Israel explores: Can art survive the World Wide Web?

A Jerusalem confab questions the role of museums in the digital age.

Chris Michaels of London’s National Gallery (left) and Jake Barton (second from left) of the Local Projects design and strategy frm for museums speak at a panel on the future  of museums. (photo credit: TAL BAR-LEV)
Chris Michaels of London’s National Gallery (left) and Jake Barton (second from left) of the Local Projects design and strategy frm for museums speak at a panel on the future of museums.
(photo credit: TAL BAR-LEV)
 In 1979, British new wave band The Buggles released a musical hit that lamented the slow decay of the radio era, which they saw quickly get tossed aside and replaced by a new and more appealing trend: television, which started boasting color broadcasts in the late 1960s. “Video killed the radio star,” The Buggles chanted then.
Almost four decades later, these words are still symbolic of the radical and swift manner in which technology left a mark on the way the masses acquire information or seek cultural distractions.
But what would The Buggles have sung in 2017, when people press a button on their smartphones to make queries and conduct intelligible conversations with Apple’s Siri, a clear-cutting product of artificial intelligence? 
For artists, curators, artistic institutions and art aficionados across the globe, this question is translated into a pressing and very immediate concern – can museums survive the constant whirlwind of technological changes that characterize the 21st century? 
Last month, experts from all over the world, as well as local policy makers, gathered in Jerusalem to debate this question. They discussed a variety of methods to tackle the challenges posed to museums as public institutions and beacons of culture and knowledge in an era dominated by emojis and word-mincing tweets.
The annual confab, titled this year “Digital Horizon: Museums and Heritage Sites,” was facilitated by the Association of Museums and ICOM Israel (International Council of Museums). The latter is a non-profit organization that represents all of the country’s museums and operates according to values dictated by the international ICOM, an organization linked to UNESCO.
Some of the conference’s keynote speakers spoke to The Jerusalem Post about their concerns and pointed at creative processes that are already under way worldwide to help museums make the difficult transition into the fast-paced, ever-changing realm of the Internet.
Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli, a researcher and scholar of computer-mediated communication and computer scientist, addressed this issue at the conference in a talk that focused on the value of art when it intersects with the world of big data – now potentially approachable to all through a few strokes on a keypad.
One major alteration technology has brought with it, Rafaeli told the Post, is what he calls “The Control C/ Control V Effect.”
“Digital technology makes it so easy to copy art. And when it’s so easy to copy visual things and when there’s open access, the entire financial model changes. For instance, the term ‘reproduction’- it had a specific meaning in the traditional art world, and it has changed entirely once reproducing is only a matter of pressing Control C and Control V [to copy and paste text or images via a keyboard].”
The impact technology has on art influences everyone, even and especially when people are least aware of it, he warned. According to Rafaeli, in the past, the way people experienced art was “something very intimate, private and personal,” whether it happened in a gallery or in the confines of their homes.
“But today with technology we can make use of our ability to monitor more deeply the process of art consumption. More and more museums install devices that track the activity of visitors – it’s a field called audience analytics – and the results of this tracking process directly feed into decisions.
“If in the past,” he continued, “it could be assessed that a painting or a sculpture was more popular than other exhibits, or it could be measured via box-office returns, today you can actually monitor the audience and see how many seconds on average people spend in front of exhibits. Some monitors even process pupil movements.”
The ability to analyze visitors’ reactions to the artworks they perceive is a double-edged sword, Rafaeli suggested, the kind that “raises ethical questions.”
On the one hand, some may charge that it’s unethical to intrude on the private experience of individuals spending leisure time at the museum without knowing that their reactions are being closely examined.
But on the other hand, Rafaeli said, “If you have the tools and the technology, is it ethical not to use them? Is it ethical not to measure? I think it’s important for us to know that the audience has certain preferences over others, that the audience has certain blind spots and these things you can only know if you look for them.”
He also noted that the ability to oversee the viewers’ responses to the art they engage with is especially crucial at state-run art institutes. “What about museums that spend the public’s money? What is the museum’s role in terms of delivering quality, and what role does the audience’s outlook have in this?” he questioned.
One such public institution is London’s National Gallery, which is home to over 2,300 paintings that belong to the government on behalf of the British public and happens to be one of the most visited art museums in the world.
Chris Michaels, the museum’s digital director, spoke at Digital Horizon about the hardships that face such a renowned institute as it struggles to maintain a tight balance between adhering to tradition and striding onwards with the times.
“Eighty to 90% of people who walk into the museum have a mobile phone in their hands. Unless we tell them that they have to turn it off and put it away, which we can’t do, we have to accept the fact that people have that phone with them and that it brings with it a whole world of knowledge, noise and possibility,” Michaels said, as he explained how he approaches the mission of crafting a digital strategy.
“We’ve got to preserve the integrity of letting people look quietly and think about objects, but we also have to do something to create an intermediate experience that makes that phone useful to them,” he said.
“The brilliance of museums historically is that audiences can leave, come and go as anonymous people. But now every person who comes to a museum leaves some kind of data trail behind. Learning to use that data in useful ways, learning how to interact with our audiences so that they’re comfortable with our uses of data, those are journeys of change that we have to go on.”
Michaels shared one recent endeavor of the National Gallery to make good of the force that is the human data trail. The museum has recently launched a partnership with a startup named Smartify, which enables museum-goers to hold up their smartphones to paintings at the gallery and learn about the artworks’ background online. Michaels revealed that thou - sands of visitors have already used the app at the National Gallery, and the reactions are “extremely positive.”
He said that his team was surprised to find out that the top ten most researched paintings on the app had little to do with rankings made by the museum’s curators. “That starts to give us a source of data-driven insight about what people really do here that we just didn’t know before,” he explained.
Back in Jerusalem, the idea of unveiling hidden truths through advanced technology is a practice that is highly encouraged if not almost commonplace. The capital’s Israel Museum is a global pioneer in its activity to enhance visitor experience through modern media, largely thanks to its Curator of new media and head of the Internet office, Dr. Susan Hazan.
Over the past two decades, Hazan oversaw the museum’s crossover from the mere use of an online website to the development of groundbreaking projects with Google, which she shared with audiences at the conference.
One high-profile project was a website dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The significant historic artifacts, which were hid - den from view and kept in ceramic vessels inside the Qumran Caves until they were brought to the museum in 1965, can now be seen in high-resolution on - line on a website launched by Google and the Israel Museum.
A mere four days after the launch, Hazan said that one million visitors had already visited the site.
Six years later, Google and the Israel Museum are kicking the project up a notch, this time making it available for viewing through Google’s augmented reality accessory – the Google Glass. “It’s still under wraps but they put together a walk-through of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Visualizing Isaiah project [a rich collection of the museum displaying objects from the era of the prophet Isaiah]. This means that students in a classroom somewhere can very soon be walking through history themselves,” Hazan explained.
And as she prepares for the launch of the museum’s new website, Hazan, who teaches a class on the subject of museums and communications at Harvard University, told Metro that both her doctoral research and years of experience at the museum, lead her to believe that “people won’t stop coming to museums.”
“After looking at screens all day long, people want to come and see the real thing for them - selves. You see people coming to the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and they literally put their nose up to the glass, sometimes with tears in their eyes, with awe in their faces.”
So perhaps “video killed the radio star,” but it seems that the Internet has not finished museums off just yet.