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Archives & Museum Informatics

Web Museums and Memory in the Age of Digital Multimedia Networks (Extensions of Walter Benjamin's Insights)

Isabelle Rieusset-Lemarié, I.U.F.M. de Versailles, France


This paper will trace the emergence of memory as a specific problem for Web Museums. Museums are not only dedicated to cultural heritage: they embody a specific conception of memory and patrimony. But Web Museums are faced with increasingly pressing issues of memory in the age of digital documents and multimedia reproduction. While digital multimedia networks condition the emergence of new patterns dealing with memory, Web Museums may condition, the evolution of these patterns. We shall trace the dissemination of artistic heritage in the age of globalization not just as problem of size but as integral to art. It is the necessary interconnection of memory and art that will clarify how problems of technical reproducibility and experience are presented and conceptualized within elements of cultural heritage in the age of globalization. The technical reproducibility that is taken to characterize digital multimedia memory pertains not just to the nature of electronic networks but also to any thinking of the artwork and thus of the art Web museums.

W. Benjamin emphasized the great capacities of technical reproduction in matters of preservation. But he called attention to the serious need for another kind of transmission of memory, dealing with art, to ensure that memory will be disseminated in the future, not just as information, but as experience. Our point is to suggest that the dissemination of cultural heritage in the age of digital networks deals with the transmission of memory as experience and that Web Museums have a specific role to play as far as this artistic approach to memory is concerned. Consequently particular attention will be given to those artworks for which the net is not only a tool for technical reproduction but the very texture of the artwork and the exhibition place for its appearance or disappearance.


The "posthumous fame" (ARENDT, 1968) of Walter Benjamin appears self evident when you are tracing paths through the Internet: you can't escape encounter with his name in the numerous Web pages dealing with the outcome of the artwork in the age of digital reproduction or the specific prospects of Virtual Museums.

Nevertheless, the way in which Benjamin's ideas are revealed to in this context often reveals a set of misunderstandings. Some people refer to Benjamin's nostalgia on account of the loss of aura in the very essay in which he valued artwork's emancipation from the ritual cult of aura, thanks to the techniques of reproduction. Others don't take into account Benjamin's later texts where he pointed out the damages wrought by the technical reproducibility that threatened to disappearance the kind of memory in which aura is "at home" (BENJAMIN, 1939).

If you are considering both sides of Benjamin's analysis of technical reproducibility, you can avoid one-sided reconstruction of his thought. But if you emphasize the shift in Benjamin's analysis to such a point as to pretend that Benjamin has said one thing and the reverse about technical reproducibility and aura, you are forging a characiture of his work which reduces the complexity of his thought to banal contradictions.

The consistency of the work of Walter Benjamin does not resemble the compactness of an homogeneous block. Metaphors are the privileged links which determine the paths in this woven structure. To grasp the consistency of Benjamin's analysis, the main metaphors in which he crystallized his thought must be deciphered. That was part of the work of my last book (RIEUSSET-LEMARIE 1999) in which I tried to point out the links between his famous essay, "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" (BENJAMIN, 1936a), and his last essay entitled "Theses on the Philosophy of History" which is recognized as the most synthetic part of his work. One of the crucial metaphors in this last essay is embedded in this last paragraph :

'A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where it encounters it as a monad. /.../ He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history -blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time cancelled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.' (BENJAMIN, 1940, p. 254)

I tried to show that this metaphor of the seed of time not only supported the consistency of this last essay, it helped to trace the path from Benjamin's last essay to his famous one about artwork's mechanical reproduction, through the complex areas in which Benjamin peered at the specific obstacles to be overcome in the age of technical reproduction, in order to preserve memory as the dimension from which emerge, not only the past, but the possibility of the dissemination of time itself.

This image of time as a seed enlightens not only Benjamin's theses about history and memory, but the role of aesthetics in the age of technical reproducibility. The specific aesthetic power conveyed by the techniques of reproduction must cause a shock in order to blast a new time out of the reign of the tradition based on the value of aura. In this famous essay, Walter Benjamin presents this aesthetics of shocks as related to the aesthetics of "distraction", or what is translated, both in French and in English, by the word "distraction", to convey the German word Zerstreuung. But this translation doesn't help the reader to grasp the consistency of Benjamin's' conception, which oppose this aesthetics of Zerstreuung to the reign of aura.

