(Im)material Museums: Evolving the ExhibitionEdwin Coomasaru // 10 March 2014

Justin Bieber on Twitter.


It might seem that the figure of the curator is ubiquitous in the Internet age. From Twitter to Tumblr, the rise of blogging and social media platforms has presented a myriad of opportunities to collect, archive, share and re-contextualise. Could a hashtag or a YouTube playlist constitute an exhibition? For some, ‘curating is now linguistically deluded beyond the point of return to an artistic context – Whole Foods encourages you to ‘curate’ your own selection of organic produce’.1 But is this necessarily a problem? Curating has never taken place solely in museums: every CD collection, family photo album, pin-board or bookshelf is an archive maintained by someone. The fundamental characteristic of curating – the valuation of an individual’s judgement, taste or agenda – remains the same whether it is Justin Bieber’s Twitter feed or the Turner Prize.2 The public dimension of the Internet has just made many more of these collections visible to a much wider audience at a relatively low cost.

But it’s not just Justin Bieber who has exploited these new opportunities brought about by technological change. The first photograph was uploaded to the Internet in 1992 and shortly after the first net art was publicly shared online.3 The Museum of Computer Art was founded in 1993, Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum in 1994, and Plexus in 1995. In 1997 Walker Art Gallery began displaying net art online, followed by Rhizome's Artbase in 1999, Tate in 2000, and SFMOMA in 2001. Today, in 2014, online exhibitions have become commonplace. There has been a proliferation of galleries primarily based on the Internet, including Widget Art Gallery, bubblebyte, Artsy, International New Media Gallery, e-PERMANENT, Vdrome, and Neverland Space.4 These organisations specialise in net art, digital art, photography or moving image: mediums that are not only designed to be viewed on a screen, but due to their technological nature do not have a rarefied ‘original’ that can only be seen in a single location. However, the (r)evolutionary potential of these virtual museums was recognised long before the twenty-first century: dating back to André Malraux’s 1947 plans for a ‘museum without walls’, if not earlier.5

The first photograph uploaded to the Internet: Silvano de Gennaro, Les Horribles Cernettes (1992).


The development of photography was key to Malraux’s idea: photographic reproductions made art available to audiences who would have never normally visited a museum.6 In 1999, reflecting on Malraux’s vision, Antonio Battro wrote that ‘it is not too venturesome to think that in a short time, comfortably seated in our homes, we will be able to contemplate our favourite works of art’.7 Indeed, online galleries are accessible in the home, which can offer a real potential for widening and diversifying the audience for contemporary art. Although the main reason for someone to visit a museum is likely dependent on his or her background and education,8 making art accessible online increases opportunities for more sites of encounter. This may seem a negligible difference,9 but when the alternative is paying to travel a distance to see art and then perform carefully coded rituals associated with the space,10 the ability to broadcast art into people’s homes is a step forward.

It’s worth asking why more people should access art – and the answer isn’t just because art shouldn’t be the preserve of a small elite. Attention is power and every curator has an agenda:11 perhaps to turn visitors into consumers, or to encourage critical discussion and thought. The International New Media Gallery (INMG) is more concerned with the latter. The subject matter of our exhibitions – from migration to climate change – is designed to provoke analytical enquiry and the website’s discussion forums are intended to facilitate conversation. Spaces for debate, where the artwork and curatorial decisions can be challenged, are vital for the creation of an environment where ‘the curator’s voice is one voice among many others’.12 To this end, the educational focus of the INMG is crucial. With each exhibition is an extensive academic catalogue, free to download. Our publications help stimulate comments and queries about the exhibition’s themes.13 Of course, some of our visitors may not read the text, but it is important to have it – if only to proclaim ‘the right to be there and be uninformed, and the right of uninformed people to be there’.14

Amy Balkin, documentation from Public Smog (2004-present).


This interest in involving non-specialists in the displays is also a key intention of our Collective Curating programme. Our exhibition Between Self and Selfie (2013-14) was recently launched as an experiment into a more collaborative model of curating. Reminiscent of a user generated platform, Between Self and Selfie is a crowd-sourced archive of social media self-portraits that grows and evolves over time. A number of curators have advocated a more decentralised, less hierarchical model where there is less of a distinction between the curator, artist and audience.15 For Carol McKay and Arabella Plouviez, ‘[m]uch can be said positively about the significance of such blurring, especially in terms of audience development and – perhaps more controversially – the potential for ‘democratizing’ art’.16 While care needs to be taken over use of the term ‘democracy’, these new approaches to curating seem increasingly important as understandings of what constitutes an exhibition continue to evolve.

