Virtual Museums and Digital Images Reproduced Content: a Museal Paradox or a Contradiction? | SUZANNE BEER

July 12, 2015

Virtual Museums, Duplicates, Reproductions and Museum Originals Principles

Digitalized Masterpiece Reproduction: a Digital Heritage Crucial Endeavor

Virtual Museum content consists in a large percentage of digital images reproductions and duplications of originals. In the first case, the image virtual museality arises from non- digital works through digitized reproductions. In the latter case, the image originates in natively digital works. Thus, the presence of originals could nevertheless seem possible in a Virtual Museum. However, does the concept of “original” apply to native-digital images? Moreover, shouldn’t we speak of native-digital reproductions when displayed in a Virtual Museum?

A generally approved statement affirms that digital images intrinsically contain the possibility of duplication ad infinitum, with no difference between the original and the duplicate. Talking about reproduction does not seem relevant in this case. As explained by Weemans, using Goodman’s distinction, digital images are both autographic (made directly for perception) and allographic (repeatable instantly into an infinite number of digital copies).

However, digital images do not duplicate in the same way as in theory. Their dissemination – as their writing – depends upon technologies that are rapidly evolving. Computer resources obsolescence is such that works achieved on computers are quickly inaccessible through the means with which they were created. Transposing them into other means unpredictably changes their appearance. In addition, some natively digital works exist as installations. In their case, too, duplication is impossible, since they hybridize with physical world. An example of this type appeared in (unavailable) Adobe Museum of Digital Art, where it is supposed to find only natively digital works. Mariko Mori’s Tida Dome has two modes of existence : one in Adobe Virtual Museum, which is no longer accessible, the other in Miyako Island, Okinawa, Japan.

AMDM Mariko Mori Tida DomeMariko Mori Tida Dome in construction Miyako Island Okinawa Japan © Mariko Mori.

Mariko Mori Tida Dome in construction Miyako Island Okinawa JapanAMDM Mariko Mori Tida Dome © Mariko Mori.

Therefore, as in all cases since natively-digital work is also reproduced, we can conclude that as a general rule, Virtual Museums are thoroughly composed of reproductions.

Sampling Museums for their Reproduction by Virtual Reality Virtual Museums

Virtual Museums made with Virtual Reality medium add yet another dimension to the reproduction of masterpieces. They tend to model the original museum they are referring to, or at least to represent a possibly existing museum. Sampling textures of the existing museum, or typical parts of a museum is an important mean in this kind of realization. Making museums kind of counterfeit in order to allow realistic and immersive qualities adds yet one more dimension to Virtual Museums as being ontologically characterized by reproduction.

Virtual Louvre
Screenshot in 2014 of the entrance of the Virtual Louvre on Internet [[1]].

Museo del Pais Outside viewScreenshot of an outside view of Museo del Pais, while charging, on Internet][[2]]

Museums Source of Musealie Principle of Originality

However, museum aims are based on an originality principle of their musealie. It constitutes a major requirement, as stated by the idea of collection at the base of Museum activity.

“Collecting reinforced the idea that to be properly educated about the “magic of the icon” the viewer must see the original”[[3]].

Showing the “real thing” is essential to an ethnological, archeological museum, as in a Museum of Natural Sciences and a Fine Art Museum. What would it be if these museums would feature counterfeits? Unless the original is too fragile to be presented, the rule states that nothing must be substituted to it. As Bernard Deloche understands it, originals have become fetishized [[4]]. Even in this perspective, they do not have to be thrown away, as no reproduction can describe as well as the model[[5]].

A Virtual Museum comprised exclusively of reproductions, how can it belong to a museal realm, especially as a museum standing by itself and not depending upon existing museums as its space for physical limits overpassing?


