Art Museum: Temple or Forum?

Connect-universum 2012
Autor: V. Posner.


This paper focuses on the problem of attracting young people to the art museums at the age of computers. Why should a young man stay in a line and pay money to see such moving expositions if he can just go on the Internet and get it for free all at once? What kind of motivation is he supposed to have in order to be immune to the temptation to use new media?

This issue has generated socio-cultural polemic around the process of ‘democratization of the cultural legacy’ and has become the basis for re-evaluating the essence and purpose of a museum as a social institution.

The author comes to the conclusion that young people expect a museum to be a temple and a forum, but not limited and anonymous. New media are not an alternative or a threat to museums. As usually, the human factor is key. New media technologies provide unlimited excess to everything and, along with that, create problems for a museum as a cultural institution. But they also offer limitless new opportunities for everybody -professionals and the whole society- and these opportunities should be used productively in order to create and transfer cultural memory and true art.

Once one has had an opportunity to see a ‘live’ exposition of Botticelli’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy or Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus in the unique atmosphere of a museum, he will always be in need of a museum environment. There is a problem connected with the fact that most young people see art and acknowledge masterpieces only (or, at least, for the first time) on their computer screens, which do not provide the sense of reality and texture. The question is whether even the newest technologies – such as new media – are capable of communicating the feeling of ‘touching’ a genius painting drawn with a pen on a thin, almost transparent piece of paper by an artist who had determined the way of development for our civilization ages ago.
Moving the most precious, or should we say, priceless museum collections from one place to another all over the world is a common practice nowadays. But why should a young man stay in a line and pay money to see such moving expositions if he can just go on the Internet and get it for free all at once? What kind of motivation is he supposed to have in order to be immune to the temptation to use new media?

It is a rare young person who knows that in 1936 a German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, [1] proposed that pieces of art would lose their aura when they became technically replicated: ‘it seems like ‘Museum-Temple’ has no future’ he admitted. Ten years later, French writer and culture expert André Malraux [2] proposed his concept of the ‘Imaginary Museum’ as a ‘realistic’, profoundly positive, and democratic perspective for a traditional art museum. Malraux’s ‘Imaginary Museum’ is a museum of art replicas outside of their historical context. These replicas are so well-known that they do not require comment. It seems like such a museum is open to anyone and does not need a ‘Forum’.

Through to this day, these ideas have generated socio-cultural polemic around the process of ‘democratization of the cultural legacy’ and are the basis for re-evaluating the essence and purpose of a museum as a social institution. At the same time, the practice makes it clear that museums remain attractive especially to youth. According to the results of some surveys, the number of museum visitors has exceeded the number of football match spectators in Germany over the last decade. [3]

How can this phenomenon be interpreted under the circumstances of ‘endless opportunities’ of the new media to create ‘imaginary museums’? Based on a semiotic analysis of changes at an art museum in the context of new media technologies, on an analysis of the opinions of famous philosophers and museum experts, as well as on my own experience I tried to outline the prospects for a museum in the computer age in my book Dynamics of a Modern Museum [4].

Despite the fast development of new media technologies, the essence and objectives of a museum remain those of the ‘pre-new media’ age: technology is not only incapable of replacing museums, but with every progressive step it proposes new challenges which make museums respond and, as a result, develop. This tendency is obviously seen in the attitude of the youth audience. According to the tradition of ‘new museology’, formed in the 70s, with its tendency to communicate with an audience and to use new logistics, an art museum tries to cope effectively with a new socio-cultural situation determined by the appearance of new media. Consequently, it turns not only into a place for researching, preserving, and reconstructing certain historical situations, but also into a place for exposing art — a kind of ‘temple and forum’, a mediator and place for bringing together professionals and lay people.

It goes without saying that a museum, as an institution of ‘sorted out’ and regulated exposition as it was created during the Age of Enlightenment, is no longer attractive to the majority of young people. There is an opinion that the culture of youth is not ‘historically oriented’ [5]. The domination of mass culture, global informatization, and development of technology create such an environment in which a museum must correlate with the thesaurus of its audience and transform itself from a place of etiquette instruction into a place for art interpretation. It must be able not only to ‘inform’ and ‘show,’ but to evoke interest and create conditions for individual evaluation of the observed artwork.
Now let us go back to the Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex: it is exhibited in a museum room, spotted by a beam of light in which one can see the transparent structure of the paper and whimsical pen graphics left by Leonardo. It feels like a Temple… In the next room there is a computer, which helps one to learn the story of Leonardo’s mirror writing, and to see and to understand a sample of it in any language in the world. In addition, a visitor can relax in the hall, lie down, meditate, listen to music, socialize… Is this a Temple or a Forum? The answer is both: It is a Museum.
A person will always return to a place where his emotional sphere was affected. The issue is to find a way to make that person believe that the real experience of interacting with art at a museum is so amazing and different from a virtual experience that he should try it himself in order to get new feelings and form his personal opinion.

