by Anna Bottesi

During the last couple of decades, virtual museum experiences have become quite popular—particularly as these institutions face the constant need of renewal to keep up with the pace of societal changes. As an anthropologist who studies museums, I spend most of my research hours surfing through museum websites, digital reconstructions of exhibitions, photo galleries and hyperlinks to collections. Yet, precisely to this extent, I continuously wonder whether these virtual experiences can be described as “museums.” Undoubtedly, they share a common ground and some goals with so-called “brick-and-mortar” museum, that is, an organization “that operates in a building, when compared to one that operates over the internet.” But is this enough to make us think and perceive them as museums? This piece seeks to question the relevance of these virtual experiences vis-à-vis the wider history of museums and consider whether we can continue to refer to them as “museums.”

At the outset, defining a virtual experience as a museum has proven quite challenging. Most coincide that the “founding” idea of the virtual museum is André Malraux’s, who in 1947 talked about an “imaginary” museum “without walls”—accessible from different places around the globe. Contrary to current virtual museums, Malraux’s idea of an “imaginary” museum was far from having any anchor to reality. The concepts upon which such experiences are built today have placed them as a central place for theoretical production, practical experimentation and social interaction. Yet despite these developments, defining them continues to be a difficult task.

Ideally, the notion of “virtual museum” should refer to “a logically related collection of digital objects composed in a variety of media” which does not correspond to a “real place or space” and are therefore virtually accessible from locations that are “disseminated all over the world.” Connections enable these collections to transcend “traditional methods of communicating and interacting with visitors.” The concept thus practically encompasses a huge variety of experiences within a museum’s environment. Widely understood, “virtual museums” comprehend digital museums, electronic museums, online museums, hypermedia museums or web museums. Navigating through the internet, one can find references to the inclusion of digital totems and audiovisual materials in exhibiting halls; the creation of interactive paths through handheld devices; the recreation of fully digital exhibition spaces in virtual and augmented reality; or, simply, a series of online museum collections that resemble huge databases where objects are accessible through photographic and photogrammetric reproductions. Indeed, museums actually seem to be competing in a sort of “virtual rush.”

The urgency of digitizing the collections, information and experience of museums is part of a larger process of transformation that has seen general demand to unlock access to the collections and their management. Since its origins in ancient Greece’s mouseion, and for a large part of their history, museums have been mostly conceived as private spaces, accessible to a restricted amount of people. Medieval Chambers of Treasure and the Renaissance’s Cabinets of Curiosities are good examples of this exclusive conception, the scope of which was exclusively to obtain political prestige and worth by exhibiting private collections. As museum scholars have established, it would be until the inauguration of the Ashmolean Museum (1683) and the Louvre Palace’s Grand Gallery (1793) that museums, as public institutions, were created in the strict sense of the term. Such new public institutions were no longer created for the profit or prestige of the nobility, but for the education of civil society. During the Enlightenment, a contemplative approach which was centered on the preservation and exhibition of collections that reproduced authoritative and univocal discourses prevailed. Whether we consider 18th (Art, Antiquities or Natural History) or 19th (History, Ethnography, Archaeology, or Science and Technology) century museums, they were always engineered in the service of a society’s predominant ideology.

However, during the 1950s, the post-colonial critic carried out by scholars of the so-called “third world” and thanks to the development of the New Museology Movement, which targeted the partiality of hegemonic narratives and sought to enhance previously silenced local narratives, forced museum curators to rethink the ways collections and their engagement with the public were handled. Visitors were increasingly asking for democratic, dialogic, and interactive experiences in which the museum could not only be mere depositories that served for the physical conservation of objects, but places where the discussion and dissemination of information about objects should be critically reflected upon. As recent literature has established, it was by virtue of their potential to overcome the limits imposed by the physical dimension and to make museums adapt to a changing society, digital technologies—especially when relying on the internet—were identified as particularly useful tools to achieve the new goals of such institutions.

Reflecting on this complex process has invited scholars from around the world to discuss experiences of “virtual museums” which have sprouted in the last couple of decades. Since the Louvre created an institutional website in 1995, other museums such as the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the MoMa in New York, and the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro followed. Online platforms such as Europeana and Google Art were pioneers in creating huge databases of digitalized contents (manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, maps, ethnographic objects, etc.). Numerous virtual tours have also been created: the Vatican Museums in Rome, the Louvre in Paris, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington are some of them. In this vein, self-guided tours were pioneered by the Natural History Museum of London and the virtual exhibition of the Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro.

The variety of such experiences enriches the concept of “virtual museum”, but surely does not make its definition any easier. Even the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has struggled to conceive the place virtual museums should occupy in the conceptual framework of both museum scholars and civilians. Its most recent definition (2022) states that a museum is “a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

At a superficial glance, the definition might not present big inconsistencies. Aspects such as being at the service of society, collecting, interpreting, upholding ethical principles and promoting education are all pertinent to the virtual experiences initiated in and by museums. However, some criticalities may arise as soon as we notice the troubling use of “institution” that has been addressed as a formal organization devoted to the execution of tasks of public interest. How can a virtual museum be an institution if it has “no real place or space”? Of course, when the virtual museum corresponds to the digital transposition of an actual museum, this problem may be avoided. But what if a virtual museum is conceived as a completely digital, online platform where collections of digitized material (proceeding from different institutions) or “born-digital” artefacts are assembled? Though it might not be strictly considered an “institution” according to ICOM’s definition, such experiences might still deserve the name of “virtual museum” for it avoids its conception as a physical institution’s “simple” digital transposition and creates new independent spaces for collecting, exhibiting and communicating heritage.

