Published: March 15, 2001.
Bhutan--A Virtual Exhibition
Christian Breiteneder, Hubert Platzer, Vienna University of TechnologyMartin Hitz, University of Klagenfurt, Johann Stockinger, Institute for Social and Cultural
Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods" was a successful exhibition shown at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna. Later, other museums throughout Europe decided to take over the exhibition. This paper reports on the project of redesigning this exhibition for the web: The motivation and goals of the project, the structure and features of the virtual exhibition and the lessons learned during the course of the undertaking are discussed.
Keywords: virtual exhibition, Bhutan, web museum, hypermedia
All material creations of a culture, called objects in a museum context, are carriers of semantics, are symbols and vocabulary of a foreign view of life. A real exhibition shows the objects taken out of their original contextual meanings. In addition, real exhibitions are subject to linear presentations: The real exhibition space forces visitors to follow the story-line from one room to the other, from show-case to show-case.
The possibilities of hypermedia allow a new way of presenting an object in its cultural context. Firstly, the use of multiple links allows the visitor to recognize the meaning and significance of an object in various contexts of culture and contributes to understand the complexity of interconnections of cultural appearances. Secondly, multimedia technology allows the use of an object to be shown in the exhibited culture. Thirdly, explanations of objects in real exhibitions are limited to a few sentences or paragraphs. A hypermedia presentation permits to offer a palette of descriptions with different levels of detail according to knowledge and needs of visitors.
The virtual exhibition "Bhutan--Fortress of the Gods" aims to exploit these hypermedia possibilities for a virtual exhibition and to bring into relationship real and virtual presentations. The virtual exhibition comprises several lines of navigation:
This paper describes the project Bhutan--Fortress of the Gods and the lessons learned: In Section 2 motivation and goals of the project are discussed. Section 3 introduces the virtual exhibition, its structure and features. Section 4 describes various experiences we gained during the course of the project.
2. Motivation and Goals of the Project
2.1 The Real Exhibition
The idea of having a large exhibition about the Kingdom of Bhutan was born in the spring of 1994 by Peter Kann, the Director of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna. Never before had an exhibition been created which provided fundamental insight into the history, religion and daily life of this small Himalayan country. The curator of the museum, Christian Schicklgruber, was assigned to the execution of this exhibition. A short time thereafter, the French Tibetologist and ethno-historian, Françoise Pommaret, could be won as guest curator. She had lived in Bhutan for over 10 years, where she had conducted academic research. The exhibition was financed by the Austrian Ministry for Education, Science and Culture. In addition, substantial financial support was provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which, in this exhibition, presented its development cooperation projects with Bhutan.
The exhibition in the Museum für Völkerkunde Wien was opened on November 10, 1997 and ran until March 30, 1998. A continuously told story established a thematic connection between all of the rooms. With almost 100.000 visitors, it was to become one of the most successful exhibitions of this museum's history. A large part of the exhibition objects were on loan from the Royal Government of Bhutan. From Europe, the most beautiful artifacts from the most important private and museum collections were presented.
Originally, the exhibition "Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods", was intended to be shown only at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna. Later, however, other museums and institutions throughout Europe also decided to take over this exhibition. The exhibition was shown in Switzerland, the Netherlands and at various locations in Spain. The last exhibition closed at the end of April 2000 in Leiden (the Netherlands).
2.2 Considerations of the Ministry
The idea to make a virtual exhibition subsequent to a real exhibition was born in a department of the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, which is concerned with new media in education and science and with telematic infrastructure. This idea started from the consideration that a real exhibition is expensive in monetary as well as labor terms and usually has to be dismantled after a few months. Very popular exhibitions have published catalogues that are often quickly sold out. Furthermore it is difficult for families who live in more remote areas to go to the capital for the sole purpose of visiting a special exhibition. Information presented virtually could then also be used for educational purposes. A corresponding project should advertise the possibilities of a virtual implementation and thereby initiate similar undertakings and create the tools which can simplify the realization of virtual exhibitions in the future.
Based on these considerations, a real exhibition was chosen which could be transformed into the prototype of a virtual one. Various preconditions had to be fulfilled:
Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods was the exhibition that seemed to fulfill all of these criteria. It was especially the complex relations between the religious and profane aspects, which appeared ideal for a hypermedia linking.
After the decision for an exhibition was taken, the ministry initiated a project co-operation between the designers of the exhibition and a team of computer scientists. The team of computer scientists was expected to have previously done relevant work and to have the understanding for scholarly work necessary for a constructive co-operation with scientist from the humanities and social sciences. In a similar vein, the graphic designer was chosen because of his interest in cultural affairs and specifically the culture of the Himalayas.
