Early in the last century, in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, the German philosopher, critic and sociologist Walter Benjamin laid out an exceptionally clear and unprecedented vision of the concept of reproducibility, which was to have an influence on its later study. He suggested that art having a wider public perhaps diminishes its aura as an artefact, and that this comes about because of mechanical reproduction of artworks. Looking at this concept in light of our current experience of lockdown, we’ve learnt that the distance between culture and public can be overcome. Galleries and places that have always symbolised the pinnacle of culture, like the Louvre, the Vatican Museums and Pompeii (to name but a few), have let their art out of its usual setting and into our houses. This long-distance solution has created an unusual relationship between art and appreciator, a more uniform spreading of culture in which every person involves the next.
Some of the greatest exhibition spaces in the world of art have put this new connection to admirable ends, like the MoMA. Through a partnership with the Coursera platform, the Museum of Modern Art, that great American non-profit institution with revenues of 145 million dollars a year, gave courses on contemporary art, design and photography. Coursera is a company with about 450 workers, founded by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, both computer science professors at Stanford. Ng is an artificial intelligence expert with experience at Google and Baidu. Koller’s expertise lies in inference, learning, the decision process, computer vision and computational biology.
The platform offers massive open online courses or MOOCs (courses for teaching a large number of users long-distance) on a raft of disciplines: humanities, social sciences, business, medicine, biology, mathematics, physics and IT. In 2013 Coursera signed partnerships with La Sapienza University in Rome and Bocconi University in Milan. Its courses can be taken in Arab, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Ukrainian. So far it’s put on nine courses with the MoMA, one of them in Chinese. They vary greatly and include “Fashion as Design” (175,000 users), “In the Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting” (almost 75,000), “What is Contemporary Art?” (113,000), “Art & Ideas: Teaching with Themes” (30,000), “Seeing Through Photographs” (335,000). MoMA’s work shows quite clearly that this is the moment to encourage creativity in cultural offerings, supported by partnerships.
Rome’s virtual treasure
Another initiative worthy of note is going on at the Vatican Museums. The great Leonine Walls shut their gates to the public on 9 March, but if you go on the museums’ website, you can take a virtual tour through the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square and rooms like the Hall of the Papyri, the Profano, Pio-Clementino and Chiaramonti museums, the New Wing, the Raphael Rooms, the Niccoline Chapel, the Room of the Chiaroscuri and so on.
As the Vatican News channel will tell you, the images for viewing are in high definition and let you concentrate on every little detail of the artworks. The Instagram page will also have regular pictures of these finer points. The museums’ effort to put on virtual visits of such impact, free of charge, is admirable. And that impact can be felt not just in art but in science. The user’s experience can be highly personalised, and points the way to a potential future approach to museums in general. Virtual, ad hoc visits combined with real ones: the first allowing more people to enjoy art, the second giving them the incredible experience that only being there in person can.
The Universe within four walls
Space lovers, meanwhile, can go into orbit with “NASA at Home”. The space agency has put on its website launch simulations, space units and problem-solving programmes for mathematics and engineering applied to space exploration, with daily updates, content on six topics and e-books. There’s also virtual tours and apps, such as the simulated visit “Next Stop: The Stratosphere”, the podcast “Nasa Explorer: Apollo”, to celebrate the anniversary of man landing on the moon, and various videos.
Staying in the United States but moving into the academic world, Harvard University, in the prestigious Ivy League, has set up a series of online courses of varying difficulties and in various fields. A rather interesting and tasty looking one is “Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science”, which brings together two great passions that many people share, cooking and chemistry, in a tight embrace. Ingredients are simply products and reactants in great dishes. The point of the course is to reveal these hidden connections. It’s linked to a chemistry degree, lasts 16 weeks, is taught two or three hours a week in English and there’s an attendance certificate at the end of it. Given over Harvard and MIT’s edX e-learning platform, it boasts 120,000 users so far.
At a time like this, Donne’s affirmation that “No man is an island” is more fitting than ever! The world has come together in an unceasing drive to spread culture by any means. It’s all the result of the digital transformation that’s turned atoms into bits, changing the relationship between space and time forever.
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