In the wake of the catastrophic fire at the National Museum of Brazil it has been suggested (in Wired and Sydney Business Insights) that a digital version of museums collections could replace the need for actual public access. This assumes that the fetichism of the original, a kind of contact magic, is the principle reason for the continued practice. As an atheist I do not believe in contact magic but I don’t go to museums for that reason.
Although the National Gallery of Victoria has described itself as “custodian of the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”. There are other reasons, aside from guarding the horde, for a state museum or art gallery.
Firstly, museums provide unmediated contact with an analogue item is a natural interface. We can look it closer or stand back without any digital interface or restrictions from the technology. The average museum visitor only spends a few seconds on average looking at an exhibit and this would quickly become exhausting if mediated by clicking or swiping.
Secondly, not all people going to a museum are there to contact the original. I am not always looking at the original. Be it Richard Hamilton’s replica of Duchamp’s Large Glass or a working replica of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel that I could play with. The working replica of Bicycle Wheel was much better than any authorised edition because I could see the often mentioned op art effect of light through the rotating spokes as I turned the wheel.
Finally, it is not the object but the journey and it is not the object but the place. This makes the reasons for a museum much more complex than a storehouse. Museums, art galleries and libraries are public spaces, places where there is the possibility of all kinds of interactions that has to happen in an actual space. Not only that they are public spaces located in an actual and complex world; a world where destination architecture is also a local building.
For me, the best part of going to see the art of the Belgium Surrealists was not contact with the relics of that art movement (which is distinctly different from the French Surrealists). The best part was that it lead me to Mons and the Ducasse de Mons or Doudou festival; an accidental encounter with a parade, a dragon and street festival. It was a lot of fun straight out of Fraser’s The Golden Bough with lots of Belgium beer. (I must have been having fun all I have is a terrible shot of the parade and a photo of me and local drinking beer.)