Art galleries and museums arrange exhibits in carefully constructed viewing sequences. At blockbuster shows, the long lines of visitors shuffle from one item to the next.
Designing a great museum, then, has traditionally been a task of relating wall or cabinet display space, with appropriate natural lighting, to a circulation system that efficiently conducts visitors through the collection. 13 Nineteenth-century neoclassicists typically solved the problem by symmetrically arranging long, rectangular, skylit gallery spaces around grand, central entrance halls; visitors would enter and orient themselves, circulate around the perimeter, and eventually return to the starting point. The great examples are Leo von Klenze's Glyptothek and Alte Pinakothek in Munich and Schinkel's Altes Museum in Berlin. (At the brilliantly planned Pinakothek, parallel galleries are cross-connected so that visitors can depart from the perimeter circulation ring at will.) But there are other alternatives: at the Guggenheim in New York, Frank Lloyd Wright twisted a single, continuous gallery into a helix wrapped around a skylit atrium. Here, visitors take an elevator to the top and then descend along the ramped floor.
Within such arrangements, the curatorial task is to order exhibits into meaningful sequences. In the Glyptothek works of sculpture have traditionally been set out chronologically-beginning with Egypt, progressing through Greece and Rome, and ending with moderns like Canova. In the painting galleries of the Altes Museum there was a carefully constructed progression of "quality," leading up to the "perfection" of the High Renaissance. And in the Pinakothek arrangement was by "schools" in roughly chronological order: Flemish, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. Natural history museums, responding to different intellectual agendas, usually arranged exhibits according to scientific principles-by taxonomic grouping, in evolutionary sequence, or by geographic origin. Though older museums and galleries were often designed to present unchanging collections in fixed sequences, this need not be the case; their more modern equivalents usually provide flexible spaces for installing temporary shows.
In a virtual museum digital images of paintings, videos of living organisms, or three-dimensional simulations of sculptures and works of architecture (perhaps destroyed or unbuilt ones) stand in for physical objects, and a temporal sequence on the display plays the role of a spatial sequence along a circulation path. This yields tremendous spatial compression; a huge collection can be viewed, exhibit by exhibit, on a personal computer or in a small video theater. Sprawling gallery spaces become unnecessary.
Crowds become easy to handle. The exhibit material is kept on servers on a network, and viewers can be scattered at remote locations. It is not gallery capacity that matters, but server capability and network bandwidth.
Arrangement and sequencing of material remain crucial issues, of course, but the solutions to the problem are implemented in software instead of being built inflexibly and irrevocably into bricks-and-mortar constructions. Each item in the collection can have hyperlinks to other items that are related in some interesting way, so that the virtual museum visitor can construct a particular path through the collection according to personal interest. A virtual museum can offer far more choices for exploration than even the Pinakothek.
As virtual museums develop, the role of actual museums will shift; they will increasingly be seen as places for going back to the originals. The diagram is clear in the new Sainsbury wing of London's A HREF="http://www.cs.ucl.ac.uk/local/museums/NationalGallery.html">National Gallery. Near the entrance there is a room called the Micro Gallery, containing computer workstations from which visitors can explore the entire collection in hypermedia form. 14 As they do so, visitors note items they will want to see in the original. At the conclusion of the virtual tour, they get a printed plan for a correspondingly personalized tour of the actual museum. An overlay of virtual space thus changes the use of the actual space.