Friday, March 13, 2020

Between Screens and Bridges: The Mission of Museums in the Age of the Virus

The Covid-19 pandemic poses enormous, perhaps unprecedented, challenges for our thinking about how— in our technologically connected world — we must balance the urgent imperatives for physical distance, including quarantining, with the basic foundations of human sociality. How do we still nurture fundamental principles of community, reciprocity, solidarity, and compassion at a time when we must greatly limit face-to-face interaction and gathering in large groups? How do we continue to honor the complexity and moral imperatives of I-Thou relationship, the admonition to see oneself reflected in the face of another person, when our encounter with that face, with that Other, is mediated, for a time exclusively, by screens and other technological devices? 

To be sure, these are vital question for all of humanity. In this brief essay, I’d like to reflect more narrowly on how museums, as heirs to the ancient temples of the Muses, in which persons from many different walks of life are normally invited to gather together to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and the full range of the products of human imagination, might continue to pursue our core ethical missions, even as we must, for a time, restrict the physical proximity of human bodies within our galleries.

Museums and the Age of the World Picture

During a recent (face to face) conversation with philosopher Andreas Teuber at Brandeis University, it occurred to me that these challenges might be framed in terms of trying to connect several aspects of the (admittedly difficult) thought of Martin Heidegger. In his “Age of the World Picture” essay, Heidegger famously unpacks the overwhelming tendency in the modern world to experience the world-as-picture, to conceive of reality as fundamentally organized through the mediation of mirrors, windows, painted canvases, still and moving projections on screens, refracted images glimpsed through microscopes and telescopes, and other framing devices. All such instances of the world-as-picture may be potentially subject to formal mathematical characterizations and formal abstracted analysis. Real knowledge is, we have been long conditioned to think, dependent on knowing the world as a picture, as organized by and accessible through pictures, screens and charts, which seemingly impose upon the chaotic flux of sensory impressions that continuously stream upon us the possibility of order and rigor, allowing us to “know” (or at least to think we know) the world in a coherent fashion. This long term modern tendency has only been intensified by our increasing proclivity to live our lives on and through screens, to know the world through computers, smart phone displays, and related technological systems which, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, distance us from the primal “aura” of direct sensory encounters with external phenomena.

Since their inception, museums have been in many respects temples dedicated, in effect, to the age of the world picture, in Heidegger’s sense. They are filled with paintings, or photographs,  or equivalent organizing visual devices (including exhibition display cases) that frame selected exemplars of natural or cultural phenomena within organizing and authority-conferring confines (usually composed of right angles and straight lines), as a way of giving our visitors, we imply, a glimpse into deeper knowledge of the world. We intensify this tendency to “know” the world-as-picture through video displays, touch screens, and web-cams, which invite our viewers to explore the mysteries of the universe and our place within it, by gazing into the microcosmic confines of a framed-off picture. A marvelous example of this technology is the “Science on a Sphere” system from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in which the “screen” becomes a great globe itself, which visitors can manipulate a touchscreen to call up hundreds of dazzling visualizations of complex datasets depicting all manner of natural and social phenomena, across the planet and across the universe.

Crossing Over, Together

Yet, museums are so much more than than amalgamations of framed-off pictures and screens, predicated on distanced, abstracted apprehension of studied phenomena. They are very particular kinds of places, human-created physical structures that contain objects, stored in vaults or displayed in galleries, in such a way that invites people to move within them rather like pilgrims of old, seeking something that is emphatically beyond the frameworks of ordinary, conventional experience. As Stephen Bann reminds us, early modern cabinets of curiousity, the forerunners of modern museums, were themselves transformations of medieval reliquaries, the destination of pilgrims, who sought enlightenment and transformation through direct encounters with framed-off esoteric objects.  Like ancient pilgrims, modern museum visitors find themselves at times bowled over, simply overwhelmed, by the experience of encountering objects of jaw-dropping wonder in the presence of other people. We are taken out of ourselves, out of our conventional solitary experience, through encounters with the miraculous; and sometimes our most meaningful moments within a museum are when we find ourselves talking about an art work or a soaring re-assembled dinosaur skeleton with a person whom a moment earlier had been a complete stranger. We are bound together in the museum, often unexpectedly, with our fellow travelers, in the irreducible presence of the physical object.

Andreas, in the course of our conversation about how museums might navigate this current moment of crisis, mentioned Heidegger’s fascinating mediations on bridges, as articulated, for instance, in his essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking” For Heidegger, the bridge encapsulates the miraculous qualities of human-built things, which actively transform the spaces they occupy into meaningful places, gathering together normally disparate or opposed aspects of experience. The bridge not only unites opposed banks of a stream or river, but makes distant destinations proximate, and grants to those who cross it a shared sense of wonder, a sense of together being momentarily between worlds, of being lifted out of our ordinary existence, being grounded on something that is emphatically not normal ground. Crossing the bridge, we are lifted up for a soaring moment towards the sky above, even as we have not entirely left the earth. For this reason, Heidegger suggests, medieval bridges often displayed a statue of a saint, blessing all those who journeyed across it; the bridge offers a momentary passage into the Other World of the great beyond, and in that sense presents in microcosm a vision of our great journey through life and across domains of existence. As Heidegger puts it, “The bridge gathers to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals.”

