Art Museums in the Digital Revolution: Considerations on Technology's Influence on Aesthetic Appreciation

Westrey P. Page, University of Puget Sound


Walter Benjamin’s theory of the original artwork’s "aura" originated in the 1930’s, yet has persisted as a highly influential and frequently discussed philosophical concept within Media Studies. The "aura," in Benjamin’s view, is a property of an original artwork inherently elitist in its sheer tie to tradition, authority, and its limitation within time and space. This essence is depleted as technological reproductions disperse copies to wider audiences of more diverse backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. As our society further entrenches itself in Web 2.0 technologies, it seems important to speculate how recent online museum catalogues or websites like the GoogleArtProject might influence the "aura" (or what might be left of it) within the original. This project therefore examines the applicability of Walter Benjamin’s and Theodor Adorno’s concepts of the "aura" to the situation today. Additionally, as part of the investigation into how digital technology is influencing engagement with original artworks, empirical evidence is considered from the fields of Psychology, Social Psychology, and finally research from Museum Studies itself.

Thus, this paper attempts to identify the status of "aura," and the potential differences web technology is creating on the aesthetic appreciation of visitors in museums. However, it also contextualizes these conclusions within the trajectory of the museum field itself as an institution that enacts, as Carol Duncan argues, a "civilizing ritual." On this broad level, it is questioned whether our modern day art museums, employing democratizing technologies, enact ritual in the same sense.