Seeing the Mona Lisa: Reality and the mass mediated viewing experience

Consider this experience. I feel sure this scenario (or circus) is not ideal for seeing and experiencing the Mona Lisa. MonaLisa There is no doubt that museum collections provide an educational opportunity to those who may otherwise never see the items enclosed within their walls. There is, however, one unavoidable consequence—the items have been removed from their natural context, and in effect, are now being misrepresented. Based on this consideration, Daniel Boorstin (1961) asks, what effect does removing a piece of art from its natural context and placing it in a public museum have on the viewing experience itself?

Art museums are often one of the first destinations of tourists who are able to see systematically organized, labeled, and preserved collections. Today, with the rise and popularity of the modern museum, humankind, perhaps, finds it challenging to fully understand the influence that museums have had on our approach to seeing works of art. The guiding question for both media scholars and museum practitioners in the digital age then becomes, how do mass mediated web presentations of artworks influence the viewing experience?

Technological innovation and web capabilities could allow viewers to experience artworks in ways previously unimaginable. For example, as sculpture is a three-dimensional medium, viewing it in a two-dimensional, printed medium, such as a book or a magazine, does not allow the viewer to experience the full impact. Through digital capabilities, that same piece of sculpture can be viewed on the web in such a way as to actually give the viewer an experience similar to that of seeing it in a museum. Further, the interactive power of the web has the potential to allow viewers to link to unlimited additional information. As such, the impact of the Internet on museums, and, in particular, on art museums, is a huge and multifaceted issue greatly worthy of academic inquiry.

My recent research brings together art and media theory, as well as technological understanding, to study mass mediated presentations of artworks and to gauge audiences’ visual attention to artworks based on differences in media presentations. More specifically, my research purports to examine how art museums are displaying their works of art on their websites, considering both media aesthetic factors and technological innovation. In addition, my research uses eye tracking technology to test for audience reactions to certain changed variables in the viewing experience. It is critical for media scholars and media producers to understand the mediated art viewing experience.

Retuning to the Mona Lisa, the Louvre website allows audiences to interact with the image, including the ability to zoom and see highly detailed images of the famous work of art. And this can be done from the comfort and ease of one’s own home or mobile device. Compared to the experience of “seeing” the Mona Lisa in an overcrowded and chaotic museum gallery, it may just be that the mass mediated experience of “seeing” the famous portrait is far superior to the physical museum viewing experience.

But, do I still hope to make the trip to the Louvre in Paris, France? Of course, because as chaotic as the gallery may be and as distant as the Mona Lisa may be behind thick glass and museum ropes, there is still something immediate and real about transcending history and distance to be able to say I, too, have gazed upon her with my own eyes.

Image credit: Guia Besana/The New York Times

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