Virtual Absence and Presence in the Museum of Stolen Art

Locating Technology

Virtual Absence and Presence in the Museum of Stolen Art

By Genevieve Quick April 7, 2016

Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.

Ziv Schneider's Museum of Stolen Art (MOSA) (2014– )employs virtual reality (VR) to rethink how museums and technology approach embodiment, audience, and collections. As a smartphone app, MOSA allows viewers to navigate virtual galleries, complete with audio tours that contextualize its exhibitions and pop-up didactic texts about the individual works. In harnessing VR's imaginative possibilities, MOSA displays absent artworks—those that have been removed by criminal acts, war, or dubious historical agreements, domestically and abroad. As a virtual environment, MOSA's fluid relation to place and audience challenges how museums attempt to represent and inscribe local cultural identities, as well as construct a global citizenry. With several rotating exhibitions spanning from ancient to contemporary civilizations—Stolen European Paintings, Stolen Photographs, The Looting of Afghanistan, The Looting of Iraq, and Recent Thefts are currently on view—MOSA addresses the individual and cross-cultural heritages of Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East. Indirectly, MOSA suggests that conflict and war have been instrumental in many art thefts around the world, historically and more recently. While operating didactically, MOSA also includes many voids that invite questions about museums' strategies and missions.

As many museums expand, their architectural presence marks their escalating cultural and economic interests.2 In addition to being repositories of art, brick-and-mortar museums are cultural brands that cities use to elevate or maintain their status as culturally relevant and as tourist destinations.3 As a VR museum, MOSA sidesteps the battle for cultural capital among conventional museums by offering immateriality and simulation. Downloadable for free, MOSA is portable and easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a Cardboard viewer.4 Viewers make MOSA present where they are, rather than having to travel to a place, either within one's city or beyond.

While MOSA lacks the requisite dazzling structures of most new museums, its use of VR as a medium operates similarly to architecture in that the technology frames and mediates the artworks it showcases. As museums publicize their branded, high-design architecture, companies like Oculus, Nintendo, and Google tout VR as the "new" medium.5 The art world is also promoting VR. The New Museum recently organized Versions: The Creative Landscape of Virtual Reality—co-presented by NEW INC and Kill Screen; Artsy has recently declared that "Virtual Reality Is the Most Powerful Medium of Our Time."6 As with architecture, the economic interests of the art world and technology collide in VR.

Ziv Schneider. Art Detective: The Museum of Stolen Art, 2015; Android VR app.  Courtesy of the Artist.

With its simplistically rendered galleries, MOSA draws upon viewers' existing knowledge of being in a physical museum. Relying upon smartphones' motion-tracking capabilities, viewers can navigate MOSA's virtual architecture, look at works, and activate and read the pop-up menus. As I visited MOSA from my apartment, the two architectures—VR and embodied—butted up against each other. While I began viewing MOSA in my living room, I ended up in my kitchen as I attempted to turn corners in the virtual museum. In attempting to position my smartphone to read and focus the text of the pop-up menus, I occasionally found myself pressed up against my apartment walls. Having to remove my Cardboard viewer periodically in order to ensure that I didn't trip over things or run into walls, I toggled back and forth between real and virtual space. While MOSA engages with the immateriality of its content, it also forces the viewers' bodies to engage with their own physical space in order to activate the virtual.

Like its preceding 3D technologies of the stereopticon and anaglyph images, VR uses two offset images and a viewing apparatus to create the illusion of depth perception. However, Schneider overlays the left image with noise and glitches, resulting in obfuscation and disorientation. Through this maneuver, Schneider suggests the possibility of error as data is created, downloaded, and played. These distributive processes are analogous to the transmission and interpretation of cultural objects, where errors also occur. Additionally, MOSA's simplistic and "unrealistic" graphics are a constant reminder that MOSA is a mediated experience and that viewers are looking at things that no longer exist or whose whereabouts are unknown.

As immigration and cross-cultural hybridization increase, public museums grapple with their mandate to reflect and educate their audiences, keeping in mind municipal, regional, national, and international intersectionalities.7 As a virtual museum, MOSA lacks a physical location and thus a specific audience with cultural identifications and histories. But MOSA's audience is potentially extraordinarily diverse and mobile. As a downloadable institution, MOSA taps into the global and immaterial network of the web. While English is the global language in the arts, MOSA's use of English in its audio tours and pop-up menus privileges an Anglophone audience. Schneider could create multilingual tours and didactic texts, as many museums already do. Thus far MOSA's exhibitions lack coverage of Latin America, Africa, the Far East and Southeast Asia, and indigenous communities (notably those from North America and Australia), which have all been victims of art theft as a result of colonization and conflict. With its digital format MOSA has huge potential in addressing a global citizenry; its programming and choice of language could further embrace international issues and audiences.

In MOSA's exhibition Stolen Photographs, the audio tour refers to the 1998 theft of 120 rare and collectable photographs from Halstead Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan. From this heist, MOSA displays notable photographs, like Paul Strand's Nicholae Mares (1967) and Lewis Hines' Powerhouse Mechanic (1925) and Man on Hoisting Ball, Empire State Building, New York (1931). Additionally, the exhibit Stolen European Paintings covers the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.In the theft, thirteen works (assessed at $500 million) were stolen, among which MOSA displays digital images of Vermeer's The Concert (circa 1665) and Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633). The Gardner Museum has been very public about the theft, even displaying empty frames where the paintings were once exhibited.9 As many museums and galleries are unwilling or unable to make these absences part of their institutional narratives, this is MOSA's mission.

