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Volume 25, No. 5

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June / July 1999




Museums and the Web '99

by David Bearman and Jennifer Trant

Museums and the Web (http://www.archimuse.com/mw) is an annual conference sponsored by Archives & Museum Informatics that was first held in Los Angeles in the spring of 1997. That first meeting attracted professionals from museums, galleries and cultural organizations, as well as consultants and technologists from around the world. We were excited that in response to an open call-for-papers we were able to feature reports by over 50 speakers from 11 countries. By 1998, the Museums and the Web conference in Toronto, Canada, included over 100 speakers and demonstrators from 20 countries, nearly doubling both the number of presentations and the range of nations represented. Museums and the Web '99, held in New Orleans in March 1999, was expanded yet again to serve as a forum for over 135 presenters from 25 countries. We look forward to the Museums and the Web 2000 meeting in Minneapolis April 16-19, 2000, to extend the range of presentation and countries represented once again. For the call-for-papers for MW2000, see


The growing internationalism and the growing numbers testify to a speed of change that is familiar to the Internet, but almost unheard of in the world of museums.

The World Wide Web has been highly infectious to museums from the start. The first documented museum Web sites date from the spring of 1994, within six months of the public availability of the Mosaic browser. Thus, museums have now been on the Web for five years. It is difficult in a brief article to capture the degree to which museums -- and their Web sites -- have been transformed in the experience. We are increasingly seeing evidence of the emergence of an entirely new function within the museums of virtual programming. Reflecting this, today's museum Web site is likely to be much deeper and more structured and permit greater social interaction than that of a few years ago. As a number of sessions at the conference testified, this site is also likely to have been thoroughly overhauled in the past 18 months, and may already be entering its "third" generation.  Museums on the Web are developing a distinctive personality, which is at the same time both unlike that of other institutions on the Web and different from that of the physical museum which at first was the source of almost all the Web program content. The Museums and the Web '99 Conference provided us with an opportunity to reflect on how museums are being transformed by the Web as well as to understand the challenges that they are being presented with by the demand for parallel virtual programming.

If there was a pervasive theme in Museums and the Web '99, it was social interaction. In itself, that fact suggests that the issues being dealt with by professionals bringing museums to the Web are different from those of professions involved in most other areas of Web development, whether in "digital libraries" or in "e-commerce." In those arenas it has become a religion to acknowledge that "content is king," while museums are already moving from content per se to the experience of interacting with content and even with the experience of interacting on its own, which creates a new content shared between visitors.

New Technologies Create New Worlds

In his opening keynote address, Peter Walsh documented how interaction with the virtual is conditioning how we see the world. Tracing the social history of seeing, Walsh demonstrated the interactions between technologies and seeing. He revisited those who first learned to see through a telescope and had to acknowledge in this new view the facts that proved the sun as the center of a Copernican universe. He also pointed to those who learned to make maps for maritime exploration and learned not to see the interior of Africa, which had been well known to the Renaissance but was unknown to the later mapmakers.  He examined the way in which we see through the Web and explore the possibilities of seeing differently, whether more or less, as a consequence of yet another technology advance.

Throughout the meeting, leaders in the design of new Web sites for museums were engaged in shaping interactions between people and virtual objects, between people and others visiting virtual spaces, between people and systems responding to their non-algorithmic curiosity. In the closing plenary, Larry Friedlander of Stanford University examined re-configurable physical spaces and their contribution to social interactions. Imagining new virtual spaces -- the virtual piazza, virtual grand staircase, virtual ballroom -- Friedlander demonstrated the power of the spatial metaphor in defining the character of social interactions and the potential of re-configurable physical and virtual spaces to create more productive, and intensively functional, environments.

The demand for greater social interaction was fed by discoveries made in evaluating the experiences of visitors to first generation Web sites and is driving the reconstruction of the leading second-generation sites around the world.  Reports from Sarah Kenderdine on the reconstruction of Australian Museums Online (AMOL), from Riikka Haapalainen on the reconstruction of the Finnish National Gallery site and from Edward Rodley on the Museum of Science Boston reflected a growing awareness of the Web as a locus of social interaction and as an extension of the social interactions that are being supported in the "real" world. Beneath the surface of the more consistent architectures and refined user interfaces was the consistent refrain of greater functionality for the visitor. Call it enabled learning.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Web is a new medium, different from the printing and broadcasting technologies that preceded it, and that virtuality will alter the way in which we think about and act in the world. It is equally clear now that the near ubiquity of the Internet and Web, projected to happen within a decade, could even come sooner. The speed at which this technology has been diffused is unprecedented. New economic opportunities created by advertising and selling on the Web are giving rise to offers of free access which in turn are increasing the size of the audiences for whom the world of the Web is an extension of their everyday world. For example in early 1999, at the end of two months, a free service in Britain had twice as many subscribers as AOL, which had been building its base for several years.

