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.