The St. Louis Art Museum and Virtual Tours

The St. Louis Art Museum. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The St. Louis Art Museum. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On Saturday, June 29, the St. Louis Art Museum will be opening a new addition to its building. This wing will host a wide range of contemporary art, which in turn allows for a larger number of older paintings to go display in the main building. I’m not exactly the biggest art museum person around, but I am eager to get a chance to visit the new wing as soon as possible. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently published a virtual tour of the new wing that I’m a little too obsessed with right now.

I asked my friends on Facebook two questions about this virtual tour:

1. Does the virtual tour replace the experience of going to an Art Museum in person?

2. After looking at the virtual tour, are you more or less inclined to take time and possibly spend money to visit the Art Museum?

The fact that anybody can explore the contents of the new wing online for free is an ambitious gamble by the St. Louis Art Museum. There will undoubtedly be some people who decide not to go to the Art Museum in person because they can view it online, but in my case, seeing the virtual tour has increased my desire to see the new wing in person. The question of whether or not to put museum contents online reflects a larger debate on whether or not art should be freely posted online. For example, musicians have debated the merits of putting their music online for free (or asking for donations) for years. There are some who say no, while others say bands “shouldn’t give away all their music, but that some free downloading is okay.” Likewise, I’ve had professors who have completely railed on GoogleBooks for what they believed to be gross copyright violations for putting books online, even if it was only a small portion of the book. Concerns have also emerged in response to the creation of the Digital Public Library of America, which is putting the collections of partner libraries all over the country online, free of charge. All of these debates reflect the larger question of how best to promote artistic creations to as wide an audience as possible (and for some, making a few bucks too).

As I learn more about open access and observe more public institutions like art museums and libraries putting their content online, concerns about people having too much free access to online content or never leaving their desks to patronize libraries and museums in person are no longer a big concern with me. Putting content online for free is merely one way of establishing a relationship between artist and patron, and I think digital technology has allowed for patrons to make more informed decisions about the types of art they want to patronize. Although he was referring to concerns about the Digital Public Library of America, I think DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen has made an eloquent argument in support of the personal, physical experience of observing art and information in person and how digital technology enhances–not detracts–that experience. To wit:

I believe that public and academic libraries will begin to understand how the DPLA instead strengthens and complements what they do. Public libraries have been, and always will be, centers of their communities, and will continue to be the place to go for high-circulating recent books, Internet access, public readings, and many other elements that the DPLA cannot and will not replace. Academic libraries are structured to support the scholarly research modes and fields of specific institutions, with collecting strategies and services to match. Both kinds of libraries will benefit greatly by what the DPLA will add to our landscape of knowledge. The DPLA will provide is a single place to discover and explore our country’s libraries, archives, and museums—a portal—and so will bring entirely new audiences to formerly scattered collections… For public libraries, the DPLA will provide a national-scale, free extension of their local holdings, and give them a place to store and garner audiences for their community’s history and content. For academic libraries, the DPLA can be used to suggest research materials and collections beyond a home institution, to create virtual exhibits and collections from federated sites, and to enhance the scholarship of students and faculty… I would hate for the launch of the DPLA to be used as an excuse to lower funding to essential physical libraries in times of austerity.

You can check out the virtual tour of the St. Louis Art Museum East Wing here.

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