If you pay attention to the definition of this German word, you discover that "distraction" is only given as the second sense of this word by the Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch. Its first sense, given by the German dictionary Langenscheidts Großwörterbuch Deutsch-Französich, is "dispersion, dissemination, scattering". The opposition underlined by Benjamin between Zerstreuung and the recollection, the religious contemplation which was typical of the traditional perception of the work of art, becomes more clear than with the translation of Zerstreuung by "distraction". The scattered movement of the aesthetics of the dissemination is opposed to the recollection intimated by the aura of the artwork.

Literally, the word dissemination refers to the dispersion or the releasing of the seed. The dehiscence releases the seed contained in the fruit and makes its dissemination possible. That is exactly the metaphorical image chosen by Benjamin in order to depict the liberation of time from the homogeneous course of history. But this metaphor is already present in his essay "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction". The aim is the liberation of the seed from the containment of the tradition embodied by the aura. The German word for aura in this essay is Hülle. One of the meanings of Hülle is Hülse which refers to "Schale um Samen", the external part of the fruit that protects its precious treasure : "Samen", the seed. But the Hülle must be husked in order to liberate the seed. In artworks, maturation is not enough: a shock may be necessary to liberate the seed. That is why the aesthetics of shock and the aesthetics of dissemination are closely associated in order to destroy the Hülle, the power of aura that stores the secret treasure that could be preciously disseminated: the seed of time.

The techniques of reproduction desire dissemination of cultural heritage instead of the conservation of precious artworks in confidential secret places. Web Museums can be useful tools to achieve this aim. But in Benjamin's view, the objective is not only to exhibit artworks, but to convey another relation to time. Time mustn't be petrified in a mausoleum. The challenge for Web Museums is to establish a vivid relationship between memory and time as a germination power providing metamorphosis and not only as petrified images of a dead past.

We will first examine the obstacles encountered by Web Museums as far as this vivid conception of memory is concerned. Then we will analyze the new prospects of the aesthetics of dissemination and the new challenge encountered by Web Museums in order to blast the transmission of memory as a vivid experience out of the threats of reification induced by the techniques of information and reproduction.

1. Memory as information: the damages of the aversion to aura in 'cybernetic museums'.

Walter Benjamin not only used the metaphor of the seed of time to value the aesthetics of dissemination as opposed to aura. We find the same metaphor in order to stigmatize information as opposed to the art of storytelling. Benjamin acknowledges Herodotus as the master of this art:

Herodotus offers no explanations. His report is the driest. That is why this story from ancient Egypt is still capable after thousand of years of arousing astonishment and thoughtfulness. It resembles the seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of the pyramids shut up air-tight and have retained their germinative power to this day (BENJAMIN, 1936b, p. 90).

Information would lack this specific germinative power of time that appears as the fundamental principle in Benjamin's view:

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without loosing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time (BENJAMIN, 1936b, p. 89).

Information will no longer be new after the moment of its revelation. On the contrary, Benjamin valued the kind of novelty which can be perceived as new, after a long time, because it has the germinative power of creating others novelties in a different context. According to Benjamin, the seed of time is the germinative power without which the possibility of the irruption of something new can't survive. In his definition, Information is something that destroys this specific power of time.

Notwithstanding Benjamin's critical approach of information, Andrea Witcomb depicts the new conception of museums based on information, as a scheme that fits Benjamin's opposition to the reign of aura :

the association between electronic mediums of communication and the notion of information can serve as a useful conceptual base for currently emerging forms of museum practices. It is a conceptual tool which enables us to get away from the reified concepts of authenticity, aura and originality which have been, until recently, the basis for the museum's claim to knowledge (WITCOMB, 1997).

