I know that I risk annoying CultureGrandson and his 10-year-old peers by casting doubt on the Metropolitan Museum’s latest technological venture. But does New York’s premier art museum, usually an arbiter of taste and artistic excellence, really want to reduce the disparate elements of artworks to adornments for awkward avatars?
Here’s my own smirking surrogate, sporting a “Floral Collar” and “Hatshepsut’s Headcloth,” which I collected from the Egyptian galleries, via the Met’s Replica app (downloaded free on iOS and Android devices), which I got the chance to preview before the public launch:
“Replica,” the Met’s name for its “first-of-its-kind experience at the museum” (might one hope, “last-of-its-kind”?), allows you to digitally collect snippets from some 37 pre-selected objects drawn from nine curatorial departments, ready to be applied to your own alternate-reality incarnation (see above). There’s no indication on the object labels which pieces are designated for use with this game. But the app does include maps of the target galleries, with outlines of the objects for which you should search in this visual scavenger hunt. Part of the ostensible fun is scouting these out:
Each selected object is designated on the app’s map by a red circle that pulsates when you’re getting near to your goal—a somewhat helpful finding aid. But another frustrating aspect of this augmented-reality world is that you have to exactly line up your phone’s image of the object with the outlines of the actual object, or else you can’t “collect” it (by scanning) and learn more about it. (This isn’t as easy as it sounds.)
Once you overcome these logistical obstacles, you can click on brief descriptions for the objects…
…and click “Redeem Code” at the bottom, to get a long string of numbers and letter to be used for Roblox applications (which your child, grandchild or designated youngster will be very happy to show you):
Clearly I’m not the target audience for this. CultureGrandson, a Roblox fan, who is the envisioned user, recently came home from sleep-away camp and may eventually help to enlighten me.
That said, I can report that an attendee at the preview, who appeared to be just slightly older than my grandson, was racing around the Met’s galleries, eagerly collecting the Roblox-ed objects on his own device. To prepare, one must download the Met’s “Replica” app (which I did before my visit).
Here’s that app’s “Disclaimer”:
This is a first-of-a-kind app that lets museum visitors use immersive AR to find and scan select artworks to create digital “Replicas”—exclusive Roblox virtual items that players can collect, keep & wear in any Roblox world….
How much this will contribute to art appreciation is an open question. But I will concede that there’s something to be said for giving young people a pleasurable museum experience that might prompt them to return and explore more deeply (and maybe even more conventionally). But there’s also something to be said for not giving kids yet another reason to be glued to screens.
According to Verizon (a partner in this project), “Our technology can help bridge gaming and art, creating new possibilities for art education.” As described by the Met, each scanned artwork “is transformed into a collectible replica and can be transferred to the Roblox platform. These objects will then appear in the user’s inventory for their avatar to use as items and accessories.”
The Met and Verizon had previously collaborated on another art/tech initiative, The Met Unframed, which had a five week run beginning on Jan. 12, 2021, during which participants could “explore digital galleries and play games that unlock augmented reality (AR) versions of the art on view that can then be displayed virtually at home.”
The preview for the current initiative (attended by press and assorted technorati) was titled: “The Met Meets the Metaverse.” How very “meta” (in its old meaning—“self referential”)!
All this gives me traumatic flashbacks to this attempt by a former chief digital officer of the Met to animate a van Gogh painting, “First Steps, After Millet,” so that the baby awkwardly toddled from her mother to her father’s outstretched arms, as seen on one’s mobile device in the gallery. Below is the image of this digital activation that the Met’s former CDO, Sree Sreenivasan (pictured below left), had then used as the signature image for his Twitter feed:
Perhaps Sree was ahead of his time (and I was behind): Even the venerable National Gallery, Washington, has gotten into the art-activation act, posting on its Twitter feed this video of Frederic Church‘s Niagara, 1857, cascading down the screen, accompanied by waterfall sound effects. (I hope my new smartphone is waterproof!)
Van Gogh was also roped into one of the the latest manifestations of converting a static painting into an interactive environment. But Lighthouse Immersive Inc., “the Toronto-based company behind ‘Immersive Van Gogh‘—the best-known exhibition in the genre [according to this artnet report, which quotes Bloomberg]—has filed for Chapter 15 bankruptcy in Delaware.”
I much prefer the Met’s most recent Vincent vindication, mustered the old-fashioned way—in a scholarly exhibition, organized by a noted expert, who sheds new light on much admired works. Below is the “power wall” from the Met’s current Van Gogh’s Cypresses (to Aug. 27), organized by Susan Alyson Stein, the museum’s curator of 19th-century European painting. (I had highlighted that exhibition in advance, here.)
The Met’s more “exuberant study from nature” (as the exhibition’s wall text describes that plein-air depiction) is “distill[ed] and refine[ed]” in the more elegant National Gallery iteration, executed later in his studio—“a more vivid, stylized and decorative conception.”
The Met’s rendering of this scene is rougher, more choppy…
…than the National Gallery’s, which is smoother, more luscious:
These two closely related works, “seen together for the first time since 1901,” according to the Met, might not be seen together again, unless the London museum again agrees to dispatch its version to New York to rejoin the immobilized Annenberg gift, or the Met, like the Barnes Foundation, ventures to violate the donor’s explicit no-loan restriction. The Met’s picture was famously bought for the museum for $57 million by its then trustee, the late Walter Annenberg, whose donated works (including “Wheatfield”) can never leave the premises—a draconian provision governing his 1991 gift to the Met (acceded to by then director Philippe de Montebello), which imprisoned this and 53 other works that he bestowed on the museum. (I commented critically on this in my June 26, 1991 Wall Street Journal article, “Free the Annenberg 53,” to which I can no longer find a link.)
While they can leave the Annenberg Collection gallery for special exhibitions at the Met, they can never leave the museum’s premises. (See the last sentence in the gallery text, below.)
MoMA’s decision to lend “Starry Night,” which its visitors expect to see, cannot have been made lightly. But it made an exception for a landmark exhibition of serious purpose.
But back to the Met’s press previews: Here’s the current van Gogh show’s organizer, speaking at the recent preview:
And here’s my brief video of excerpts from Stein’s remarks:
A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl via PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column of the desktop version or by scrolling down to the “DONATE” link in the mobile version. Contributors of $15 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of new posts.