Virtual Museums and André Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire

Photographic Reproduction as “Fictitious Art”

All museums have not always been subjected to exclusive presentation of originals. The history of museums shows the existence of paper museums during the 19th century. It was not a matter of making museums of substitutes of originals which could not be transported or shown for various reasons. At least, this dimension is not foreign to the purpose of the currently most famous of these museums, but does not constitute its essential part. André Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire concept is to produce a universal museum, a museum not limited by political and physical boarders, and with a goal of artistic knowledge and appreciation. Hence, curating whole museal exhibitions can be done using solely reproductions — and in a fine art kind of museum. The endavour is similar to that of Virtual Museums, but it is made with analogical photography. This distinction need not stop the present reflection at this point, as it is less important than the common point of being a complete museum, with a curating overall design and exhibition spaces, even though it is exclusively presented in reproduced images and book foliage 2D space.

It should first be thought that explicitly, reproduced works of art do not retain their status as works of art. In the Musée imaginaire, André Malraux claims that photography reproductive power combined with photogravure brings another life to masterpiece reproduction. He wrote: “[Photographic]reproduction has created fictitious arts”[[6]]. “Fictitious art” appears with the unpredictable and untimely reconciliations that photographic visualizations perform. By changing scales, joining geographically remote sources, they bring to visibility a notion of history of style and an idea of iconographical universality which lays hidden for incarnated eyes and sensible perception.

Thus, reproduction itself is not in contradiction with art. It has actually been integrated as a moment of creativity in Dadaïsts, Cubists and Surrealists collages. Therefore, reproduction does not oppose a museum idea in its principle, since it can be an esthetical judgment vector in making esthetic experience possible.

End of the Auratic Age and Emergence of Exhibition Values

For Benjamin (and, implicitly Malraux), reproduction produced by photography is no loss of authenticity but a metamorphosis of the work of art. “For the first time in world history, the technical reproducibility of the artwork emancipates that work from its parasitic existence [Dasein] in ritual“[[7]].

The cultural value of the work of authentic and original art is no longer needed. Exhibition values exist within reproductive techniques, in as much as there is a curator with esthetic ideas. Now we must wonder whether this solution found by Malraux for analogical photographical reproductions can be applied to digital ones. Multiplication by digital means opens a new era: Benjamin did not theorized it, neither did Malraux, so it is our duty to try and think this over. 

Analogical and Digital Reproductions

Digital images appear as the fulfillment of photography since it eliminates the constraints of hardware support, making instantaneous dissemination by duplication. But will what is true of photography and mechanical printing on paper be valid in the realm of digital image? However, the analysis of reproduction on digital media cannot offer, in a first analysis, the same track in an analogous medium. According to Edmond Couchot[[8]], the scanning of the real thing is done without carrying an actual index footprint. Morphogenesis of the digital image is computational, not physical. But this theory is only valid for native digital images and not digitized ones, since they derive from recording devices. The major difference between analogous and digital images is that a computer by nature causes an increased manipulability of the image, and an even greater deviation from the real than analogous photography.

We have seen that analogous photography brings a metamorphosis in art conception. Since digital images are interactive, hence mobile, ephemeral and always changing, not only in the hands of the author of the reproductions, but also of those of the user, we can think that the metamorphosis will be granted augmented dimensions, and not disappear. Malraux’s thought, as well as Benjamin’s do not vanish into obsolescence with the transformation from analogous to digital reproduction and dissemination. They remain valid, but must be completed for another realm. The ability to produce immersive qualities and the tendency to erase any auratic presence comes with support for new possibilities of experience which have to be retrieved.


 A Specific Esthetical Theory for Digital Images Reproduction and Duplication in the Museum World

Digital Images Drawbacks for Museums Use: their Appropriability.

The purpose of a museum is contemplation, a kind of mental perception which transforms concepts and ideas inside a subjectivity, and not objectively, in the object. Watching a painting, is dreaming inside of its world, like in a fiction. It is the “free play of cognitive faculties”[[9]] as Kant formulates it. Therefore, interactivity is considered as an essential drawback as it encourages action, hence preventing contemplation. Interactivity makes it possible to somehow physically appropriate a masterpiece reproduction. Does appropriation of art induce disappearance of a contemplative and appreciative esthetical reception? Still, it appears that unlike what some murderous critics pretend, this feature might not destroy it, and even perhaps actually lead to it.

