Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#2/3 Albert Kuiper 1 Jan 1991

Words about Art

A museum has various tasks within the cultural field. We tend to associate a museum with collecting, conserving and exhibiting works of art. But its task to exhibit material evidence can also be performed by showing documents referring to the works of art made. This is an alternative to going on collecting until we have allrun out of budget or space.
We could talk about a new kind of institute, but existing museums could also perform this task.
Informing the public about what is happening all around the world by giving access to a new information channel will also enable the curatorial staff to perform their tasks better. So every museum should be 'plugged into this circuit' anyway.

What we should aim for is an information network with many nodes (the museums and other institutes, galleries and companies) that all enter information about what they are doing; also individual members of the artistic community should be able to 'advertise themselves'. This information can be typewritten, in the form of stills and video sequences.
At the various nodes, terminals give access to an index, and the data is then transferred to that node on request. All this can be done with normal 20th century technology.
Just as a precaution, I would like to add: documenting art cannot replace the need to form a collection. The value of an original artwork is evident. So I would like to ask: Who is afraid of black and white?, being the colours we predominantly use when we are documenting?

Defining the Museum

The ICOM, the International Council of Museums, defines a museum as:
//a non-profit making, permanent institution, in the service ofsociety and its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits,
Jor purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment. I With the task: to acquire objects and keep them for posterity.//
Evidently, this is a broad and sweeping definition, to cover the wide range of museums there is. Let's state frankly that today we are mainly interested in museums for the visual arts. 2
We can look closer at this definition of the ICOM (and introduce several values): I Non-profit: We see that galleries which have an intention to sell exhibited works of art, and make profits on them, fall outside of this definition.
2 Museums are permanent, not open and functioning one day and gone the next. They are stable institutional elements within society. They have a function.
3 A museum must develop society, that is, it must enable society to learn, to attain higher goals, to develop in intellectual and spiritual ways. When they are closed and shut down, museums do not enable the transfer of cultural values. To say it with other words: museums are generators of culture.
4 Acquiring and conserving works of art means that a museum has the resources to get hold of new artifacts for the collection of specimens. And once you've got something, you have to keep it in good shape. So there should be adequate funding. Keeping means that these objects be contained within the confines of the museum (not in a restaurant, that is) and kept in a good shape representative of what it was like when it was produced.
5 Study and education implies presenting a context, within which the works get a significance. That means that additional information outside of the domain of the work at hand should be available. The collection should have a holistic unity, because these focussing points make it possible to do research and to make exhibitions that have some sense.
6 Material evidence of people. The production of the workers in the arts. Acquiring these man-made objects means having the physical presence of those objects at hand.

Museums should enable students to study the collection, its history and background. It should enable education of those members of the public that are not yet well-informed. It should also give people looking for enjoyment or a break a place to relax. Museums are a safe-place outside of the visual bombardment of mass-media.
All this sounds quite straight-forward. But things are a little bit more complicated. By posing some questions I will try to establish where we think we have our limits.

I Especially in modern art, form and content have been separated, in such a way that the material thing sometimes doesn't coincide at all with the artwork. So what do we collect?
2 We can pose the question whether the availability of information in general about the arts and its development also fall within the domain of the ICOM definition. This is an important question. Because an artwork gets part of its significance in the contextual layer placed around it by the museum. Merely presenting a work of art without information about it, an explanation of its meaning and content does not make sense. Therefore, making this framework for giving additional information should also be part of the primary tasks of the museum.
3 Can we replace the material work with documentation? Can we fulfil our task of acquiring by collecting and presenting information? When we think of a theatre museum, it is quite evident that the performances can never be maintained in the way once presented to the public. An audio-visual is one of the nearest things we can get for now. I have experienced the same problems when working with artists making performances.
4 If and when we can acquire a performance by documenting it - and placing it in its correct art-historical context can we then also acquire a painting, a drawing or sculpture in that way?

The groups of the public that we distinguish need a different approach to the presentation of the art. For example, for a tourist a museum should give in a short overview, the structure of a body of cultural objects and thoughts specific for the museum, as a short example of the collection, the country or the specific part of the arts the museum has focussed itself on.
An art-loving visitor expects the latest exhibition, with the state of the art. (Here at last we really can talk about that!). The student wants to have access to more information than only the superficial names. He wants background, etcetera.
Formerly, in the museum profession this extra information demand has been the domain of the education department; I think reflection on this flow of information concerning the structure of what the content of the artworks is, belongs to the central tasks of the museum staff.

