The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

27 March 2012

A Ninth Sounding: The Manipulation of Material in Virtual Museums

"Et in Arcadia Ego"

Interpreted by artists as an escape from death, arcadia is also a represented, virtual space. Objects, in the virtual world, are removed from spatial confinement through their imagistic reproduction.

Pierre Levy, a French cyberculturalist, argues that visualization provides a way out from physical reality into a continued - no less real existence in a virtual realm. The term 'virtual' has developed multiple connotations, particularly since the museum has increasingly experimented with the presentation of objects to visitors in immaterial, digital and virtual settings. Drawing on the theories of heterotopia and Deloche's notion of uchronia, Englebert Gayagoy discusses how we materialise the immaterial, and how the visitor relates to the viritual environment which has been created.

Heterotopia is a notion of other spaces - a space of otherness akin, but not completely analogous to, utopia - an unreal place. Foucault uses the mirror as a way to represent these other spaces, and Englebert imagines them an analogous with the virtual which is, like the museum - like the heterotopia - a site of illusion.

In 2010, Bernard Deloche critically analyses the notion of the museum as an unchanging utopia in the context of the contemporary rise of the virtual, referencing Marshall McLuhan and Harper's concept of the non-linear museum, and criticizing the virtual museum as evidence of the dominance of the simulacra. It is this idea which Englebert seeks to challenge. To do so, he uses a number of case studies.

The Museo Virtual de Artes (MUVA) manipulates virtual artworks in a setting which mimics a physical geographical locale. This museums allows the works to be negotiated in a very different way than they would in a physical space - through zooming, for example. The Museuo Virtual de Artes et tradition du Gabon, and the
Adobe Museum of Digital Media suffer from similar problems. Zooming suggests the panopticon - a powerful, dominating mode of manipulating the visual world.

New technologies can invoke the idea of reconstruction - which can at one and the same time destabilise and remake the notion of the very identity of the museum. In virtual museums, where the building is remade and digitized, perhaps in a utopian way, the visitor must still engage.

Because the digital museum can be remade, they show how utopias can develop, change, can be remade into something new - the heterotopia, then, becomes a site of alteration, in which ideals can constantly be remade, in which they can be tested. They have a different kind of ephemerality than that of the physical object - a kind of immaterial impermanence - but one which can be archived because, unlike the physical object, it never was 'real'.

Many questions arise from the existence of virtual museums, which relate to the epistemic status not only of the digital museum and its objects - but to the museum more generally. How can we bring this to the real world? How can we personalise the object, how can we come into such close contact to the object as virtual museums allow? What is the place of the physical museum? How do the two interrelate, and what do both virtual and physical museums offer - do they, and should they, compliment each other?

It is interesting, as Heinrich notes, that whilst we often consider the virtual world to be a museum without walls, we recreate buildings within it. It is also worth, at this point, questioning what we mean by 'walls'. Essentially, the wall is a limitation, a stricture based upon our thinking, whether by practical ability or social and cultural sensibilities and rules.

Are museums without walls, then, fictions in the negative sense - is Deoche correct in considering them a negative kind of simulacra? I do not think so, for they encode some kind of truth in their use of rules - rules related to their manifestation or the mode of engagement the visitor chooses to employ. Heterotopias are always contained in rules, in ways of thinking. We need rules - walls, if you will - to make things mean. The contingent configurations in which we think things and selves operate in language games - negotiated sets of meanings and rules - which are, in some sense, walls. It just depends upon how we choose to see.

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