The art of deframing

What would you do if you had unlimited access to more than 568.000 digital objects of the Rijksmuseum? The only thing you need is a working internet connection and a laptop. Seems too good to be true? No it is not.

A year before the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum (2013) the museum made a new project public: Rijksstudio. The video below discusses several kinds of pro’s and cons of this digital project.

The museum digitalized almost all of its collection and put it on a website. Director Taco Dibits about Rijksstudio: ‘De kunstwerken zijn om naar te kijken, om van te genieten maar ook om er zelf mee aan de slag te gaan. In iedereen schuilt immers een kunstenaar‘ (translation: The artworks are there to be looked at, to be enjoyed, but also to be creative with them. After all everyone is an artist). As a visitor you can create your own profile and begin collecting your favorite objects from, for example, your own chair in Vancouver. The possibilities are endless, since the museum offers free high quality downloads. That way, you can get as creative as you want to be. Do you want a iPad cover of the Night Watch? Sure, no problem. Luckily not only the famous paintings hanging in the Rijksmuseum are available. It includes less famous objects, that are currently lying in the Rijksmuseums depot.

The idea behind this digital project is that digital objects complement the physical objects in the Rijksmuseum. Dibits even talked about the ‘online aura’. This theory, originally developed by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, argues that an artwork has his own aura, because of its authenticity and originality. By working with the digital objects a virtual aura is created. This virtual aura will eventually contribute to the aura of the physical object and lead to more museum visitors. Carl Hogsden and Emma K. Poulter agree in their article ‘The Real Other? Museum Objects in Digital Contact‘ that digital objects complement physical objects in musea. They reason that digital objects can be as active and transformative as physical objects, but in their own right. Both digital and physical objects refer to each other.

Another benefit of this digital project is that it gives the curators of the Rijksmuseum some more insight in which of the objects are popular and in which context they are placed. Additionally visitors can give the images of the objects different kinds of tags (and by doing this: information).  That way the museum can change the representation of its collection, based on the idea that a public historian needs to meet the audience’s expectations in order to broaden the horizon of the same audience. This is in my opinion a form of digital inreach as Hogsden and Poulter discussed in their article. Traditional inreach means that curators invite communities to the museum for their input on the exhibition with the aim to remove as much of the framing of the objects (deframing). Only, this digital form (a progression from contact zones to contact networks) takes away the limitations of traditional inreach. It is no longer limited by time and space.

A problem with this form of digital inreach of the Rijksstudio is the amount of (contradictory) information the curators receive this way. How do you process so much information? The amount of digital information received by the museum can be visualized and mixed with the expertise of the curators. On the other hand, Hogsden and Poulter argue that to make deframing work there has to be a connection between physical and web inreach. Preferably with autonomous information sources, like a museum or interest groups. That way cultural differences can coexist and the sources can share information on their own terms. But perhaps this last point is too non-committal. Hogsden and Poulter would rather see information sources control what information is shared. But what if that piece of information is crucial for the deframing of the collection but (unintentionally) held back because of the culture of the information source? Like in Rijksstudio, visitors give information just by using the website and not by explicitly share their information. They are allowed to download unlimited high quality images of objects if they create their own profile and get started with the digital objects. So in this way there is a win-win situation for both the museum and the visitors.


Daphne Stechweij