Last summer I had the opportunity to see Vincent Van Gogh: His Life in Art exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I was beyond excited to gawk at, “more than 50 masterworks by one of the most iconic artists in the history of Western art” as the museum website put it, and indulged the assumption that I would share the experience with other novice art lovers like myself. The website warned that tickets were no longer being sold ahead online but onsite on a first-come-first-served basis due to the popularity of the exhibit. In my mind though, this high demand simply reinforced the weight of the opportunity I had at hand. I would get to see several of Van Gogh’s most famous works (without having to purchase a flight to Amsterdam), maybe take some time to sketch or take photographs and be in an environment of appreciation for the arts and humanities (something I had been desperately craving after interning on a construction site for a month and a half).
Knowing it was the last Thursday before the show closed, I showed up 30 minutes before the museum opened only to find that seemingly every man, woman, and child in the Houston area had the same idea. It was then I suspected I might have a less meditative museum experience than what I had hoped for. Myself and hundreds of strangers were ushered through dividing ropes to purchase tickets and enter the exhibit. While certainly efficient, it seemed anticlimactic. More noisy and claustrophobic than how you imagine the moments prior to seeing life-changing works of art in person.
Frustrated that my expectations did not match reality, I felt overwhelmed and tried to work my way backward through the exhibit, hoping the crowds would thin as less avid art lovers would tire out. Instead, I found deeper exacerbation; crowds grew around the sketches of famous city scenes and clustered close to every self-portrait without consideration for the rest of the audience. And though I am generally anxious in crowds — people tend to see no problem invading personal space to tower over the shoulders of shorties like me — what really pushed me over the edge was the number of people looking at the works through their iPhone lenses, or better yet, the number of people posing for a picture of themselves in front of the most recognizable paintings.
Now there were some obvious identity politics at work on myself and an idealized myth of museum-going that failed my preconceived assumptions, so I dismissed the disappointing experience as proof that our society spent too much time on the phone and not enough in what I deemed the ‘correct’ present. I brushed it off, viewed the rest of the museums’ permanent exhibits and mostly forgot the whole ordeal, until listening to presenters at the University of Alabama’s 2019 Digitorium last week.
The Digitorium is a conference held each fall that invites scholars from across the nation to share their digital projects. This year’s presenters included everything from digitizing and organizing Alabama football plays to using Artificial Intelligence to find connections between cannons of texts that could be applied to improve close readings. Several participants worked for museums either increasing online access to archives or changing museum experiences through the inclusion of technology, which naturally led to a line in my notebook stating simply, “VINCENT VAN GOGH!!”, referring, of course, to my experience this summer.
As one panel discussed at the Digitorium, the public is gaining more control of which narratives are told or presented at institutions like museums. Though the particular example being discussed was problems of representation through applications of augmented realities in public places (e.g. white supremacists virtually reconstructing physically removed confederate statues), the same issue of technology use in shared spaces applies to the use of phones in museum exhibits. Public and Digital Humanities scholars have to consider the implications of including technology in the presentation of their work. Digital tools do not always make a presentation more inclusive or accessible as my isolation and frustration at the Van Gogh exhibit demonstrates.
Perhaps if museum curators had made the exhibit more interactive, spectators would have spent less time on their phones and more time engaging with the art. Or, more likely, the museum is not to blame but instead, the plethora of information available on the web (including access to view Van Gogh’s life work with only a google search) has normalized and popularized a particular narrative that made this exhibit seem especially important for the public to not only view but to advertise their viewing (i.e. to take photos of themselves in front) of these socially agreed upon ‘masterworks’. Though I don’t entirely agree with Matthew Battles and Michael Maizels in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 that each artwork has an “aura” that can only be communicated in person, I do support the idea that seeing Van Gogh’s Almond Blossoms or Bedroom in Arles in person could provide a unique insight and appreciation of the artists’ technique while simultaneously contextualizing and historicizing their creative efforts to further signify the art as ‘important’.
While the Van Gogh exhibit in Houston was traditional in the sense that it displayed a work accompanied only with a small informative plaque, the use of personal technology still impeded my experience of the exhibit. Perhaps in response to iPhones taking over the world or as a side effect, more museums today seem to be transitioning to exhibits that capitalize on their interactive appeal. The Museum of Ice Cream with locations in San Francisco and New York City, for example, is advertised as a multi-sensory experience among the top ten most ‘instagrammable’ museums. No longer are museums and collections capitalizing on curating and sharing rare works, as Battles and Maizels explain in their chapter, but instead are looking to attract masses through well-known works or hands-on experiences that can be shared in real life and through social media.
For me, museums are balancing on a double-edge sword; showing popular works in a traditional manner makes room for the public to disrupt the museum atmosphere with personal technology, but to make an exhibit entirely interactive takes away the authentic and authoritative appeal of museums as a whole. Digital humanists thus, in my mind, have a responsibility to uphold the presentation of knowledge through critical thinking instead of appealing to masses of popular culture.