SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Curation in a Digital Age: A Closer Look at Digitization and its Impacts on the Exhibition-Making Field. – SVA MA Design Research

Hortense Proust

Curation in a Digital Age: A Closer Look at Digitization and its Impacts on the Exhibition-Making Field.

Google Chrome screen capture (Image search: cat)

While we have completely embraced digitization in our daily lives, we are still in the process of grasping and understanding its impacts in other professional fields. The digitization of museums has transformed curation from an academic, intellectual, and cultural practice into a social process based on the visitors’ personal experience of the museum. Today, the “exhibition-making” scope is comprised of a larger number of actors directly involved in its process, from the artists and creators, to the museum staff members and critical voices, and, finally, to the audience.

This research outlines the ways in which museums have started to reinvent themselves in order to match these transformations. By examining how museums employ digital design to remain places of social interaction, this investigation speculates on the future of design in this context.

Attendance in art museums has never been higher than it is today, in part due to the use of digital tools to attract larger and more diversified audiences. Numbers show that the visual content circulating on the Internet through digital platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google, and the use of digital devices and technologies such as Smartphones, API, search engines, and online networking, makes museum collections more accessible. Museum executives have started to embrace these new trends and tools, redefining the nature and dynamics of exhibition-making as a cultural and professional field.

Belgian art historian, curator and Director of the Tate Modern in London, Chris Dercon states, “we have to find new ways of working with the public. […] The time of the ‘genius artist’ and the ‘genius curator’ is over. There’s also the ‘genius audience.’”1 Curation is shifting from being a cultural and academic practice to a social process based on the visitors’ experience involving a number of actors and inspired by the design and features of digital products. Together with the transformations museums are undergoing as institutions, the roles of these different actors are also changing.

Art museums are rethinking their whole infrastructures. There is an urgency to bring more people from different backgrounds and cultures, in order for museums to remain part of the news cycle and to become places of social interaction.

Museums are digitizing their collections, creating interactive tools to help visitors experience the museum, and are developing presences on social media, making themselves more accessible to people all over the world. They are also talking about digitization and advertising it, making this subject the center of attention in the current museological discourse. By opening up the discussion, they are offering a chance for digitization to permeate in other scenes and reach other fields. They are giving it a multi-faceted voice that can take different shapes and forms on different platforms. Art criticism, for instance, is being redefined by social media as a more curated form of writing, especially with regard to speculation on the future of the museum. Questions about architecture, the art market, display, accessibility, preservation, and interaction with visitors can now take place in a public space rather than an exclusively intellectual space.

Between June 2014 and May 2015, the Metropolitan Museum of Art received a total of 6.3 million visitors. In the museum’s 2014-2015 annual report, Director and Chief Executive Officer Thomas P. Campbell stated that, “the Museum’s website attracted a total of thirty-two million visits” and that “approximately thirty-six percent of these were international visitors while sixty-four percent were domestic.” Along with these numbers, Campbell mentioned the growth of the museum’s email marketing and social media programs, allowing the museum to “[deliver] content and interactive experiences through platforms that are part of [its] visitors’ daily lives.” He then went on to state that “the Museum’s Facebook account reached more than 1.3 million likes (an increase of eighteen percent from [the year before]),” that “the Museum’s Twitter account garnered more than 982,000 followers (up thirty percent from [the year before]),” and that “the Museum’s Instagram reached more than 637,000 followers (up 258 percent from [the year before]).”2

In the Museum of Modern Art’s 2013-2014 Annual Listing, Director Glenn D. Lowry stated in his official letter that the museum had welcomed three million visitors to its galleries. He also mentioned that, “as [their] audiences become more global, mobile, and wired, [they] have increasing virtual access to [their] collection and programs to create a MoMA community that is truly international, with 27 million people visiting and, and millions more connecting to [their] apps and social media channels.” Lowry also reported that “digital initiatives have expanded in every way across the Museum,” with projects such as the launch of an iPhone app and mobile audio guides, Design and Violence, “an online curatorial project offering some of the most engaging, provocative, and vital conversations on this important topic,” a digital-only publication, and online courses.3 Lowry went on to mention that as MoMA’s social-media presence continues to grow through [its] Facebook (approx. 1.7 million fans), Twitter (nearly two million followers), and Instagram (approx. 400,000) accounts—as well as on [its] blog and other channels—MoMA is finding new ways to share and engage with its diverse audiences.4

More and more conferences, lectures and symposiums are being organized by these institutions on digital-related subjects. The “Who Owns Digital Social Memory?” panel discussion that took place at the New Museum on February 16, 2016, for example, with panelists such as senior art critic for New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz, Associate Online Community Producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and founder of the Black Contemporary Art Tumblr and the VV Rare: Black Librarians and Archivists Link Share Facebook group, Kimberly Drew, questioned the preservation of social media data. A number of publications are increasingly interested in raising questions regarding the evolution of museums, such as the Frieze article entitled “What is the Future of the Museum?” published in the November-December 2015 issue.5

In the light of these numbers, facts, and the way curators, museum directors and executives, as well as artists, have been speculating in articles and books towards new solutions and ideas, it is clear that we are at a turning point in the history of art exhibitions. Digitization and its many side effects are clearly at the center of this discourse. How is the design of these digital trends, devices and technologies impacting the field of art exhibitions?