We don't underestimate the fact that Witcomb's definition and Benjamin's definition of information are different. The new technologies of information emphasized by Andrea Witcomb are clearly innovations compared with the kind of information stigmatized by Walter Benjamin. But does this new conception of information escape the damage of reification? Does it fit the claim for generating, not a petrified recollection, but a germinative memory? Andrea Witcomb also emphasizes this claim:

Technology is crucial in turning the museum from a repository to an information resource. In this light it is interesting to take note of an article entitled "The intelligent museum", by Eiji Mizushima, a Japanese systems engineer involved in the construction of new museums. Mizushima defined the contemporary museum in terms of information, a concept which he places in opposition to old fashioned museums which he saw as static receptacles (WITCOMB, 1997).

Andrea Witcomb denounces the petrified conception of the museum that looks like a mausoleum. But the "intelligent museum", as depicted by Mizushima, doesn't seem to meet this requirement:

An intelligent museum is one that (a) can control automatically museum operation and management and exhibit management; (b) can control the museum environment (exhibit environment and conservation environment); (c) is structurally equipped, both within and without, with information/communication capabilities; and (d) can control with computers and 'new media' equipment a visitor information service. (Mizushima, 1989, p. 242).

If this "intelligent museum" is no longer a mausoleum it resembles the "cybernetic museum" depicted by Bernard Deloche as a dematerialized conception of a Museum based on information (DELOCHE, 1989). The museum is no longer a receptacle for collections. The achievement of the 'cybernetic museum' is to substitute information in place of objects that are no longer necessary. Bernard Deloche went so far as to present the inventory as the "pure museum": an ideal form of museum in which artworks are no longer presents. That is the extreme consequence of a conception of the museums which emphasize the diffusion of information at the expense of the goal of conservation.

But objects have not only a conservatory value in art museums. Bernard Deloche forgets the aesthetic dimension that is an integral part of the mission of diffusion in art museums. On the pretense that an inventory or a data base can disseminate all the necessary information about the "system of forms" embedded in the artwork, he declares that the ideal type of the "cybernetic museum" can achieve a derealized conception of the museum. We are confronting here the negative exacerbation of a dematerialized conception of information as opposed to the claim of spatialization.

This model of a dematerialized Museum based on information can be a temptation for Web Museums. But thanks to the techniques of Virtual Reality, the paradigm of information has evolved and is no longer opposed to the claim of spatialization. The browser "City of news" presented in Siggraph'99, is a useful tool to of this new tendency. It spatializes Web pages as sky-scrapers and represents the navigation of the visitor in search of information as a promenade in the streets of a city. The longing for encounters with 3D objects in a realistic 3D environment changes the aspect of Internet that is still considered as a global virtual library or museum, full of information, but that should be spatialized in an architectural form in order to facilitate the paths of its users. The planetary virtual museum is often considered as a virtual city in which each local Web Museum looks like a district having its own architectural style. In this architectural scheme, the role of virtual objects is important in Web Museums which must disseminate not only information, but aesthetic effects. The virtual objects exhibited may be virtual artworks or digital reproductions, but even a reproduction has an aesthetic specific effect which is not reducible to its informative value.

The temptation to equate the techniques of information and the techniques of reproduction, on the pretense of their common opposition to the conservatory conception of museums as sacred repositories, tends to nourish confusion between the valorization of the dissemination of information and the hatred of objects as if they were bound to involve the traditional cult of aura.

Andrea Witcomb also value museums without artworks, on account of the emancipation of the conception of the museum as a sacred repository :

the Australia-USA Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum /.../ is interesting for it combines an indifference to the status of objects with the way it uses electronic technology as well as reproductions in its displays. The loss of the sanctity of the object /.../ is apparent in the way in which the opening exhibition for the USA-Australia gallery was developed./.../These display techniques highlight the way in which objects have lost their central position within museum activity (WITCOMB, 1997).

