchers have suggested that their effects are only starting to be felt. “Such a work,” in the words of William Vaughn, a professor of art history at Birkbeck College at the University of London, “will surely in time render the printed catalogue raisonné obsolete - the more so since the online catalogue can be instantly updated” [4].

With the rise of the digital age, museums and other cultural establishments have started to reinterpret their mission, creating websites that help them to expand their reach and attract new users who might never set foot in the buildings that house the materials. One can now, after all, view the greatest cultural treasures of the world without leaving home, as a computer with an Internet connection takes the place of traveling to museums and archives hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The advantages of a digital museum or online exhibition are clearly seen. Visitors can enjoy cultural relics without any time restrictions while the security of historical artifacts and images is guaranteed. Moreover, by means of multimedia interactivity, users can even "touch" objects and "manipulate" them in ways that can enrich their visit.

Virtual museums and online exhibitions, being an organic part of a network, continue to open new possibilities regarding the preservation of cultural history and its interpretation. The typical online museum includes sections describing it and its history and presenting the permanent collections as well as any featured exhibits. Sections devoted to permanent collections generally do not require many changes in the text that is used in the physical display. In many cases, though, the exhibitions take on a new life online, becoming multimedia presentations through which users can better familiarize themselves with the items being studied.

New forms of presenting exhibitions online have become popular and now occupy their own niches in the art history profession. A good example of a thematic virtual exhibition is “From Delacroix to Kandinsky: Orientalism in Europe,” which is on the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Brussels, Belgium) website. This exhibition presents a survey of European Orientalist art from 1798 to 1914. A broad variety of themes invites viewers on a journey through exotic worlds where fantasy and reality meet.

Another example comes from the National Museum of Uruguay (MUVA), which is an architecturally stunning museum that has a unique collection of contemporary art – all of which, including the museum itself, can only be found on the Internet. On the museum website, we are given a virtual tour of the building that Uruguayans hope will one day be built. In the meantime, they display the work of their leading artists online. It is the most fully realized vision of a graphic and spatialized virtual museum. The site is accessible in Spanish and in English.

Countless virtual museums, “real” museums, galleries and archives now feature collections in cyberspace. The aims are not only to preserve and promote collections but also to provide easy access to such disparate materials as photographs, engravings, orthographic drawings, animations and so on, by means of a chic interface design. The launching of web-based museums started in the early 1990s. Some of the first important virtual museums were the Web Museum Project, created by the École Polytechnique in Paris, and the Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture. The latter site was one of the first in the world to use an interactive panoramic format (which it did to show a display of 16 sculptures), and it featured images of 269 paintings in JPEG format [5].

As media and communication technologies have progressed, scholars, students and the general public have shown an interest in multimedia projects. For this reason, among others, it seems certain that the effects of digital media on the humanities will only grow in coming years. This will demand innovation and adaptation as we determine the best approach to take with virtual museums and archives. Art will be different, and so will its history.

3. Dan Cohen, “When Machines Are the Audience,” online posting, March 2, 2006, Dan Cohen, blog, http// 

4. William Vaughan: History of Art in the digital Age: Problems and Possibilities,
in: zeitenblicke 2 (2003), Nr. 1 [08.05.2003],

5.  Tomur Atagok and Oguzhan Ozcan. Virtual museums in Turkey in: Museum International, Volume 53, Issue 1, (January-March 2001), 42–45.