Working out the Organizational Structure

Let's take the ICOM definition as a statement of mission for a particular museum for art. Almost every verb signifies an area of attention, meriting a specific task or organizational group. When we go top-down from these intentions, then we can easily see, that the organizational structure will develop along the lines of:

  • external relations;
  • acquiring, with all kinds of networking by the curator;
  • conservmg;
  • keeping works of art with all kinds of logistics;
  • education;
  • exhibiting and
  • art historical research.

For all of these tasks, information is required to perform the work at hand. Information is a general resource. A resource that is used by all the people working in the museum, that is also produced by them, as a product of the tasks performed by the one to trigger another.


Within some of these tasks there are some specific problem areas:
Acquiring is mostly a problem of finance, and otherwise knowing what's going on. What's for sale (galleries, auctions). What is being made. What has been documented.
. Conserving and keeping is a problem of space, know-how, information, finance: where to keep things, how to maintain their well-being, having the information of what the objects are, where they are, in what shape they are etcetera.
. Data should be available: what is known about the works, the contents and what has been written about them. This can be called the body of knowledge of a museum, the prerequisite for the task of educating and making exhibitions that make sense. The 'data' (strings of information about the works of art) should have a high accessibility. In former times the brains of the curator gave real-time information retrieval. But nowadays this just doesn't work any more. I think we have already reached our cognitive limits. And people leave the museum, leaving others behind in despair.
. Budget deficits. Collecting needs a lot of investment: keeping all those artworks forces one to have infinite confines, and gathering and presenting information is labour intensive work.

Murphy's Law (Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) can be stated as:
1 when you want to acquire a work it doesn't fit into your museum, because it is
2 the work you want to lend out can't be found.
3 when you start to make a catalogue, the information on the works is not
4 when you want to acquire a work of art, you can't find documentation on it or its
artist for the committee.
So here we have some critical success-factors:
. The physical limitations, or confines of the museum.
. The making and keeping track of information on the objects in the possession of the museum.
Knowing what's going on. (Of course this list can be elaborated on.)

In what Ways can we Solve these Problems?

First of all: we can throw a lot of money at the museums. The strategy of 'more of the same'. We can build better and bigger store-rooms for all those works. Add a new museum, specifically for an art historical period, or clone a museum into separate parts.
We can make a survival-plan for the works, describing them etcetera, and subsequently keeping them confined in a nice, quiet place somewhere.
Maybe throwing away, de-accessioning part of your collection will give us some space to breath.
Well actually, I don't think this will solve any problem at all. Within a short time we would be back where we are. These solutions don't solve the problem at hand in a structural way. I'll show you why.


Let me show you what a mess we are in:
In science, a growth-rate can be plotted, and these growth-rates are always an exponential function. The growth increases. And if we encourage growth by creating favourable circumstances, the growth increases even more.
Art production will stimulate more art production, so that what is added every year will increase. That doesn't mean making any qualitative judgement, just the fact that people make artifacts in the domain of the visual arts. In the age of massreproduction, art production grew because of new technologies, with mass-media and the new division oflabour it grew even more.

So if we keep the same system of collecting art as we have had for the last two centuries, it will place us in serious difficulties. When we keep on buying those works of art that have merited attention, that have influenced others and that we can make sense of in addition to what we already have, we will get stuck somewhere. We shouldn't collect when we cannot take proper care of the work) Because more is communicated on art (this is an era of mass media, of a Global Village), traditional criteria pose problems. Everything seems important. Many museums have had difficulties here already, and have budget deficiencies.

Structural Changes

Only by making structural choices, by looking at the problem at hand in a different and new way, can a new solution be found. Here we enter a narrow and dark alley. What are the confines of our problem. What would we allow ourselves to do? Making structural choices means doing something differently.
Let's pose a problem: can you connect the dots in the following diagram by a continuous drawn line of four straight segments?

