Monday 14 November 2011

Should We Just Send A Copy? On Digitisation... and the Mona Lisa

In late 2008 I was asked to give a couple of plenaries/big guest lectures the next summer: one for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and one for the Art Libraries Society (ARLIS) 40th Anniversary Conference. I was getting a bit bored of standing in front of a powerpoint talking through bullet points of my research, and wanted to do something a bit more exploratory. But what to do? I had my antennae up for clues.

Around that time, Europeana - the online digital library - launched, and promptly fell over. Many people on the site were searching for "Mona Lisa" when it crashed.

Around that time, I was watching a lot of documentaries about art history on BBC4. I watched one by the critic Robert Hughes called "the Business of Art" (also called the Mona Lisa Curse in some listings), where he traces the obscene growth of the art world to the trip the Mona Lisa took to New York and Washington in 1963. 1,600,000 visitors – more than 30,000 viewers per day – filed past the painting. In particular, he remarked that Andy Warhol - then a struggling artist yet to have his major breakthrough -refused to join the hoardes queuing up to see it, remarking
“Why don’t they just have someone copy it and send the copy? No-one would know the difference.” (Hughes 2006, p. 223)
Put two and two together and what do you get? An overview paper on some of the issues on digitisation, use, and usefulness. What are we doing when we create digital surrogates of cultural and heritage material? What are they for? Should we just send a copy?

You can see me give the plenary in 2009 at the DHSI summer school on youtube (no I havent watched it myself) And here is the resulting paper. It's a gallop round the houses, but I am very fond of it:
Terras, M (2010) Should we just send a copy? Digitisation, Use and Usefulness. Art Libraries Journal, 35 (1). PDF.
Reference: Hughes, R. (2006). “Things I Didn’t Know”. Knopf. London. I've heard this quote repeated elsewhere, but this is the only source I can find. It may, indeed, be apocryphal.
The above image is Andy Warhol's "Thirty are better than one".

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