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Back to Reviews 96

Anneke Van De Kiefe
of the Amsterdam
Historisch Museum.

Conference attendees, rapt.

Kids at the Gallery
Belvedere with
gallery @ online.


a (digital) view 
from vienna

by Janet Rossbach

"I know many of you expected to reach 

pension age before having to worry about 

the computer." This ironic statement opened 

this summer's annual international 

conference of museum educators in 

Vienna, Austria. Hadwig Krautler, organizer 

of the meeting (held by the Committee for 

Education and Cultural Action [CECA] 

division of the International Council of 

Museums [ICOM]), meant the remark for a 

laugh. But it also signified that there was 

good reason the hosting Austrian CECA 

chapter selected "On Site and Worldwide: 

New Strategies for Communication in 

Museums" as its conference topic; museum 

educators need to learn about the computer 

as a viable tool for museum education and 

outreach not only for tomorrow but today. 

Representatives from 40 countries attended 

the annual five-day conference, including 

people from Eastern Europe and distant non-European 

countries such as Botswana, Japan, New 

Zealand and Brazil. The United States was 

surprisingly underrepresented with only 

five attendees (among them were myself, 

John Brooks of the Clark Art Institute and 

Peter Samis of the San Francisco MOMA). 

CECA provided simultaneous translation in 

English, French and German for most of the 

conference presentations, although English 

was the most common language. (Very few 

computer programming languages were 

spoken.) The conference attendees were not 

webmasters but instead were traditional 

educators who wanted to discuss the future 

of museum educational programming as 

affected by new technology.

As the conference unfolded in several of 

Vienna's beautiful museums and gallery 

spaces, the 100-plus papers presented 

reflected attitudes towards new media that 

ranged from enthusiasm to ambivalence. 

Titus Leber of the private French firm 

Iconomics France represented the 

technically savvy and was one of few 

presenters that decidedly favored new media 

as a viable form for curatorial and 

intellectual expression. An advocate of the 

"museum without walls," Leber described a 

three-stage process that would lead to what 

he called the creation of the future's 

"electronic museum." The first stage, 

exemplified by Corbis' attractive A Passion 

For Art CD-ROM of the Barnes Collection, 

consists of the reproduction of a museum's 

collection in a visual and textual database 

format. Images of artworks, text 

descriptions and some audio clips are set 

up along a time line or other 

organizational structure to let viewers 

browse through a collection and learn a 

little about each artwork and artist. The 

San Francisco Museum of Art, the Lonnstrom 

Art Museum in Rauma, Finland, and the 

Livruskammaren, in Stockholm, Sweden, all 

displayed other strong examples of this 


According to Leber, the second stage 

involves the recreation of actual 

exhibition spaces in a 3-D virtual museum 

space -- a photographically accurate space 

through which a viewer could maneuver. As 

an example of this stage, Leber presented 

the Musee D'Orsay CD-ROM produced by 

Montparnasse Multimedia and Reunion des 

Musees Nationaux (RMN). This program, 

developed with QuickTime VR, lets the 

viewer move through a three-dimensional 

reproduction of the museum, pan 360 degrees 

around a special gallery, and zoom in on 

artworks as if he or she were actually 

there. Hans Petschar from the Austrian 

National Library presented a similar 

approach to the virtual museum experience 

for his museum that was developed using the 

Philips CDi platform, a format that is 

popular in Europe though less so in the 

U.S. In this program the viewer also 

entered a graphically rendered 3-D virtual 

environment of the museum and had the 

ability to zoom around the library and 

learn about its contents and Austrian 

history. Both projects were impressive uses 

of technology to bring as close a museum 

experience possible to the home-user.

The final stage of Leber's theoretical 

electronic museum-of-the-future -- and I 

agree with his assertion that it is the 

most relevant -- is the imaginary museum. 

In this case, a curator devises exhibitions 

in this imaginary space that would be 

impossible in the real world -- for 

instance, a recreation of the famous, and 

long-past, 1894 Chicago World Exposition. 

Leber maintains that the result would be a 

particularly rich montage of historical 

context, period music, architecture, 

costume, art and more, utilizing 

Eisenstein's cinematic technique in a new 

media expression. In a way never before 

possible, a curator could juxtapose images 

and explore ideas and visual, textual and 

audio relationships in a non-linear, non-

spatial format. Leber has been working on 

an imaginary museum project of his own, but 

had nothing available at the conference, 

unfortunately. Leber's presentation took 

place on the first day of the get together, 

and was generally construed as the most 

forward-looking presentation at the event. 

There were, however, other quality projects 

presented. Muriel Silberstein-Storfer from 

the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrated 

her new CD-ROM, Look What I See. This 

CD-ROM takes her famous parent/child 

studio-art teaching class and sets it up 

for the home user. Colorful and fun, it 

cheerfully approaches the young user to 

teach about shapes, colors and mood, and 

presents examples of these art basics in 

historic and contemporary paintings (not 

all from the Metropolitan's collection). It 

also has a section designed to help the 

teacher and parent make the most of a 

studio art experience for youngsters when 

they are not in front of a computer. 

