Virtual Tours: How much should we share?

It is interesting how the pandemic and my career have become so intertwined in my understanding of this course and how I will reflect upon it upon its completion. My most recent project has been setting up virtual tours for Gilcrease Museum's primary exhibitions in order to grant access to people who do not feel safe coming to the museum due to the risk of Covid-19. As safe as we attempt to make the museum experience amid this pandemic, there is an inherent danger with which we cannot compete. Therefore, I have been tasked with bringing those exhibitions to them, and have landed on using Matterport to do it. Matterport allows for information to be overlaid onto 3D images taken in gallery spaces in order to create an engaging, self-navigable, virtual gallery experience. I got this idea from the tours offered by the Dallas Museum of Art, and the imaging process turns out to be surprisingly budget-friendly. However, while it won’t cost much to take the images, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We can begin again with Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (I really enjoyed this piece) and how these virtual tours, while serving the benevolent purpose of allowing access to beautiful artwork and culture that many cannot currently access, will also be reproductions of artwork. The pieces will be in “situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (Benjamin, 218.) One could also argue that these pieces, most of them originals, have already been moved from where they conceived as they now reside in a museum. However, one of the duties of the curators is to do their best to preserve the aura of the works they display by contextualizing them within the exhibition. They do this using many methods, among them placement in the gallery in relation to other pieces and accompanying object label text. It would be a similar goal to preserve this aura online. The pieces will exist in the same space they would in the physical exhibition, and one will be able to view the piece and look to clickable points on the tour to find more information about the piece.

However, preserving a work’s aura is not the museum’s main concern when it comes to reproducing artwork. We also must be sure that we have the rights to share these pieces online. For exhibitions like Masterworks from the Gilcrease Collection which primarily features artwork by Western artists who are no longer living, it is not difficult to navigate the process. However, for Enduring Spirit, an exhibition that showcases generations of Indigenous art and culture, we have to contend with not only the legality of showing artwork by living artists, but also whether or not it is appropriate culturally. Risam explores this in New Digital Worlds when she notes when moving cultural artifacts to a digital space one must consider “who owns digital cultural heritage, given its commodity value and the cost of database design and access” (Risam, 11.) For these virtual tours, we are already in the process of determining if there are pieces in Enduring Spirit that need to be removed during imaging because of their sensitivity. Risam notes that there is a “failure of copyright laws to take into account the spiritual significance of indigenous cultural heritage marks indigenous knowledge as being in the public domain and thus freely available for reproduction” (Risam, 15.) Fortunately, through NAGPRA, Gilcrease has been able to consult with many tribes represented in the Gilcrease collection, but there are still more conversations that need to take place that have been delayed due to the pandemic.

It is difficult to accept the argument that beautiful examples of artwork in our Indigenous collection is not appropriate to share online, however, it is of the utmost importance that we respect the auras of these Indigenous works just as we would respect the auras of Remington bronzes in Masterworks. I look forward to when these tours are online, but there is definitely plenty of work ahead before they are ready for release.