Museums and digital revolution. By Christian Greco

Christian Greco, Director of the Egyptian Museum of Turin.

Today we find ourselves steeped in the so-called digital revolution which has already radically transformed our cognitive approach and hence our working methods. In archeology, photogrammetry and 3D modelling allow archeologists to document the entire excavation process and reconstruct contexts even after they have been removed. We can reproduce a sarcophagus with submillemetric precision by recording all the stages of production and reuse.
Non-invasive diagnostic imaging makes it possible for us to look inside a sealed receptacle and unwrap mummies virtually. Accurate analyses enable today’s scholars to observe the fibres of a papyrus and thus help recompose ancient documents.
Moreover, digital communication allows us to create virtual working environments where scholars the world over can compare data and confer.
All this makes it easier and quicker for scholars to carry out their work. But does it follow that the role of the humanist is becoming subordinate? Quite the reverse. The data we collect are more and more detailed and complex, and call for a level of interpretation which is ever more exacting. The scientist and the humanist need to collaborate even more closely, pooling their respective expertise in an attempt to unravel the complexity of the contemporary world. What it amounts to is an increased synergy which goes beyond the dogmatisms of the individual disciplines: deciding on a shared semantics and developing a truly multidisciplinary approach are the only ways we have of facing the challenges of the future.
As a result, there is speculation as to the future role of museums – whether they are institutions destined to disappear, smothered by the exponential growth of science and technology, or whether some future is assured. In attempting to offer an answer, we need to bear in mind, when rethinking the future role of museums, that the main reason they were founded was to house objects from the past so that they might be preserved and handed down to later generations. Despite all the changes that have come about over time, it is undeniable that our experience of museums still revolves around finding ourselves in the presence of artworks, archeological remains or documents of social history.
Changes will continue, there will be more and more of them. Various organizational and architectural solutions will be devised to meet the needs of the present. There will undoubtedly be new forms of cultural enjoyment. Out task, however, will remain the same: to improve the visual, aesthetic and intellectual experience of every visitor who comes face to face with an artefact from the past, by providing all the information needed to enrich their understanding. So the future of museums is, as it always has been, research.
Perhaps by thinking about all the work of researching and curating the collections, we may be able to understand the role of the digital revolution in museums today, not least because of the immense amount of work which has been carried out in this direction since the 1990s. Museums have equipped themselves with digital cataloguing systems which not only allow them to incorporate all the information contained in the paper archives but enable them, at the same time, to interrelate a wealth of information regarding how pieces were acquired, besides determining the provenance, the materials and date, by linking up the iconographic data, the photographs, drawings, and available bibliography for every single exhibit. This colossal undertaking has involved carrying out scrupulous inventory checks, photographing, drawing and carefully measuring the thousands of exhibits held in storeage, but it results in a deeper knowledge of the heritage in our care.
In the space of twenty years, digital inventory tools have become indispensable in all routine aspects of curating, and they have also served to give an important boost to research. Over time, museums have developed their own websites, enabling them to share information about their artefacts and thus make it possible for scholars and anyone interested to undertake research, gather material, and learn the results of recent diagnostic investigations and restoration work.
Since the beginning of the century, new technologies have started to play a key role also in the exhibition areas. Films, videos, multimedia tables have begun to proliferate in numerous museums keen to offer new ways of enjoying artworks, ways that involve more active public participation and visitor involvement. One example is the COMPASS project (Collections Multimedia Public Access System) at the British Museum, which started in 1997. The aim of the programme was to improve the visitors’ experience by making the collections more accessible, providing more information so that they have a better idea of the cultural context of the exhibits, and encouraging them take a more active part. Since 2002, installations have been placed in the museum’s reading room. The terminals had the appearance of open volumes, with an interface which, also in terms of dimensions, resembled those of a book. The content was partly derived from the digital inventory system but the texts had been deliberately rewritten so as to prove more accessible to a wider public. The question of accessibility has in fact become more and more central to communication with the public. It has led a number of museums – starting, indeed, with the British – to set up an Interpretation Office, in other words a department of cultural intermediaries able to translate the specialized content produced by curators into written texts which everyone can understand.
Over the past twenty years, countless research projects have been devised to piece together the disjecta membra, or ”scattered fragments” – namely grave goods and parts of monuments now separated and housed in different museums as a result of the circumstances in which they were acquired and added to the various collections. One such is the Digital Giza Project, conducted by Harvard University, which has gathered iconographical material, archive documents, information, excavation results, and then developed 3D models to digitally assemble the monuments of one of the world’s most important archeological sites: the pyramids of Giza and the cemeteries surrounding them.
So, bit by bit, data banks have been built up and websites developed to the point where they function as fully-fledged virtual museums. In this way the context is restored and the archeological find is returned to life in its true historical settting.
Piecing together the disjecta membra, making our research results available to all, allowing access to iconographical and archive records, are also ways of getting past the question of ownership and creating an impossible digital museum.
What we will be able to achieve in the near future is not just the reconstruction of the original context, but a fully immersive experience which transports us back, physically, to a historical setting and allows us to traverse it in its various stratifications until we come to understand it as an authentic palimpsest continually modified by man, and its archeological remains, housed in museums, are the fragments of memory which time has preserved.
A glimpse into tomorrow’s world is provided by some interesting experiments in digital innovation like, for example, the Teamlab Borderless of Tokyo, a museum without borders, without a preordained itinerary for visitors, consisting of digital artworks which communicate with each other, influence each other, and sometimes interconnect, surmounting the physical limits of the rooms in which they are located. In the exhibition areas, you are free to take a stroll, explore, discover different realities and create links with others. The suggestiveness of this innovative digital laboratory provides valuable insights into the direction that museological thinking may take in the coming years.
In the humanities, technological innovation and traditions of study and analysis going back thousands of years are bonding, pooling their resources in a way that is increasingly apparent in their commitment to devising lines of research which enable us to understand the relation between material and immaterial, to reconstructing contexts now lost, and to developing complementary narrative lines which make it possible for us to fully explore the historical development of a particular culture and its influence on the territory in question.
Museums are paying great attention to communication with and for the public; accessibility has become one of the main watchwords for these institutions whose aim is to weave themselves more and more closely into the social fabric in which they are embedded. A sea-change is also coming about in our way of conceiving visitor involvement: the index of success is no longer ticket sales and increased visitor numbers; the emphasis has shifted to what is described as community participation.
The new means of communication are performing an increasingly important role, not merely in terms of transmitting content, but in sustaining an ongoing dialogue with the public and garnering interesting ideas, food for thought which, in one way or another, can be useful for cultural programming. Careful thought is being given to the role that social media have gradually been acquiring, and how they need to be incorporated in any case into a strategic cultural plan with well defined objectives.
What we have witnessed above all in the new millenium is an ever-increasing attention towards the public, a public which is increasingly interested, in a proactive way, in the activities promoted by museums; in fact, forms of involvement have been sought which have led to the notion of a participatory museum, a shared entity.
The intention is that visitors should take a purposeful, proactive part in programming, and co-curation ventures are on the increase.
This has given rise to a heated debate between those who fear that museums will “debase” their function and “pander” to the demands of the market and those who claim that museums are still too self-referential, inaccessible and impenetrable to most people. As a result, an attempt has been made to create a distinction between what are called “research museums”, the preserve of scholars and experts in the field, and “open museums” which invite the active participation of the public.
The truth is that by discharging the task of shedding more and more light on the evolution of the world and the history of the people who created the objects they preserve, museums are fulfilling their primary responsibility to continually hone the contact between people and experiences of all times. To do this, they need to resort to their most profound and refined form of listening, namely research.