Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing. Alexey Lebedev
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Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing. Alexey Lebedev


I’ve been visiting museums
for as long as I can remember, for the simple reason that my parents
were taking me there since I was a small kid. Because my parents were fine art experts,
I was moving in these circles. They studied modern art, and for me, the world of art,
the world of art museums was completely familiar
and natural since childhood. That is why my choice of profession
is far from surprising. I followed in my parents’ footsteps
and became a PhD in art history. Art in the form of illustrations
never interested me, so my choice of specialization
was predetermined by the situation itself. I was primarily interested
in Russian art that surrounded us, which I could see and study without
going anywhere, right in this country. I took an external PhD program and simultaneously went to work
in a museum — the Tretyakov Gallery. It was 1979. My career started very typically
for a museum worker. The first department I was assigned to —
it was common practice at those times — was the tour service. I was a guide in the Tretyakov Gallery. It was additionally convenient for me because a guide is occupied at work
when they give a tour, and in the rest of the time they are free —
and I was writing my thesis. First I did tours,
then travelling exhibitions. After that, I worked as a training specialist —
I taught guides to conduct tours. Then I was the head of the Training Department. Later, a department was organized that was called
the Department for Academic and Applied Research. The name is a bit vague, but at that time it was
a department that was dealing with issues other research departments couldn’t
or didn’t want to deal with – including IT. The first multimedia software
demonstrated to visitors in Russia was a program called “From the life of Christ.
Polenov’s evangelical cycle”. The program was developed
by our department in early 1994 for an anniversary exhibition of Polenov. What is a computer in 1994, the best computer? It’s a computer with a 14-inch monitor. A special card existed that could output
an image stored in a computer in TV format. There was a computer which only
displayed text on its screen, and the picture itself was displayed
on a TV next to it. TVs were already big enough. So this was the way the “From the life of Christ.
Polenov’s evangelical cycle” program was demonstrated at the exhibition. There were two screens:
a small one with text and a big TV nearby. The program was running in presentation mode. But technologies were developing rapidly, and
already next year we made a fully functional CD. I consider myself a contemporary
of two IT revolutions. The first one was the invention
of a user-friendly interface Norton. The second IT revolution was the invention
of network data storage and exchange. I started working with computers
when Norton appeared, i. e. at the moment when there was no longer any
intermediary between a computer and its real user. The first thing I did, as everyone,
was using a computer as a smart typewriter, i. e. in the editor mode. I worked in the Tretyakov Gallery
for about 20 years. I came there in early 1979 and left in late 1997 for the Russian Institute of Cultural Research,
the Museum Design Laboratory, where I still work. The laboratory has existed since 1987. Its tasks include museum modernization,
designing development programs, concepts, strategies, and creating new museums. Two people in the Laboratory
belong to the older generation — it’s me and my colleague Vladimir Dukelskiy,
a renowned museologist. He has worked in the Laboratory
almost since it was founded. The rest are young people,
we have four of them. We have no museographers,
but everyone is a museum worker. These are people from different museums. By education, they are historians, art historians,
anthropologists, archaeologists. Most of the laboratory’s projects
are not visible on the surface, because the end product is pure ideas. The most noticed by the society and the community
are works related to creating new museums. Among these I can mention, for example,
the Museum of the Tatneft Company in Almetyevsk, the “Man and Chukotka” Museum in Anadyr,
the Kalashnikov Museum in Izhevsk, the museum in the Ivan the Great
Bell Tower in Moscow. A special team is formed for any project. It includes our Laboratory’s employees
and invited experts needed for the specific project. I have always believed and I still believe
that the most interesting happens not within a particular discipline,
but at the intersection of disciplines. When two different areas suddenly converge, that is where a growth point,
a breakthrough point appears. When something new starts, in the first instance,
the technical possibility itself is astonishing. The problem with this type of projects
is that they tend to give a very bright burst of interest
and instantly become obsolete. Pretty soon it becomes clear
that this is actually a tool. At first, as it always happens
with the advent of a new tool, the winner is the one who has a better tool
and better knows how to use it. Then the development of the tool
outruns, roughly speaking, the capabilities of the human brain. And the winner turns out to be
not the one with the best machine, but the one with the best idea. I created the first virtual museum in Russia –
the Virtual Museum of Russian Primitive. At that time, there already existed
the Surround Video technology that allowed for showing smooth
movement within the interior. But everybody connected
to the Internet using modems. Therefore, we intentionally
gave up on smooth movement and only enabled a 90-degree turn
inside the virtual interior. Why? Precisely because if we had kept it,
we would have lost 95 per cent of our users. Now, the situation is fundamentally different. Today I talk to any competent engineer and say, “I need this room to have a sculpture in the air, rotating”. There is only one problem — why do we need this? So the question is the humanitarian content:
do we need this at all? But this is not the whole truth yet. Because the second truth is that today
a museum is no longer a temple, it is a forum — a platform for communication. And IT is a powerful tool for supporting
and developing communication. Museum exhibition made with active use of IT
has evolved the same way as IT itself. At first, there was huge enthusiasm about
techniques, tools in museum exhibitions. For example, everybody was installing
information kiosks like mad. Why? Because you couldn’t get
the public away from them. If you now have a look
at an information kiosk in an exposition, you will easily find out
that nobody comes up to it. The function of a museum
is to demonstrate an original item and to create special atmosphere,
which will never be possible in a virtual museum. I mean, the latter can have
some atmosphere, too, but it will be different from the one
you have in a real museum. A virtual museum is interesting
in terms of the possibility to get access to something unavailable to you in reality. In this capacity, it will exist,
develop, and so on. But there is still the magic of the original. IT has penetrated virtually
the entire museum space, but the emphasis on it is shifting,
wearing off, for the simple reason that it has lost its attractiveness in terms
of the nature of the phenomenon. A tool itself, in fact, isn’t interesting. Tools are needed for implementing ideas. So I wish you this: let your advanced and innovative
be in ideas, in contents, in structure, and not in hardware. Hardware will perish in six months,
and ideas can live for long.

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