The Double-Edged Sword of Access
At first glance, the juxtaposition of text, sound, and image that the World Wide Web currently supports seems ideal for representing the inherently visual collections typically found and displayed in museums. And indeed, casual searching in your favorite Internet search service quickly yields numerous links to sites containing images of paintings and three-dimensional artifacts as well as computer-generated art and graphics. Museums and their collections, thus, seem to come to the visitor rather than the other way around, and visitors can assemble virtual collections that are independent of location and ownership. Indeed, one of the first demonstrations that D-Lib identified was WebLouvre, a self-created virtual tour of items in the collections of the Louvre, based on Stanford University's ComMentor.
Digital reproduction, whether or not it is Internet-accessible, has been a double-edged sword for the art community because it has the potential to challenge the importance of the original work and the notion of authorized reproduction while greatly expanding the audience for artistic works. As art historian Charles S. Rhyne of Reed College observes in a recent article for the Commission on Preservation and Access, digital imagery greatly improves access to a potentially broad range of works for students as well as for the public. Yet, "no matter how excellent the computer image, we always wish the color were more accurate and the resolution more detailed; not to mention that the size, texture, and opacity of art can rarely be approximated in a computer image" (Commission on Preservation and Access, January 1996, p. 1). Moreover, he maintains, limitations in transmission and monitor technology inhibit the willingness of producers to create digital images with more than moderate resolution.
Although perfect fidelity to an original may be compromised, digital imaging does offer several analytical advantages not possible or perhaps not desirable in the analog world. As Rhyne observes, digital imaging with high resolution allows students to zoom in on details or illuminate features not otherwise apparent. Indeed, the work on wavelet technology underway by the team at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that storage requirements for high resolution digital imagery can be reduced while also supporting the type of selective viewing of the digitized image that Rhyne's example implies.
What is new here is not the introduction of engineering technologies to the craft-intensive worlds of art conservation and manuscript paleography. X-ray technology, for example, has long been a technique for examining layers of paintings and re-interpreting the artist's intent. However, as illustrated by the restoration of the mural paintings of the Cupola di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (reported in November), digital information technologies can create an easily-accessible archive of the intermediate steps in processing at the same time that they advance the image analyses themselves. This is equally true of the interpretation of rare manuscripts, as exemplified by the Beowulf Project at the British Library. Again, a combination of fibre-optic, ultraviolet, and digital technologies have enabled the reconstruction of degraded portions of the 11th-century manuscript and the broad dissemination of the analysis, reconstructed document, and associated contextual research, which ranges from conventional texts to images of related archaeological resources.
Aside from enhancing the content of early medieval scholarship, the Beowulf Project has the very real advantage of reducing the need to access to the artifact itself and hence contributing to its physical preservation. Similar advantages have been realized for the Tres riches heures du duc du Berry, a fragile medieval manuscript housed in Chantilly, which is no longer open to the public but is widely available in digital form through the WebMuseum. Conservation of the artifact is an attribute shared with the more general treatment of material culture and archaeological data where the physical remains possess significant informational value that is compromised by access itself. Consider, for example, the Paleolithic cave paintings at Vallon - Pont- d'Arc (Ardèche ). One of the ways in which the paintings were authenticated was examination of a subsidence in the ground surface, which leads to the conclusion that the surface itself -- as well as the paintings -- represent an archaeological find that can support micro-biological analyses to yield new information. Thus, the simple act of entering the caves potentially contaminates the resource.
The idea of using digital technologies to render simulations and displays that, in turn, reduce the need for access to fragile resources has already been proposed. And continuing advances in VRML technology and applications demonstrate the viability of distributed, on-line representations of three-dimensional objects. Casual users can traverse the nooks and crannies of famous buildings in ways not physically possible, and researchers can engage in detailed analyses that require precise comparisons and overlays of information.
Economists tell us that information is a resource whose value is not diminished by use. The digital information technologies promise to reduce one form of use while greatly expanding another. All it takes is an infrastructure and a little imagination.