The fact that the techniques of information and the techniques of reproduction are put on the same level because of their common indifference to the status of objects is problematic. Under the pretense of destroying the traditional vision of the museum as a temple for artworks, objects are reduced to the longing for the authenticity of aura:

To begin with, photography became extremely important to the gallery's activities as did film. For example, if objects were not available for loan, particularly those located in America, a photograph was requested instead. These eventually became graphics with accompanying labels, having a similar status as objects in their narrative role. The value of both was defined in terms of information. The juxtaposition of graphics and objects is one of the means by which the opposition between an original and its copy is currently being confused. The focus on information has meant that messages previously communicated by the object alone can now be communicated as effectively by a photographic image. Graphics became important not only as background material, providing context for the objects, but as artifacts in their own right. A reproduction is just as valuable as the original for this purpose, despite a residual sense of loss amongst the curators that the original was unavailable for display. The mystique of authenticity had all but disappeared (WITCOMB, 1997).

Witcomb points out the fact that reproductions are not only valuable tools when the artworks are not available. But if a photographic reproduction can be as interesting as the original artwork, it is because it conveys specific artistic effects as Malraux put it splendidly in his 'Musée imaginaire'. Photograph is valuable, in this context, not as a mere information tool but as an artwork. The fact of considering both artwork and reproduction in terms of information denies their specific artistic interest in order to present them as equivalent. We are not in Benjamin's perspective which values reproductions because they convey, not only information, but aesthetic effects. The pretense to consider the substitution of a graphic, of a mere information, in the place of a work of art as if it were the same thing than to substitute a reproduction in the place of the original, does not fit Benjamin's prospect which was integral to aesthetics.

This confusion between the role of the techniques of information and the role of the techniques of reproduction is symptomatic to the exacerbation of the aversion to aura. Witcomb's critical approach of memory as a mausoleum fits Benjamin's prospects. But the difference between Witcomb and Benjamin lies in the fact that this latter underlined the necessity of preserving something valuable in aura, in so far as aura is linked with a vivid conception of memory that is threatened by the technical reproducibility.

1.2. Memory as experience: from Benjamin's positive redefinition of the aura to the role of aesthetics of dissemination in Web Museums.

Under the influence of Proust and of Baudelaire, W. Benjamin reconsiders the role of aura, in a positive way, as it is related to memory. This new approach leads Benjamin to emphasize some negative damages wrought by the techniques of reproduction:

If we designate as aura the associations which, at home in the mémoire involontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception, then its analogue in the case of a utilitarian object is the experience which has left traces of the practiced hand. The techniques based on the use of the camera and of subsequent analogous mechanical devices extend the range of the mémoire volontaire; by means of these devices they make it possible for an event at any time to be permanently recorded in terms of sound and sight. Thus they represent important achievements of a society in which practice is in decline. To Baudelaire there was something profoundly unnerving and terrifying about daguerreotypy;/.../ Nevertheless, Baudelaire tried to take a more conciliatory view. Photography should be free to stake out a claim for ephemereal things, those that have a right 'to a place in the archives of our memory,' as long as it stops short of the 'region of the intangible, imaginative': that of art /.../. The perpetual readiness of volitional, discursive memory, encouraged by the technique of mechanical reproduction, reduces the scope for the play of the imagination (BENJAMIN, 1939).

W. Benjamin is not only under the influence of Proust and Baudelaire while he emphasizes the value of memory. Memory and time are integral parts of his philosophy. The focus on memory is not a shift in his work. The change lies in the approach of the role of the techniques of reproduction. In so far as these latter are associated to the volitional memory, they would convey an archivist conception of memory which may reveal helpful, but which doesn't fit the specific kind of memory that is related to art. Benjamin encounters an obstacle. We are confronting the climax of the contradiction in his work. But Benjamin will point out the devices to resolve the contradiction. In the paralipomena of the "Theses on the Philosophy of History", he will value the role of 'Humankind's involuntary memory'. This latter can cause the shock which is necessary in order "to blast open the continuum of history". Benjamin's conception of aesthetics of shock is still present. The positive role of the involuntary memory is emphasized in relation with the new definition of aura and in relation with the prospects of destroying a continuum. The new conviction of Benjamin lies in the conscience that the discontinuum also needs a transmission. Hence there would be two kinds of aura. The first one is associated with the continuum of the tradition. But the other aspect of aura, "at home" in the "mémoire involontaire" is related to the transmission of the discontinuum. The shift in Benjamin's conception emphasizes the role of the irruption of the discontinuum (thanks to the "mémoire involontaire" and, consequently, thanks to aura) in order to blast the seed of time out of the continuum of homogeneous history. From 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" to the "Theses on the Philosophy of History", Benjamin's fundamental value is the dissemination of time which must be liberated from a continuum. The role of image to cause the shock is present in both essays. The only change is that Benjamin declares that this shock will come from the involuntary memory while he previously declared that the aesthetics of shock was conveyed by the techniques of reproduction.

