12 April 2021

Monday, 10:06



No matter what, it’s impossible to digitise museums and theatres with their visitors



In the last few weeks, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev attended the opening ceremonies of several cultural sites, including the Museum of State Symbols in Mingachevir and Terter, the Azerbaijan State Museum of Ashug Art in Tovuz. Also, President Aliyev and First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva inspected the major repair and restoration works started two years ago in the Palace of Baku Khans, as well as the progress of restoration works at the underground bath of the 17th century discovered during archaeological excavations at the Gosha Gala gate in Icherisheher. These facilities were opened after repairs. Remarkably, the House Museum of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev was also opened after reconstruction and restoration as part of the centenary celebrations of the National Museum of History (NMH) of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences (ANAS). All these events took place amid the pandemic, which means that the visitors will soon be able to watch the exhibits not online but in real time, here and now.


Reality of museums

To counter the spread of Covid-19, virtual tours to museum galleries become increasingly popular in many countries. For example, free online tours are available on the websites of Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera, the Uffizi Gallery, Vatican museums, Louvre, Prado, British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thanks to digital platforms, we can also visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Museum of Art History in Vienna, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Salvador Dali Museum and other cultural sites around the world.

In Russia, the Russian Museum, the Hermitage, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Victory Museum and other major facilities provide online services too. You can take a virtual walk through the collections, listen to lectures and video broadcasts of special events. The Self-Isolation section of the Garage Museum contains video tours and mobile exhibition guides, lectures, and interviews.

Azerbaijan is also in the trend these days. The country's museums conduct online tours introducing the history and activities of institutions, their exhibits, and so on. It is possible to take part in online excursions on the official pages of Azerbaijani museums in social networks, including the Museum of Independence, the National Museum of Arts, the State Museum of Musical Culture of Azerbaijan, the House-Museum of Vagif Mustafazade, the House Museum of Niyazi, etc. On May 18, the International Day of Museums, Azerbaijani museums held a series of online presentations, events and exhibitions.

For example, the Icherisheher Museum Centre of the Icherisheher State Historical and Architectural Reserve Administration presented the Maiden Tower in the World Heritage 3D Scanning program. The project was implemented in cooperation with the German company EKM Global Consulting GmbH. Also, for the first time, a 3D virtual tour of the Maiden's Tower was presented with information points in two languages. It is possible to take online tours on all floors of the tower and admire the panorama of Baku from the top of the building.

The World Heritage 3D Scanning is a computer program for visualisation and documentation of an architectural historical monument, a kind of digital archiving tool for cultural heritage objects. It scan and save in a digital format the object in full size. The saved data can later be used in professional reconstruction or restoration of monuments in case of damage or destruction.


Virtual or real?

It is good to know that, of course, but the question is whether the online format can completely replace physical presence in the museum? Despite high technologies everywhere, museums are still important facilities that contribute to our cultural and general development as persons. Even the viewing of La Gioconda on the best monitor cannot be compared to the impression it will make live. That’s where museums step in, providing a chance to view and sometimes touch the exhibits live.

Museums are not only the place which share the centuries-long artistic and cultural heritage of humanity with people who study and are interested in art. Most of the museums have long become complexes of art, which serve several purposes at once: popularisation of art and study of humanities and technical sciences. The Louvre, for example, also includes a full-fledged educational institution as part of its structure. Learning the history of civilisation, which also means the development of artistic principles in human beings, is the foundation of aesthetic education. Knowing the culture of of other peoples expands our worldview, instills respect for the life and contribution of our ancestors to the history of other peoples of the world, teaches tolerance, and encourages creativity.

Therefore, it is quite natural that no virtual project can replace a real visit to the museum. Museums exhibit genuine things, not their virtual projections. There should be no substitution of concepts due to temporary transition to online mode. You need to visit a museum to get impressions and emotions. True, online visits can increase awareness and provide information about a subject. In addition, museums providing online sessions help us capture the unique experience of living in extreme situation and will become objects of study in the future. But nothing can replace the activity going inside a museum; no online excursion will provide the same interaction with exhibits as a live performance. The current situation is a reason to think about what and how can and should be translated into virtual reality. Another area of activity is augmented reality. A standard video tour can be informative but it cannot help to shorten the distance between the real thing and the visitor.



“When museums around the world started offering excursions online, my friends and I were very happy. As always, our grandchildren helped us. We agreed that since we always go everywhere together, then we will make excursions together too, each of us from her own apartment,” pensioner Irina Verochkina said. However, this did not work. “The grandchildren created a chat group for us on our smartphones, where we could discuss what we saw. The guides in museums were brilliant! But, you see, when they talk about a particular work of a famous master, we want to watch what they are talking about at that very moment, not later. In addition, in some museums, paintings are under glass, which creates big inconveniences for perception. A theatre or a museum through the glass of any screen destroys the very meaning of Art."