In contrast to the public attention of the Halstead Gallery and Garner Museum thefts, MOSA also features less famous heists of paintings and photographs, including those from museums and galleries in Paris, Amsterdam, Sydney, Cairo, and Portland, Maine. Among these lower-profile thefts is Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man (1513–14), which the pop-up menu simply indicates was stolen from Poland in the 1940s. During World War II, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, as both expanded their influence. Portrait of a Young Man was likely a casualty of the war, perhaps stolen by the citizens or governments of the Soviet Union, Germany, Poland, or Allied forces. 

Just as with artworks stolen during the chaos and greed of WWII, the political upheavals in Iraq and Afghanistan, historic and more recent, have facilitated many thefts. As the Ottoman Empire was divided up, Iraq came under British authority, declared independence in 1958, and was subject to the 2003 Gulf War, when an estimated 4,000 artifacts were looted. Additionally, Western interests and the Soviet Union battled to influence Afghanistan during the Cold War, and during the 1992–94 civil war, rampant looting occurred then as well. The specific histories of countries in the Middle East are further fractionalized as non-state actors like the Islamic State (ISIS) claim territories, particularly in Iraq and Syria, where they loot artifacts to fund their campaigns and destroy public artworks.10 As the Middle East has been the geographic and cultural nexus between East and West, the battle for power and natural resources has created opportunities and impetus for theft and looting.

Ziv Schneider. Video: The Museum of Stolen Art, 2015; Android VR app. Courtesy of the Artist.

While thefts at American and European art museums are well documented, many of the archaeological museums in the Middle East lack detailed accounts of their collections.11 Additionally, archeologists are still excavating and cataloguing artifacts from archeological sites. While the artworks in MOSA's section on stolen paintings and photographs feature specific artists, dates, and some information regarding the conditions of their theft, the information regarding the objects stolen from Iraq and Afghanistan is much more generalized. In these galleries the framed images on the walls do not represent specific works, but classifications of objects, like glass jars, tools, weapons, stone votives, manuscripts, coins, and more. The pop-up menus indicate only that the works were stolen from Iraq or Afghanistan, rather than indicating specific galleries, museums, or archeological sites. While traditional museums present researched and vetted knowledge, MOSA makes the absence of information present.

MOSA capitalizes on the unknown: the whereabouts of the artworks, sometimes the conditions of their theft or looting. Rather than explaining the significance of given artworks as conventional museums do, MOSA poses questions about their absence. The story of looted or stolen art is also a story of conflict and war. As with WWII, some artworks are currently, or have been, held by private or museum collections, where heirs must pursue their own legal battles to restore their right to the artworks.12 The way provenance issues have or have not been resolved from WWII establishes legal and cultural precedence for how we address the repatriation of more recently stolen objects. When objects are stolen or looted from museums or archeological sites with less documentation or provenance, nations or museums have to petition their claims. Repatriation is extremely challenging in countries that are currently amidst political chaos or when individuals potentially face physical danger for possessing or protecting these objects, as illustrated when ISIS beheaded the Syrian antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad.13 As MOSA suggests the global citizenry that the digital landscape facilitates, we are all intertwined and at loss when artworks are stolen. As a digital format, MOSA has great potential representing an international perspective; its use of VR questions how museums function and how we navigate digital spaces as a form of embodiment and as global citizens.


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  2. Whitney Museum, New York; The Broad, Los Angeles; Met Breuer, New York; the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; and the anticipated reopening of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and the recent announcement of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum's expansion.
  3. The Guggenheim famously has museums in New York, Venice, Bilbao, Abu Dhabi, and briefly Las Vegas. The Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry  transformed the once-sleepy fishing village in Northern Spain into a cultural destination, a phenomenon known as the “Bilbao Effect.”
  4. The app is currently available for Android devices. Schneider is currently awaiting approval for the iOS release. While Google's Cardboard is a popular VR viewer,, other affordable VR viewers exists. Users can insert their smartphones within the viewer as an affordable alternative to VR headsets.
  5. Reports from the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) were abuzz with new consumer-level VR technologies (
  6. NEW INC is the New Museum’s incubator for art, design, and technology ( Versions is a collaboration between industry and art; the intimate event came with high-priced tiered tickets—Regular Access ($500), Premium Access ($750), Student/Artist ($100). The event was also streamed live for free ( Kill Screen is a video game arts and culture company ( Gottschalk, M. "Virtual Reality Is the Most Powerful Medium of Our Time." (March 16, 2016).
  7. See Peggy Levitt's Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display (2015), for more on how museums address the ethnic and cultural identifications of their audiences in regard to national and international allegiances.
  9. The Gardner Museum has also created a virtual tour that highlights the theft.
  10. The FBI has issued warnings regarding the trafficking of artifacts from the Middle East, as ISIS has used their sale to fund their campaign.
  12. In just one example of the way that the provenance of artworks is disputed, heirs of the Ludwig and Margret Kainer collection have claimed that a private foundation, established by a Swiss bank, has sold work at Christie’s (Edgar Degas's Danseurs for nearly $11 million in 2009) in the name of the heirs. However, heirs have claimed that they were never compensated or notified of the sale.

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