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Digital reproduction or preferably the original?

Digital reproduction or preferably the original?

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Cultural scientist Vivian van Saaze would look into how digitisation of art would influence our appreciation of the authentic object.

“I would split the amount into three.” Van Saaze, researcher and director of the Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage (MACCH), has great plans with the imaginary bag of money.  “Firstly, I would use some of the money to formulate the research questions together with museums. That takes a lot of time and usually there is no budget to determine these questions.”

For Van Saaze, the link with actual practice is important. “I worked in a museum when one of our contemporary works of art was damaged. All kinds of ethical guidelines have been drawn up for the restoration of a Rembrandt or a Frans Hals, but this damage raised a lot of questions. Should I contact the artist? After all he was still alive. The restorer? The curator? Or just leave the work of art as it was, view it as part of the process? Contemporary art is often less static than traditional art, change is part of it. But what change is desirable and what is not? Later on, these questions formed the basis of my thesis: how does one preserve contemporary art? During my PhD track I felt more like the researcher going into the museum. For the dream research I would want to do it together with them, what do they come up against, what do they need?”

The second part of the money would be for the actual research. Van Saaze is interested in the question how digital techniques and reproduction (such as new visualisation techniques and 3D prints) influence the appreciation for and the interaction with authentic objects. “Imagine that you could copy a work of art unrestrictedly, for example with the aid of a 3D printer. That would change our relationship with the original and our ideas about authenticity. On the one hand, digitisation is a way of distributing art and heritage more easily – if you can view a replica in more places, the work becomes more accessible than if it hangs in only one museum. On the other hand, some people fear that because of the focus on digitisation less money and attention will go to collecting and maintaining the original objects. After all, a historic, material object contains history and knowledge that would be lost in a digital copy.”

The one is not better or worse than the other, they are both relevant. “It is also not necessarily the case that people no longer visit museums. The replicas may even raise the interest in the original. But museums will change. We need to realise what the impact of digitisation could be. What choices does one make? How can you keep collections accessible and meaningful for future generations?”

Van Saaze wants the approach to be an interdisciplinary one, with museum professionals, philosophers, sociologists, art historians, restorers, lawyers specialised in intellectual property law, materials professionals and data scientists. “I would also like to carry out an extensive survey among the public. Ask how experts and museum visitors experience the relationship between the original work and the digital reproduction. As far as I know, that has not been done on a large scale yet.”

Lastly, Van Saaze wants to spend money on evaluating the research process and interdisciplinary co-operation. “Consider what went well and what didn't. Are the results, indeed, relevant to all involved? What can we take with us to a follow-up study, but also how can we learn from other domains in which digitisation influences or disrupts existing practices? Digitisation influences all kinds of fields, such as health care and personal medicine.”

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