Finding Museum Collections on the Web- the Controversy of Digitizing Collections

by Karen on May 2, 2012

in Art, Collections, History

In recent years, there has been a push to “digitize” museum collections. In other words, museums are starting to scan their physical art collections, photographs, books and historical documents to make them available on the web. The idea is to make these pieces of art and history available to a wider audience than the museum currently serves while also making it easier for researchers to locate and use such works.

Digitization of museum collections has been a controversial issue amongst many museums. Digitizing can be very expensive and time-consuming. But the bigger argument we’ve heard is that if the works are made easily accessible on the web, then people will be less likely to physically visit the museum.

I have sat through several debates on this topic and have to contest this view a bit. Having grown up in a small town, it was a rare treat to be able to set foot in a museum, and even rarer that we visited a major city museum, such as the American Museum of Natural History or the Smithsonian. Imagine if we could have learned more about these museums’ collections with a click of the button!

Some experts argue that the quality and detail of artwork is lost in the digitization process, so by the time it gets online, people are gaining a lesser experience than if they viewed the work in person. With famous pieces of art, we’ve been experiencing this for years, well before computers came into play. Note cards, calendars, books and other reprints have been used and shared by people for years and they certainly are not of the quality of the original paintings.

Oriental Poppies, (1928)

Oriental Poppies, (1928), Georgia O' Keeffe

 I recently visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So many of O’Keeffe’s works are famous and her style distinct. Who hasn’t seen her larger than life flower images in books, on note cards and on posters? Yet, knowing a few of her images made me more excited to visit the museum to see her paintings in person. And while I have always enjoyed her reprinted images whenever I have encountered them, there was nothing like standing a foot or two away from her original paintings! I was amazed by the size of some of the paintings, the contrast of her colors, the simplicity of her lines. I was taken by O’Keeffe’s point of view, knowing she also stood only a foot or two away from these same paintings and assessed what she created.

So does digitization hurt the quality of the works of art? Yes, in many cases. Does it allow for more people to experience museum collections who wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to them? Yes. Does it keep people from visiting museums to see the “real thing?” I would think it would encourage people to want to come visit museums and I think over time we will see the statistics to support this view.

Jimson Weed, by Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed painting by Georgia O'Keeffe

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