Credit: Flickr user Khánh Hmoong CC:BY-NC

Digital Archives, the Museum and the Culture Snacker

—Maria Engberg, senior lecturer, Department of Media Technology and Product Development, Malmö University, Sweden

History made comestible

In April 2013, after being closed for ten years for renovation, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reopened. The long hiatus allowed the museum time to thoroughly and carefully reimagine its role in the Netherlands and its relationship with its visitors and customers. Central to this important change for the museum was a complete overhaul of its digital face outward. The result is a new website with the Rijksstudio at its center, a digital platform for easy access to the digital parts of the museum’s collection. The creation of the digital presence of the museum centred on a vision of the public now living digital lives in a Web 2.0 reality of user generated content, interoperability, and ease of digital access to information and communication.

Martijn Pronk, head of publishing at the Rijksmuseum, defined the museum’s new relationship to the public as follows:

The Rijksmuseum is for everybody. Therefore, the Rijksmuseum website is for everybody…. For the development of our site we have looked at what else is successful on the Internet today. We have targeted those customers. The “culture snacker” we focus on is the typical Internet user of today, pinning on Pinterest, watching videos, sharing photos. Interested in art, design, travel, but not an art lover per se. Rijksstudio is the “translation” of a museum website for this group. (Gullström)

Detail. Rijksmuseum collections. “Chinamen eating in a restaurant. Canton, China,” C.H. Graves & Universal Photo Art Co., Carlton H. Graves, Universal Photo Art Company, 1902

Packaging our snacks: make your own masterpiece!

The tour de force of this new relationship that the museum envisions with its audience is the digital Rijksstudio, which provides an interface to the museum’s digital archive (containing at present 200,000 objects). The studio foregrounds the user’s personal engagement with the artworks, allowing you to create your own account in which you can create your own curated collections in archives by marking whole or sections of artworks as your favourites. Finally, under the heading “make your own masterpiece”, you can take your selections, download the images and transform them into other images or use the images to decorate objects to buy (a cup, a phone cover) or even to mark your own skin with (tattoos).

The phrase “culture snacker” stands out in Pronk’s statement. This is what the Rijksmuseum calls the segment of their audience that engages with these steps of the Rijksstudio: the gathering and sharing images and then creating new objects and images out of the archive material. At the time of the re-opening in 2013, Peter Gorgels, the Rijksmuseum’s manager of digital communication, suggested that the culture snacker “is the digital counterpart of the culture tourist.” Culture snackers are, he continues, digitally savvy users who know how to engage with our by now “image-heavy culture” (Gorgels 2013). Gorgels’ description of the museum visitors’ online media engagement is similar to behaviours that social scientists Madianou and Miller have called “polymedia use” (Madianou and Miller 2012). Polymedia use is a set of strategies for choosing media platforms according to social, personal and emotional needs, and reasons other than rational technical choices based on each channel or medium’s affordances and nothing else. Individual needs and associations weigh heavier than broader cultural assumptions about how visitors should engage with cultural material. The snacker wants to put together their own little tidbits of culture to take away: “Creative manipulation of images has become commonplace, both for humorous and aesthetic ends” (Gorgels).

Is cultural snacking good for you?

The culture snacker wants high quality snacks, the Rijksmuseum wagers. Despite that Gorgels seems to suggest that easy access is paramount for the culture snacker, the snacking here is not so much the unhealthy picking at high-energy, empty calorie foods that ultimately corrupt your health, or in this case, cultural education. The empty calorie version of what the Rijksmuseum offers is, in this scenario, the abundance of low-resolution images that are easily available online but do not have the quality and authority that an image directly from the museum does. Instead, high-resolution images are offered much in the way that the Google Art Project foregrounds high resolution images that allow for zooming in to see details as one would see them during an actual visit to the museum.

What I see as I read Gorgels’ description of the Rijksstudio’s intended audience is a version of Nicholas Carr’s multitaskers, who jet about digital fields picking up bits here and there. In Carr’s cognitive science-influenced take on web culture, the snacker, or in Carr’s words, “the juggler”, relies too much on brain functions that “help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms” (2010, doc. 2441). This juggling causes the brain cells that “support calm, linear thought” to wither, Carr argues. These are, the argument goes, the very cells we draw upon when reading long narratives or “involved argument” (2010). What is for Gorgels a force for positive engagement with digitized cultural heritage objects, is for Carr a very real threat to our ability to think critically in a sustained manner.

