Despite what you might think from its name, the Museum of Afghan Civilization will be the very model of a modern major museum when it opens in January. It will be housed in an angular, postmodern building, designed by France's Yona Friedman. It will display the art of Afghanistan from prehistory to today, with works collected from all over the world. And it will have a nifty Web site, complete with high-definition reproductions and interactive information guides. What the museum won't have is a front door. Or a parking lot. Or a cafeteria. That's because the museum is the first designed as a virtual building only.
Why put the objects in an imaginary building, instead of just creating a Web site full of pictures? Pascale Bastide, president of the Paris-based association Afghanculture, says she hopes that hiring an architect will imbue her project (afghanculturemuseum.org) with the gravitas of a traditional museum, as well as make viewers feel as though they are actively traveling to a museum rather than passively seeing reproductions of its artwork. Bastide is quick to admit that "nothing replaces real contact with an objet d'art," but the site's interactive approach comes close. Visitors will encounter a digital image of Friedman's design, set against its imagined location: the Bamiyan caves, where two monumental Buddha statues had stood since the fourth century A.D. before being destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Viewers can spin the building to view it from all sides, then click to enter multimedia "pavilions," which can be organized chronologically, geographically, or thematically. Friedman's design will serve as the shell. The interior will change just like in a real-world museum, where curators erect temporary walls according to an exhibition's needs. Bricks and mortar aside, the Museum of Afghan Civilization will operate like a typical art institution. The Web site will have a director (Bastide) and a team of curators (a Princeton professor, a French museum conservator, an Afghan archeologist, and an Afghan linguist). Oh, and there's also a designer with a background in videogames.
Afghanculturemuseum.org obviously isn't the only museum with a Web site, but its purely virtual form could affect the traditional museum world. For one thing, it all but eliminates the debate over whether a museum's priority should be to display artworks or preserve them. Today's digital reproduction technologies are generally harmless to the art (unlike the light and air in a museum), so they allow the public to see works otherwise accessible only to those with white gloves and doctorates.
Virtual museums still take money to launch; Bastide is looking for $10 million in private and government funding. They won't make the MoMAs of the world obsolete, either. But their lower maintenance costs and sustainable ap-proach to exhibitions might mean few-er traditional museums created in the future. That said, Bastide hopes that one day, in a stable, democratic Afghanistan, a physical Museum of Afghan Civilization might be built. But for now, the virtual approach will allow the museum to live—without having to exist.