ICOM’s standard of what kind of heritage is worth being included in museum activities also raises some issues. Given its constructed, arbitrary, and processual character, defining “cultural heritage” has actually been source of political and cultural debate. In fact, the ways in which heritage represents the identity and memory of the social groups that produce and claim it are always shaped by specific power relations. Illustrative in this regard are the recent controversies that have questioned the representation (and celebration) of certain peoples and events linked to colonial heritage or claims presented by natives living in ex-colonial spaces to repatriate collections from Western ethnographic museums.

Such power relations have also had specific roles in the formation of institutions conceived to protect heritage. Especially since World War II, the idea of heritage has been increasingly linked to the protection of artworks and monuments regarded as symbols of specific national values—the same monuments which have been targeted in recent years. A first milestone for their protection was the enactment of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) followed by the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage which inscribed cultural and natural heritage as historically and materially defined into international law. In 1989, the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore extended the concept to intangible manifestations of heritage, though it was only formally included until the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Indeed, as stated above, the development of increasingly sophisticated technologies has opened the possibility to digitize assets of intangible, ephemeral heritage for preservation and/or dissemination purposes, which has in turn sparked discussions over what should be included in the concept of heritage. In its 2015 Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage, the UNESCO affirmed that as “cultural and educational” resources were increasingly available on “digital form rather than on paper”, “born-digital heritage available on-line […] is now part of the world’s cultural heritage.” Similarly, in a context that has fostered a marked rise of artificial intelligence, issues on the ethical questions on preservation, cultural property and representation have continued to rise.

These definitions and reflections might raise the question why ICOM does not mention digital heritage when defining museums. It is hardly conceivable that the professionals involved in the Council did not discuss such topics while they sought to reformulate the definition of “museum” altogether for such problems are central to the study of museums—both regarding their past and future as institutions that comprise a variety of knowledges. Museum scholars, in fact, tend to conceive virtual museums as phenomena in their own right, endowed with their own structures and developments. Their independent status might thus explain why the council did not issue an official definition despite existing proposals. Indeed, without looking at what a very near future might hold, ICOM’s definition appears to refer exclusively to present-day virtual proposals—most of which are extensions of “brick-and-mortar” museums.

Looking at this appraisal from a context of constant accelerated technological and social change such as ours, we might run the risk, as museum scholars and attendees, of coining concepts that become obsolete as soon as they are created. Therefore, I would propose tracing back our steps to a general definition of museum that helps us comprehend all its possible forms, including virtual ones, to assess the pertinence of the concept of “virtual museum.”

Understanding museums widely means welcoming other aspects of what museum “experiences” entail. For instance, reflections on the conceptual appropriateness of the term “museum” in digital times can also be framed in terms of the practices of collecting, displaying and dissemination. Authors like Negri and Schweibenz have talked about the existential involvement that visitors perceive through the actual presence within the walls of museums as the core of the “museum experience” itself. Emotions are involved not only by the movement between rooms and the confrontation with the collection, but also by a series of “ancillary rituals” such as queuing at the ticket office beforehand, passing through the bookshop afterwards, and physical interaction with the rest of the audience (be it verbal or non-verbal, pleasant or unpleasant). All these experiences are not possible in front of a computer screen because, as Mintz points out, virtual visits are strictly “media experience.” Since media can only “deliver information, it cannot match the totality of the experience a museum provides.” As Walter Benjamin reflected, when visiting a museum, people want to get in contact with the “aura” of artworks and objects—which is generated by the supposed “originality” and “unicity” of collections (often actually resulting from the process of musealization itself)—because it gives visitors the impression of accessing an “authentic” knowledge that may ultimately enrich their own existence.

Addressing the question of what a museum is in a digitalized era is evidently a difficult task. While on the one hand, digital technologies and virtual worlds have the advantage to offer new and, until a few years ago, inconceivable experiences, on the other hand, they do not yet have the sophistication to reproduce dynamics that have historically and socially constituted museums. Consequently, even if they have commonalities with physical experiences, virtual experiences are probably going to and should keep a separate status as to what we are accustomed to think and perceive as “museum.” Considering museum scholarship is progressively affirming itself as a field of study, it might be interesting and productive to challenge the conceptual tools at our disposal, so we can start formulating an idea of “virtual museum” that does not have to correspond to the physical counterparts upon which our common notion of museum is still rooted. Indeed, studying and understanding museums today as anthropologists and historians entails encompassing the complexity of spaces and concepts that have the potential of becoming truly virtual, that is, conceived as an almost parallel reality in which people can interact far beyond the physical world.

Anna Bottesi is a research fellow at University of Bologna. A museum anthropologist and historian, she studies the decolonization processes of ethnographic museums, particularly the collections of ancient and present-day Brazilian natives such as the Tabajara, the Kambeba and the Munduruku. She often travels to the indigenous communities she works with in the Brazilian States of Piauí, Pará, and Amazonas to carry out collaborative research as well as projects of social engagement. In her free time, she keeps a blog where she writes about her life experiences.

Edited by Matias Xerxes Gonzalez Field

Featured image by Stefano Bottesi, also known as Halvedartist, ©️ 2024. Used with permission of the artist.