Cultural Bandwidth

Screenshot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, August 26, 2020. [Internet Archive]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, though its program of commemorative events was curtailed when the pandemic forced the museum to close on March 13. Now, almost half a year later, the Met’s flagship on Fifth Avenue and its Cloisters in Upper Manhattan are cautiously reopening (sadly, the Met Breuer is permanently closed)1See Nina Diamond, “How do you say goodbye to a building?“, Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 17 2020 for more. Meanwhile, in the intervening months, the museum’s virtual spaces have taken on new meaning. Digitized versions of its vast collections of paintings, sculptures, photographs, textiles, furniture, artifacts — which have progressively expanded over the past several years — have become the focus of its website, accompanied by a series of live-streamed events on social media.2See Sree Sreenivasan and Loic Tallon, 3A Fresh Digital Face for the Met,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 29 2016, for more. The museum’s homepage, which now proclaims “Welcome back!” had previously invited visitors to “Experience the Met, Anywhere” – a subtle shift from its earlier banner, which read “Experience 5,000 Years of Art at the Met.”

If a wider array of online offerings is here to stay, then museums have an opportunity to seriously engage global audiences.

The pandemic has presented an unexpected opportunity for “encyclopedic” museums like the Met to reconsider their responsibilities in the 21st century. In 2002, the Met was one of eighteen institutions to sign the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, in the process resisting calls to repatriate objects with the argument that “museums serve … the people of every nation.”4Ivan Karp et al., eds., “Document: Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: ‘Museums Serve Every Nation,’” in Museum Frictions (Duke University Press, 2006), 247–49. For a defense of the encyclopedic museum, see James B. Cuno, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2013). For a nuanced discussion of the politics of repatriation, see Kavita Singh, “Repatriation Without Patria: Repatriating for Tibet,” Journal of Material Culture 15, no. 2 (June 2010): 131–55. Some have lauded the potential of virtual programming to bring the museum to a global public that cannot enjoy the Met in person.5See Carly Straughan, “Is the future of museums online and what might a virtual museum look like?Museum Next, June 17 2019. Others have opined that the camaraderie suggested by hashtags like #MetAnywhere and phrases like “together at home” is belied by the fact that only a relatively privileged cohort can settle down in secure homes with strong bandwidth to enjoy a virtual Met concert on a Friday afternoon (Eastern Time, that is).6The fact that “home” is deeply unsafe even at the best of times is clarified by a recent UN Women report on the impact of the pandemic on violence against women and girls. UN Women, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls,” (2020). A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also highlighted the current economic precarity of many Americans, even with job gains in July. Bureau of labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “The Employment Situation – July 2020” (August 7, 2020).

It is hard to tell if this augmented virtual space will be maintained, or if the Met will scale back this new engagement as its physical spaces reopen. But if a wider array of online offerings is here to stay, then museums have an opportunity to seriously engage global audiences; in which case it is important to consider not only what content becomes publicly available, but also how that material is mediated. That museums not only accumulate culture but also actively produce it, through curation and programming, is now clearer than ever as live events, and virtual access to those events, have proliferated. A more transparent approach to the role museums play in cultural production will expand what I call “cultural” bandwidth, or the familiarity with, and the ability to participate in, that production.

Screenshots of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s homepage on March 11 and August 26, 2020. [Internet Archive]

It is a mistake to conflate increased quantity with increased access. The Met website showcases voluminous open access collections and a detailed timeline of art history.7Mysteriously, however, the online image collection has shrunk from 406,000 in 2018 to 375,000 images as of August 2020. But the timeline is far less detailed for some geographies and periods than for others. And, obviously, the museum’s repository of non-digitized archival materials is also inaccessible. Encyclopedic museums have long been charged with hoarding vast physical collections, only a tiny percentage of which are ever publicly exhibited.8For a discussion of the debates on restitution in relation to museum storage, see Mirjam Brusius and Kavita Singh, “Introduction,” in Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt, Routledge Research in Museum Studies (New York: Routledge, 2018), 1–33. If the Met scales back its virtual offerings in the coming months, can the museum be accused of “hoarding” these events as well? In the long term, making virtual museum spaces more equitable requires a strategy more nuanced than setting up long-term access to half a million open access object pages, admirable though this is.