Considering the current state of museums and the recurring questions in the museological discourse, together with the fast-changing nature of digitization, this thesis analyzes the impact the design of digital devices has had on the roles of the different sets of actors in the exhibition-making field. We will consider and redefine “exhibition-making” itself as a social experience process rather than as a cultural institution. This thesis aims to understand the shifts and changes in this field, to name and recognize them through case studies and to offer speculation on ideas and concepts that appear to emerge from this evolution.

We will start by demystifying the object creators—the artists and designers—as actors in touch with their audiences. In particular, we will examine the role of Internet artists those that either use the Internet as a setting to show their art, as a medium through which to make art, or when they use Internet-related subjects in the physical space. They belong to the Internet and/or Post-Internet art movements.

We will then look at the institutional members, such as organizers and museum executives, as well those giving voice to the discourse, such as art and design writers and critics, and study how these actors have morphed into a collaborative team who, at some level, work together. Here our focus will be the social media activity of Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine.

Finally, we will analyze the role of the audience(s) in this changing context. We will study how audience members have become active members and stakeholders in the process of curation, as opposed to passive spectators. Here our focus will be on the Google Cultural Institute, a website launched by Google in 2011 after the Google Art Project was unveiled. As described in the project overview on the website of the agency Google collaborated with to develop the website, Beyond, it was heralded as an effort to answer one question: “How can we translate the world’s most significant moments from history, art and culture into a living archive of online experiences?”6 It has partnered with a number of cultural institutions around the world to allow users to take virtual tours of museums using the Google Street View satellite imagery and 360° panoramic view technology. It also displays millions of high definition digitized items from these museums.7


Websites as Artworks

Websites have become a medium for Internet artists. Apart from the fact that they serve as business cards, they can also be artworks. Google, being one of the most precise and developed search engines available internationally, is a very compelling tool for artists and designers interested in digital projects. It is one of the Silicon Valley’s giant firms and owns the biggest database and the most efficient algorithm. Google Images’ algorithm is a keyword referencing system based on the filenames, link texts and adjacent texts of the images. It is a formula written by web developers to sort out the content through filters that evaluate its relevance in terms of freshness, location and PageRank.8Google’s grids of images give us a glimpse of the Internet-based culture we now live in, a culture which is visual, quantified, and connected. It has changed the circumstances for viewing visual content and, by extension, art, challenging the role and purpose of museums.

For instance, American artist Dina Kelberman’s I’m Google is a Tumblr on which she adds images and videos she collects from Google Images on a regular basis.9 There are no instructions as to how to use it; users simply scroll down to see the evolving timeline of images. There aren’t any texts, written elements or typography of any sort, except for what might appear in the pictures. The layout is very simple, made of three columns placed in the middle of the page. The selected images and videos are uploaded one at a time and there is always a link between them, in their content, color or shape. The result is a colorful, evolving grid that, combined with the action of scrolling, creates a mesmerizing visual experience. Looking at it can last as little as a few minutes or much longer, depending on the user’s mood. It evolves with time as Kelberman adds content, allowing the audience to come back to it. The pictures display the products and objects of everyday life, such as gloves, eggs, ping pong tables, and swimming pools. Because they are so mundane, the audience feels closer to the piece, they understand and recognize what they are looking at. The fact that it is physically and intellectually accessible by anyone makes it a comfortable and homely experience.

The status of this piece is undefined. It is an art piece, but it could also be considered a designed product, a photography archive or, simply, a website. The Internet changes the way we look at and experience art and design outside of the museum. I’m Google offers, through the artist’s eyes, vision and world, an example of the kinds of questions museums are facing up to regarding digitization and its effects today: How can they preserve such works? How can they offer display for them in a physical museum setting? How can they deal with the evolving nature of such works?

Because this kind of work is ongoing and visible online, it feels like it’s alive and growing, which is refreshing and exciting. The thrill of witnessing a piece being created is part of the project itself. It establishes a very direct connection to the users.

Kelberman uses Google not only as a search engine, but also as a template for display and a basic tool. She titled the piece I’m Google to emphasize her own act of searching through the image network and gathering the ones she is interested in. She uses the archive to create her own. She positions herself as a replacement for the search engine. She goes through Google’s content in order to recreate a similar platform and copies its display in a much more personal, artistic, and poetic way, bringing to the fore her human subjectivity as opposed to the technical, machine-made process of the algorithm. The particularity of these images lie in what they portray and the fact that their authors are anonymous. By uniting anonymous and low-quality photographs and using them as a whole, she brings a beauty out of them. She transforms mundane objects into beautiful artistic shapes. The visual strength of this project is in the ensemble.

Contemporary artists in general and Internet artists in particular are more and more accessible thanks to the internet and its devices. So is their art. The artistic practice and its display are becoming more and more independent. Yet, artists still need to rely on the art world and its system. They still need museums to show their work and tell stories that will build a bond both between them and the art world, and between their art and their public. As a result, museums have to meet them halfway and provide them with new ideas and concepts that match the screen as medium, and are digital and connected. How is this affecting curation?

  1. Cristina Bechtler and Dora Imhof, Museum of the Future, (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2014), 73.
  2. Thomas P. Campbell, “Report from the Director”, Annual Report for the Year 2014-2015.
  3. Glenn D. Lowry, “Letter from the Director,” MoMA-MoMA PS1 Annual Listing 2013-2014.
  4. Glenn D. Lowry, “Letter from the Director,” MoMA-MoMA PS1 Annual Listing 2013-2014.
  5. Sam Thorne, “What is the Future of the Museum?,” Frieze, No. 175, November-December 2015, 120-27.