Today’s guest post is by Suse Cairns (PhD candidate and author of the blog Museum Geek) and Mia Ridge Chair of the Museums Computer Group, author of the blog Open Objects and PhD candidate. Suse and Mia recently engaged in a great conversation, via Twitter, with Jasper Visser about the new exhibition of Van Gogh reproductions, and I invited them to respond to his recent post on the subject.
There is something strange about responding to a blog post on the opportunities and challenges of reproductions, having seen neither the “real objects” nor the “real(?) reproductions” being referred to; yet such is the task that we have taken on, following an interesting conversation with Jasper Visser and others about the Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition, on at the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam. What follows is a collaboratively-edited version of the discussion we had about Jasper's earlier post and the subject of displaying reproductions of artworks.
The materiality and phenomenological experience of the objects cannot come into the discussion for us; instead we must put ourselves into the place of an imagined audience member seeing reproductions of Van Gogh’s works “(partly) restored to their original colours” and 3D animations inspired Van Gogh’s works and letters. Would we indeed get a new interpretation of the paintings, as Jasper asserts, like seeing a modern production of Shakespeare or hearing Vivaldi performed by contemporary musicians? Are these old paintings made fresh through the marvels of Photoshop; or are the Photoshopped works made valuable because they represent a connection with the original paintings? How much does the association with the past, or with the “real” object matter in such an exhibition?
It is worth noting that the digital reproductions in this exhibit aren’t just reproductions; they are reproductions of objects that carry a devotional focus for art lovers. They also promise to show something new, something important—access to a past that is both real and imagined. The works are presented as refreshed and contemporary; connected with the technology and culture of now while speaking of the world of the past. By presenting visual information now lost from the original artworks, these objects invert the usual characteristics of reproductions, re-producing the "experience of authenticity", an experience which normally, “has to do with the surplus of information presented by the original object, a surplus that is stripped away to greater or lesser degrees by different forms of reproduction” (Dustin M. Wax in 'The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is a Museum?).
When we first discussed this exhibition on Twitter, someone asked whether reproductions open up whole new business models for museums, to “Buy one copy each of good stuff, then clone the museum :)” This is not a new question; numerous museums are filled with fictive ivories and other forms of reproduced works, which cloned and made transportable cultural knowledge. Indeed, Fiona Cameron proposes that “reproductions are the means by which cultural capital is spread, and the rules and habits of looking are developed,” (Fiona Cameron, ‘Beyond the Cult of the Replicant’, in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, pp 55) which would suggest that we learn new ways to see the world through our reproductions, just as much as our “real” objects.
But as 3-D printing and digitally enhanced works of art become more available, are there new possibilities for museums to “print on demand”? This could be useful, given the limitations on budgets (particularly for insuring travelling exhibitions) and storage space. As Elizabeth noted in the discussion around Jasper’s post, “Perhaps the collections plan of the future will include a section on materials that will be maintained as digital data, and fabricated as needed…” If so, do these reproductions become new “objects” as much a part of the collection as the “original” object? And if the museum-going public can print their own versions of objects, their own reproductions, will they still seek them within the context of the museum?
Or is this sense of competition between the real and the reproduced object a figment of our imaginations? The existence of traditional methods of encountering reproduced artworks in catalogues and poster prints do not make the queues for blockbuster exhibitions any shorter. Perhaps the experience of getting to view the Van Gogh works of art in full light with reconstructed colours enhances the experience of viewing the real artwork, like the moment when you're finally at the concert of a band whose albums you've had on repeat for a week beforehand.
Jasper makes this point in his post:
There’s no need for an original object to tell a story. There is, however, a need for original objects if you want to show original objects. I don’t think anybody checks the Mona Lisa off their list after having seen a copy (or do they?)
Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition raises fascinating questions about the relative importance audiences place on experiencing the content—the image in front of them, whether on a screen, a poster or an expensive photographic print—versus the physicality of the artwork. It provokes questions about the role of the venue in the museum experience. How important is being in a particular place at a particular time with a particular group of people? Is it a key part of the museum visit, or just a side effect of displaying groups of artworks in galleries? If the reproductions were released online, would the audience still want to experience them in a physical gallery, or do they go to the gallery because that's the only way to gain access to the new visual information contained in the reproductions? Or do they go because it's a more accessible experience than a traditional art museum?
Reproductions don't diminish the importance of the physical artefact—who hasn't stood in front of a painting by an artist you admire, caught by the knowledge that this object was intimately associated with them, physically shaped by their hands over a period of time? Still, while we have't heard the voices of those who have chosen not to attend Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition, it seems that some audiences do value the gallery context enough to pay to see reproductions as an exhibition experience.
What do you think?