This is not possible unless we go outside of the common way of thinking, outside of the boundaries we normally set. Structurally making a choice, confining the focus of the collection, what comes in, is of some help.
I'd like to offer an inventory of solutions:
I With a new policy on collecting we can restrict the growth.
2 Curators can make agreements and confine themselves to certain areas to collect. 3 Internationally, curators and some galleries can by agreement limit what's important to the development of art, and thus what is of art historical interest and value, and what therefore deserves collecting in a museum. (Of course galleries and artists will oppose this solution.)
These solutions still more or less confine themselves to doing the same things in a different way. Probably solutions like these are of some help. But let's take a look again at the tasks the museum has: acquiring, keeping/conserving, study, education and exhibitions.
The basic statement concerns informing the public. A means to this end is acquiring and conserving. But we can also put our main emphasis on the other means given: researching, communicating and exhibiting.


Now here I have a quite different proposal: Why collect the works of art themselves? Why don't we go over to the aim of documenting the abundance of art production. Design an information system that enables several dataflows to coincide: internal and external. This would enable an elaborate documentation of works of art and the collection in one and the same framework both data about and visual evidence from the existence of an artwork, somewhere. Add the information stored in the library,
and there you have a media bonanza - open to the public!
This would be atuned to the new world we appear to be living in. This would take away the burden on collecting the physical things themselves, keeping them in
good shape, and storing them someplace.

This will satisfY problems in a lot of our basic tasks, elaborated on in the organizational structure of the museum. Many critical success-factors have a relationship with information.

Within one database we can collect information on art, and present it to the staff and to the public; within the same information context we can give access to other kinds of information like images, stills or movies, so that in a certain way, we get a superstructure ofinJormation technology.
Okay, I agree directly that studying this information about art is of no value
compared to studying the works themselves.
What I would like to add is that we should also collect and present
documentation about what's happening elsewhere.

Access to Material Evidence

Being trained as an art historian, I have seen more works in the form of a reproduction than in their real form and surroundings. And to me that has always been okay.
For instance, reading about the dancer Simone Forti studying the behaviour of polar bears in the zoo to use in her work really triggered me. Just reporting on what was happening had a lot of sense in the seventies. Lucy Lippard saw this clearly when she wrote her book about conceptual art.4 Magazines like Avalanche were atuned to this kind of publishing. These information channels gave material evidence of the works of artists all around the world, who worked within the paradigm of the then current avant-garde. These publications still remain one of the prime factors for the rapid dissemination of the ideas that were current at that time. The same can be said of the publications the avant-garde served itself with in the beginning of the century.s
Leaving material traces in this way is of course important for artists who make ephemeral works. But in The Hague several years ago, an artists' committee was formed, that demanded attention from art historians. Not for want of being shown in public, only to be documented, to be part ofhistory.6 This group doesn't concern performing artists. So for this group just making art wasn't enough, they wanted to appear in the archives as well. Therefore, documenting can safely be claimed to be a complement to production.

Consuming Art in these two Ways in a Museum

We can differentiate between two kinds of art-consumption: one in its real life form: in the museum, the gallery, or at home, and one in the secondhand form: information about art, contextual or referential. Of course, both types of consumption of art can be placed within the museum.
Besides the general public we have a group that is well aware of what's going on. These are the artists, art historians and curators with a developed sense of what's going on. Wanting access to more information in new ways. Always wanting the newest leads available. Well aware of making its own choices, valuations, and communicating and developing its own tastes and likings. This relatively small but extremely influential group can be the focus for attention and can be given access to an imagebank and art historical database. Shared between several institutes (because this would go beyond the scope of a regular institute).
Such a database would enable all kinds of tasks internally to be performed better. At the same time this partially relieves the museum of the task of actually acquiring, education and exhibiting works of art, at least in some ways.
In a set up focussing on documenting what's going on, many people would gladly participate. And should be obliged to do so.