With these opportunities brought by the web, do we still need buildings for art? By using words such as ‘physical’ or ‘real’ to describe offline museums,17 many writers perpetuate out-dated ideas that the Internet is somehow immaterial or disembodied.18 N. Katherine Hayles reflects how in the face of the great dream that information ‘can be free from the material constraints that govern the mortal world … it can be a shock to remember that for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium, whether that medium is the page … or the cathode ray tube’.19 Indeed, the words you are currently reading are not just data floating in mid-air, but are dependent on material computer screens and data servers. In fact, to be both written and read they rely on fingers, eyes, and neurons. The same is true for an online gallery, which is just as physical as the façade of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. This is important to remember, because while the INMG holds Internet-based discussions, it also organises offline events and talks. As Occupy made evident, one of the Internet’s strengths is that it can create, foster and maintain networks of people in geographical proximity. Rather than talk of a binary between physical and virtual, more arts organisations should consider blurring the boundaries between both.


Edwin Coomasaru is the Director of the International New Media Gallery and a research student at the Courtauld Institute, researching Northern Irish masculinity and the legacy of the 'Troubles'.



1 Brad Troemel, quoted in Daniel C Blight, ‘What happened to the expert curator?’, The Guardian (Published 23/8/13, Accessed 23/8/13,

2 See Michael Camille, Zeynep Çelik, John Onians, Adrian Rifkin and Christopher B. Steiner, 'Rethinking the Canon', The Art Bulletin, Volume 78, Number 2 (June 1996), pp.198-217, p.217: 'Canon formation is premised on the mistaken belief that aesthetic judgments and distinctions of taste can be made under objective conditions free from moral, political, economic, and social influences'.

3 ‘First Photo Ever On The Internet: Les Horribles Cernettes Homemade Promo Is 20 Years Old’, Huffington Post (Published 7/10/12, Accessed 9/10/12,; Rachel Greene, Internet Art (Thames & Hudson: London, 2004), p.33-34.

4 For more, see

5 Erikk Huhtamo, ‘On the Origins of the Virtual Museum’, in Ross Parry ed., Museums in the Digital Age (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp.121-135, p.123, p.129.

6 Ibid, p.123.

7 Antonio M. Battro, ‘From Malraux’s Imaginary Museum to the Virtual Museum’, in Ross Parry ed., Museums in the Digital Age (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp.136-147, p.147.

8 Pierre Bourdieu, Alain Darbel and Dominique Schnapper, The Love of Art: European Art Museums and their Public, Caroline Beattie and Nick Merriman trans. (Oxford and Cambridge: Polity Press and Blackwell, 1991, First Published 1969), p.14-70.

9 For example, see: Paul Hodkinson, ‘’Net.Goth’: Internet Communication and (Sub)cultural Boundaries’, in David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl eds., The Post-Subcultures Reader (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2003), pp.285-297.

10 Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p.12-13.

11 This is as true for social media as museums: James Franco, ‘The Meanings of the Selfie’, New York Times (Published 26/12/13, Accessed 5/1/14,

12 Konstantinos Arvanitis, ‘Museums Outside Walls: mobile phones and the museum in the everyday’, in Ross Parry ed., Museums in the Digital Age (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), p.171.

13 For example, see

14 Bourdieu, Darbel and Schnapper, p.49.

15 Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2010), p.82, p.185, p.267, p.270, p.271-273.

16 Carol McKay and Arabella Plouviez, ‘Are We All Photographers Now? Exhibiting and Commissioning Photography in the Age of Web 2.0’, in Alexandra Moschovi, Carol McKay and Arabella Plouviez eds., The Versatile Image Photography, Digital Technologies and the Internet (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2013), p.143.

17 For example: Blight; Omar Kholeif, ‘The Curator’s New Medium’, Art Monthly, Number 363 (February 2013), pp.9-13, p.11; Margee Hume and Michael Mills, ‘Building the sustainable iMuseum: is the virtual museum leaving our museums virtually empty?’, International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, Volume 16, Issue 3 (2011), pp.275-289, p.282, p.287; Barbara J. Soren and Nathalie Lemelin, ‘”Cyberpals!/Les Cybercopains!”: A Look at Online Museum Visitor Experiences’, Curator, Volume 47, Issue 1 (2004), pp.55-83, p.63; Andrew J. Pekarik, ‘Museum Web Sites’, Curator, Volume 46, Issue 3 (2003), pp.276-278, p.277-278; Jonathan Bowen, ‘The virtual museum’, Museum International, Number 205, Volume 52:1 (2000), pp.4-7, p.4, p.7.

18 For example: Naomi McCormick and John Leonard, ‘Gender and Sexuality in the Cyberspace Frontier’, Women & Therapy, Volume 19, Issue 4 (1996), pp.109-119, p.110: ‘[on the Internet] we are free to experiment with gender and our sexualities, freed from our physical bodies’.

19 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1999), p.13 (emphasis in the original).




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