Benjamin also associated the techniques of reproduction with the aesthetics of dissemination. In 1936, Benjamin believed in the ability of these techniques to liberate the seed of time. But in order to achieve this aesthetics of dissemination, the techniques of reproduction must not be associated exclusively with the volitional memory and with an archivist approach of memory. Hence, the challenge of the technical reproducibility is to convey the "mémoire involontaire" which implies a discontinuum in memory and requires images emerging from this discontinuum.

J.L. Leutrat showed that J.L. Godard, in his film Passion, has achieved a work of art that is realized thanks to the techniques of reproduction, but that fits Benjamin's conceptions in the "Thesis of the Philosophy of history":

Godard restores to their places those history left out, the perpetual losers -- workers and crowd actors. In the same way, he fights to disclose a concealed past : the history of cinema, according to the Introduction, "is impossible because the way the images remain has been organized by the industry in such a way that history cannot be told" (GODARD, 1980, p. 301). A solidarity exists between the history of cinema and history itself : the latter is required in order to tell the former, even in the form of "tableaux vivants"./.../"This memory is entirely on the side of oblivion, and it recalls the past in a different way. Obliviousness has to be granted the positive function of a "sous-venir". "In oblivion, the past "sous-vient" [appears] to man, as his future taking the form of his past" (KLOSSOWSKI, 1963, pp. 194-195). Oblivion is essential to history as well to the individual. History is only made of acts and creations arising from oblivion (LEUTRAT, 1986).

The images emerging from the "mémoire involontaire" are emerging from oblivion. The kind of memory valued by Benjamin as related to aura and art implies oblivion as integral to memory. It does not fit the conservatory obsession of the 'recollection', a word which refers to a specific relation to memory but which also refers to the religious contemplation of artworks related to Benjamin's first definition of aura. On the contrary, the capacity of images emerging from the past of anticipating future is embodied in artworks. The museum must revive this germinative power of artworks by arousing the specific approach emphasized by Benjamin: In "The History of Art is a History of prophecies". Godard tries to convey with Passion an artistic approach of History as opposed to History of cinema based on an industrial approach of documentary memory. This reductionist archivist method is the one that Benjamin associated with the volitional discursive memory wrought by the techniques of reproduction. But Godard shows that with this technique of reproduction, cinema, it is possible to develop another kind of History than can be told. Like Benjamin, Godard points out the fundamental value of storytelling as opposed to the reification of time in terms of information. But the storytelling is valued by Benjamin because its transmission is related to experience:

Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn./.../The storytelling /.../is itself an artisan form of communication, as it were. It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again (BENJAMIN, 1936b, pp. 84-91).

In storytelling, memory is embodied in the storyteller as experience. Memory coexists with the human agent of its transmission. This kind of consubstantiality resembles the specific relation between the content of an artwork and its form that is not separable from its texture:

In the artwork content and form are one: meaning. Meaning is the outcome of experience (BENJAMIN, 1928).

I have pointed out (RIEUSSET-LEMARIE, 1999) that the fundamental threat in the age of multimedia reproduction consists in trying to separate content and form, message and media, even in those things as artworks that can't bare this artificial dissociation. A work is conceived by multimedia cultural industries as a mere message that can be indifferently reproduced on various media. But some artists, like Godard, affect reluctance to this artificial dissociation.

Godard is thus planning a "true history of cinema", a history "made of pictures and sounds, not of illustrated texts" (GODARD, 1980, p. 15). A true history of cinema, that is, will be, an audio-visual one, not a written one. Its medium must be the same as its object (LEUTRAT, 1986).

