You can alter masterpieces

Digital art collections and displays are not meant to compete with physical works, but they help widen the reach of art to the masses via the Internet. The National Heritage Board should actively explore ways of adapting heritage content to different forms such as exhibitions, documentaries or even mobile apps.  

SINGAPORE - On the screen, a moon that waxes and wanes to thumping beats gives way to drawings of madonnas from earlier centuries, arms gesturing hope, wonder and rapture as they shimmy against a bubblegum pink background to a catchy indie pop tune.

It is hard to tear one's eyes away from this ticklish, infectious and twee video mash-up made in the creative language of the times. The piece is composed by creative director Christian Borstlap, who has worked on digital animations for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. He composed the online video using bits and pieces of 211 works of art from the Rijksmuseum's new interactive online collection.

The Amsterdam museum, famed for its collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers, re-opened in April after a 10-year refurbishment.

Along with its €375 million (S$623 million) overhaul - a below-sea-level underground atrium was dug and built to preserve a bicycle path that cuts through the museum's east and west wings - the museum also launched an ambitious digital site for its collection.

The virtual space, Rijksstudio, houses 125,000 masterpieces in high-resolution. Anyone with an Internet connection can register for free to access, download and manipulate digital images of the works in any way they fancy. Users can also choose to post their re-creations on Rijksstudio or share them via social media platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest.

They can even go as far as to turn the downloaded images into tattoos, mobile phone covers, bedsheets and yes, even toilet paper, for personal use.

The ways in which Rijksstudio users are able to interact with images of museum masterpieces are not novel. Pictures of works of art have long existed online and anyone keen to improvise them could have done so, albeit limited by the resolution of the images available.

What makes Rijksstudio radical is that the renowned museum has given its blessing to the masses to utterly alter digital images of its precious works of art. Not only has it made available high-resolution images of works in its collection including prized paintings such as Rembrandts' Night Watch, it has also provided a user-friendly interface that empowers the public to thwart the fidelity of the images.

Borstlap's catchy video is but one example of how people can be inspired by the museum's collection and allow their minds to run wild with imagination and creativity. And the masses are hooked. A New York Times article in May on Rijksstudio states that the site has drawn more than 2.17 million visitors since it debuted last October and some 200,000 people have downloaded images.

Indeed, what makes Rijksstudio such a bold gesture in the world of historical custodians is that it unabashedly acknowledges that the museum, as an institution in the business of inspiring knowledge and learning through images, has to keep pace with changing times. And the move makes no apologies for trying to match the dramatic transformation in the way people view, consume and distribute images in the technological age.

In a video interview posted on the site, the museum's director of collections Taco Dibbits talks about how the iPhone and iPad have led the touchscreen revolution and how this technology has changed the way people interact with images - they touch them and zoom in and out of them.

Rijksstudio reproduces this dynamic quality of interaction by allowing users to close in on a detail in a work of art - a delicate lace collar in a Dutch portrait, a luminous wall in an indoor painting - and draw the attention of other viewers to it.

The museum's profound remodelling of the format of an online collection has naturally drawn brickbats from mustier quarters. Some museum observers have remarked in online forums that such a move is digressive. It panders to the contemporary way of attention-deficit looking, doing nothing to cultivate the disciplined habit of carefully viewing a work of art and debases the power of the image.

That argument, however, misses the point.

Digital art collections and displays are not meant to compete with physical works of art and the disciplined ways of viewing a painting or sculpture in three dimensions. What they should be doing is widening the reach of works of art in the realm of the Internet, so it is futile for a virtual site to force viewers to engage with the images as they would in person.

In fact, people interact with masterpieces of art online by distorting images to zoom into details or mentally zoom in on fields that hold their attention and disregard other portions of works. The way of looking that Rijksstudio encourages is aligned with the reality of visual consumption of non-digital art in a digital age.

What is also refreshing about the site is how it invests users with absolute power over images of priceless art and allows the masses to redefine the works in personal ways. But with power comes the need for trust and in this case, the relationship between the site, its images and users in all corners of the world amounts to an incalculable risk. There is nothing to prevent rogue users from maliciously defacing the image of a work and disseminating it.

Yet the decision to give users free reign over images of the work is not an uncalculated one; the power of an icon is not conferred or validated by an individual or institution but the masses. So the exposure gained by placing images of the works into the hands of the public and allowing them to multiply and disseminate them repeatedly is perhaps a small trade-off for the vulnerability of the exchange.

The national museums of art and heritage here could take a leaf out of Rijksstudio's book.

The National Heritage Board's online repository of artefacts and artworks is not friendly for browsing. It is designed for purposeful searching rather than to interact with the public. The quality and resolution of the images are also decidedly modest, they do nothing to suggest the potential majesty of the work and, in turn, lose an opportunity to stir in viewers a desire to take the trouble to visit the museum to experience the works in person.

A re-look of Singapore's online art and heritage collection would be timely given the announcement last Sunday of a $5-million grant scheme to encourage Singaporeans to be active in creating heritage content in various forms such as exhibitions, publications, documentaries or mobile apps. Applicants can apply for the Government to co-fund half of their project's cost, up to a cap of $30,000 each time.

The financial assistance is certainly a carrot but I cannot help wondering what the creative impact might be of a slick, attractive and interactive online collection that liberated images of works of art in the national collection.

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