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Museums as Databases

A 3D scanning project at the Smithsonian allows users to access files from the museum’s collection. The technology is promoted as part of an expanded access to the public institution. Source: e-flux.

Mike Pepi, Is a Museum a Database?: Institutional Conditions in Net Utopia, e-flux, December 2014

In Art Project 2023, João Enxuto and Erica Love imagine the future of the Google Art Project, the search giant’s effort to reproduce images from the world’s top museums as it develops over the next decade. The multimedia performance documents the slow erosion of the museum under the logic of corporate interests and the breathless adoption of digital innovation by none other than Google, whose stated goal is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google purchases the Whitney Museum’s Breuer building and repurposes it as an “immersive” and “interactive” physical interface for the Art Project, where patrons have access to high-resolution images of the original works of art. Each room is curated based on algorithms that crawl the user’s profile to predict optimal artworks. Art history PhDs leave the academy to work as handsomely paid human docents, guiding users who log in with Google Plus accounts. Tech luminaries hail the initiative as a “democratic platform that erases the territorial boundaries and spatial limitations that hampered the circulation of the world’s greatest artworks.”

In a short time the Breuer building is deemed “too expensive” to maintain and is replaced with a 3D–printed replica, assembled by a Google subsidiary. Slight aberrations in digital files begin to appear, causing equal parts panic and spectacle. Eventually a slew of works begin to disappear from Google’s backup servers. Within months, they are all gone.

Enxuto and Love close their dystopian scene with a fictional article from the 2023 issue of Artforum, entitled “On the Future of the Museum.” The piece quotes Marcel Breuer’s comments at the presentation of his new Whitney Museum building in 1963: “It is easier to say what [the museum] should not look like. It should not look like a business or office building, nor should it look like a place of light entertainment.”

The critique of the museum was a defining discourse of the twentieth century. At the start of the century, early modernists lambasted its entombment of “real” life. Later it endured Foucauldian and postcolonial critiques that characterized the museum as an embodiment of Western colonialism and cultural hegemony. The museum survived these critiques; they were largely confined to academia and critical theory. But today the museum faces more virulent destabilizations that have emerged alongside new behavior from the general public, wherein patrons transform the museum’s physical assets into digital assets—uploaded, downloaded, visualized, shared, and digitized. Museums of various stripes now adapt to “users” who treat institutions not as a storehouse of physical objects but rather as a data set of image files.

Today we find the museum organizing itself for transmission and retrieval, anticipating the final aspirations of an algorithmic regime. The resulting database logic aligns the institution with interests originating from the model of the Silicon Valley enterprise—in constantly updating streams/cycles, the museum reformats its content towards structured, indexed, or digitally stored data sets or sets of relations among data. That this information is designed for queries, updates, algorithmic manipulation, and mass scalability is of central importance.

The museum is pressured into adapting to the logic of the database from all sides. Increasingly we access it, and its contents, by executing a query. At this juncture we begin to entertain questions of absurd technological determinism. For example: Is a museum a database? While this may be a ridiculous provocation on its face, we have seen that anxious cultural institutions are among the first to uncritically adopt the metabolism of database, to transform the institution into an indexed site of transmission. Though to many it appears somewhat emancipated from its traditional critiques—the notion of transparency, democracy, and access have been loosely ascribed to the newly digitized institution. Yet beneath the surface the museum has become contingent on a metabolism that is eager to mimic the logic of the database, the engine feeding the scalability required by the private digital enterprise.

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Thanks to the AICCM for highlighting this article.