Friday, July 21, 2006

It's not like being there

I spent last weekend in New York City, which is always fun. There is something worthwhile seeing, no matter where you go. I enjoy wandering the streets, wandering through grocery stores (which often have things you can't find here in Syracuse), and visiting places that have "stories to share" (parks, museums, historic sites, etc.).

As I walked through an exhibit at the New York Historical Society (Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery), it occurred to me that a version of this exhibit could be done online. One might create a virtual tour of the exhibit that included allowing people to "walk around" three-dimensional pieces. The audio/visual works could easily be displayed online and might even be used more heavily. (It is hard to stand and watch a video -- of unknown length -- all the way through, no matter how interesting it is.) But some of the works would lose their power. For example, a larger-than-life photograph done by Renee Cox is printed in a way that makes the foreground really stand out (almost a three-dimensional quality). It is very powerful, but that power is lost when printed in the exhibits catalogue, and would it be lost if displayed online? (Likely so.)

As one listens to a poem about families being ripped apart because of slavery, one can watch a video art piece about lynchings, and scan the room and see other artwork that reflects on the legacy of slavery. The combination pulls on the heart, saddens the eyes, and makes one want to be able to change the past. Would the effect be the same online? No. Now it might be the same in virtual reality (I'm thinking like "The Matrix"), but something that cool is still off in the future.

No, at the moment, what we can do online is not the same as being there. However, what we digitize and make available should educate people to what is available, what they might travel to see, and teach them something that they can only learn from experiencing those materials (even if it is virtual). If our museums, libraries, historical societies and archives find themselves busier because of their online exhibits, then they have truly reached out and touched their audience and shown that group that they need to "be there," not just see it online.

The photo above is from Strawberry Fields in Central Park, a place where people still leave tributes to John Lennon.

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