In ethnographic museums, it is impossible to see the details of the artefacts that make those museums famous. In other words, no matter whatever the advanced technologies used for excursions are, they are not able to convey even half of those feelings and impressions, to give an aesthetic satisfaction that you get directly in the museum or theatre. Trying to comprehend art through glass is like trying to master the living and physical space looking at it from the window of your apartment on the 16th floor. It seems that there is life outside the window, but you are not in it; you’re behind the glass of your apartment. No game of life can replace real life. No virtual art can even pretend to be Art. Some of you may argue that we always get used to the new with difficulties because we do not want to part with the old. But this is not the case. “Believe me, we are not against the technological progress. It is impossible to stop it, same as the life itself. We don’t even want to. But we want these technological innovations not to impoverish our lives and not to deprive us and our grandchildren of that spiritual and moral component that distinguishes us from the trending European values that have been increasingly imposed on the whole world in recent years,” Mrs. Verochkina said.

Given the dominance of technical civilisation in the West, the cultural and humanitarian basis of education is of particular importance. Therefore, it is necessary to draw on the experience of previous generations to form real, full-fledged personalities capable of living in the modern world.


Theatrical reality

I wonder if Aristotle, one of the founding fathers of modern European theatre, has ever imagined that his model would have to be changed in the 21st century? Of course, not. But the humanity happens to live in the 21st century full of pragmatic, cynical, substitutive shape-shifters aimed at distorting moral ideals, inevitably pushing towards the destruction of national traditions, and therefore, to the end of self-identification of each person.

The theatre was created for people and in the name of people. It has always been a place to create live and emotional art here and now. It was created by both spectators and actors. Because only this inextricable bond between actors and the audience is the key factor making the theatres all over the world. In fact, the aesthetic platform of theatres does not matter, as each country has its own one. It is important that theatre as Art is born here and now, only when there are living, not virtual, actors on stage and audience in the hall.

European theatre. Eastern theatre. Asian theatre... Each of them is an art with a very unique code of human identification. A code that makes a person to feel part of a single national entirety, reflecting, as in a mirror, a model of the moral culture to which both he and his people belong. What will happen if we break this connection?


Pandemic misconceptions

With the sudden birth of the ‘crowned’ Covid-19 pandemic, there was an assumption that theatres could be virtual. Endless arguments of supporters and opponents of this concept that we can hear and watch on various TV programs boil down to the fact that virtual theatre is an alternative to live, emotional, and momentary action, and the real fans of theatre will still watch performances in online format. But this is a delusion! Because this format deprives the audience of the feeling of collective (actors + audience) co-creation. Those irreplaceable moments that make a theatre the theatre. The second misconception is that by reducing the number of seats in the hall and having the audience comply with the rules of social distancing, one can preserve that unique atmosphere of co-creation, which is a product of dense energy field with a positive charge pumped from the stage to hall and back. This is a priori impossible when the audience seats in a chequerboard pattern. At the same time, the material side of the problem is not yet considered, but it exists and will declare itself quite significantly if not foreseen in advance. The third misconception is the assumption that theatrical performances can be watched in video format. Even if we assume that the play was filmed using four cameras, it will be a completely different, televised version of the play, not a live action of co-creation according to the principle of energetic and intellectual injection of ideas between the actors and the audience. Only this principle can make a theatre an object of living momentary Art.

We discussed the above topics with other people as well. Let’s see what they think about them.


Saida BABAYEVA, a student of the Baku State University:

“During isolation, my mother and I watched old performances of the National Drama Theatre in video format. Those that we have previously seen on stage and those that we have not. I cannot say that I had vivid impressions. On the contrary, it was a moment of slight disappointment. The performance was not exciting at all. We followed the plot, but the performance, even the ones that we had seen before, did not bother us. Then we tried to watch performances of some Russian theatres, took online tours to museums, but still it was a different impression, not the one that you can get by visiting a theatre or a museum in person."


Rashid ZEYNALOV, a taxi driver:

“I don't go to theatres often, but I try not to miss premieres at the Youth Theatre. Real time performance cannot be compared with a video performance for sure. Like everyone else, I once tried to watch one of the highly recommended performance online. I wish I didn't. I don’t watch plays online any more because I don’t want to spoil the general impression of the theatre.”


Tahira ASHUROVA, a retired teacher of English:

“No, I don’t watch video performances. I tried to watch one in March, when all the theatres launched their archival performances online. I do not think this is a suitable format of presentation for any theatrical action. You seem to see and hear everything, yet... it's still not a performance. This is something else... like a transmission of information. It does not evoke feelings or emotions. I am not interested in theatre as a means of information transmission. Absolutely.”

During the interviews, we had to keep distance and remain in masks. Comparing our impressions  from a virtual tour at one of the world-famous museums with what our interviewees said, as well as the performances of Russian, German, British, Polish, and Ukrainian theatres, we realised that our feelings match. In fact, it was after another virtual tour that I decided to give up this kind of visits... hoping that the humanity will soon return from virtual unreality to normal life.