At the time of the global problem of free music and movie downloading on the Internet, it seems like museums do not have such issues. Anyone who visits museums from time to time recognizes that a Repin or a Rauschenberg (not to mention any kind of installation) can never be an object for Internet piracy. On the other hand, someone who has never been to a museum lacks the proper experience necessary to understand that Google art project ( may just simulate a museum environment, but will never replace it [6].

Internetization of the museum space and its accessibility to anyone lead to users’ two-dimensional perception and their ‘satisfaction in advance,’ instead of stimulating their interest in art.

Yuri Lotman used the ‘museum’ metaphor to explain the term ‘semio-sphere’[7]. According to this explanation, a museum incarnates true organization and systematization. All the exhibit items have their ‘labels’ (which actually correlates to the concept of the ‘digital’ NET-Museum). New beautiful paintings keep being delivered here. The behavior of visitors is perfectly regulated here, but if visitors do not come, all those rules will not mean anything. In order for a semio-sphere, as well as for a museum to exist, people with their semiotic worlds are needed. Those worlds compose one common, real, museum space.

Entrance to the Internet-Museum is anonymous and might be even accidental. But even that kind of museum needs social attendance and real feedback [8]. When people come to a real museum they do it on purpose. They come with certain expectations based on their core knowledge and esthetic experiences. The opportunity to meet their expectations or even to exceed them is real here. Communication of the modern art museum focuses on such expectations and knowledge, especially of the young visitors.

The art museum, meta-discourse influences current art practice. For instance, Anna Karamitova [9] explains why young people’s art needs new technologies and new media: ‘It is natural that, unlike a museum hall, the Internet platform is more accessible for young artists, who work with new technologies. Using the Internet, in a short period of time an artist can put his masterpiece on display for an unlimited audience, without any agents, with no local parameters. But this ‘endless generosity’ leads to the problem of finding some particular work on the Net, because the works digital character allows them to be spread globally, avoiding transportation coasts and logistics. (…) After interviewing video-artists, I can say that the most attractive substance for them to work with is ‘time,’ as it has become more real than ever due to the ‘new’ technologies. (…) The opportunity to express the process itself attracts many artists. But there is another issue we should not forget about: digital art is perceived very light-mindedly and casually by the audience’.

Obviously, that is not satisfying for many young people, and they are ready to look for, and to find, ‘real’ ways to express themselves artistically: ‘Why are young people always supposed to use the Internet when they want to show anything? On YouTube, for example. Just because almost everyone is on the Internet? Why do we not have real places to show our work?’ [10]
Innovation and provocation always go together with the ‘art vs art museum’ opposition. But when it comes to new ‘art technologies,’ (from video-art to Internet art) the relationship between art and art museum becomes more complicated, as there are no firm criteria to evaluate those forms of art and to develop conditions of presenting those forms in a museum. For instance, the existence of the Internet art items online depends on the relevance of the net-technologies used in creating them. But the digital world – media and nets – keeps changing all the time and there is a real possibility that they will remain only in museum archives and published books.

This problem, however, might have a solution in the future. In the meantime, the new media art is being realized occasionally as a ‘Festival event’. This partially explains the not only critical, but even depressive and destructive, attitude of young ‘non-traditional’ artists who do not have access to museums as authors. They do not have criteria for comparison; they do not follow any ‘norms’ and canons in art. The famous ‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchan is a perfect example of such destructive self-expression: it appears as a real urinal with the author’s autograph and the date on it.

Art does not have to meet the demands of the audience. The same is not true for a museum. New technologies can provide art with new opportunities and means of artistic self-expression and communication through desire for provocation. A very bright example here is art festival ‘Transmediale 2012’ ( [11]. It shows that there are no value references in the works of young people using new media. Moreover, in order to attract audiences’ interest they consciously use new technologies to appeal to negative emotions. And visitors love it! [12]

The ‘Berlin Gallery’ Museum (BG) [13] proposes an alternative perspective with the creation of the ‘IBB-Video Lounge 12x12’. [14] Over the course of the year, the works of 12 authors, who appealed to such innovative technologies as video and media film, have been exhibited here. The series of works belong to both acknowledged artists and new ones. This corresponds to the BG’s overarching model of showing only Berlin art and providing artists and audiences of different generations with the opportunity to meet each other. Remaining relevant, the program of the museum (as well as of many supporting initiatives) helps to attract more and more young visitors. [15]

The Long Night of Museums is another good example which illustrates why young people come to museums [16]. The project began in 1997 with the purpose to improve museum statistics. Since that time, twice a year it gathers thousands of Berliners and tourists who patiently wait in lines to enter museums where ‘museum objects have their special uniqueness’ [17]. Highly specialized museum staff mediate through cognitive, interactive, and synthetic forms of communication.
During this night many young people visit museums for the first time. They are intrigued by the opportunity to spend the night not ‘partying’ or sitting in front of a computer screen. Naturally some visitors come circumstantially. But there is a good chance that many will come again and again to see new collections and exhibitions.
The Long Night of Museums’s statistics [18] clearly shows that the majority of visitors belongs to the medium-age group (20 to 40 years old) and has secondary and higher education. Every one of them uses a computer at work and in everyday life but only 9% pay attention to cultural Internet content! Even fewer young people go to museums after satisfying their interest toward art online. Often they do not have any intelligible criteria for selection: ‘despite great amounts of information one still feels absolutely uninformed’; ‘it is hard to choose, having so many options’; ‘if the Internet cannot provide one with anything, then how one can find any information’? [19] The Web seems to be very tangled concerning museum proposals, especially for those who would want to use them on regular basis. It is more convenient to use the Internet when looking for some applicative information or a particular event. For instance, when buying tickets for certain dates and places. That is what the web portal of the Berlin Museum was created for: to navigate and guide potential and current visitors. Not to be an alternative to the real museum [20].

