The power of viewing original art

  • 18 January 2012

This week we ask: If digital images can capture works of art with high levels of detail, is there still a need to experience them in a museum?

Ophelia by Millais, 1851-52

Ophelia by Millais, 1851-52

As the national fundraising charity for works of art we are always encouraging our members to make the most of their National Art Pass and visit museums and galleries. However, there are increasingly more ways to access great works of art online, such as the Google Art Project. So, if digital images can capture works of art with high levels of detail, is there still a need to experience them in a museum?

Looking at Ophelia

A research project that the Art Fund helps supervise has revealed that seeing the genuine piece of art in a museum environment opposed to a digital representation really does make viewers engage with works differently. The University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies and Department of Engineering compared the eye movements of those viewing the original Ophelia by Millais at Tate Britain to those looking at a digital image of the same work in a lab.

Whereas those at Tate Britain tended to look significantly less at Ophelia than the rest of the painting, those in the lab tended to fixate significantly more on Ophelia. Findings showed that those in the museum concentrated on the detail of the original, spending more time exploring the texture and brushstrokes and putting the figure of Ophelia in context with her surroundings.

Digital v Original

So while the presence of high-quality images of your favourite artworks can be easily accessed in a digital format any where you like, it seems there is nothing quite like viewing them in situ. Museums and galleries along with the artworks and objects in them continue to have the power to enthrall us with the magic of an original piece. So, where are you using your National Art Pass next?

This research was first published in the ACNR Journal, read the full article: Looking at Ophelia: A comparison of viewing art in the gallery and in the lab.

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