Documentation cannot Replace Art. of Course

Art has a kind of mystique, artworks define things and are of a different order than normal day-to-day human artifacts. Within the art context, we make works that have something special. Even when we try to go outside the boundaries and state daily life as part of the art world, this assertion remains. This is evident from the importance that is placed on the craftmanship, the handiwork aspect of the work of art. This begs the question: is it important to have the artwork itself at hand, or can we use a replica, a reproduction of one or another sort?
We can maybe make a distinction in two groups: there is a group of art-lovers that thinks there is something that the master added by doing it himself. Imperceptible, infinitely small refinements. That's why we always talk about the hand of the master.
Others think that only the external form of the artwork is important. Maybe these people are analytics who don't go outside the confines of that which they can measure and deduct from what they know. Or these are consumers aimed solely at
the environment the museum gives.
The first category is difficult to describe without going into lyricisms or into some faint and otherworldly assertions. The brushstroke of the artist can be seen as
the stroke of genius. In our culture this seems to be a central trait. We cannot replace the material fact of this by documenting. Roy Lichtenstein has made Brushstroke paintings, evidently referring to Abstract Expressionism.7 But seen as Pop-art, he is referring to the traditional place of painting in our culture.
I think such things as authenticity of the work exhibited matter. Even in a documentary exhibition an original poster is valued more than a reproduction. A modern copy of a Rietveld chair just doesn't have the extra historical dimension of an original, even if that original is in bad shape. That also holds for works of art. The original about which you now have some information should still exist somewhere.
There are members of the public that won't care if they are looking at a replica (as long as they don't know), maybe because they are interested in other things. First of all I can think of the tourist, brought to the museum by a tour-operator.8 Would this group also accept a big polaroid replica? Or a small replica? Or a video still? Or a description in language?
A last remark on this topic. A museum cannot forsake the whole idea of exhibiting and collecting the works of art because it is documenting.

Post-Modernistic Approach

In this age of mass media, we are constantly bombarded with images. For a large
part these images pertain to works of art or other cultural artifacts. This has led to the idea of post-modernism. As Charles Jencks put it, everyone has these pictures stored in an imagebank: Any middle-class urbanite in any large city from Teheran to Tokyo is bound to have a well-stocked, indeed over-stocked 'image-bank' that is continually resttif.Jed by travel and magazines. His musee imaginaire may mirror the
pot-pourri of the producers, but it is nonetheless natural to his way of life. 9 These members of the public are part of an international culture and should be served according to this need.
Using an imagebank and a database-approach to fulfil our greedy hunger for news on art can be seen as a 'post-modernistic answer' to the task of the museum.

Organizational Requirements

How do we have to organize in order for this to take place? How do we get the organizational framework that uses state of the art information technology to form a
body of knowledge about art. .
Sharing this information means that several museums are part of a network. A network in two senses: both a physical distribution network, along which information is shared. But in another sense, we can talk about members of a network: a network is a group of people or institutions, participating in a certain activity.
Information technology is the domain of the carrier of the information: the range is from terminals with question and answer possibilities (queries of a database) to video-disk sessions and audio-visuals, including library functions.
Information technology claiming such a broad area of attention in the museum would demand a new kind of worker: the chief information officer. The CIa keeps a grip on information flows, designing ways for employees and public to use information, while assuring that many people will enter data into the system.

Collecting Data

Museums should enter information about what they are organizing. Which
exhibitions will take place, what has taken place. With information on the works shown. For instance, we can enter the texts made for flyers and leaflets (storing a
whole catalogue is too much, except for Humpty Dumpty). But we should also be able to add video sources, and distribute these.
Galleries would gladly participate, especially when they understand that this network gives them access directly to the curators. Through these screens one can see what is being painted elsewhere.
Centres for the performing arts can in this way make more public a witness to
what they have staged.
Critics and magazines might be willing to enter the information. So this database will also perform the tasks of the Art-Bibliographies. Maybe this periodical will itself use this information channel.
Information should be shared between member institutions. What is entered into the network at one node, will have to be available at all other nodes, as soon as technically possible.
The Paul Getty Museum has taken the lead in establishing an international database, available to subscribers around the world. Many museums have terminals through which they can access data. Mostly traditional art historical information.'o
What we should add to this networking concept, is entering data about what's going on. We should add that real-time aspect, because that's what turns us on.


Through the use of optical-disks (WORM, write once, read many) we can (ourselves) easily store huge quantities of data. Even slides, stills and pats of video recordings can be stored. Internationally, a shared index can be made of what every user has in his own portfolio. When consulting the index, we can ask for copies of the data. That can be made available right there and then, but also overnight.

Distribution of Data

The museums should have terminals available to the public. They could be used like the telex machine that you can find at the bank. Information flows continually. Or they can be used like a video set that shows semi-live evidence of the work of artists in the several disciplines.
A structural problem in normal publishing is filtering. The editorial board and the authors decide what's important. They don't give information on what they haven't focussed. But things might be happening right under their eyes that might still be of interest to someone else somewhere else. By letting the requestor do the searching, the pJ;oblem of the information threshold is reduced. So essentially we are talking about getting words and images about art at our front door.