Being there—a sidebar

I have always been more fascinated with watching people who look at art than only looking at the artworks themselves. With few exceptions, I am often more intrigued by the social scene in front of me than simply immersing myself in reflection in front of masterworks. Whenever I visit a museum, I find myself slowly following the path of other visitors to see how they see and what they see. I will stand by one visitor for a while then change to another. Looking over their shoulder, I see the artworks and the visitors looking at them at the same time. This has become one of my favorite modes to look at art while also documenting others’ behavior. Looking at the Rijksstudios of other users is another way of looking at them looking at art.

Photo: Maria Engberg, 2009
Screenshot from Rijksstudio user Nora’s collection


In the vast landscape of digital material that is the world wide web, how would an institution with digital archives lure potential visitors? Access is one key element, particularly for a state institution given public funds to provide services for the preservation and presentation of important cultural objects. However, boundary-less digital access can lead to a sense of excess (Fjellestad and Engberg 2013). An excess of visual material which arises from digitalization efforts and social photographic practices (propelled by the digital camera phone and social media platforms that support or even foreground the publication of amateur photography); a moment of what Johanna Drucker argues is fueled by “image glut and visual overstimulation” (Drucker 2005, 193).

For the Rijksmuseum, another guiding principle has been “close to”. They want to come close to us, and for us to want to come closer too—close to the collection, close to the building itself on visits in person, and close to their expertise which stands ready for us online and in the bricks-and-mortar museum.

We bring everything close by, so that the user can reach out, establish personal contact, and zoom in and out. We make art accessible, inviting, and inspiring. We encourage touching. We create ease of use. (Gorgels)

The zoom is the tool par excellence in the Rijksstudio that facilitates this closeness. It allows us to zoom in and come so close to the objects that we can perceive cracks in the surface, and see brush strokes and lumps of paint. The gaze that is evoked by the interface choices and the high resolution digital images of the Rijksstudio therefore become highly corporeal and suggest a sensual and seductive experience, rather than one which is informative or respectfully distant. Laura Marks’ (2002) suggestion that certain cinematic sensibilities foreground a haptic visuality which calls upon multiple senses through the visual seems apt to use when describing the effect that the zooming interface of the Rijksstudio is supposed to call forth. The tactile sensation that the zoom is supposed to intimate is quite different, however, to what Marks understood as defining haptic visuality. She foregrounded instead grainy images, changes in focus, overexposure, and close-to-the-body camera positions; in short, less than “perfect” images, less than complete. The contemporary use of high-resolution images and zoom functions points more toward a wish to get the complete and physical experience of the painted canvas with all its imperfections.

Rijksmuseum Collections. Italian Landscape with Umbrella Pines, Hendrik Voogd, 1807 and detail of the same.

In a time when already digitized material now has to find new models of access and consumption for users, cultural heritage institutions with digital archives are exploring how to envision what a digital museum can be. For visitors to the digital archives, such as the ones on offer by the Rijksmuseum, Europeana and the Google Art Project, the experiences are set up so that visitors come into imagined close contact with the cultural objects on display by way of zooming. Unlike the distance that is maintained in the physical collections, digital museums foreground a photographic urge to zoom in, to create close-ups, to be able to virtually stand so close to the surface of a painting that you can see its brush strokes and cracks. In the case of the Rijksmuseum, the zoom interface is made specifically with the touch interface tablet in mind. High resolution images along with possibilities to zoom in present a strategy of interaction that foregrounds a tactile gaze: an intertwining of touch and look. There is a scopophilic and tactile tendency built into its interface, one that users have seemed quite eager to embrace judging by the number of visitors the Rijksmuseum’s online archives have. It is a strategy that gestures toward a Benjaminian aura, intended to mimic the experience of being in physical proximity to the actual physical artwork. Not to replace the physical art piece by millions of less-than-equal copies but to invite us into a museum world of ready-to-snack goodies. This is a strategy of opening up the museum towards the visitors where they are: on Pinterest, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The goal is of course to invite us to create links, to share, and to reuse material that is in some way linked to the Rijksmuseum, and in that way, strengthen their presence, relevance and brand.