The Amsterdam Historisch Museum displayed 

another quality project for a museum kiosk. 

Many museum educators are wary of the 

physical impact kiosks can have within the 

museum, impinging upon the museum visit or, 

even worse, allowing people to only play 

with the program and not look at the "real"

art. With this in mind, this kiosk program 

focuses on only one single painting of a 

lively Dutch city street scene from the 

17th century. Presented in English and 

Dutch, the program provides a menu of 

options to learn more about the specific 

painting and the history of the city and 

its people. Interestingly, the kiosk was 

programmed to run the CD-ROM for only eight 

minutes in the museum (the full program is 

said to take over an hour to view in its 

entirety), so that users would step away 

from the kiosk and actually look at the 

painting hung right behind the kiosk. 

Anneke Van De Kieft remarked that the 

program was in use 75 percent of the time 

the museum was open.

However, there were many worries and 

misgivings about how new media would affect 

museums and the museum experience. The 

presentation by Michael Bockemuhl from the 

Universitat Witten, Herdecke, Germany, 

epitomized the fears and reservations of 

the more conventionally minded museum 

community. Bockemuhl titled his 

presentation, "Can the museum dispense with 

the original?" and instead of using a 

traditional painting or sculpture to defend 

his position, he set up a 15-inch black 

square affixed to an easel. He asked the 

audience to stare at the black square for 

20 seconds -- to look at it intently, 

without moving one's eyes. The conference 

room became quiet as the audience eagerly 

participated in this experiment. After 

looking at the square for the allotted 

time, Bockemuhl asked us to look at the 

large white screen hanging behind the 

stage. We all experienced the post-picture 

reaction of seeing the negative image of 

the black square on the white surface, and 

audible reactions flew through the 

audience. Bockemuhl exultantly exclaimed 

"Art requires Time!" He continued that one 

cannot replace an authentic art viewing 

experience by passively staring at an 

artwork on a computer screen. He explained 

that the price of the immediacy of new 

technology is the loss of the intimate 

world of perception, and the removal of the 

opportunity to develop a relationship with 

an original work of art. 

I do not think anyone disagreed with 

Bockemuhl, and many attendees felt 

comforted by his defense of the original 

work of art. The perception that new media 

will ruin the museum experience was one of 

the strongest themes of a conference. 

People questioned: Will people lose their 

ability to look at a work of art? Will 

people no longer visit museums if their 

collections are available on CD-ROMs or 

online? Will tomorrow's children (if not 

already today's) learn to gather 

information rather than hunt for meaning in 

art? Will art educators be replaced by 

cyberguides and CD-ROMs?

According to the reactions of the children 

involved in the Austrian museum@online program 

there is no reason to hold these fears. The 

Austrian Federal Ministry of Education and 

Cultural Affairs, the Austrian Culture 

Service, and the Osterreichische Galerie 

Belvedere jointly established this 

significant program with six local Austrian 

schools. The students, aged 12 to 19, 

visited the Belvedere museum exhibition, 

"Art at the Turn of the Century," with 

their teachers and learned about several 

masterpieces of Austrian art from its 

collection (for example, Gustav Klimt's The 

Kiss). The children returned to their 

classrooms with a photo-CD of the 

exhibition produced for the project and 

during special afterschool classes created 

original Web projects that reflected their 

impressions of the artworks. What was so 

significant about this project was that it 

not only taught the kids about art history 

and artistic techniques, it also taught 

them to design a Web page, a new creative 

process that is already becoming a valuable 

artistic skill. The kids enjoyed the 

project and were eager to demonstrate what 

they learned. Technology was used to 

explore art away from the original, but not 

by any means to replace the original. It 

was carefully positioned as an educational 

tool, as a way to open up museums and their 

collections, rather than serve as an 

alternative to visiting museums and 

substitute experiencing works of art in 


Despite the fact that many of the 

conference attendees were not very familiar 

with new media, as predicted by the opening 

statement, most left the conference more 

educated about the possible uses of new 

media in the museum arena. Many were still 

wary about the benefits of introducing 

technology into their museums, not to 

mention the financial burdens to accomplish 

such ends. Nevertheless, most accepted the 

fact that the computer is not going away, 

children are already using the technology, 

and that well-conceived programs can be 

very stimulating. It was agreed that new 

media programs cannot replace school visits 

to museums, nor parents and museum 

educators teaching children to take the 

time to look, to analyze, to experience art 

in its many forms. Yet the conference 

accomplished its goal to challenge its 

attendees to think about the new 

communication strategies available for 

museums, and the value of developing 

relevant, thought-provoking projects, much 

like Mr. Leber's imaginary museum, to serve 

the audience they so much want to attract.

JANET ROSSBACH is a new media consultant 

for the arts (e-mail: