Winter 2024 | Director’s Letter: A Digital Renaissance

Art museums have long been repositories of cultural heritage—tasked with the study, preservation, display, and interpretation of many of humanity’s most treasured creations—and thus play an essential role in shaping our understanding of history, aesthetics, creativity, and indeed ourselves. As the digital age in which I have spent my museum career continues to evolve, we stand yet again at a critical point of inflection as we consider how to integrate technology into the traditional spaces of museums. Doing so continues to raise questions around the authenticity of experience, the hand of the artist, and accessibility that we have been grappling with for at least the past thirty years. With the advent of a new, purpose-built museum that is being made at this historical moment, one in which we are renewing our commitments to accessibility and equity, it is vital that we face these questions.

Long prized for their hallowed halls and hushed silences, museums seem to be spaces in which we must empower visitors to behave more variedly if we want visitors from diverse backgrounds and experiences to visit (and revisit). Silence may work for some, or some of the time, but for others it may feel unnatural or off-putting. Especially with the advent of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI)—to say nothing of the digital access revolution necessitated by COVID times and Zoom-based programming—the way in which users are experiencing art (and indeed the definitions of “art”) are changing as never before. I can only applaud the democratizing aspects of these technologies as they open up the world of art to those who may never have felt the lure of museums or felt comfortable in or had access to them—just as I can only embrace the ways in which they afford opportunities for more active learning, in which users can participate more dynamically in making their own meanings.

We would be naive, however, to ignore the risks and challenges posed by these new digital realities and possibilities. For example, constantly evolving technologies, file formats, and hardware raise worrying questions about the long-term integrity of digital collections. The inevitable obsolescence of many technologies raises real-world concerns about the future accessibility of this “data” and these works of art. There are also the practical issues of the digital divide and the need to recognize that not everyone has access to either the tools or the learning modes necessary to take advantage of these new technologies.

Essential, for me, is the question of how digital technologies will continue to impact the very act of museumgoing and the visitor experience. Some feel (and I share this concern) that gallery-based digital platforms can disrupt the contemplative experience of close looking, the slow looking that we often seek to foster. What of the tactile and sensory aspects of experiencing works of art in the original and thus the risk of a loss of what I’d term “tangibility”? Especially in an age of endless screen distraction, the stillness of a traditional gallery can offer a particular transformative, even transcendent, experience. I imagine that many of us can conjure experiences of museum galleries so overwhelmed by digital screens and interactive opportunities that the still object didn’t stand a chance. Is there not also the risk of providing a digital experience (whether in the galleries or remotely) that is so fundamentally satisfying that it sates the user’s need, such that the original work of art is rendered immaterial both literally and figuratively?

Lest I begin to sound like a fearful Luddite, let me quickly posit that the key may be in finding a balance between tradition and innovation, preservation and accessibility, the physical and the virtual, in order to fulfill our mission to care for irreplaceable objects and meet the needs of all prospective users. The creation of robust digital preservation strategies can help answer long-term archiving and documentation requirements; collaboration with the right experts can help assure the viability of digital assets. Appropriate safeguards can respond to concerns about privacy. In-gallery technology can augment, deepen, and diversify the visitor experience without overwhelming other modes of engagement and learning. Opt-in and opt-out possibilities can ensure that visitors seeking moments of quiet contemplation or those seeking vibrant interactivity can each be satisfied.

As I write, we are hard at work with our consulting partners at Bluecadet, a leading museum technology and learning firm based in Philadelphia, to consider these possibilities and risks and to determine how to hold these opportunities in productive balance. It is too early for me to write much about the specific choices we are making, but I can say that the manifestations you will discover on “day one”—the day we finally open our new galleries—will be technologically richer than in our galleries of old while honoring traditional modes of looking at and experiencing extraordinary works of art. I’m excited to continue exploring the digital frontier with you, recognizing that day one is not the conclusion but really the beginning.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director