The museum has become the default home for art and objects of cultural significance in the modern world. While the convenience of being able to see the greatest treasures from around the globe and artistic endeavors in one building are wonderful, we sometimes forget that they are often token examples of their culture and place. André Malraux (1901-1976) first described the musée imaginaire – ‘the imaginary museum’ or ‘the museum without walls’ – as the ideal place to learn about culture and history. The physical museum is a great place to start building the imaginary museum, but we need to fill out the collections to further develop our understanding of the world. Creating opportunities for and promoting digital experiences outside of the museum is one way to embrace Malraux idea.
Museums have already embraced the fact the visitor use their mobile devices in the galleries, so the next step is to figure out how to integrate that type of museum experience and learning into people’s everyday lives. The structure and idea of the museum has been fairly consistent from the nineteenth century onward, but over the past decade or so many museums have begun to embrace digital technologies and culture. The idea of the “post-museum” described by Hooper-Greenhill (2000) calls museums to go beyond the presentation and exhibition of narrative as fact. The post-museum will include the curator’s voice as well as visitors, scholars, and enthusiasts.
One example of a physical museum literally becoming a museum without walls is the International Museum of Women. Founded in San Francisco, CA in 1985 as the Women’s Heritage Museum planned to relocate in 2005 before their plans fell through. After some deliberation and discussion, the museum decided to become almost an entirely virtual museum with a digital/digitized collection. The exhibition “Imagining Ourselves” was entirely user-generated. The collaboration happened through the online community and the results are evidence of the potential successes a museum can have beyond its walls. This was a new kind of museum experience in a digital space that arguably achieved greater levels of communication and participation than other methods in the museum.
Another example, one that we discussed in class, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History” which is available on the Met’s website. This digital resource is not meant to be accessed in the galleries but outside of the museum. Beyond a catalog of digitized images of objects in the museum’s collection, the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History is a discovery tool that allows users the opportunity to browse the collection by time period, geographic location, type of medium, etc. The record for each object in the collection includes a high-resolution image, didactic information, relevant articles, and related objects. The user interface is clean and intuitive. This a great resource for casual museum-goers who are looking to find out more information about objects or genres of art that they like during their visit, scholars researching objects in the museum’s collection, and people who have never been to the museum to discover the collection and learn about art history.
The endeavor to create a museum without walls extends beyond cultural heritage institutions. In an interview with Amit Sood, Direct of Google Cultural Institute, which grew out of the Google Art Project, he talks about starting the project by collecting high-resolution images of artworks back in 2010. After partnering with cultural heritage institutions around the world and developing the repository of digitized images, users could explore museum’s collections around the world from one interface in the privacy of their own homes. While the project has changed and evolved over the years, the collection and collaboration outside of the museum initaiated by non-museum professions is evidence that the museum without walls is an interesting and important concept to people in professions outside of cultural heritiage.
Being that we live in an increasingly digital culture and there are so many lines of communication open to reach people, figuring out how best to achieve a museum expereince outside of the actual museum building is key to a twenty-first-century museum. We can embrace the museum without walls and generate more interest in visiting the physical building at the same time.