As a consequence, every institution in our society is challenged with finding new ways of representing itself and of realizing its programs in the virtual world of the Web. It is exciting that museums are responding to this challenge as profoundly, as well and with as much skill, as the commercial world. For once we can see the creativity and knowledge resident in our cultural institutions teaming up with academic and technical innovators to define the very frontiers of novelty on the Web.

As always some caution must be expressed about the effects of these developments on the third world. Reports from Kenya both on the difficulty of creating the infrastructure required to support Web-based programming of the National Museum and on the need to do so in order to be visible to the first world, are in themselves cautionary. But there are larger implications that are almost frightening. For instance, many members of a third world society might come to know their own "traditional" culture through the Web and possibly even in English rather than in their native language. Also, the Web could homogenize cultural experience as it enables virtual travel without any interaction with street life, replacing even the fairly sterile hotel to hotel, city to city, tourist experience.

This new technology will cause us to see differently. For museums the challenge is to build on the role of the museum on the Web as a social setting for extending experience and gaining understanding.

Breaking Out of the Machine - Sharing Experiences

The experience of being online, facing a computer, typing on a keyboard, has been a solitary one. The success of e-mail and the runaway explosion of chat rooms hinted at the pent-up desire for more social engagement in cyberspace, but in its first few years the Web did not provide for it. Now we can see what it might look like and why it will transform reality.

A team of researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of Milan, led by Paolo Paolini, and their museum colleagues at the Leonardo Da Vinci Science and Technology Museum have demonstrated a profound new dimension of Web-based virtuality - shared experiences in visiting a museum. We can still barely envision the revolutionary impact of enabling dispersed families, expert guides and interested visitors worldwide, teachers and the classes, to visit a remote space together, without goggles and gloves, over the Web.

An equally radical removal of the computer is evident in the work of Slavko Milekic (Hampshire College), who socializes the monitor for children by turning it into a finger painting/pointing table. He places the monitor face up with a touch screen and creates software that responds differently to match the physical abilities of its users. By removing the keyboard interface and socializing the screen and by making interaction visceral or verbal rather than symbolic and textual, the computer interaction with museums is made available to preliterate children and handicapped adults and transformed to a group activity.

In a case study of the Brazilian Museum of the Person by Karen Workman and her colleagues, we see how its virtual visitors can contribute to the very contents of a museum. Their social experiences become its subjects as they take part with others in the development of an archive of experience. The radical simplicity of the Brazilian concept, built entirely without technological bells and whistles, caught everyone at the meeting by surprise.

Virtual Objects Receiving Input -- Learning Through Interacting

It is not enough that the environment of using and experiencing the Web become interactive, that which we encounter in the virtual world must expect our input, respond to our interaction and be personalized and connected to us through our involvement with it. In the Virtual Menorah experiences designed by Susan Hazan and her colleagues at the Israel Museum, the virtual experiences carry back over into the classroom and the home, back into the "real" world, and then these in turn feed back into the virtual. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Arnold Kramen and David Klevan hurl their visitors into the virtual world by having them interact with themselves in the shoes of virtual people. These virtual people, who are the visitors themselves, are in turn representative of historical persons whose lives the visitors are thereby living.

In a case study, Fabio Paterno and researchers working with the Museum of Marble in Carrera have designed systems interfaces to accommodate the various perspectives of different visitors, exploring what it means to make database interactions adaptable or, perhaps, even adaptive. The challenge that museums feel to support interaction is forcing new solutions. They must move from the abstract world of human-computer interactions to the concrete challenges of re-configurable database content and navigation elements that support distinctive users needs.

Approaching the issue from the other side, by trying to create tools for specific users to employ on museum Web sites, Sandy Buchanan and colleagues at the Scottish Cultural Resources Network have identified generalizable classes of functionality that enable teachers and students to interact with a wide range of materials.

New Metaphors for Discovery - Seeking, Finding and Using Information

Gone from the virtual social world are the fill in the blank, look for keyword = "keyword" approaches to finding information. These can be safely left to the real world of ATM machines and library catalogues (and perhaps commercial search engines). In the experimental museum Web interfaces being developed by Dworcman, Kimbrough and Patch, we find systems that can answer the kind of complex questions about why the world looks as it does and what it means that some previously noted fact pertains in a particular -- and complex -- context. 

In the rich environment of sound and motion images at the Bush Presidential Library, for which Goh and Leggett are creating Web interfaces, there are no ASCII texts that represent the rich multimedia through which text string searches can be conducted.  Other metaphors and mechanisms for retrieval need to be explored.

Equally exciting, at the level of new architectures for research across the Web, are the explorations of metadata and standardized (z39.50) search facilities explored in case studies about the GEM and AHDS services as reported by Carrie Lowe and Neil Beagrie. These "gateway" facilities utilize Dublin Core-like metadata to enable access by teachers and scholars to resources for education.

