Review of Museum and Archive on the Move: Changing Cultural Institutions in the Digital Era | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Museum and Archive on the Move: Changing Cultural Institutions in the Digital Era

Museum and Archive on the Move: Changing Cultural Institutions in the Digital Era
By Oliver Grau (ed.) together with Wendy Coones and Viola Rühse

De Gruyter, Berlin, 2017
pp. 316, illus. col., 35 pp. b/w 39 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-11-052051-4
Hardcover: 39,95 € / $45.99 / £36.50

Reviewed by
Gabriela Galati
December 2018

Museum and Archive on the Move is a compilation of articles edited by Oliver Grau, together with Wendy Coones and Viola Ruhse, that aims at updating and analysing the specificities of archives and museums in the digital age. Although the “digital age” has been taking place for many years now, the “digital divide” seems to still be a relevant, and not in the least overcome issue for theorists and practitioners in the digital humanities. As the editors state in the very first page of their introduction: ‘Digital arts and cultures play a minor role in 200 biennials around the world and a main role in more than a hundred of specialized festivals, but do not significantly enter the walls of the museum world’ (p.9).

Since its origin in the wunderkammer, which was by definition ‘(inter)-active’ (p.11), the museum evolved to a more object-oriented apparatus. Today, through the pervasiveness of digital technologies, the museum is not only fostering a more active participation of the viewer/user (p.11), but is also collapsing in the category of the archive, historically an accumulation of documents conveying a power strategy (p.14). 

Thus the contributions in this volume tackle these phenomena from different angles. Articles range from concrete case studies, to issues concerning conservation methodologies, to theoretical discussions on the changes and challenges of museums and archives in the digital age. The book is divided in two parts, the first groups the articles on museums and the second about archives, although as can be imagined, this division also collapses too.

Viola Rühse’s article (p.37) explores and criticises in detail the case of the Rijksmuseum digital collection, a special section on the museum’s website under the name of ‘Rijksstudio’. The author’s point is that although the museum’s digital collection won numerous prizes and has been often quoted as an example of openness of an institution to the general public, the fact is that the uncritical way in which its digitalisation and implementation has been carried out led to a commodification and ‘superficial “culture snacking” of Rijksstudio’ (p. 37-8). One of the most critical and interesting issues the article raises is that of ‘Symbolic participation’ (p. 45): The fact that Rijksstudio users can “curate” and publish ‘personal collections’ selecting from the museum’s online works. The author shows that the real possibilities of participation from the public are quite limited, not being able to integrate their “curations” with additional texts, and also by the fact that the Museum decides which ones to publish. On top of this, it gives the idea that curating these sort virtual exhibitions needs the same competences and knowledge as creating a song playlist on YouTube (p.45).

Taking the notion of expanded cinema and of the post-medium condition as a point of departure, Ryszard Kluszczyński analyses the possibilities of the Internet as a public space for non-linear, interactive cinema (p.83).

Oliver Grau's extensive article (p.99) addresses firstly the specificities and advantages of digital art as compared with more traditional or mainstream forms of art, to tackle certain contemporary questions, then to analyse in-depth the case of ADA (Archive of Digital Art) (p.109).

One of the most compelling and theoretically powerful contributions in the volume is Okwi Enwezor’s “The Death of the African Archive and the Birth of the Museum” (p.132). In it, the author examines Meschach Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997-2002), a complex artwork consisting of ‘a dense networks of sculptures, drawings, paintings, photographs, videos, textiles, architectural models, design objects and assorted ephemera, occupying an imaginative space in which to explore the museological and curatorial conditions of contemporary African art’ (p.133). Drawing on Michel Foucault’s conceptualisation of the archive as a system of enunciability (p.135-6) Enwezor reads Gaba’s work as a tool for understanding the role of the museum in relation to contemporary African art, and more specifically, which are the institutions, archives, statements, museums that allow, or not, for the ‘appearance and visibility of the African author’ (p.136).

The museum and the archive are as strongly bound as they are with the project of modernity. They are also consequently strongly bound with imperialism and colonialism (p.136-8). In the Western mind, a museum of African art is stereotypically imagined as a ‘dusty ethnographic museum full of outdated cabinets and displays’ (p.139). Enwezor’s article puts forward Gabas’s work as a tool for re-thinking contemporary African art in relationship to the Western museum of (contemporary) art. The relevance of this operation is to (hopefully) be able to stop thinking the Western as historical subjects in relation to some a-historical others, and thus to re-institute a place in history of non-Western subjects.

In the second part of the book, dedicated to the archive, Christiane Paul makes a thorugh analysis from the historical, conceptual and aesthetical point of view of participatory and technological artistic practices since the 1950’s to the current moment (p.184-97). After also mentioning and briefly examining the issue the digital divide (p.186-7), the author addresses a crucial topic for archives and museums of digital art, and especially regarding the first net-art experiences, namely, the preservation of the context of production and circulation of this kind of artistic production (p.191-5).

Andreas Broekmann revisits the Les Immateriaux (1985, Centre Pompidou) not simply as an exhibition but as an interdisciplinary research platform (p.234); and Lev Manovich explores the challenges presented by working with historical and cultural data (p.259).

The publication provides an excellent overview on the current issues at stake in museums, archives and institutions that need to deal with, but also hopefully can profit from, the possibilities opened by either the digitalisation of their collections, or the conservation and presentation of collections of digital art or other media. In other words, it is a highly recommended read to all professionals in the field.