The opinions shared are entirely my own. I am not a professional reviewer, just a curious person 🙂
While many museums have expanded their online offerings since March, the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA) is unique in its claim to be “the world’s first virtual museum of its kind.”1 The museum has neither a brick-and-mortar gallery space, nor a physical art collection.
The idea for VOMA was conceived by artist Stuart Semple, and the museum opened on September 5th under the directorship of Lee Cavaliere, a private art dealer and curator. According to the Kickstarter page for the project, Semple collaborated with Emily Mann on the architecture of the virtual museum.
As someone who has spent a great deal of time poring over museum websites, I awaited the “opening” of VOMA with some anticipation. I have long been interested in the ways that museums endeavor to develop and maintain online content. I am also, in general, curious about the tension that exists in hybrid spaces. In this case, I’m wondering what happens when a very object-centric place (the museum) becomes a wholly virtual site. Instead of presenting born-digital artwork, VOMA is showing digital surrogates (or reproductions) of physical artworks that are “on loan” from other institutions. What are the opportunities and challenges present here?
The first thing to note about VOMA is that it is a downloadable program that must be installed on a Mac or PC. WARNING: It is a large program- 2 GB. It slowed my machine down to a crawl, which impeded my interaction with the entire museum. Although the program is free, it does require registration (username, email address, and password). I can only presume that the username is intended for use in the interactive sections of the museum, for commenting, etc.
Once the program launches, the opening frame of the museum is quite appealing, although it makes me suddenly nostalgic for the late 1990s. As a pre-teen, I played many story-based computer games, including Twinsen’s Odyssey (1997) and Grim Fandango (1998).
VOMA has a similar visual aesthetic. There are awkward moments when the edges don’t line up, or the surface “texture” hovers a little awkwardly over other elements of the virtual structure. I “enter” the museum feeling a little disoriented and confused.
Well, actually, it takes me a little while to successfully enter the museum…I’m trying to navigate with my mouse, and according to VOMA’s instructions, but am having flashbacks to the first time I tried to parallel park a car. I use the mouse to move forward a bit and then backwards, and then to the right, and then scoot forward and then backwards again. I try using the arrows on my keyboard.
I’m not making much progress, so I opt to use the museum floor plan to get into Gallery Zero. I end up relying on this floor plan for the majority of my time “moving through” (or really hopping around) the museum.
Once I do get in, I find myself in a high-ceilinged, white-walled gallery space. To my left I can see that there is some exhibition text, although only a snippet is visible from this angle. I see digital reproductions of familiar and unfamiliar artwork on the walls. Above, I see gallery lights and windows. The space replicates the look of a contemporary gallery space, replete with “natural” sunlight.
I’m a bit confused, however, because VOMA is advertised as a new and innovative museum space that raises “a critical eyeglass to some of the art world’s murkier corners.” The website claims that VOMA will defy “homogeneity.”2
Yet, even in this virtual space that is free from any physical limitations, VOMA opts for a fairly conventional gallery layout similar to the very museum/gallery spaces that I suspect the museum is critiquing. I’m not sure, but this place seems targeted to people who are already familiar with the protocols of modern museums. I should add here that Cavaliere states “the museum itself can shift and adapt,” so this may just be the first iteration of many.3
Once I do finally maneuver myself around to the aforementioned exhibition text, I learn that this exhibition is about “reunion,” or coming together. Although I am a huge fan of concise exhibition texts, I want more information.
For example, why not provide details about how and why these particular pieces were selected for a virtual exhibition? What did it mean to even “loan” these digital surrogates from other museums? Why are these pieces well-suited to this platform? I notice that many of the pieces in the show are paintings- how did the museum creators and curators think about texture as they were mounting the exhibition? What work had to be done to try to replicate that texture in this place? Do photographs translate to the virtual space more effectively? (Spoiler: I really want a peek behind the scenes of this museum).
As much as I want to meander the galleries and enjoy the artworks and their labels in a leisurely manner, I find it impossible to navigate the galleries in this way. For one thing, my 2017 MacBook Pro sounds like it is preparing to launch- the program is stretching this little baby to its limits. I also continue to struggle with navigation- I point my mouse in one place and float helplessly to another. I find myself being put in many corners, in front of mostly-blank walls, or staring at the ceiling. Am I being punished for something? I attempt to glean as much information from the portions of the artwork that are available to me, but feel sad. Oh, and at one point, I am confronted by a PayPal webpage levitating in the middle of the gallery. Is this a piece of art?
After much shuffling, I do finally succeed in planting myself in front of one of the digital reproductions. The piece is accompanied by an object label, zoom features, a “heart” button, and a commenting feature. I don’t understand where the comments actually reside, or how to interact with them, as I don’t see any contributions from other visitors. So, I decide not to use this feature, and move on.