Museums as Bridges

At their best, museums are bridges. They are human-built passageways that lift us, for a time, above our regular selves, in the presence of other travelers. They gather together those of us are living, and those who came before us, they unite the terrestrial and the celestial, and give us thrilling glimpses of that which lies beyond the regular frames of our daily existence. They are in-between places, which we move through with others, as we are reminded of early childhood wonder, that which we may have always known, but which we all too often forget.

National Gallery of Art, East Wing. Second Level Bridge
It is perhaps for this reason that some of the most striking museums in the world contain bridges within them. One thinks of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which at its center has glass bridges jutting across its great atrium: on the bridges’ translucent walls are inscribed the first names of victims and the hundreds of communities devastated in the Shoah, remembered persons and places that still, miraculously live on, in this in-between space,  suspended between opposing walls, between earth and sky, and between the domains of the Living and the Dead. I think of well as the upper bridge in I.M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, on which thousands of visitors pause for a moment to take in the thrilling sight of Pei’s dramatic skylight roof above, Calder's mobile suspended in front of us, and the strolling people below. Over the years, on both bridges, I have found myself talking to strangers, about lost villages and the wonders of art, and I will always treasure the memories of those unexpected conversations, suspended halfway up in the air.

Interior bridge, US Holocaust Memorial Museum (Max Reid)

The Work of Bridging

Today (Friday, March 13, 2020) is the last day for weeks, perhaps for months, that these museums, and the bridges they contain, will be open to the public. Our challenge, in the museum world, is how do we preserve those bridge-like qualities of museums, when we must, for reasons of safety, part with one another physically, and confine ourselves within our separate quarters?  How might our screens, through which we tend to know the universe in our modern era of the “World Picture,” somehow afford us the bridge-like sensation of profoundly meaningful discovery, exploration, and journeying, in the presence of others?  How might we still gather together, as Heidegger puts it, “earth and sky, divinities and mortals”?

In the period ahead, it seems to me especially important that our virtual exhibitions do more than simply convey information about the crisis (as important as public health advisories are). We need to encourage our virtual visitors and community partners to reach across the isolating flatness of their respective screens, as it were, and connect meaningfully to one another.  Together, we must continue to nurture the bonds of community, even (especially) in the era of “social distancing.”

Perhaps children, home for weeks from school, might be encouraged to create art about friends they miss and shared places they long to re-inhabit; these art works can be snapped on smart phones and shared through museum online sites, and be reciprocated by other art works, by other children and perhaps by practicing artists, to foster a dialogue of images across space. We can share in common virtual spaces written diary entries and photo essays about life under quarantine, and co-curate with our community partners stories of how neighbors are assisting neighbors at moments of illness and distress. We should pay particular attention to documenting stories of how social inequality intersects with the Covid-19 pandemic, with how service workers and those on hourly wages, on whom all of us ultimately depend, may be most at risk from exposure and economic downturn. 

As we extend our public programs and exhibitions into virtual domains, museums cannot cure all that ails us. But we can serve as vital bridges, continuing to bind us to one another during these strange days and nights, and remind us all of our better angels, gathering together all who are stranded, for a time, across opposite banks of the great river.


  1. Thank you for these important ideas.

  2. Here, quickly, a few more sources. 

    Chris Lydon who is now back at WBUR has done, just done, a couple of programs back to back on the social, political, environmental, moral, psychological, historical, and discriminatory practices of pathogens, epidemics, and plagues  and the coronavirus.

    One week ago: Plagues, Pathogens, and Panic

    Yesterday:Contagious Crisis

    Both are great resources to jog loose some ideas.

  3. Enlightening and uplifting posting. Many thanks, Mark, and also Hi!

  4. Here, is a pdf of "The Thing," from Poetry, Language, Thought, where Heidegger talks about distance, and the "near" and the "far."

    And here Bert Dreyfus and Spinosa ("Spinosa" with an "a") on HIGHWAY BRIDGES AND FEASTS: Heidegger and Borgmann on How to Affirm Technology


  5. And here a PDF of THE THING from POETRY, LANGUAGE, THOUGHT where Heidegger talks of distance and of "near" and "far":

    And here a PDF of Bert Dreyfus and Spinosa (that's "Spinosa" with an "s" on HIGHWAY BRIDGES & FEASTS: Heidegger and Borgmann on Affirming Technology


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