Materiality In the Digital Collection: A Case Study of “ MASTERPIECES UP CLOSE” in the Rijksmuseum

The development of technologies and the popularity of the Internet have let collections be presented in digital ways. Many museums create online sites and transform their collections into digital. Especially during the COVID-19 lockdown, museums are not able to open, so a lot of museums transfer their collections into digital and let the public visit them without leaving home. However, there are many differences between traditional collections and digital collections, and materiality is one. In traditional collections, every collection is physical and material that you can see, feel or touch, but in digital collections, the materiality has to be performed in digital ways. Even though the materiality of collections can not be fully presented with the digital tools, the digital collections still find ways to enhance materiality, such as reproducing material features and adding metadata to evoke the sensory response and enhance the physical experience even letting the audiences participate and interact.

In this blog post, I will focus on the materiality in collections and discuss the materiality in digital collections about how the materiality gain and losses in the digital collection. To discuss the materiality more specifically, I will use an interactive virtual digital collection: “Rijksmuseum Masterpieces Up Close” as an example and analyze the materiality performance in this digital collection.

The Role of Materiality in Collections

What is materiality? In brief, materiality is the continuation of matter and material (Browaeys, 2019). Among these, the matter is the stuff that has shape, body, and can be touched (p.3), the matter is “what can be felt and touched” (p.4). Materiality closely connects with them but continues in emotion and way of thinking (p.4). Therefore, materiality not only focuses on the physical and material characteristics of objects but also evokes sensory and intellect response in a more profound way. 

In collections, materiality plays an essential role. It can evoke intellectual meaning, sensory reaction, and emotion-based on tangible characteristics of the object (Lester, 2018). The physical form of an object includes its characteristics such as size, weight, color, and texture. All the features let the audiences generate sensory responses and emotional experiences by looking, feeling, or smelling (Lester, 2018, p.9). However, an object can become a collection not simply rely on its looks or material, it also has to show the culture or history in a particular context. By reflecting the background or history of the object, the materiality of an object lets the audiences know the value and evoke an intellectual response to understand the object deeper. Additionally, the content of a collection, such as the text, can provide both intellectual response and emotional experience (p.9). For example, reading a sad old letter in a disaster lets you know the content and feel the sadness from the text. In this case, your intellect and emotion entwined together.

How can we receive the information and react to it? Our bodies can interact with the environment or an object and focus on it to have a particular cognitive and sensory response without consciousness, which is called “body schema” (p.11). In the process of reacting to a collection, our body feels its materiality of a collection and responds to it in a “close to automatic way” (p.12). Besides this, the reaction of our body also affects the way we understand the object. Therefore, the materiality of collections plays a role in evoking the various responses of our body, and our body shapes how to perceive it. The body response, information and material also shape each other.

The materiality of a collection not only evokes the intellectual, sensory, and emotional response from the audiences but can also be used to convey the thoughts and values of its creators (Lester, 2018). For example, the creator of the object creates it with a specific material and uses text to present his/her wishes and purpose. But not all information can be transmitted by the creators and makes sense for the audience, and a large amount of data can lead to the audiences can not understand them all, only relevant and essential information can make sense for the audiences (Browaeys, 2019). Therefore, the materiality can show the purpose of the creator and affect the information transmission to the audiences. 

Materiality in Digital Collections

With the development of technologies and the transformation of the collections, the digital collection is nothing new. Some physical collections turn into digital and even born-digital collections without physical forms occur. However, unlike traditional collections, digital collections are based on the Internet and technological devices that make the collections presenting on screen and can not be touched or felt directly. In this case, materiality has been changed in the digital collection but presented in other ways.

When digitalizing collections, it seems that the materiality has been diminished, as the digital environment only provides pure information and diminishes the physical experience (Tebeau, 2016). For example, some literacy critics argue the original texts cannot fully translate into other forms. If the original transcript is printed or transmitted digitally, it will lose its meaning because the original one provides “forms of evidence”, but the reproduction does not (Manoff, 2016, p.314). However, physical experience is not the only way to comprehend the world. Although digital materiality is virtual, it can present things in new ways (Browaeys, 2019). 

