In today’s world of post-industrial society with emerging virtual technologies, modern multimedia exhibitions have provoked a discourse revolving around the opposition of the material world and the virtual world in the field of heritage and museology. While the material world has been highly associated with terms such as “aura, patina, the signs of power through accumulation, authority and knowledge, multimedia has been perceived as the “ephemeral, surface, immediate and popular.” In this context, the introduction and impact of multimedia have been regarded as either a threat to the existing museum practices and the object-centered museum culture or as an opportunity to reinvent itself.
From one point of view, these newly emerging technologies pose a threat as they lead to a loss of aura and institutional authority and thereby the death of the object and a reduction of knowledge to information. Theorists Walter Benjamin and later Jean Baudrillard put forth the ideas concerning the value of material authenticity and an aversion for reproductions both arguing that mechanical reproduction and more recently simulations pose a threat to the ”real” object and works of art leading to the loss of their iconic, and ritualistic qualities. Benjamin, in his much-quoted essay ”The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” claims that original artworks have a presence defined as the ”essence of all that is transmutable from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Benjamin 1968, 3). He also maintains ”that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is in the aura of the work of art” (1968, 3). The culture of the modern museum is one of stark classifications between originals and reproductions.
This idea and process of distancing is most closely expressed in Benjamin’s concept of aura, and mechanical reproduction is a way of ensuring that the established order of object value is not overthrown and conception of reality bounded within particular frames.?? Moreover, this focus on materiality theorist Jonathan Crary argues is inseparable from the deployment of vision as an objective source of knowledge and rational thought in the nineteenth century thus leading to the subsequent repression of other more experiential forms of knowledge production. In summary, these arguments variously raise questions about museum culture as a series of practices for defining object value and meaning, in particular, the concepts material authenticity, originality, and aura. Those of Benjamin and Baudrillard aim to hold established object-centered values in place by posing the copy as a dissenting force, whereas those who interpret it as an opportunity embrace the loss of aura and the ability to distinguish between the real and the copy as precisely what is necessary to enable new associations to come up around museums. Thereby they claim that the loss of institutional authority paves the way for the curators becoming more of facilitators than figures of authority.
Likewise, they seek to redefine object-centered museum culture and consider museums primarily as information sources rather than repositories of ”authentic” objects. In the current discursive context, historical objects tend to be ”museumified” as aesthetic witnesses to their period, to historical events or people. Significantly, ”real” objects are deemed to have a historical actuality while acting as a visible sign of the past.
They act as fragments of information, having a special place in time and space as survivors of the past ensconced in the museum (Kavanaugh 1996, 3). Drawing on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital formation (Bourdieu and Darbel 1991), it can be argued that throughout their history, reproductions such as line engravings of famous paintings, plaster casts of well-known Greek sculptures, and photographs have had a significant role in its creation (Fyfe 2004, 48). That is because reproductions are the means by which cultural capital is spread, and the rules and habits of looking are developed.
Moreover, as reproductive technologies improved, as with photography, a more acute connection could be made between the medium and the intention of the maker. Like earlier reproductions digital objects bring the historical object and the signs of its making into the presence of the viewer, while suppressing its own craft that made that presence possible by carrying information about the ”original” object’s details, its form, fabric, shape, aesthetics, and history through interpretation. The value of the digital heritage object is derived directly from the viewer’s acceptance of the real object as authentic. Its presence on a museum’s Web site endorses the authority and integrity of these inscribed meanings given to the real.
Digital and physical collections can function as interactive channels in engaging emotional experiences, and in extending memory, recall, and identification. The object as a visible sign of authenticity and aura or provenance reassures museums of their mission. Benjamin maintains that the aura of an object has a stable, unchanging quality representing ”its presence in time, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Moreover, authenticity and hence the authority of the ”real” is often museologically determined.?? The ”real” object’s enchantment, its aura, for example, is its physical presence, but most importantly, it derives from ascribed social meanings. Its message-bearing abilities and the persuasiveness of its origin through associated stories are important ingredients in invoking its awe.
Auraic potency is heightened if its transformations of ownership, value, and meaning can be traced. If an object is dislocated from its systems of meaning its aura is diminished. ”Aura” according to Benjamin originates from the object’s association with ritual, one which is broken by mechanical reproduction. By separating the defining nature of an object, its accumulated history as a unique place in time, through reproduction, its aura, and hence its authority is threatened. The materiality of an object is seen as having a more objective presence than the virtual due to its ascribed connection with a historical or aesthetic actuality. Object-level information links them to anonymous authoritative narratives, placing them within the discourse of art history. However, regarding digital copies, deciding what to digitize and render in 3D – and what not to – involves an active process of value and meaning-making equivalent to that of the physical object.
