Memory Institutions


Kim H. Veltman

The Future of Public Galleries in the New Technological Age

Unpublished Lecture: Ontario Association of Art Galleries, Toronto, Design Exchange, June 1995. Cf. The 1 page abstract published in Context, June 1995.

1. Introduction
2. Interactive Art
3. Recording Devices
4. Documentation versus Interpretation
5. Credentials and CVs
6. Veracity Tests
7. Databanks and Networks
8. Local, National and International
9. Private Public and Public Private
10. Conclusions.

1. Introduction

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the term "public" goes back to 1436. In French the term goes back to 1236; in Italian it goes back at least to Dante (1265-1321). Even so the notion of public galleries is much more recent. Art galleries typically began as sacred collections in churches, monasteries, or private collections of ruling sacred and secular families, such as the Medici, which were accessible to local friends, worthies and visiting dignitaries. Only much later was the Uffizi opened to the general public. In Italy, political events such as the general suppression of convents in the early nineteenth century, transformed much that had been in the hands of the Church into state property. Hence the former monastery of San Marco in Florence became the (Art) Museum of Saint Mark, an institution open to the public.

These collections often had no descriptions at all. Visitors were then "tested" on their ability to distinguish a Giorgione from a Titian or a Veronese from a Tintoretto, as still occurs to this day, for instance, with visitors to the Duke of Buccleugh's Castle at Drumlanrig. The nineteenth century academies with their annual exhibitions of new art led to more carefully labelled paintings with artist and title. The rise of connoisseurship with Morelli in the latter nineteenth brought new attention to distinctions between paintings by a master, pupil of, in the workshop of, school of and so on. Descriptions on paintings became accordingly more complex. Special exhibitions showing major works by a master and their followers became not infrequently a prelude to or occasion for a catalogue raisonnée of the painter in question. In this context the public acquired a new function: of being expected to examine, praise and if necessary criticize the connoisseur's largely personal claims. In the case of some connoisseurs such as Berenson the role of the public was further reduced: a passive backdrop to an expert's supposedly impeccable claims, a role not unakin to the proverbial Victorian child, to see, to be seen, but not heard. The public's function, it now seemed, was merely to admire the erudition of others. Initially the role of technology seemed merely to confirm this trend. Technology produced more impressive captions, thicker catalogues. Slides permitted experts to give learned lectures in auditoriums which became an apparently natural appendage to galleries and museums. Typically they were even called the ... theatre in honour of some wealthy and /or famous donor. Education departments, which grew as another appendage of these institutions often seemed to confirm this trend. Indeed many assume that this is the prime role of all new technologies: to present the views of experts to the public in new ways: on CD-ROM, online on the Internet etc.

All this has rightly inspired a great deal of reaction against elitism, and by association, against technology. One of the purposes of this paper is to claim that there is no necessary connection between technology and elitism and indeed that the new media can help in creating new kinds of public participation, through interactive art, recording devices, databanks and networks.

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