Appropriability and Intimist Esthetic of Reception

Appropriability is not impossible as an aesthetic movement. It was defended by conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres , particularly in his work Puzzles, in a way which is not foreign to Virtual Museums ways of acting. Composed of bits of photographs put to pieces, it imposed upon its viewers a playing rule whereby they were supposed to take the pieces in their hand and arrange them in the proper order of the original photograph, and conversely, to return it to pieces. As the artist and theorietician Eric Vatier explains:

” […] This is one of the possibilities and functions of technical reproducibility : it especially allows to bring the work of the receiver. So, as here, to touch it, put literally in pieces, rebuild or not . “[[10]][Image 5 (Untitled Klaus Barbie as a Family Man 1988.jpg). Caption: “(Untitled) Klaus Barbie as a Family Man” Puzzles series,1988][[11]]

Malraux, and especially Walter Benjamin had not foreseen this element, since of the general public was having difficulty manipulating analogous photography, which demanded heavy material, unlike digital photography and a computer world automatically delivering free software. This new technological capacity turns auratic effect in yet another perspective. Chirollet observes that:

“As the feeling of rarity and uniqueness of art disappears under the influx of photographic reproductions, contemporary man considers art images as the most intimate access, the “closest” to aesthetic value and symbolic meanings of which those works of art are carriers. From day to day, the need to possess the object as closely as possible, in the image or in reproduction asserts itself more imperiously” [[12]]

The receiver does not stop contemplating, well to the contrary. Being able to surf inside high resolution reproductions, a field to possess the inner side of the art work, and consequently to get into the artist’s intimacy, is opened. An aesthetic of intimate relationship introduced by the digital image becomes plausible. In L’Art dématérialisé, Jean-Claude Chirollet explains that the highest digital reproductions resolution as well as their appreciation in privacy produce the opposite effect to the one intended. Unlike anticipated trivialization of works of art promoted through the easy surfing movement of cultural tourism in Virtual Museums, along floating attention and fascination with the technological sensational, it appears that the vision of details provided by macro and micro-photography devices produces a closeness with the intimacy of the artist currently creating his work.

“In sum, -the artistic invisibility to yesterday viewer reveals his most intimate and secret visibility, exacerbated by software manipulation.”[[13] ]

Hence, auratic appeal, the call from the far in the near is not gone. Reproduction and ad libitum manipulation does not necessarily occlude captivation of the artistic origin. Going into artists creativity and technique intimacy has not destroyed their alterity, but this promiscuity shows a new kind of ritual. One does not collect originals but chases traces of esthetic ideas inside artist’s intentions.

Fictious Art by Fragmentation and an Anti-Classical Aesthetic of Reception

Digital images introduce a reversal of values when it encourages focusing on the part often at the expense of the whole. By classical esthetical principles, a work of art had to be appreciated in its entirety, from a distance determined by the size of its frame, according to the rule of a unique point of view for the spectator according to central perspective principle. A painting was never made to be observed close up. Only an experienced amateur or artist could break with this rule and penetrate the secrets of confection.

“The major advantage of digitalizing art images in ” multi-resolution ” mode – condition of electronic display and high-quality printing at multiple scales of grandeur-, lies precisely in the ability to exercise analytical perception, capable of transiting from an overall sight, reduced by the size of a screen conditioned for print media, to a plurality of detailed views without clear continuity between them. From an image fragment to the next, and in any order, arbitrarily chosen, zooming on parts of the work implicitly create a kind of figurative, discontinuous narrative.”[[14]]

A narrative is composed by the “spectactor”, the user of digital reproductions in Virtual Museums, which amounts to an esthetic judgment. Through a kind of explicit counterfeit, actually yet better, a false reality, bigger than its original provides an unusual way of approaching works of art for the general public. Fiction leads to truth better reality itself, as shows Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire’s conception. Another form of fictional art is born, where the viewer enacts its own interpretation of the work he observes, and lends it a narrative with the movements and manipulation of software tools at his disposal. Proximity – promiscuity in classical aesthetic terms, sense of ownership and fragmentation create new realities against some figurative systematic aspects, as well as being also moments of totalization. They induce another type of aesthetic experience, similar to that of the artist himself, within the movements of coming and going, comparing bits and pieces disclosed from their original position.

