As museums have been forced to close their doors in the midst of Covid-19, many of these cultural institutions have proven just how nimble they can be, temporarily shifting their exhibitions from in-person events to online-only experiences. However, one museum in particular is waging its bets that virtual programming will be the new way of presenting art to a wide audience.
Launched just last week, the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA) is the world’s first museum of its kind. More than just an online gallery, VOMA is 100 percent virtual, from the paintings and drawings hanging on the walls to the museum’s computer-generated building itself, giving viewers an entirely new way of experiencing art that transports them to an art space without having to leave their computers.
The idea for VOMA came about during the early stages of the internet—1999 to be exact—when Stuart Semple, the museum’s creator and an artist himself, dreamt up the concept to create an online museum. “When I was a teenager, I decided to make an online gallery,” Semple says, quickly admitting that the idea soon failed, chalking it up to the fact that his vision was a little bit too early for its time. Plus, back in the late '90s virtual technology was nothing like it is today.
Born in Bournemouth, England, Semple grew up having an eye for art. He studied fine arts at Bretton Hall College at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and built a successful career as an artist, showing his body of work, which contains paintings, drawings, multimedia and print, in 15 international solo exhibitions and more than 40 group shows. Now, at the age of 40, he's shifting his focus back to where he started 20 years ago by giving his idea for a virtual museum a second go.
“I was thinking about how art should be accessible online, but was disappointed with what I was seeing,” he says. “Because of Covid-19, I was seeing artwork grabbing onto tech in different ways, like taking a virtual walk in a park. I started thinking about putting my original idea back out there. And with CGI, I can make an experience you can live right now.”
This isn’t the first time one of Semple’s wild ideas has made headlines. In 2016, he made waves by creating a paint pigment dubbed “the world’s pinkest pink.” Teaming up with Emily Mann, an architect, and Lee Cavaliere, an art consultant and former curator of the London Art Fair, the trio built VOMA from the ground up in about six months’ time with the help of a team of programmers, architects and video game designers.
“We were seeing all these museums uploading their offerings to digital spaces, such as the [Google Arts & Culture project],” he says. “I don’t want to be rude, but it didn’t feel like it was really there. I’d be looking at a Monet and the head would be chopped off. I was inspired, because I think we could do better.”
The result is a cultural experience unlike anything else online today. VOMA's creating some media buzz, with Cat Olley of Elle Decoration describing it as a space with “a grounded, familiar feel” that can “hold [its] own alongside conventional cultural centers.” Gabrielle Leung of Hypebeast commends VOMA for “not only [addressing] the problems of attending museums with social distancing measures in place, but also more complex issues about who has access to major cultural institutions in the first place.”
Visiting VOMA is simple. First viewers must install the free VOMA program onto their computers. From there, they can explore two galleries featuring works by nearly two dozen artists, including Henri Matisse, Édouard Manet, Li Wei, Paula Rego, Luiz Zerbini, Lygia Clark, Jasper Johns and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Cavaliere, the museum’s director and curator, worked closely with some of the world’s most prestigious museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Using high-res images provided by each institution, the VOMA team made 3-D reproductions of each piece. “We don't need to transport any paintings [on loan],” Semple says. “We're literally taking the photos and using computers to create 3-D reproductions, which adds in depth and lets viewers see [the reproduction] from all angles.”
The result is a 360-degree, fully immersive experience that lets museumgoers get as close as they want to, say, Manet’s Olympia or Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Using a computer's arrow buttons, a visitor can virtually “walk” around the museum, zooming in on different works of art. The user-friendly setup feels much like a computer game.
VOMA is one of the latest examples of how museum content is going digital, joining the likes of other popular sites and apps like Smartify. Dubbed the “Shazam for the art world,” Smartify offers free audio tours from a database of more than two million artworks from some of the world's most esteemed museums and cultural institutions. Anna Lowe, the app's co-founder, says that being able to access art digitally is important, especially when it comes to reaching a global audience.
“The advantage of something like VOMA or [other virtual museum experiences] is the reach and engagement you can have with a global audience,” Lowe says. “But I think the key thing about physical museums, and the main reason that people go to museums, isn't for a learning experience, but to be social. I think that's the biggest challenge for [virtual visits] is how do you move people through a space without it feeling like you're just scrolling through a site.”
This point is one of the things that VOMA's creative team took into account when building its user experience, making it as lifelike as possible.
“[VOMA’s] zoom functionality is crazy,” Semple says. “Normally, you can’t get your nose right up to the canvas, because there’s a line of tape and a security guard watching you. We recreate each artwork so that it’s 3-D. You can look around and see the sides of each work, which you can’t do [in other online art galleries].”
Not only are the displays interactive and provide in-depth information about each artwork, but the museum building and its waterfront surroundings change.
“[Architect Emily Mann] built VOMA so that the museum experience changes depending on the weather and the time of day,” he says. “VOMA is her vision of what a space for an art museum should look like. Every single tree leaf she created from scratch, and the light of each gallery changes throughout the day and plays into the space. It’s fantasy, but it’s also real.”
Another aspect that makes VOMA stand out from other museums is its mission to be more inclusive. While many museums have been accused of a severe lack in representation of work by women and BIPOC artists, VOMA intends to feature a diverse group of artists on a regular basis.
“We want to highlight voices that haven’t been heard and seen,” he says. “We are featuring artists from around the world, and not just Western artists.”
As the months progress, VOMA plans to open additional galleries to help accommodate such a diversity of artists. The museum, which boasts a permanent collection of more than 20 works, will also feature temporary exhibitions, such as the current “Degenerate Art,” which, according to the museum, “is a recreation of an exhibition held by the Nazis in Munich in 1937 denouncing the work of ‘degenerate’ artists.” It features pieces by Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann, to name a few, shining a light on the lingering effects of oppression in the art world.
VOMA’s new take on the art experience has proven so popular that, during the September 4 launch, the website’s servers completely crashed while the first visitors tried “entering” the museum.
“At one point there were over 130,000 people trying to access it at the same time,” Semple says, “and we had to make the sad decision to take it down.”
Luckily, the kinks were worked out and VOMA is up and running again.
Semple believes that VOMA is just a taste of the future of art museums. “We are at an unprecedented moment in time,” he writes on VOMA's Kickstarter page. “Due to [Covid-19], we have seen the art world have to adjust, and as a result, we are able to enjoy online viewing rooms, zoom visits to artist studios and see a plethora of museums bringing images of their collections to their websites.” While he admits these changes have been exciting, Semple feels the need for a whole new kind of museum—“one that is born digitally,” he adds.
“VOMA has been designed from the ground up to work in a digital future,” he writes. “A future that is open and accessible to all.”