Photo: Maria Engberg, 2009

The web equivalent of peering over visitors’ shoulders in the digital collection of the Rijksmuseum is to look through the users’ individual sets and collections, their own Rijksstudios. As of December 2015 there are over 230,000 Rijksstudios on Visitors can flit in and out of others’ collections and snapshots, see what other visitors are seeing and how they see it, along with interpretations and biases indicated by the set names and the details they have chosen to highlight. In the section “Creations,” users can upload their own creations which have been inspired by, used or otherwise echoed the works that are in the collections. This, too, becomes a way to consume in light pieces here and there. Any visitor can peer into another’s collection. A peer-curated collection also foregrounds the “snacking” metaphor of which the museum speaks. These collections most often foreground keywords (a set of paintings centering on food, or flowers or eyes, for instance) and most often skew art historical groupings or distinctions. In fact, most often, the historical context of any of the works has been taken away from the site altogether with the reason that “[i]t is our e-strategy that we only publish ourselves what has real added value. For example, we no longer explain who the biblical Moses was, as we did before, since this information is readily available from a host of sources even more authoritative on the subject than the Rijksmuseum” (Gorgels 2013).

From cannibal to snacker

In 1928, the Brazilian poet, Oswald de Andrade, published the Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto) in which he proclaimed, “I am only concerned with what is not mine” (de Andrade and Bary 1991). Andrade’s ideas of a cultural anthropophagy that cannibalized European high culture into the Brazilian context to the great benefit of Brazil suggested that something strong and new could be constructed out of the act of devouring others’ creative and cultural ideals. Although not always proclaimed in such corporally violent terms, practices of re-appropriation are central to the modernist project as a whole: eating, devouring, regurgitating, or more plainly, using that which is not one’s own. Thus, there is a movement away from the unrepentant and defiant calls to resist the colonization of European culture onto the Brazilian cultural landscape by “writing back” to the Empire that is at the core of de Andrade’s manifesto, or the destruction of European history, repeated in every tenet of the violent romantic, misogynist 1909 manifesto of Italian Futurism (Marinetti).

Once practices with pronounced radical intentions, the consumption and regurgitation of cultural objects continue but have lost some of their politicizing force. Now, metaphors of use and reuse have been hopelessly tamed: no longer do we tear flesh from cultural bodies in order to forge our own stitched-together Frankensteinian creatures.

In the digital age, we snack, picking at the pieces that are presumably the most accessible and possibly the most desired:; Outside of museum politics perhaps, these kinds of “remixes” of museum objects seem less than radical and more in tune with the dominant aesthetic practices in contemporary culture, from music and art to creative practices in digital social media culture. Rijksstudio has taken those digital cultural impulses to reuse and re-publish seriously and offer them as a path towards what they view as a closer and longer engagement with the Rijksmuseum archives. It has proven to be a fruitful strategy: in the first three months after launch, the average visit length went from 3.05 minutes to 10.42 minutes. The average visit among iPad users was more than 19 minutes. Within a year, the number of Rijksstudios passed 100,000 (Fabrique), and at the close of 2015, the Rijksstudio has more than 230,000 users.

Combinations of two paintings. Rijksmuseum Collections.

On the go

These thoughts on the opening of the museum through hyper-visual display and remix may offer only limited insight into larger cultural questions of archiving practices or questions of openness, access, and cultural cache. Despite this, as someone who finds her way to cultural objects by way of watching them as part of a social scene rather than reified high cultural objects in their own right, the possibility of glimpsing others’ re-appropriations and digital traces of visits to the online Rijksmuseum becomes a diet that, much like snacking in real life, fills you up without actually giving you proper nourishment. Gives you glimpses without full insight. Ultimately, what the Rijksstudio offers by opening up the digital archive is, despite appearances, perhaps not far from offering us that moment of satisfaction when we buy a couple of postcards to show that we were there as we exit through the museum shop.

Photo: Maria Engberg, 2009

About the author

Maria Engberg is Ph.D. in English. Her main research interests include augmented and mixed reality, media theory, locative media, media aesthetics and digital culture.


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