Does Tokyo’s New Digital Art Museum Further A 21st Century Stereotype?
The role of museums has changed throughout history, but is this change for the better?
The Greeks were the first to undertake the concept of a “museum,” as they collected objects with artistic values. They also had buildings called “Theasuri” (Trasuries) that were built in city centers, primarily with religious and political significance. In the 18th century, the rise of enlightenment ideals further the concept of art as a mode of fostering knowledge and education. But there was an important shift that occurred in the 20th century where museums became a stage for experience, particularly for religious purposes. This culminated into the late 20th century where play became the primary mode of participation within museums as they became more open and flexible with their space. Now in the 21st century, museums are labeled as “playgrounds” aimed for pure entertainment. Does the teamLab museum fit into this 21st century stereotype?
The new Digital Art Museum in Tokyo created by teamLab is the latest internet sensation. It has been deemed the first museum to dedicate itself to only digital art, with the intention to enhance audience participation through immersive art exhibitions. The museum is separated into different rooms, each with their own digital landscapes projected onto the floor, ceiling, and walls. Artnet describes the different exhibits in detail;
“In a work called Planets, visitors walk through a maze of dark rooms surrounded by kaleidoscopic light projections that are triggered by motion sensors. Adding to the immersive experience, the installation requires visitors to remove their shoes to feel a variety of different floor textures.
For another work, called Koi Infinity Pond, visitors are invited to wade through a pool of knee-high water surrounded by digitally projected koi fish that turn into flowers when touched.
A third work, titled Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers,uses mirrors and digital light projections to immerse viewers among falling flower cherry blossom petals.”
Before we get into the details, I would like to state that I have nothing against the idea of a digital art museum. From pictures, it seems like the new museum is an experience that I would thoroughly enjoy. It is a beautiful, colorful, interactive experience filled with light and nature. Artnet put it best when they referred to it as a “technicolor playground,” a phrase that really appeals to my inner child.
Furthermore, I do believe that there is educational promise from a digital museum. According to teamLab, their exhibitions seek to generate,
“a new ‘creative physical space’ that trains spatial recognition ability by promoting the growth of the hippocampus of the brain. It is based on the concept of understanding the world through the body and thinking of the world three-dimensionally. In a complex, physically challenging, three-dimensional space, immerse your body in an interactive world.”
Sounds cool. But still, I am skeptical. Is this just another “blockbuster” attempt to increase foot traffic?
For those of you that are unfamiliar, “blockbuster” is the label given to art exhibits (typically created by “superstars” like Kusama or Hirst) with the intention of increasing foot traffic to subsequently increase revenue. Institutions as established as The Tate Modern, The MoMA, The Whitney, The New Museum, and The Brooklyn Museum have been accused of playing into this phenomenon. Granted, blockbuster exhibitions are still very much considered art and there is nothing inherently “wrong” with them, but (to me at least) they lack a sense of substance because of their strict economic purpose. Art has immense value and should be viewed as an investment, but that should not be the reason behind its creation.
Blockbuster exhibitions are easy to pull off in a world enthralled by “experiential events.” This obsession is a direct result of social media because it provides users with whimsical content to enhance their feeds. It is of economic sense for institutions because social media posts act as free marketing and guarantees that all kinds of social media influencers, bloggers, and 14-year olds will flock to the show. The social impact generated by social media also ensures that people will pay to see the exhibition.
However, this idea is problematic because these over-hyped sensations create the notion that people should only go to museums for these types of exhibitions and that they should not waste their time going to other “lesser known” exhibits. The strength of social influence in a digitized world, greatly impacts smaller museums because they do not have the money or resources to produce these type of exhibitions.
Not to mention, it is unclear whether or not this strategy even works. In a recent artnet article, they suggest that blockbuster’s are not a sure way to increase attendance:
“A growing arsenal of evidence suggests that struggling museums relying on blockbusters to cultivate loyal visitors are like terrible husbands relying on opulent gifts to cultivate stable marriages: The people they want to keep engaged aren’t actually showing up for them, just for the perks. Even worse, every short-term “success” in their scheme only makes the target audience that much harder to impress the next time around.
