Art Museums

What Jane Saw

In May 1813 Jane Austen visited a retrospective exhibit of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), England’s great portrait painter. That moment is now recreated in an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, one of the first great blockbuster museum shows.

It’s a great use of some new technology to give us insights into the past. The gallery, in a building that was subsequently demolished, was recreated using the 3-D modeling software SketchUp, based on precise measurements recorded in an 1860 book. This primary source material was a twenty page pamphlet that was sold during the exhibition, listing 141 painting. With this starting point, the researchers added narrative accounts in nineteenth-century newspapers and books, and precise architectural measurements of the British Institution’s exhibit space.

Now, what makes this so interesting? It provides relationships that a simple catalogue would not. For example, portraits of the prince regent and his mistress were discreetly kept apart. On the other hand, should we read anything into the portrait of George III hanging near the painting based on Shakespeare’s mentally unstable King Lear?

Of course, who can resist the Jane Austen connection? In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen joked how she would be searching for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy among these pictures.

Museums: Coming soon to a theater near you

Technology is rapidly changing the museum experience. By Experience, a company that brought the New York Metropolitan Opera to a wide audience via their live video programs, has now entered the museum for its latest venture. This week, their program, Manet: Portraying Life, played on an estimated 1,000 screens in twenty-eight countries. Unlike the live opera broadcasts, the art presentations are really just one-time-only documentaries.

What is gained with this new format? For one, I will not be able to visit the exhibit, stunning in its quality. I can sit in a comfortable chair (with a bag of popcorn) and receive what the project director calls “a super-size VIP virtual tour.” I’d learn something, and that’s good.

What is lost? I am not in control over what I see and how long I look at it. In a real museum, you set your own pace, decide what’s worth twenty seconds or ten minutes. I also lose depth, so the painter’s brush strokes flatten.

The biggest loss, though, I might call the experience of the holy — entering into the presence of the real thing. I have gone online and read letters of Thomas Jefferson. But there was an ineffable moment when I was in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia and held the actual paper in my (gloved!) hands.

Still, these two approaches are not contradictory. The Met says that opera attendance is up because a new audience has been attracted by the theater experience.

Podcasts and Art Museums

I’ve been impressed by the creativity of the art museum world in their use of podcasts. I think that it stems from their familiarity with the recorded gallery tour, in which you picked up a cassette player at the entry desk and walked through an exhibition, listening to the curator. Take a look at SmartHistory (, an award-winning site that uses a format of two narrators discussing a particular work of art. For a good example, check out their podcast on Mary Cassatt’s “Breakfast in Bed.” It is very low tech and focuses completely on the painting itself. I have not found the same level of energy for the interpretation of history, although this is rapidly changing.