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Life at the museums

| Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, 8:55 p.m.

In a recent Tribune-Review column , Joe Wos anticipates the “death of the art museum.” He articulates a fear that has from time to time stricken all of us who love museums — the fear that technological innovations will mean the demise of beloved institutions.

In my view, technology will kill museums only in the sense that metamorphosis kills caterpillars. It will not mean the extinction of museums. Rather, it will drive evolutionary adaptation in museums.

Technology has already enriched the core mission of art museums, which is the study and sharing of art. I've seen visitors looking at Carnegie Museum of Art's iconic “Walking Man,” for example, while searching for images of comparable Giacometti works on their iPhones.

Children living in remote locations who have no opportunity to see great art in person can now browse hundreds of the world's leading collections online and use social media to share their reactions. Animations, audio guides and video content supply much more information about a work of art than simple wall text ever could.

Networked databases allow scholars around the world to locate important research resources almost instantaneously. Three-dimensional printers produce “images” that visually impaired visitors can appreciate through touch. These are all things that digital technology makes possible for art museums, and they are all very good things indeed.

The commonly asserted notion that digital experiences diminish interest in the “real” just doesn't ring true. Seeing reproductions of the “Mona Lisa,” for example, inspired my childhood desire to experience the Louvre. Every day, in “Dinosaurs in Their Time,” young people who have seen countless sophisticated CGI renderings of dinosaurs still gasp as they gaze at Dippy. The first question they often ask is, “Is that real?”

In the Scaife Galleries, visitors often linger before Monet's gigantic “Water Lilies.” Having seen so many reproductions, they can hardly believe they are in the presence of the real thing.

Visitors from around the world come to experience The Warhol in person, despite the fact that Andy is one of the Internet's biggest stars. The draw of the real is powerful, and being in its presence is transformative.

The relationship of digital experiences to museum experiences is not an either-or proposition. Last year, Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History reached more than half a million people through regular museum visits, special events and programs, and on- and off-site educational programming. That's a 5 percent increase over the previous year, even as our digital presence continues to expand. Our museums are hardly moribund; in fact, they are quite lively!

All this is not to say that the introduction of new technologies isn't disruptive to museums. It is. Innovative technology requires rethinking business models, building new infrastructure, redefining curatorship, managing new modes of preservation and developing new professional skills and roles. Such disruptive change is often difficult, frustrating and unsettling. But it is also invigorating and enlightening, as leading museums are demonstrating.

Digitally sophisticated museums could very well look as little like 20th-century museums as butterflies look like caterpillars. However, for even the most traditional and established of museums, undergoing that disruptive and unsettling metamorphosis will be the key to renewed life.

Jo Ellen Parker is president and CEO of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

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