In a recent article by Gillian Reagan in The New York Observer, the 1stfans program in the Brooklyn Museum, it is debated whether fans should be charged more or online information should be free to all. To me, Shelley has a point: 1stfans is trying to get supporters to feel inside and involved.
Seldom can museums rely on admission fees or membership fee to balance the budget. Even at the Met, where crowds are packed like sardine on weekends , admission fee only counts for 12% of the annual revenue. If the Brooklyn Museum wants to increase the revenue, a few thousands dollars from the membership of 1stfans club alone won’t balance the budget . To some extent, 1stfans is a type of membership-based on social network. You don’t pay because of products or services that you will get, you pay because you love the community or the institution.
On the other hand, I do have a general concern aboutsocial networks for museum institutions. Even though foot traffic is not the best measure for the success of museums, it is important to bring people in. Among visitors, there are regular museum goers who frequent galleries for special exhibitions; but there are also visitors who have never been to museums and the first visit experience can make a huge impact on their views of the museum, some school of art or even the art itself. While 1stfans makes the great use of the internet to connect people, the members are ,in general, already insiders, even though they may live on the other side of the world. The first time visitor, who should be targeted and could benefit more from a museum visit, would hardly know such an exclusive club. (Would you pay 20 dollars for some museum that you have never visited or heard of?)
As new technology has broken the granite walls of major museums and reached out to more people by providing resources accessible through internet, there is still a need to emphasize that nothing is better than seeing objects in person. Photos lie, especially for paintings or sculptures. The indescribable depths of colors in paintings by George Inness look flat and lifeless online. And the pictures cannot command a full sense of appreciation by giving a thumbnail figure with dimensions, thus Albert Bierstadt’s “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie” looks just as grand as Heade’s “Summer Showers” on your 20 inches monitor.
One has to have seen the original to understand the meaning of art, as John Walsh calls “a lingering examination of the original” that totally absorbs the viewers and transforms him or her emotionally and spiritually. All technology should be measured by whether it can bring the shimmer, joy and sense of accomplishment to the audience. If online information cannot do, then bring the audience in.
On Sept 11, 2001, the special exhibition “The Pharaoh’s Photographer: Harry Burton, Tutankhamun, and the Metropolitan’s Egyptian Expedition” opened at Met. The next few days, even when the city was still dominated by smokes and debris, a few New Yorkers chose to visit the gallery, where, quietly sitting, the objects of the ancient civilization displayed all their beauty and fortitude despite of thousands of years of heat, wind, sands or other human sabotage. It was the utmost console and a manifestation of what would stand in eternity.
Would they feel the same if they had looked at them online?