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Walters pioneers the virtual museum

In the 18th century, wealthy English gentlemen who wished to educate themselves in matters of taste had to take the "Grand Tour" of Europe to see the masterpieces of painting and sculpture. There were no photographs of the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo; if one truly wanted to know what they looked like, one had to travel, often at considerable expense, to where they were.

Today, of course, anyone can call up the Mona Lisa or the Venus in an instant on the Internet. Virtually all the world's most famous artworks are available online, and though the quality of reproductions varies widely, most museums routinely post the highlights of their collections as a way of advertising exhibitions and attracting new visitors.

Yet, even in the digital age, it's rare for museums to display their entire collections online — or even make the attempt. That's why the recent decision by the Walters Art Museum to put nearly every one of its 30,000 artworks on the World Wide Web is such a supremely ambitious project. When completed, the effort will put the Walters at the forefront of the emerging technology of online museums and make it one of the few institutions in the world that allows virtual visitors to explore almost every artwork it owns.

In a sense, the Walters' decision to throw open its doors wide on the Web is a natural extension of the free admission policy it adopted in 2006, when both it and the Baltimore Museum of Art stopped charging visitors admission to see their permanent collections. The Walters had an especially compelling reason for wanting to broaden access to its treasures: Unlike the BMA, which is privately owned, the Walters belongs to the city of Baltimore and its people. Its masterpieces are public assets, and so far as possible, they should be freely available to the public.

That's also why the Walters, unlike many museums, decided against charging for the high-resolution images viewers of its website can download onto their computers or hand-held devices. Museum director Gary Vikan reasoned that the benefits from reaching out to the widest possible audience outweighed the relatively small revenue gains the museum could anticipate from selling its images.

He also figured the more people who see the Walters' masterworks on the Web, the more who will want to visit Baltimore to see them in person, just as generations of art lovers have flocked to stand in front of the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo at the Louvre museum in Paris after having seen countless reproductions of them in books and online.

All major museums struggle with the problem of not having enough space to display more than a fraction of their collections at any given time. Moreover, many types of artwork are so fragile that they can't be safely displayed for extended periods. And no matter how popular an exhibition may be, only a finite number of people can fit inside the museum's walls while a show is up.

The advantage of online galleries is that there's no limit to how long artworks can stay up, the number of people who can view them or the number of works that can be displayed. It's all there, all the time. No wonder the number of hits on the Walters Web page has more than quadrupled, from about 250,000 a few years ago to more than 1 million today.

The Walters is currently about a third of the way through digitizing its collection, having posted images of about 12,000 artworks online. The project, supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, aims to make itself as user-friendly as possible. It even includes a feature that allows viewers to assemble their own personal art collections and post them in a separate gallery. Whether you're drawn to 19th-century landscapes, Renaissance portraits or the fabulous bling in the Walters' treasury of fine jewelry, watches and objets d'art, they're all yours for the asking.

Putting the Walters' collection online will surely prove a boon for artists, teachers and scholars around the world, as well as offering a global open invitation to personally experience Baltimore's cultural treasures. That's the kind of enduring advertisement for the city that money can't buy, and the beauty of it is that it's available to anyone with the click of a mouse.

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