This week, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum announced that it had lent its beauty to the Google Cultural Institute, so that Internet users can take advantage of a virtual first-person walk-through of the museum, similar to the “street view” feature on Google Maps.
According to a press release from the museum, Steve Vinter, a site director for Google’s Cambridge Office, said that the Google Cultural Institute shares Isabella Stewart Gardner’s vision of her museum becoming one that would preserve art “for future generations to educate and enrich the public,” adding that art enthusiasts around the world can now enjoy her famous museum “through a few clicks of a mouse.”
No doubt, Gardner hoped that her museum would serve to entertain and educate the masses for years to come, but it is unclear that she would have been satisfied with her museum being available virtually.
Everyone is familiar with the famous art collector’s wishes for her museum, as laid out in her will-if the caretakers of the museum alter the museum’s public displays beyond what is necessary for its most essential upkeep, then the property and collection should be sold and the resulting money given to Harvard.
In other words, please don’t touch anything.
Of course, the creation of an online tour of the museum does not technically transgress any of her stipulations, but I like to think that Gardner’s will for her museum was not merely an arbitrary assertion of where she liked to keep her stuff. Instead, she was endorsing an experience and advocating for a certain way that she felt patrons ought to enjoy her beautiful collection.
She wanted art lovers to walk through a lush courtyard, up the stairs, and along the ornate walls so that they would understand a unique connection between her museum’s architecture and its contents-a subtle kind of experiential art.
This is not to say that there are not great benefits to what the Google Cultural Institute is trying to do. Now, a student in Japan or Australia can explore a museum that could otherwise be alien to them for the rest of their lives. People who cannot afford to travel across the country have the great opportunity to get at least a taste of Gardner’s creation.
But I fear that the negative effects will be great as well. I imagine a Boston College student sitting at his computer on a virtual tour of the Isabela Stewart Gardner Museum when he could easily be seeing it in person. Who can blame him? If society endorses the virtual as a sufficient substitute for the real, then why wouldn’t he stay cooped up in his dorm room?
According to an article in The Boston Globe, Gardner director Anne Hawley acknowledged the difference between a virtual experience of the museum and an actual visit. She hopes that the museum’s new online presence will encourage more visitors, but she cannot yet be sure this will happen.
If it ultimately does increase visitations to the museum, I am sure Gardner’s spirit will be more than satisfied with the result. But if my fears come true and she ultimately sees a BC student glued to his computer screen thinking he is getting the real deal, she will turn over in her grave.