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13 Nov 2020 / by Haidy Geismar

On Digital Ways of Seeing

Pixel art illustration of three figures wearing virtual reality headsets. Each figure has its head tilted up as beams shoot from the headsets. Three-dimensional diamonds and grey shapes float around the beams. Each figure wears a blue shirt with an identical white logo.

Toyoya Li, Virtual reality (2020). Courtesy of the artist

Haidy Geismar explores how digital museum visualisation technologies both change and perpetuate long standing traditions in how we access cultural artefacts.

It has long been acknowledged that museum technologies of exhibition and display have been instrumental in defining and disseminating cultural knowledge for hundreds of years. Techniques of looking, honed within exhibition halls and galleries, have formed the bedrock of Western knowledge systems. Scholars have long explored the ways we live within ‘the age of the world picture’, in a society based on spectacle, organised through an ‘exhibitionary complex’.[1] These theories of knowledge production emphasise how important ways of seeing are to our understanding of the world.[2] Curated processes of looking constitute powerful ideologies of authenticity and evidence, as well as establishing complex subjectivities bringing individuals and publics as viewers and consumers of culture.

Here, I briefly explore how new digital processes of visualisation are both extending the power of museums to define the world, as well as constituting new perceptual experiences of cultural artefacts. In a recent book, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age, I argue that we need to understand the proliferation of digital projects in museums in deeper historical context, especially at a time when the digital is itself seen as a powerful evidential tool, constituting new forms of empiricism and realism within museums.[3] Whilst many of us imagine the digital to be heralding in a new era of accessibility to collections, many digital projects in fact reconstitute older techniques of visualisation, reinforcing previous technological and teleological frameworks. Projects such as Google Street View, as it has been developed within museums such as the British Museum or the Acropolis Museum, make these spaces freely available to the public anywhere in the world. However, the viewing experience that is enabled does not allow one to freely roam the halls of these venerated institutions. Rather, one has to follow the proscribed pathways of the Street View camera, a fixed gaze that emerges from a narrowly defined series of principles about how we should move through exhibition halls and look at art.

In this way, the experience of moving through museums using Google Street View instantiates Tony Bennett’s arguments about the Victorian museum as an institutional technology that provides a series of regulated spaces and embodied encounters with collections in order to discipline museum-going publics.[4] Similarly, many digital projects in museums, from Imax cinemas to augmented reality smart phone apps, draw on the reality effects previously created by older museum technologies of taxidermy, dioramas, and stereograph photography, to constitute a sense of hyper-realism within the halls of the museum.[5] Paying attention to these histories shows us that digital technology needs to be understood as part of long-standing traditions of visualisation and somatic experience created within museums.

Rather than simply celebrating the new powers of zooming in and out and flying through and around objects afforded by digital imaging, we can also read these projects as exercises in recalibration: redefining our understanding of objects as evidential and indexical forms, situated within new imperial regimes of seeing, now focused around the collection of data rather than objects in the ground. These forms of recalibration might shift our perceptual frame from that of a person in a gallery space to that of someone looking down into a microscope, allowing us to see into objects and perceive layers not visible to the naked eye in an exhibition hall. Or we may recalibrate our vision to the level of a satellite or a drone, flying over territory and entering into archaeological sites, perhaps even entering the Great Pyramid at Giza.[6] It is clear that the new techniques of visualisation inherent within many digital projects, from 3D scanning at extremely high resolution to MRI imaging and digital fly throughs, and the emergence of these new data sets as objects in their own right, experienced on interactive screens or as 3D prints, are doing more than just allowing us to ‘see’ these ancient works in greater detail. They are part of a broader politics of seeing.

Pixel art illustration of a grey stone archway flanked by pillars. Through the arch, a building with a dome and pillars is visible. Overhead is a blue sky with clouds.

Toyoya Li, Triumphal Arch of Palmyra (2020). Courtesy of the artist

Take, for example, the Million Images Database Project, a joint initiative of Oxford and Harvard Universities, which aims to create a crowd-sourced databank of images of Middle Eastern Heritage, as many as possible in three dimensions.[7] The aim of this project is not simply to consolidate a digital archive, but to use this archive to create a virtual image bank that can in principle be used to resist the iconoclasm and destruction of heritage across the region. Similar projects have been initiated in the wake of the devastating fire in Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, and in relation to other vulnerable material traditions. In all of these projects, it is assumed that digital media might encompass and preserve what is vital (visual) of these object worlds, and re-make them materially accessible to the public, preserving the status of ancient objects as foundational to national and cultural identity. However, as Neil Brodie has trenchantly argued in relation to international efforts to preserve cultural property, without material support in place on the ground within sites and local communities, international regimes of conservation and care will privilege those in Western knowledge centres at the expense of others.[8] The circulation of the 3D printed Triumphal Arch of Palmyra by the Institute of Digital Archaeology is perhaps a good example of this—playing into the constitution of antiquities and their preservation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy—but with far less discernible impact on the protection of antiquities in Syria. In this way, these new digital forms slot seamlessly into upholding the (imperial) traditional role of Western museums as the guardians of world heritage, and maintain a status quo in debates about cultural property and civilisation.

Pixel art illustration depicting the Nefertiti bust—a bust of a woman whose head is covered by a flat, cylindrical crown—in a black space. The black background is covered by a blue grid with clusters of white elongated diamonds along certain points in the grid.