Let the user pay! We can ask fees from those requesting our data. We can set our own fee, so that our expenses are covered. Of course, with some subsidies a lower
break-even point will be reached. And we can subsidize governmentally, but we can also seek sponsorship. And we can expect private initiatives, through which we can see this network for generating income if there is enough demand for the information we have collected ourselves. For instance, a publisher might give information away freely, because this will generate additional sales. When being used for advertisements some fee can also be charged.

So what I have added is some of the flavours of the Dutch o6-telephone numbers. Or the French Minitel system - quite an institute in itself.

Technical Requirements

There are already many international networks that are used for data transfer. An interesting network is one that is shared between universities all around the world. These work like a postbox system. A user can send data to an addressee. But the
data to be transferred is kept in a central computer.
I propose a different setup. Everyone keeps his own information and shares this when this is requested. We should need two subsystems:
I an index in which the various forms of data that can be accessed is recorded, 2 and every node should keep a file of the data that is kept available to others.

The node must permanently have a computer ready and functioning. The equipment needed at every node can be customized for the bulk of data.
A minimum would be a PC with a hard disc, a scanner and a printer, plus a modem to connect to the network.
But a setup of a PC with a scanner (that's a kind of photocopying device that makes an electronic image), a videocamera and video recording device, a printer, a large hard disc and a WORM drive connected would enable larger quantities of data to be stored and retrieved. In this setup we can customise some workstations for retrieval of data, while others are used for entering data into the electronic archive and network-index.
The index holds data on the exact location of the information and images. There is a local index (of what you have yourself) and there is a central copy in the network so that everybody knows what information you have. Upon request for information, the network server will try to access the data at the node given in the index, and send it to the requestor. There it will be stored on the local hard disc of the PC at that node. When the request is made in the node (the museum) locally, this is handled locally.
Electronic images can be stored digitally on the WORM (which can contain up to 6 gigabytes of data on one single disk such as the Sony 12" WORM-drive), even videotape sequences can be stored this way. Also texts can be stored like this.
On the retrieval workstations we can see both images and further information on that what we are looking at. With Hypertext, data can be interconnected. This means that the person that searches the network for information can go from one subject to another, guided along the way by associations (automatically) made on the basis of names, subjects, media, places, dates etcetera.
Organizational networking means that the various members will have to cooperate in defining standards. This whole framework then is not futuristic but quite feasible. Furthermore, it is the same infrastructure that the museum should have anyway when performing the tasks of documenting the collection for administrative purposes and for the making of an on-line catalogue. What I have described is basically also a way of working with information technology in a museum.

1 ICOM Statutes and code of professional ethics, 1990. Statutes article 2.

2 (Though the conclusions reached at the end of this argument might hold also for other museums outside of the arts, for instance for theatre, history or natural history.)

3 ICOM code paragraph 3.1 states Museums should not, except in very exceptional instances, acquire material that the museum is unlikely to be able to catalogue, conserve, store or exhibit, as appropriate, in a proper manner. One can as oneself, if existing collections should be reduced if the possibilities for proper maintenance are not available. For instance the London Zoo gave part of its collection away and fired some keepers because of budgetary reasons. Can museums of art can be expected to do the same?

4 Lucy Lippard, Six years, the de-materialization 0/ the artobject, Preager, New York, 1973.

5 See A. Kuiper, Tristan Tzara en 'l'esprit Dada', Kunsthistorisch lnstituut Groningen 1981

6 The HCAK, Haags Centrum voor Beeldende Kunst is an independent artist's gallery.

7 J. Lipman and R. Marshall, Art about Art, Dutton, New York, 1978, p. 33. (from an interview in Artforum, 1967).

8 Many visitors to the Rijksmuseum looking at the Nachtwacht wouldn't know there was a replica if the original is being restored. Or for the same matter, who really knows that the Mona Lisa in the Louvre is not an exhibition copy?

9 Charles Jencks, The languages o/post-modern architecture, Academy Editions, 2nd ed. 1978, p 127.

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10 Paul Getty Museum database.