Traditional institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, have recognized the negative impact of blockbusters. In a January 4 blog post on the Met’s change in admission policy by the museum’s president and CEO Daniel H. Weiss, he addresses why the Met chose to charge non-New Yorkers an admission fee instead of charging a separate exhibition fee;
We decided against charging for exhibitions for a number of reasons. First, such a system encourages the museum to produce “blockbusters,” which do not reflect the Met’s tradition of embracing exhibitions that combine scholarship with accessibility. Those types of exhibitions are also very expensive and are not a reliable source of revenue that can be either predicted or accounted for in long-range budgeting.
It is clear from this statement that Mr. Weiss would agree with the argument that blockbusters ruin the integrity of established museums because they do not provide “scholarship” they are strictly “accessible.”
The definition of teamLab’s museum when compared to the definition of a traditional museum highlight the shift in a museums purpose in a 21st century context. According to teamLab Digital Museum’s “about” page the purpose of their museum is to:
“...form one borderless world. Artworks move out of the rooms freely, form connections and relationships with people, communicate with other works, influence and sometimes intermingle with each other.
Create new experiences with others, immerse yourself in borderless art, and explore the world with your body.
In a vast complex, three-dimensional 10,000 square meter space, 520 computers and 470 projectors create a completely new world, the likes of which have never been seen before.”
A museum, according to the international council of museums is defined as:
“a non profit permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public which acquires conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”
How does the mission of teamLab’s digital museum coincide with the definition of a museum?
In comparison to other blockbusters such as, The Museum of Ice Cream, teamLab’s Digital museum has infinitely more depth and purpose. But on an individual basis, teamLab’s definition seems to play into the “experiential” facet of a blockbuster with an emphasis on the economic potential of such an immersive visual exhibition.
This is further evident through the way the museum is portrayed in the media. Artnet and designboom, among others, have written articles where the majority of the article is comprised of visual images of the museum. Surrounding the images are short blurbs of content that say the only thing we already know, that the goal of the exhibition is to physically bring audience member’s into the art.
A quote from the designboom article even states, “from the very beginning, our aim has been to change our system of values and contribute to societal progress through the medium of digital art. Yet, an important unknown was how we could support the team financially through our art.” Admitting that the economics of their institution is at the very core of their mission. Another quote from the Artnet article states that teamLab built the museum so that “they can sell tickets to see the work, as if it were a movie or concert.”
A museum is simply different from a “movie” or a “concert.” Or rather, it should be kept different from a “movie” or a “concert.” It is a place where historical, scientific, cultural, and artistic objects are stored and exhibited for the purpose of education and enjoyment. They should also be using their collections and services to address social issues, while also giving back to their communities through volunteering programmes, internships, and apprenticeships. Creating a stronger sense of community through the dialog that they help curate. Perhaps, the solution to this predicament is to remove the “museum” label and call this experience something else.
The argument here is not that museums and artists shouldn’t make money off of their exhibitions. The question is, what should the purpose of a museum be? And if a “museum” does not fit into that mold, how does that shift the role that museum’s play in society? Does this shift diminish their reputation or should untraditional museums fall under an entirely new genre? A digital museum could be a powerful learning tool if executed properly. There has to be a way to increase attendance without compromising the purpose of a museum. Perhaps we can brainstorm a few ways to accomplish this and send it over to teamLab.
Everyone has different experiences and reactions when interacting with works of art. So, if people go to this new digital museum and gain something from it (other than an instagram to post) then I am on board. With that said, from a distance, teamLab’s definition it seems to fulfill only the “entertainment” portion of a museum’s function while playing into the “experiential” craze fueled by social media. Evidenced by their explanation of their purpose, the visual way the museum is portrayed in the media, and the juxtaposition of the role of museums throughout time.
An instagram will be irrelevant after a week, the lessons learned from the past and the history of humanity can be used well into the foreseeable future. But for all of you that are still unconvinced, teamLab says they are bringing the museum to Brooklyn, so you can check it out for yourselves.
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Cascone, S. (2016, October 31). The 25 Most Buzzed-About Art Exhibitions This Year. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/market/popular-art-exhibition-2015-393246
Mori, K. (2018, July 18). Psychedelic Artists Wowing Japan are Taking the Show to New York. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-18/psychedelic-artists-wowing-japan-are-taking-the-show-to-new-york
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Mondello, B. (2008, November 24). A History Of Museums, 'The Memory Of Mankind'. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97377145