So what is the main interest factor for young people in museums? Obviously, it is the real socio-cultural environment which includes family and friends. Young people usually respond to the personal experience of close contacts: something said by friends or advised by parents. ‘You can get a lot, being a part of the right environment. You can learn nothing being an outsider’ [21]. Practice proves that the first things young people feel in need of are direct communication and exchanging ideas and thoughts- interactive events they can be part of. They expect it to be provided by museums: ‘I get interested in something explained by its creator’; ‘I like watching different people and sharing something with them’; ‘I need someone to go to a museum with me, because I do not want to go there by myself’; ‘I want a less distant atmosphere and less isolation from the other visitors’; ‘I need to get out of my room’ [22].

In conclusion we can see that neither new technologies, nor special weekend offers determine young people’s interest in museums. They need uniqueness as something special, different from everyday norms of behavior and conservative museum messages. It is a fact that new technologies cannot solve all the problems connected with stimulating young people’s interest in museums and culture-related events. But they certainly are not the reason why young people do not feel motivated to study history, recognize cultural identity, and satisfy esthetic needs. A museum changes its public space according to new technologies, but these technologies cannot change the essence of its existence, which is the transfer of the cultural memory to future generations.

Young people expect a museum to be a temple and a forum, but not limited and anonymous. New media are not an alternative or a threat to museums. As usually, the human factor is key. New media technologies provide unlimited excess to everything and, along with that, create problems for a museum as a cultural institution. But they also offer limitless new opportunities for everybody -professionals and the whole society- and these opportunities should be used productively in order to create and transfer cultural memory and true art.

In this regard, the conference ‘Influence of New Media on Consciousness and Behavior of Young People’ is very significant in terms of its relevance and complex theme, its interdisciplinary approach, and possible ways of solving represented problems.


1. Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’) in: Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung
2. André Malraux (Psychologie de l'Art: Le Musée imaginaire — La Création artistique — La Monnaie de l'absolu, 1947-1948-1950).
3. Tatyana Kalugina, Art Museum as a Cultural. —
4. Vesela Losanova, The Dynamic of the Modern Museum, 1999.
5. Das 1. Jugendkulturbarometer „Zwischen Eminem und Picasso“ wurde 2004 von Susanne Keuchel und Andreas Johannes Wiesand vom Zentrum für Kulturforschung in Bonn herausgegeben und lässt sich von der Internetseite des
The First Barometer of the Youth Culture ‘Between Eminem and Picasso’, published in 2004 in The Center of Cultural Research in Bonn.
6. February the 1st, 2011 the Google Art project ( started. ‘It provides excess to the largest international art museums’. At the moment, anyone who has the Internet excess can ‘open and see’ Alte National Galerie (Old National Gallery in Berlin) ( and 151 other museums of the world and can ‘see’ more than 30000 works of art’ (…). It reminds of ‘Street View in 3D’. On one hand, it ‘helps to spread culture legacy which becomes ‘accessible’ in any place at any time’ (Wieland Holfelder, the Head of the Google Center of Development in Munchen); on the other, according to Dirk Burghardt, the Executive of the Dresden State Art Collections, ‘the project will help to preserve the Rafael’s Sixtine Madonna that will turn 500 this year. However, it will just accompany the museum as ‘it is not the same with as actual visit at the museum or the influence of an original’.
7. Yuri Lotman
8. There is a peculiar that the DAM project (Digital Art Museum) (, which started in 1956 with the objective of video art demonstration and later of using computers for creating art, opened its own real gallery in Berlin in 2003( also in Köln since 2010).
9. Anna Karamitova, Email-Interview, 26.04. 2012, Quelle bei der Autorin
10. Susanne Keuchel, Andreas Johannes Wiesand 2004
11. Transmediale ( is a 25 year old international project in Berlin which connects young artists and organizes annual events (for example, ‘McLuhan’ in Europe in 2011 ). The event is an alternative to a museum and became popular among young people.
12., The fact that this phenomenon characterizes social psychology of our society is an important issue for a discussion.
13. Bеrlinische Galerie — National Museum of Contemporary Art, Photography, and Architecture (
14. (
15. BG’s statistics.
17. Interview with Wolf Kühnelt, founder and head of the Long Night of Museums:
18. The Long Night of Museums
19. Susanne Keuchel und Andreas Johannes Wiesand, 2004
21. Keuchel, Wiesand 2004
22. Keuchel, Wiesand 2004
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