At the same time, the Met, perhaps more than any other art museum of comparable scope, has provided some acknowledgment of its permanently virtual visitors. A digital digest was put together in March to introduce visitors to online content. Exhibition “primers,” which debuted earlier this year to give visitors more context for what they might see in the galleries — and also work as stand-alone educational resources — were made more accessible on the website in late July. A new page, “Art at Home,” asks readers how they want to engage with the museum and offers content based on their answers. A more subtle change is the retitling of “The Met Collection” page to “Art Collection,” an understated nod to the contested nature of ownership.

Making virtual museum spaces more equitable requires a strategy more nuanced than creating open-access object pages.

Last year, when I visited The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka, an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I saw significant objects on loan from the Met, but not from my home country, even though it was the subject of the display. More creative collaboration on virtual offerings — both exhibitions and interpretation — would allow institutions that cannot readily participate in “blockbuster” exhibitions to accommodate a wider range of voices and objects. For the Met, for instance, a logical extension of its partnerships with public schools — whose teachers often serve as proxies for caregivers who might not have the cultural bandwidth to navigate museum resources — would be to work with local institutions that function as cultural mediators on behalf of their constituents. Making virtual museum spaces more equitable and accessible will require more than a website overhaul or social media strategy; it will require longterm collaboration and energetic commitment and negotiation.

Likewise, for the Met (and similar comprehensive museums), this opens up the opportunity — the obligation — to learn from such collaborations, and to increase its own cultural bandwidth in order to better understand the “5,000 years of human civilization” in its care. In the face of losses (including an anticipated $150 million budget shortfall and the layoff of hundreds of staff), some might argue that such ambitions must be postponed.9See Charles Passy, “New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Cuts Staff by 353,” Wall Street Journal, August 5 2020. This would be unfortunate, for we are also in the midst of a more insidious pandemic. The Met’s statement on anti-racism may have slipped to the bottom of its homepage, but its professed commitment to equity needs to remain more fully in view. The creative collaboration I am arguing for would not a one-way philanthropic endeavor, but rather a step towards cultural reckoning. If the Met accepts that it cannot successfully serve as the sole interpreter of its extraordinary collections and is willing to relinquish more than symbolic control, then we might all begin to see more of ourselves in its physical halls and virtual galleries.

Notes

  1. Nina Diamond, “How do you say goodbye to a building?“, Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 17 2020
  2. Sree Sreenivasan and Loic Tallon, “A Fresh Digital Face for the Met,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 29 2016
  3. Ivan Karp et al., eds., “Document: Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: ‘Museums Serve Every Nation,’” in Museum Frictions (Duke University Press, 2006), 247–49, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822388296-012. For a defense of the encyclopedic museum, see James B. Cuno, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2013). For a nuanced discussion of the politics of repatriation, see Kavita Singh, “Repatriation Without Patria: Repatriating for Tibet,” Journal of Material Culture 15, no. 2 (June 2010): 131–55, https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183510364079.
  4. Carly Straughan, “Is the future of museums online and what might a virtual museum look like?Museum Next, June 17 2019
  5. The fact that “home” is deeply unsafe even at the best of times is clarified by a recent UN Women report on the impact of the pandemic on violence against women and girls. UN Women, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls,” (2020). A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also highlighted the current economic precarity of many Americans, even with job gains in July. Bureau of labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “The Employment Situation – July 2020” (August 7, 2020).
  6. Mysteriously, however, the online image collection has shrunk from 406,000 in 2018 to 375,000 images as of August 2020.
  7. For a discussion of the debates on restitution in relation to museum storage, see Mirjam Brusius and Kavita Singh, “Introduction,” in Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt, Routledge Research in Museum Studies (New York: Routledge, 2018), 1–33.
  8. Charles Passy, “New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Cuts Staff by 353,” Wall Street Journal, August 5 2020.

About the Author

Nushelle de Silva

Nushelle de Silva is a Ph.D. candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at MIT. She holds a SMArchS, also from MIT, and a B.A. in Architecture from Princeton University. Her dissertation examines the ways in which international protocols for moving art across borders, established after World War II, shaped the design of traveling museum exhibitions in the latter half of the 20th century. Her doctoral research has been supported by the MIT Department of Architecture, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the Society of Architectural Historians, and the Design History Society, among others.