Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

three museums in South Kensington’s ‘Albertopolis’ have extensions, remodelling or reordering under way. Both the Louvre and the Guggenheim are in discussion over outstations elsewhere, a franchise operation which both MacGregor and Serota, the two most powerful cultural gatekeepers in Britain, decry as old-fashioned and elitist.

During the first six months of 2010, however, an event occurred which may point the way to one possible future.

Over 25 hours of radio broadcasting on the BBC, Neil MacGregor explored one hundred objects from the British Museum’s collections and their place in human history. Why radio rather than television? Because this enabled the widest possible audience to hear the intellectual content whilst still allowing many to observe the object itself in detail, share comments, link to other collections and explore further via the internet. The series was an unqualified success. Over four millions listeners were tuning in by the end and ten million downloads of the broadcasts were registered, half of which were requests from outside Britain.

The Museum is also putting quality photographic imagery of items from its holdings online to allow study in Africa “just as well as in the [old Round] Reading Room” as MacGregor puts it, and a virtually visitable museum is being trialled in Ramallah on the West Bank.

With this jumping-off point, the possibilities of broadband alongside glass cases that now begin to emerge are thrilling.

Digitisation of archive photographs, maps and manuscripts is already commonplace and represents the first layer of remote contact. Still pictures can be sent, manipulated, saved and printed anywhere, books too delicate or too impractical to touch can have their pages turned from a thousand miles away and mobile devices like the iPad bring all this to the distant visitor as easily as does physical examination of the actual object.

The scholarly tradition of making careful plaster casts of ancient artefacts in situ for study back home now has a digital equivalent. The potential has been shown by the stunning results of Konica Minolta’s 2005 effort to create a perfect 3D replica of the Venus de Milo through laser scanning. The model produced can be examined, rotated and zoomed to almost microscopic level in a way that is simply impossible even through a visit to the Louvre. Not only that, but the firm’s exquisite microsite where this new beauty lives can also now suggest how she originally looked, and place her once more in the arms of Ares, god of war. She has, indeed, been “liberated from the confines of the museum”.

Allying initiatives of this sort with the kind of high definition telepresence now used in business creates a still richer experience, whilst the emergence of practical three dimensional broadcasting for the home suggests even greater immersion.

As for funding, commercial broadcasters now see arts programming as crucial for licence renewal and partnerships are no longer so unlikely as they might have been in the past. Suddenly, those cavernous basements crammed with racks of unseen wonders don’t seem quite so pointless.

So will the museum become a warehouse of objects surrounded by cameras feeding a website? The museum as we know it will not disappear – it is too closely ingrained in western culture for that. Just as a child delights in gathering, labelling, sorting and showing, so does a country. It might, though, become less confined, less precisely focussed, less clear-cut in its form and content. Its function will remain the same, but that function will be achieved by different means. We might all have a museum in our own homes, just by changing channels on the telly.

There'll probably still be a fight over the remote though, even if it is Roman statues versus Damien Hirst rather than Corrie versus the football.

mus - A History

The BBC’s website for A History of the World in 100 Objects, and a TouchLight display by Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology where the image can be moved by hand gesture (BBC/SIMT)

mus - SIMT TouchLight
mus - louvre2

From the 18th century, Hubert Robert's imagined view of the future, depicting the then-new Grand Gallery of the Louvre in ruins. Let's hope not

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