It enacts the curatorial process of selection of what is significant, what should be remembered and forgotten, and what categories of meaning such as classification, cultural values, or aesthetic attributes are given importance. And the value of the ”real” increases when digitized, enhancing its social, historical, and aesthetic importance, owing to the resources required in the compilation of 3D rendering. This process of selective canonization questions authority and material and institution-based factuality to these frameworks making them difficult to challenge. Within this context, the real object is not under threat but acts as a pretext for the virtual. A virtual object carries the message of the real while functioning as a sign. For example, Zeus, an excellent example of the Early Classical bronze statuary dating back to 460BC, was reproduced using a laser scan by the Powerhouse Museum to allow its image and form to travel to Sydney for the exhibition 1000 Years of the Olympic Games: Treasures of Ancient Greece (Kenderdine 2001).
In this instance, the value of the real sculpture was its materiality as testimony to this point in time and the techniques of early bronze casting, as well as exhibiting the marks of labor and aesthetic qualities of a famous sculptor. With the 3D digital representation of the statue of Zeus, the dream of its creators at the Powerhouse Museum was to produce a visible and intelligible simulation of the real object as close as possible in terms of scale, size, detail, color, texture and perspective. A more faithful rendering in 3D will allow the observer to read its physical attributes in more detail. In discussing photography, Roland Barthes suggested that the photograph and its referent are linked together.
In this context, without the ”real” object, the virtual would have no meaning, no soul, no referential. In this sense, it might be inferred that holographic technology has developed to an extent where digital objects can challenge the authenticity of our responses to real objects. Digital examples can evoke through a range of senses from sight to touch and sound.
Museum scholar Simon Knell argues that in this sense technologies can open up possibilities for sophisticated interpretation it can come close to challenging the object regarding information. While the prospect of touching an object is real, the desire to do so is suppressed in the ritualized space of the museum. Pierre Levy interprets the virtual as something that is not quite there, something intangible with an absence of existence, as the complement of the real or tangible (1998,23). According to Graham, the ”virtual” is not a semblance of something else, but an alternative type of entity with properties similar and dissimilar to those with which it is contrasted. They are entities in their right, and as such we must attribute to them a distinctive form of reality.
(1999, 159) Benjamin argues that the detaching of the aura of the original artwork through reproduction can also be a liberating force. (Benjamin 1968). If we take Michelangelo’s David, in the Galleria dell’Academia as example, whose laser scan as a digital historical representation can exist in potentially infinite versions, it might be stated that contrary to the physical object it is not fixed and the liberated object can be distributed in space and time and can be brought closer spatially and perceptually. Aspects of the original David unavailable to tactility or the naked eye such as chisel marks smaller than a millimeter introduce new values of perception, space and movement through zoomable technology and object moves. From this point of view, it can be stated that historical collections as possessions and as heritage items limit access. The bronze Zeus, for example, is retained in the ritual space of the museum, whereas the digital Zeus has been placed into situations not available to the ‘real’ in a way that photographs were previously. (Benjamin 1968, 2) Given that aura is determined through links to materiality, it can be questioned that Benjamin’s definition of aura might still be valid for digital historical objects today.
” Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art lacks in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition as well as the various changes in ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.” (Benjamin, 1968, 2) Benjamin’s assumption that aura is absent in reproductions appears not to hold up for digital media; instead, it represents a lack of understanding of its materiality and the fact that the digital historical object is a creative work in its right, with history and provenance.
The digital historical object can exist in many realms and perform many roles that go beyond reproduction, interpretation, education, documentation, and archive. In creating new definitions for the digital historical object as an object in its right separate from any referent, the materiality argument can no longer be valid. As with historical collections, photographs, and digital art, digital historical objects can be understood as independent creative works, acquire the status of objects in their right, and be integrated into museums. Concerning the use of multimedia in museums, it can be said that museums are moving away from object-centered culture. However, it is clear that still the original object dominates the digital.
Moreover, the digital historical object is subject to cultural politics where its values are shaped by the cultural attitudes, beliefs, and disciplinary values of its creators and curatorial practices. Like the analog, they are cultural constructs and have the power to shape cultural identities, engage emotions, perceptions, and values, and to influence the way we think. By understanding the materiality of digital historical objects, new roles and a set of defining characteristics emerge beyond their role as servant to the”real” as representation, presence, affect, experience, and value in a museum context. Both modalities, the analog and the digital, are material objects by definition, each acting as testimony to its history and origin, and hence authenticity and aura. The acceptance of digital historical objects as independent creative works in their right separate from any referent, and worthy of a place in the museum collection will be based on the ethical choices of curators and museum management and the cultural sector.