Materiality in digital collections can perform and enhance in several ways. Different from static physical objects, digital objects can be rearranged, combined, and generate new modes (Manoff, 2016, p.313). Thus, the objects in the digital collections can be shown in different ways and orders to show their materiality better. Additionally, digital technologies can also enhance materiality and connect audiences with them. 

Using our sensory response to enhance the physical experience can also enhance the materiality in the digital era. In the way of translating the physical features into digital space, there is a term called “synesthetic visualization”, which refers to “coupling visual representations with cues for other sensory modalities (Forlini & Hinriches, 2017, p.2)”. Focus on the visual, adding other metadata in audio and screen-based interaction to combine the visual expression of the digital object with other forms to evoke the sensory response. More specifically, there are two forms of synthetic visualization to enhance materiality: represent the material features by getting metadata about the physical object and showing them on screen (p.2); enhance physicalization by combining metadata with the content that related to the materiality (p. 3). 

With the help of digital tools, not only can materiality be enhanced by generating sensory responses, but it can also be enhanced by adding data and context to let the audience participate and build a new space. For example, the sound-based data create the physical experience of listening that can expand the context for a collection (Tebeau, 2016, p.481). Otherwise, the digital tools emphasize the materiality and build the new context of the collection, such as adding metadata and organizing online activities, and enables the audiences to participate and interact with the collection to enhance the experience (Tebeau, 2016). In this way, a new space is built for the audiences to experience the digital materiality and engage in the collection, which the traditional collection does not have.

Therefore, even though the materiality of objects diminish a few in transmitting to digital, the digital technologies can evoke the sensory experience to enhance the materiality and build new context for the audiences. In the next section, there is a case of “Masterpieces Up Close” in Rijksmuseum lets us see how the materiality is enhanced in this digital collection.

A case study: “Rijksmuseum Masterpieces Up Close”  

Website of ‘Rijksmuseum Masterpieces Up Close” (Screenshot)
https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/masterpieces-up-close

The Rijksmuseum is the national museum of the Netherlands that collects the art objects in 800 years of history. “Rijksmuseum Masterpieces Up Close” is a digital collection of the Rijksmuseum created in 2020 to present the collections of the Gallery of Honor. Because of the COVID-19 lockdown last year, museums in the Netherlands are not able to open to the public, many museums convert their collections online, and creates digital collections such as “Rijksmuseum Masterpieces Up Close” that enable the public to visit the collection at home. This collection is not a born-digital collection. Instead, it reproduces The Gallery of Honor of the Rijksmuseum online with a 360 degree view as a “virtual tour”. The Gallery of honor is an extended corridor with masterpieces of famous artists in the 17th century on both sides of the alcoves (Gallery of Honour, Rijksmuseum). By visiting this digital collection, you can see the whole gallery and paintings without leaving home.

“Gallery of Honor” Full View (Screenshot)
https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/masterpieces-up-close

When entering the “Masterpieces Up Close” website, the visitors can move their mouses and click the arrow mark on the floor to proceed around the Gallery of Honor in the 360 degree view and all the paintings displayed on both sides, same as the offline gallery. It builds a space that shows the complete view of the gallery and gives people a sense of walking around it. In addition, there is a map on the bottom left corner of the website. By clicking the map marks, visitors can go to any block of the gallery without following the original route, enabling the visitor to “design” their trip based on their preference. By watching the full view and choosing the route, “Masterpieces Up Close” enhances the physical experience and builds a new space for visitors to participate and interact with the collection (Tebeau, 2016).

Besides, the digital gallery makes a lot of effort to show the details of the artworks. When clicking the mark on the painting, the painting will zoom in and occupy the whole screen. Unlike only visitors can only watch the masterpieces at a certain distance in traditional collections, in this digital collection, visitors can zoom in and zoom out to see both the full view and the details of the painting only by moving the painting mouses. All the paintings are shown in high-resolution and keep the original appearance, so the material, color even the cracks can be seen clearly. The color and the cracks provide the details that show the history of the painting.

By doing so, the collection evokes a strong visual response through the high-resolution image, and details represent the material features of the artworks to enhance the materiality by evoking sensory response (Forlini & Hinrichs, 2017). 