What If We Knew What They Thought? - Evaluating Our Creations

Interactivity and the ability to observe in great detail how people interact with the virtual worlds we've created challenge us to think of ways to systematically assess virtual experiences and to predict the success of various design strategies. As Teather and Wilhelm reported from the University of Toronto, the criteria for success depend on the reasons the user is visiting, and understanding these reasons is critical not only for evaluating our success, but ultimately for engineering a successful experience. Since the purposes of visitors differ dramatically, so must our metrics. Yet there must be ways to anticipate design choices that will contribute to -- or interfere with -- enjoyment, learning and engagement.

The research team led by Franca Garzotto reports just such frameworks based on assessment of a very wide range of multimedia interactives. Their development of "design patterns," which reflect choices made in delivery of interactive experiences, is influencing both the up-front design of systems and our ability to identify pros and cons in implementations.

In case studies Jonathan Bowen and John Chadwick each report on survey results of the sort that are continuing to help us understand the changing user base of museum Web sites and their expectations. More extensive, and more sophisticated, evaluations are clearly called for along with methodologies that will begin to measure not just how many came and what they saw, but who came and how they experienced the museum, how it impacted them and what effects it might have on future interactions.

Getting It Right: The Continuous Task of Re-Constructing

Museums may have been developing Web sites for only a few years, but in the fast paced world of changing presentation metaphors and ever increasing interactivity of users, these sites are old already. Remaking the site is reinterpreting the real and the virtual museum, reinventing the virtual experience in the context of evolving real programs and repositioning the museum in the rapidly evolving ecology of Web sites. The process of reconstruction is itself a critical moment in the discovery by the museum staff of its self-representation on the Web.  It thereby becomes an opportunity for engagement by the entire staff and for extending the ownership of the virtual museum from the Webmaster workstation in which it was born to the community of professionals who will sustain it. While the outcomes of the second-generation makeovers reported here are different, the processes by which each institution assessed its existing commitment and determined its next-stage tactics are strikingly similar and raise most of the issues others will face soon.

Museums now find it imperative to create and manage dynamic programs for the virtual museum, as well as the real one. They must also create avenues for people with many perspectives to enjoy, learn and engage in the Web museum. These requirements in turn create an equal imperative for new methods of working. New social and information technologies are being introduced into museum daily work life, as documented by Marty, and we can expect these to become more common, and more pervasive, over time.

And as we have come to expect, all these activities are impacting the social contract that has evolved in copyright laws worldwide. The pressures to extend previous concepts of acceptable behavior into realms that are new and dramatically different from what has come before is going to challenge the society as documented by Graham Cornish. Museums are holders of unique information, non-profits devoted to public education, and fragile institutions in need of financial support.  They will be struggling to strike the proper balance between free access to cultural heritage and the need to find self-sustaining mechanisms to re-present the objects in their custody in the virtual world.

Finally, making virtual museum programs known will require the kinds of promotion described in the case study by Giuliano Gaia, and maintaining a wealth of offerings for different audiences and different curatorial collections will increasingly involve the kinds of partnerships and range of programs described by Olivia Frost.

Building an Engaging Virtual Social Space for Culture

The outlines of the personality that museums will assume on the Web are now becoming apparent. They will be developing virtual spaces in which visitors can experience the sights, sounds and, ultimately, the feel of cultural artifacts, as well as interact with each other and with experts as they come to understand and appreciate that culture. They will be creating spaces in which members of that society can give back experiences, information and the pleasure of discovery, and in which the museum can form on-going relationships with remote visitors.

Museum managers are beginning to realize that offering this parallel programming in virtual space will not be easy or free, but they are greatly attracted by the opportunity to engage millions of people from distant cultures. For the experiences we create to be as compelling as the opportunity they offer, we will need to socialize virtual space and give intelligence to virtual objects, so that our virtual visitors can engage with us, each other and the alien materials that make up our rich collections. Otherwise we risk making visiting another culture on the Web replicate the worst aspects of the insulated tourist experience - many cities in a few days and no interaction with the local society.

For Further Information

The Museums and the Web Conferences are well documented on the Web site at www.archimuse.com. Each year's program of events, abstracts, speaker and demonstrator biographies and full papers are available. For those who would rather have the Proceedings in one container, 1997 was published as a print volume, 1998 as a CD-ROM, and 1999, in recognition of the virtues of each format, was published as a combined book with CD. All Proceedings are also available for order from the site. All the papers cited throughout this report are also available online.

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant are co-chairs of the Museums and the Web '99 conference. They can be reached by mail at Archives & Museum Informatics, 5501 Walnut Street, #203, Pittsburgh, PA  15232; by phone at 412/683-9775, or by e-mail at Dbear@archimuse.com and jtrant@archimuse.com, respectively.


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@ 1999, American Society for Information Science