Juxtaposing Stephen Greenblatt’s Resonance and Wonder with the digitisation of the museum database

Greenblatt’s Resonance and Wonder serves as an explanation of the two intersecting manners of how we perceive objects in a museum context: resonance and wonder. Greenblatt begins his essay by describing his academic practice of ‘the new historicism’ as a way to analyse differing cultural and social settings wherein objects and texts are born, and how this affects our contemporary interpretation of these. This approach of cultural analysis demonstrates the dialectical nature of resonance and wonder. Considering the progression of digital spaces online as well as the influence of emerging technologies on museums, this essay will explore ways in which the Internet influences our reception and perception of museum ‘objects’ and their subsequent resonance and wonder – or lack thereof.

Does a museum function as a database? Museums have served as collection pools since their beginnings. Early curiosity cabinets displayed new information and objects found on colonial excavations. Expanding libraries served as displays of wealth and knowledge of the world. As a school student we regularly attended museums to learn more about our history and heritage. Museums have thoroughly progressed over the years towards an ideal, hopefully less-constructed portrayal of a universal ‘truth’. With the museum acting as a physical manifestation of the intersection of research, discovery and publicly digestible information Mike Pepi describes the journey and critiques for the museum institution:

“...early modernists lambasted its entombment of ‘real’ life. Later it endured Foucauldian and postcolonial critiques that characterized the museum as an embodiment of Western colonialism and cultural hegemony... But today the museum faces more virulent destabilizations that have emerged alongside new behavior from the general public, wherein patrons transform the museum’s physical assets into digital assets – uploaded, downloaded, visualized, shared, and digitized. Museums of various stripes now adapt to ‘users’ who treat institutions not as a storehouse of physical objects but rather as a data set of image files.” 

With the expanding reach to new information and ideas presented to us by a globalised Internet connection, to what extend does the digitizing culture of museums and its objects affect our engagement with its content? As important as open access to information is, perhaps the ease and access of a museum’s online archive brings the ‘novel’ of the museum’s content to a diluted version. The “spectacular disinterested scroll” Pepi mentions is a fundamental flaw in this process of modernization and is described as a ‘glaze’ over the “site-specific nature of display, collection, scholarship, and education” within a museum. The heterotopia of a museum, and its subsequent possibilities of interpretation, presents physicality to an object that results in much stronger (either) resonance or wonder.

Pepi argues thus that the museum still functions differently to a database. The online archives and digitization of museums are acts of data collecting, yet the curating and physical presentations within the museum space negate it from ultimately being a database. What the Internet presents to the public functions rather like the manuscripts of the medieval marvels. These manuscripts were written records of the artefacts and collections housed by important and wealthy figures, yet effectively evoked wonder in the recipients of the texts, as well as granting a certain level of austerity and prestige for the owner of the collection. Although still visually based, these online archives don’t present the viewer with the wonder and resonance that can be achieved by site-specific curating, “The museum derives its special status from the “un-queryable” structure of its objects.” Wonder could perhaps be achieved by the sheer amount presented with an online archive, where users can scroll through thousands of objects in a very short space of time without leaving their chair, much like Renaissance wonder-cabinets, “Those things were not necessarily admired for their beauty; the marvellous was bound up with the excessive, the surprising, the literally outlandish, the prodigious” – and this subsequently contributes to the brand image of the often privately-owned galleries or museums, much like an emperor’s prestige.

The online manifestation of the museum also functions as an indexed “end-user retrieval” orientated collection. Users can search and find what they are looking for and thereafter close the browser window, ignoring all other objects regardless of their inclusion in the collection, thus this can effectively terminate any form of resonance or wonder in viewing a large gathering of particular objects in context: “A resonant exhibition often pulls the viewer away from the celebration of isolated objects and towards a series of implied, only half-visible relationships and questions...” Wonder in the physical space is also partly achieved with lighting by alluding to the concept of ownership. By presenting objects on pedestals with spotlights the viewer experiences a desire to obtain the object yet the modern museum subsequently doesn’t allow for this, since we are not allowed to touch or to keep the objects.This differs for an online-museum goer where they could simply download or screenshot the image they are presented with and no mystery is left for them unless they are exposed to the physical object in the space.

With the multiplicity and endless subjective interpretations of images and objects in a networked digital age, the museum does still hold the status as a unique presenter of its objects and collections to its viewers. Until the technological process of digitizing the museum archive is able to reach a point of convincing virtual reality and presence, viewers’ receptions of objects will continue to be of wonderful resonance and resonant wonder. Until then.

Greenblatt, S. 1991. Resonance and wonder. In Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. I. Karp & S.D. Lavine, Eds. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 161-83.

Palmer, D. 2014. Share and Share Alike: Museums and the Digital Image Explosion.
The Exhibitionist, Jan. 6, 2014

Pepi, M. 2014. Is a Museum a Database?: Institutional Conditions in Net Utopia. e-flux journal (60):1-13.

Vierkant, A. 2010. The Image Object Post-Internet. http://jstchillin.org/artie/pdf/The_Image_Object_Post-Internet_us.pdf [2016, March 14].



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