Furthermore, this part of creativity is evident in another digital reproduction achievement, which reveals the dynamics of the artist’s historical construction. The digital image can produce the temporal genesis of the creative act. As Jean-Louis Weissberg brings forward about digitalization of Lascaux grottes, “Lascaux III” project provides access to “the history of which Lascaux is the culmination”[15]. By going back in time, it can show the evolution of the figures, sketches, plots, of this work, make visible the invisible traces, put together time layers in a way which is incompatible with space/time physical rules.

GAP Hellenistic Museum Multi Resolution
Google Art Project, Acropolis Museum, multi-resolution viewing][[16]]


This reflection on the reproduced nature of Virtual Museums reveals that, unlike major critics coming from existing physical museums, Virtual Museums can exist as museums by themselves. It is true that they can be prey to technological fascination, be vectors of a virtual kind of tourism and fulfill an economic and entertaining goal. But these usesdo not constitute a fatal threat to Virtual Museums. They can enter the museal realm by featuring, as in Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire, a new kind of fictitious art which leads one to unforeseen truths without the need for digital tools, and an approach which dissociates itself from the classical esthetic it introduces. Auratic values present themselves in the intimacy of the appropriative act brought by interactivity within high resolution reproductions. Fragmentation goes a step further, dismantling pieces of art melded together to be united in a totality which is not made to be deconstructed. A Virtual Museum, even though it is exclusively comprised of reproductions is therefore not in contradiction with museal principles, the goal of museums being esthetical appreciation, knowledge dissemination and progress. It introduces a paradoxical concept vis-a-vis main stream museums, with a cognitive and esthetical element capable of renewing artistic reception and history of art conceptions.


[1] Musealia- musealie : museal exhibition object.



[4] Koo, B. (2006). The Use of Digital Images By Art Museum Professionals: Preferences, Perceptions, and Implications for Museum Practice. Florida State University. Retrieved from, p. 23.

[5]Deloche, B. (2001). Le musée virtuel: vers une éthique des nouvelles images: Presses universitaires de France, p. 161.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Malraux, A. (1965). Les voix du silence tome 1 : le musee imaginaire. collection : idées / arts n° 1. (Édition : Gallimard . ed.): Gallimard, p. 22.

[8]Benjamin, W. (1938-2008). The Work of Art in the Epoch of its Technical Reproducibility, Harvard University Press, Preface, IV.

[9] Edmond Couchot, La technologie dans l’art   : de la photographie à la réalité virtuelle, « L’art numérique », Ed. J. Chambon, Nîmes : 1998.

[10] Kant, Critique of Judgment, “Part I:Critique of Aesthetic Judgement”, Section I. Analytic of Aesthetic Judgement.Book I. Analytic of the Beautiful. Second Moment. Of the Judgement of Taste: Moment of Quantity. § 9. Investigation of the question of the relative priority in a judgement of taste of the feeling of pleasure and the estimating of the object.”.

[11] Torres-Gonzales, Felix. Un art de la reproductibilité technique, in


[13]Chirollet, Jean-Claude. L’Art dématérialisé – Reproduction numérique et argentique, éd. Mardaga, Wavre (Belgique), 2008, p. 184.

[14] Chirollet, Ibid., p. 183

[15] Ibid, p. 186-187.

[16]Weissberg, Jean-Louis. « Le déplacement virtuel de Lascaux », in Actes du séminaire « de Lascaux au virtuel », 1994 p180.



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