Toyoya Li, Nefertiti bust (2020). Courtesy of the artist

This is, however, not to say that digital technologies are not creating new possibilities for understanding collections. 3D scanning (and printing), augmented and virtual reality, and machine learning and artificial intelligence, are bringing alternative scopic regimes (for instance from the science laboratory and medical clinic, but also from the hacker space or fab lab) into the museum collection, altering our understanding of what we might in fact learn from collections. For instance, In December 2015, two artists, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles released 3D scanned data of the bust of Nefertiti from the Neues Museum in Berlin into the public domain, along with a video showing how they had clandestinely stolen the data during museum visits using Kinect scanners hidden under their coats. Alongside the open source provision of data and the video, the project also included a 3D print of the bust and a discussion hosted by the artists in Cairo of the relationship between contemporary art and heritage.[9] The artists called their project The Other Nefertiti and used the hack to propose both a virtual repatriation of Nefertiti, allowing a printed version of the bust to be made visible in Egypt for the first time since her removal, as well as drawing an analogy between the subversive way in which the data was collected and the original collection of the object, which has long been seen by the Egyptian government as emerging from illegal tomb-raiding and illicit archaeology in Egypt by European archaeologists.

This, however, was not the end of the story. In the wake of Nefertiti 2.0, a series of enquiries raised by technologists and journalists put forward the question of whether or not it would have been possible for the handheld scanners used by Al-Badri and Nelles to have captured the data released by the artists. Journalists traced a probable source of the data to a much higher-resolution scan commissioned by the Neues Museum itself and made by a private company, which has not been made available to the public. The website of this company presented a scan of Nefertiti that is uncannily like the image released by Al-Badri and Nelles. The artists responded by claiming that they had no specialist technical knowledge and were using data and resources managed by hackers whom they refused to name. If the sceptics are right, then the project is in fact a double hack: drawing attention to museum hoarding not just of ancient collections but of their digital doubles and using the tools of data collection and presentation to undo the regimes of authority and property over which the museum still asserts sovereignty, mocking the redemptive claims of so-called ‘digital repatriation’.[10]

Pixel art illustration of the Nefertiti bust on its side in a black space with a thick diagonal blue beam. Spheres of different sizes are floating around the bust. The bust appears to be covered by a grid pattern, with half being black with a blue grid pattern.

Toyoya Li, 3D print of Nefertiti (2020). Courtesy of the artist

It is crucial that we understand the ways in which these technologies work, not just to create magnificent visualisations of collections, but also to create new seeing subjects out of ourselves. With the advent of machine learning we are increasingly exposed to new kinds of digital images made not through the indexicality of photographic processes, in which an original object is captured and mirrored with digital pixels, but images made by virtual cameras and computers, emerging from secondary data sources, and produced by algorithms.[11] These new images challenge the existing models of evidence and authenticity that underpin our experience of digital images, especially in museums. They demand a re-examination of the cultural codes and the politics that underpin all visual systems. Who produces the data that creates new images? Just as native informants and guides have so often been written out of the history of archaeology and collections, so are those collecting and crunching data written out of the history of digital objects. The work of museum anthropology has been to recuperate these lost histories and demonstrate the complex social and political networks that underpin the constitution of collections and their display. Digital anthropologists must now do the same for new digital objects.

This article was first published on Podium, M+ Stories.

Haidy Geismar is Professor of Anthropology at University College London, where she is also the curator of the Ethnography Collections, co-directs the Digital Anthropology Programme, and is also Faculty Vice Dean (Strategic Projects) developing Culture Lab: a new set of research and teaching activities focused on media, heritage, and collections to be part of UCL’s new campus in the Olympic Park in East London. With fieldwork experience in Vanuatu and New Zealand dating back to 2000, her research focuses on museums and collections as sites of knowledge and value production, and she has written on a wide range of topics including the art market, postcolonial museologies, the production of indigenous intellectual and cultural property, the history of ethnographic collections, the epistemology of digital processes in diverse cultural contexts, and the social resonance of historical photographic collections in present day communities. Recent books include Moving Images: John Layard, Fieldwork and Photography on Malakula since 1914 (Hawaii University Press, 2010; winner of the 2012 John Collier Prize for Still Photography from the Society for Visual Anthropology), The Routledge Cultural Property Reader (with Jane Anderson, 2017), and Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age (University College London Press, 2018). She is an active curator, working with museums including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the East West Gallery, Honolulu, and is part of Te Maru o Hinemihi, a group of experts representing the interests of the Maori meeting house Hinemihi, part of a National Trust property in Clandon Park, United Kingdom. She is also Chair of the Royal Anthropological Institute Photography Committee and one of the founding editors of a new open access series, Anthropology and Photography.

  1. 1.

    Martin Heidegger, ‘The Age of the World Picture’ in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) 115–55. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999). Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’ New Formations 4 (1) 1988: 73–102.

  2. 2.

    John Berger, Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series Directed by Michael Dibb. Reissued as part of the Penguin Design Series. Penguin on Design (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2008).

  3. 3.

    Haidy Geismar, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age (London: UCL Press, 2018). Available for free download:

  4. 4.

    Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum : History, Theory, Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

  5. 5.

    Alison Griffiths, Shivers down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (Film and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

  6. 6.

    For instance in this app created by Touch Press:

  7. 7.

    See the Million Images Database Project website here:

  8. 8.

    Neil Brodie, ‘Protection Not Prevention: The Failure of Public Policy to Prevent the Looiting and Illegal Trade of Cultural Property from the MENA Region (1990-2015)’ in The Routledge Companion to Cultural Property eds. Jane L. Anderson and Haidy Geismar (London; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 89–107. Available online:

  9. 9.

    See the Nefertiti Hack website here:

  10. 10.

    Haidy Geismar, ‘Mimesis, replication and reality’ in Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age. (London: UCL Press, 2018), 105–113. Charley Wilder, ‘Nefertiti 3-D scanning project in Germany raises doubts’, The New York Times, 10 March 2016,

  11. 11.

    William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992). Joshua Rothman, ‘In the Age of A.I., Is Seeing Still Believing?’, The New Yorker, 5 November 2018.

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