Selfies with the Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa selfies at the Louvre Museum. (Image by WaxWingsPhoto, used with permission)

The news: The destruction of the National Museum of Brazil on September 2, annihilated priceless ancient artefacts, documents, fossils and skeletons in a devastating blow to scientific knowledge and the pride and joy of the Brazilian people.

Museums, a broken model: The loss of some 20 million items raises questions about the best method of displaying and preserving items in this digital age. When the most ordinary documents on our various devices are routinely backed, up surely national institutes chock full of irreplaceable items need to develop a back-up first strategy?

Object vs concept: Is the purpose of a museum to stand in the presence of the original item (experiencing its very atoms) or should we return to the Victorian-era notion that our engagement is with understanding the aesthetics of the item – therefore a (new) replica will do?

Rethinking museums:  3D modelling and scanning allow ‘priceless’ items to be appreciated in multiple locations, enriching many different sites. The technology can also rebirth destroyed icons: The Institute of Digital Archaeology produced a scaled version of the 2000-year-old Palmyra Arch of Triumph obliterated by the Islamic State in its original site in Syria. In a modern twist the ersatz version has become a celebrated icon in its own right.

Wither originality? There will be arguments over whether a digital representation is ‘just’ for conservation, is it art in its own right – or a sophisticated digital ‘up yours’ to ISIS and other nihilists? Just how original is a renaissance painting that has been retouched in the interests of ‘restoration’, or an ancient ship whose rotting bits are systematically replaced – in the long run how authentic is any object under our gaze?

You can listen to Sandra and Kai discussing this and other issues on The Future This Week. You may also be interested in an earlier episode Materialising the Digital.

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