Thursday, September 25, 2014

Would you rather be immersed online in the museum or in the world the work of art was plucked from for the museum?

The British Museum is going to build a replica of itself inside the gaming world of Minecraft. That will, one assumes, permit visitors to go up to the artworks and look at them closely or even walk around them. Fine. But the major advantage of online environments is that one can immerse oneself and appreciate objects within their contexts, noticing how they are situated in relation to other objects, and how they are embedded in rituals, practices, whole ways of life that the game environment can reconstruct. Museums themselves are technologies designed sometimes to do something like this, but seldom in anything but a very piecework way, given the limits of acquisitions. The best we're likely to get is the museum director acting as cicerone talking to us as we look at the artifacts. But imagine, for example, that instead of a scholarly summary of the Parthenon marbles' role in ceremonies in ancient Athens, one could actually walk up to the Acropolis and participate in the ceremonies (of course there would probably need to be several versions, since we're still arguing about what went on up there).

The British Museum would be much better advised to launch an initiative to put replicas of its artworks inside an online version of the original (or to be more specific, the most meaningful) locations from which those artworks were removed and brought to the Museum. For many artifacts, of course, this would be impossible given that they were looted and their context obliterated. But for many of the BM's holdings it would surely be fascinating to put them back in situ electronically, if arrangements could be made with the holders of other parts of the predella and the original church location, for instance, or with the holders of bits of the Parthenon marbles and the Greek authorities holding image rights to the Parthenon.

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