This museum is so committed to the idea of a standard museum layout, complete with amenities, that it has its own café and gift shop. I understand this, in principle, but am still baffled by the presence of a light-filled but totally non-functional café. How does this contribute to the overall experience of the museum? It makes me feel lonely, to be honest. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing many empty cafés and restaurants during the time of COVID-19, but this virtual space doesn’t have to adhere to our social distancing rules or mask mandates. This just, again, seems like a lost opportunity to do something really unexpected or interesting.
There is a “Community Wall” in the museum. I eagerly approach the wall, hoping that this space holds the answer to some of my questions. Text on the VOMA website suggests that this museum offers a “truly communal experience.”4 Having not found that sense of community elsewhere in the museum, I expect that it might be found here. Sadly, I find that I cannot get close enough to the wall to actually read the explanatory text. From the heading, I gather that the wall features information about a “charity partner” and a hyperlink to a donation website. But I don’t see any mechanism for interacting with other visitors in this space. Darn.
I enter the second gallery space with some trepidation, and not just because I’ve grown weary (and somewhat seasick) due to the issues with locomotion. The show in Gallery One is called “Degenerate Art,” and, as the name suggests, this is “a recreation of an exhibition held by the Nazis in Munich in 1937 denouncing the work of ‘degenerate’ artists.”5 Except it isn’t. The gallery actually features a handful of pieces included in the original 1937 exhibition, carefully hung at standard gallery level. The Munich show, organized by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi party, was chaotic, presenting artwork stacked on top of each other. The context was hugely important.
I am neither an art historian nor an art critic, so I’ll mainly stick with my experiences of the museum as an information scientist. However, I was again startled by the lack of contextual information about why and how this exhibition was mounted in this virtual museum. Especially since the only exhibition text included in the gallery space was an excerpt from the introduction to the “Degenerate Art” catalogue published alongside the original show. Is VOMA subverting the aims of the original exhibition with its minimalist aesthetic and inclusion of only a few artworks? I’m still not sure. (By the way, I think MOMA has done a pretty good job of contextualizing this exhibition on their website, https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3868?.)
One of VOMA’s key aims is apparently anti-nationalism.
Anti-Nationalism: VOMA is nowhere, so it is everywhere; people from all corners of the globe have a place here and those who cannot reach it should be helped in by those who can.“About Us,” VOMA Website
I would like to see and hear more about how VOMA is enacting this aim through mounting exhibitions like “Degenerate Art.” I did find one sentence on the “What’s On” poster that was helpful, but I needed more, particularly within the gallery itself. The poster states that “Degenerate Art” is “Part of an ongoing programme highlighting ways in which art can be used as a tool of oppression,” but I need further details, and I’m someone with prior knowledge of this exhibition.6
I fear that I’ve been overly negative about VOMA. Perhaps I am just awaiting further information or iterations of this project.
My research over the past few years has demonstrated how incredibly challenging it is to accomplish something like this, so I must applaud VOMA for launching a fully virtual museum in the first place. Amazing!
I think, through its mere existence, our imaginings of how to utilize virtual spaces are expanded. I wonder what will come next.
I am, as you may have noticed, also left with a lot of questions. One major question: how do museums become authoritative? Do we trust them as cultural sites because of their staff? infrastructure? physical structure? funding sources? collections? location? I think it is a combination of all of these things, of course, but I suspect that a major part of their authoritativeness comes from our ability to understand how and why they exist.
I think VOMA could provide some background information into how they are funded (is it solely through a Kickstarter?), who created the virtual platform (who is the team? how are they supported?), and how loans work, just to name a few examples.
This brings me back to something I explored early on in graduate school. Miltos Menetas and Peter Lunenfeld collaborated on a website in 2002, whitneybiennial.com, that still persists after eighteen years. (WARNING: the website emanates music and noise, so turn off your speaker if you’re on a Zoom meeting or in another semi-public space). whitneybiennial.com is an interactive gallery space, without too many bells and whistles, that is accompanied by a soundscape. It is explicitly performative and experimental, although it requires Adobe Flash. To me, this website from the early-ish days of the World Wide Web can still hold its own against many current projects, including VOMA. It manages to capture the essence of the museum, and become an artwork in its own right, without overburdening my computer.
- Kickstarter, “VOMA- a free and virtual museum for everyone!,” https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/culturehustle/voma-a-free-virtual-art-museum-for-everyone, last accessed September 14, 2020,.
- VOMA, “About Us,” https://voma.space/about-us/, last accessed September 14, 2020.
- Mark Westall, “World’s first virtual museum VOMA to launch next month- with your help,” FAD Magazine, May 7, 2020, https://fadmagazine.com/2020/05/07/worlds-first-virtual-museum-voma-to-launch-next-month-with-your-help/.
- VOMA, “About Us.”
- VOMA, “What’s On,” https://voma.space/on-now/, last accessed September 14, 2020.
- VOMA, “About Us.”