This digital collection also provides the text and oral story to introduce the masterpieces. By clicking the “play” button, the oral story of the painting will be told in tens of seconds. At the same time, the text of the oral story will also be shown next to the painting. In this case, the audio and text transfer the knowledge to the viewers, and this knowledge can evoke the intellect response of the viewers and understand the painting deeper. Therefore, the context of the artwork is extended by adding audio and evoke a listening response (Tebeau, 2016).

 The Milk Maid (Screenshot)
https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/masterpieces-up-close

Take the famous “The Milkmaid” as an example. When playing the sound material, firstly, you will hear the sound of pouring the milk, following by the oral introduction of the painting that includes the year, the theme of the painting, details such as the stream of milk, nails on the wall, and the scattered bread, together with the purpose of the artist. The image also zooms in, following the audio to show the details. In this case, viewers can feel the material of the painting and get knowledge of it as well as generate the sensory response.

Listen to the Audio (Recording from https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/masterpieces-up-close)

In general, the “Masterpieces Up Close” collection presents the material features and enhances the physicalization by driving a virtual, audio representation based on screen and showing the content (Forlini & Hinriches, 2017). Even though the painting itself does not generate the audio, the oral storytelling and sound can provide more information and enhance the sensory experience of listening more than just visualization (Tebeau, 2016). By doing so, the visualization and sound-based materials evoke the sensory response of the viewers. Using text and sound to add the content and data gives visitors more knowledge of the paintings and evokes their intellectual response. However, the collection still lacks some metadata, as the text and sound cannot provide the complete information of the painting, such as the size and weight. The lacking metadata leads to the incomplete context of the collection to a certain extent.

Another interesting experience of the “Masterpieces Up Close” collection is the “Key Challenge” that builds a new context of the collection. The “Key Challenge” lets the visitors find keys in the digital Gallery of Honor with the help of hints presented in few words and small icons. This challenge gives the visitors a sense of engagement and has fun in the digital collection. In the process of searching keys, the hints can emphasize the elements of the paintings that make the participants more focus on the content of the artworks and further experience the materiality of those digital works. Participation and interactivity also enhance the experience of the digital collection (Tebeau, 2016).  

Key Challenge (Screenshot)
https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/masterpieces-up-close

Overall, the digital collection “Masterpieces Up Close” in the Rijksmuseum enhances the materiality in many digital ways. Even though the online collections cannot provide the materiality the same as the offline visiting as they are limited in the screen, which cannot give the visitor a full sensory experience, such as touching and feeling. However, it produces a 360 degree environment to give people a sense of engagement and adds the sensory experience of the artwork by providing more details of the image as well as showing more information and content by adding text and sound. In addition to that, the “Key Challeng” also adds more fun for the viewers to participate in and further experience the materiality of the artworks.


In sum, materiality plays an important role in collections, as it evokes the response of intellectual, sensory, and emotion of the audiences and also transmits the thoughts and purpose of the creators. Although digital collections have diminished some materiality, they still find ways to enhance the materiality in represent the material feature and enhance the physical experience. The case of “Rijksmuseum Masterpieces Up Close” confirms this view. By adding 360 degree audio, introduction text, audio, and interactive challenge, “Masterpieces Up Close” provides a lot of evidence showing the materiality of the collections and builds a new context for the viewers to participate in and have fun.

Reference List 

Browaeys. C. (2019). Materiality in the digital age. Human beings connected to matter. Presses universitaires de Grenoble.

Forlini, S., & Hinrichs, U. (2017, June). Synesthetic visualization: balancing sensate experience and sense making in digitized print collections. In Proceedings of the conference on Digital Preservation for Social Sciences and Humanities.

Gallery of Honour. Rijksmuseum. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/visitor-information/inside-the-rijksmuseum/gallery-of-honour

Lester, P. (2018). Of mind and matter: the archive as object. Archives and Records, 39(1), 73-8

Manoff, M. (2006). The materiality of digital collections: Theoretical and historical perspectives. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 6(3), 311-325.

Masterpieces Up Close. Rijksmuseum. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/masterpieces-up-close

Tebeau, M. (2016). Engaging the Materiality of the Archive in the Digital Age. Collections, 12(4), 475-487.

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