The historical mission of the dissemination of cultural heritage in art museums can achieve the dissemination of memory as experience, but this aim requires to convey the kind of memory which is specific to artworks: its medium must be the same as its object. But does all that mean that a museum of cinema must be a movie and that a Web Museum must be displayed as a digital artwork? The tendency of conceiving an exhibition as a work and not only as the dissemination of information is interesting. This is a possible way, but there are other ways. The point is to convey the trace of the experience that was embodied in artworks, even if these artworks were created with other media. It is a difficult challenge. You can't pretend to achieve the reconstitution of past artworks artificially dissociated from their media. But the point is the dissemination of the traces of an artwork in so far as these latter involved the transmission of time as a discontinuum. You can revive the image of an artwork by creating a new image with another media:

The trace lies for Godard in the relationship between the image to be made and the image already made, that of the past. It is a fleeting moment, a spatialized fragment which cannot be situated. It belongs to the order of forthcoming things (LEUTRAT, 1986).

But the ability of creating with traces implies the prerequisite conditions which determine the peculiar status of the trace:

The trace is indissociable from memory and oblivion. In its traditional meaning, it is the sign of something else, derived from an original presence. However, recent considerations on the notion of trace, especially those of Jacques Derrida, assert the contrary : the notion of trace would entail the destroying of any idea or origin. Effacement would be inherent in the trace, so that a trace that would be ineffaceable would no longer be a trace (LEUTRAT, 1986).

If Benjamin pointed out the specific problems encountered by memory in the age of the mechanical reproduction, Web Museum would encounter a new obstacle in the age of digital reproduction. Sawad Brooks emphasized the "erasure of erasure" in digital media:

the deposit (left as the drawn mark) is a visible substitute when touch alone will not leave a significant mark./.../ the meaning of erasure of digital records differs from the meanings erasure holds in relation to analog media. In analog media, when something is erased, it is often possible to sense the mark left by erasure. /.../Erasure leaves its own traces, it is writing or drawing. It is a wiping clean which puts forth an order with the possibility of decipherment. How do we decipher the static of digital erasure? (BROOKS, 1998a)

Digital media lacks the incision left by the drawing on traditional media. Things are present or absent on electronic media, but it is difficult to find something resembling a trace. Effacement seams irreversible. It does not seem to leave the trace of erasure (we must notice, however, that after a problem in saving a text, you can sometimes find strange geometric figures that are the traces, not so much of the lost words, but of their erasure). Sawad Brooks tried to resist the resistance of digital tools for erasure:

I make drawing interfaces to draw upon the erasure of erasure in the realm of the digital (BROOKS, 1998a).

'Erasure of erasure' is not ineffaceability but it makes the decipherment of traces more complex. In order to revive the possibility of being deciphered, interpolation may be helpful. The image created is not the same one which was present before the erasure, but it revives the possibility of the decipherment of a trace which has disappeared after the erasure of the erasure. In this case, the possibility of reviving erasure in digital media depends on the creation of an artwork. Sawad Brooks have created another artwork which emphasizes the possibility of deciphering memory as experience in the age of digital media: 'DissemiNET':

DissemiNET /.../ provides spaces (lacunae) for people to recall and recollect, gathering there to re-tell stories about their own experiences with displacement and dispersal (BROOKS, 1998b).

The aesthetics of dissemination convey memory as experience. The interesting point is that these kinds of artworks are created thanks to digital techniques. The net becomes integral part of the artwork. Web museums and Web Galleries are not only displaying reproductions. Internet does not only play the role of a space dedicated to exhibits. Sometimes the web of the net is the texture of the artwork. Collaborative artworks are not only reproduced or exhibited on the Net. In Web Art (, the visitor has the power to make the artwork appear or disappear; in the OFFLINE PROJECT (, the visitors are invited 'to participate in this process of erasure'. Web museums will overcome the difficulty encountered by the techniques of reproduction to disseminate memory as experience by the displaying of virtual artworks for which the web is not a media disconnected from the content of the artwork, but its woven interactive texture.

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