Are Smartphones Ruining the Museum Experience?

An article in the New Criterion argues that the kind of interaction encouraged by technology undermines the essential value of the "art experience."

Among the innovations at the Dallas Museum of Art ushered in by director Maxwell Anderson – free admission, international XChanges, funds for purchasing Old Masters – perhaps the most pervasive and potentially revolutionary is the multi-platform integration of technology into the museum. You may know it as the DMA “Friends” program. In short, museum visitors are invited to treat the museums as a kind of scavenger hunt. Scanning codes on walls next to works of art allows you to rack up points that can then be turned into benefits like a credit card rewards program. The DMA is a pilot for the idea, and the hope is that it can both foster increased engagement of the museum’s audience as well as gather better data about what people like to see and how.

But is this very concept, the idea that the museum experience is enhanced or supported by technologies that help mediate or organize that experience, somehow damaging the museum? That’s essentially what Eric Gibson writes in this month’s New Criterion. Despite museums’ claims that the new museum visitor is a more engaged viewer, the proliferation of the smart phone, Gibson says, is killing the art viewing experience.

Smartphones and tablets . . . disconnect the visitor from the art on display and imperil the museum in other, very real, ways. For this reason, if the museum experience is to continue to mean anything, these devices, like flash photography, need to be banned.

The argument can, at first, sound a little crotchety (Luddism is the last reprehensible heresy in our post-Steve Jobs society). But it gets interesting when the author zeros-in on defining what exactly the “art experience” actual is.

Several years ago I was on the shuttle from New York to Washington to review an exhibition at the Phillips Collection. After a while I found myself in conversation with the passenger next to me who, after learning the purpose of my trip, told me about his first visit to the Phillips. He had grown up in rural Virginia, he said, firm in his art-is-for-sissies belief. So it was with a notable lack of enthusiasm that, one day in middle school, he learned of an upcoming class trip to Washington’s museums. His previous attitude quickly fell away once the group arrived at the Phillips and he saw Renoir’sLuncheon of the Boating Party. Suddenly, he said, he realized he was standing where the artist had stood when he had put paint on canvas. This is the essence of the art experience: a direct, personal, revelatory encounter with an artwork as an aesthetic object.

The new museum, Gibson argues, offers a differing kind of encounter:

It transforms the work of art from something to pause before, explore, admire, and reflect upon, into a “sight,” like the Eiffel Tower or the White House. A fascinating, complex, multi-faceted product of the creative imagination becomes just a piece of scenery, one worth lingering in front of just long enough to have one’s picture taken with it, either just standing and smiling or by making a face or playing up to the object in other ways, like those tourists who pose beside the Leaning Tower of Pisa so that in the finished photograph they appear to be propping it up.

Gibson’s defense of the “aesthetic experience” is admirable, but I can already hear the counter arguments. For one, even when incorporating smartphones into the museum experience is encouraged, it is not mandatory, and visitors can choose to experience a museum in any way they please. And you could also argue that there isn’t anything essentially different about this treatment of the work of art as a kind of tourist attraction; even the examples Gibson uses in his piece, the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David, have been ogled at and posed with for decades.

But Gibson fears an escalation of scale, the fact that this kind of disposition towards are will become more the norm of what a museum experience is. And if this occurs, he fears it may undermine the very institutions who are encouraging “new engagement:”

This transformation—one might better say evisceration—of the work of art has wide implications for the museum and its mission. If visitors now regard a museum’s treasures as mere “sights,” they might come to regard the institution itself in a similar vein—not as a place offering a unique, one-of-a-kind experience but just another “stop” on a crowded itinerary, and as such interchangeable with any other.

Image courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art

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