2.3 Goals of the Virtual Exhibition Project
The main goals of the project were:
The people who designed the original real exhibition reached their limits in adapting the objects to the varying spatial conditions of the different museums in Austria, Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands and welcomed the conceptualisation of the virtual exhibition as a chance of transgressing the boundaries set by reality. The fundamental aim was to offer information and entertainment and to try out a novel way of narrating a subject matter of an ethnological museum.
3. The Virtual Exhibition--"www.bhutan.at"
3.1 Structure of the Virtual Exhibition
The curator of the exhibition, Christian Schicklgruber, developed the idea to start the virtual exhibition from a central object, which should remain the central element. The way through the virtual exhibition starts at a Bhutanese altar with religious statues (Figure 1). Each of these deities or religious personalities stands for a specific cultural aspect - the Buddha for Buddhism or the founder of the state for history and politics. This means that, starting from the main figures of the altar, various narrative lines lead through Bhutan's religion, history, organization of the state, ethnic diversity and culture of every-day life. These topics, however, are not presented in isolation, but are interlinked in multiple ways.
Figure 1 The altar as central element: www.bhutan.at/english/c-viex/c-viex/start.php3
This principle of developing the story line on various levels, starting from one object as point of departure, is reflected in the hierarchical structure of various page types. The altar with all statues is on the highest level; on the second level (Figure 2), there is one of the main persons (or deities) with the respective topic on one page. Here visitors can choose whether they want to follow the person or the topic, some information of which is then provided on the third level. The actual story then only starts on the fourth level. In other words, the first three levels offer an overview and orientation and also function as distribution pages. The exhibited objects only appear on the fourth level, just like the videos, field pictures and sound samples. It has to be admitted, though, that these ideas of the curator may sometimes appear confusing for visitors.
Figure 2 Interlinked culture (level 2): www.bhutan.at/english/c-viex/c-viex2/start.php3
The lines of narration are structured vertically, which, except for the videos and sound samples, does not distinguish them very much from a book. The added value of this type of narration only sets in with the links between the various narrative lines: when visitors make use of this, they can jump from popular religion to history and from there to abstract Buddhist philosophy, or from the gods to the royal crown. The intention is however not to confuse the users. On the contrary, it is to put the users in the place of travellers in a new cultural surrounding. Wherever the eye turns, it finds something new, without linearity. Connections develop only slowly, often by chance or repetition. This also means that the visitors are encouraged to get drawn into a reading adventure. Visitors who ignore the links can read each narrative line linearly as they are used to from books.
The interlinked narrative structure sets various requirements for producing the texts. Each page has to be written in such a way that users can understand it, irrespective of how they got to that page. At the same time, a certain amount of suspense must still be maintained for those who choose to read linearly.
3.2 Features of the Virtual Exhibition
The starting page offers the choice between a "high tech" and a "low tech" version. This form of implementation was chosen so that, on the one hand, innovative features could be included and tested and, on the other hand, the access to the page should remain as general as possible. This should especially be possible in Bhutan itself because Bhutan has recently made a big effort to push ahead the internet accessibility. Seeing that average inhabitants cannot afford it themselves, UNESCO has set up so-called "Digital Cottages", which are internet cafés adapted to the local specifications.
Figure 3 Home page: www.bhutan.at/english/b-home/start.php3
The home page (Figure 3) offers the user various possible paths to navigate through the topics as will be explained below.
3.2.1 Navigation Mechanisms
The following navigation mechanisms are supported:
Figure 4 Example of pop-up-window for picture legends
Figure 5 Example of picture window enlargement
Figure 6 Sitemap of www.bhutan.at.
3.2.2 Interaction Mechanisms
Besides the afore-mentioned mechanisms of navigation, the following mechanisms of interaction have also been integrated:
3.2.3 Presentation in Various Windows
In the high-tech version, "www.bhutan.at" is presented in one main window and two auxiliary windows. The window, in which "www.bhutan.at" is called up for the first time, becomes the main window, also called content window. The content window presents the homepage, as well as the actual contents. The sitemap (a table of contents or navigational aid) is displayed in a separate auxiliary window. Therefore, the sitemap can, depending on the monitor size, either remain open next to or behind the content window.
Figure 7 Example of content window and auxiliary windows
Lookmarks are thumbnails of existing web sites, which can be arranged in a three-dimensional space, like documents on a real desk. The user decides on the choice of web sites, their arrangement in space and their groupings. Groupings describe connections as regards to content, which can be recorded via freely chosen names, whereby web sites can be integrated in various contexts. The arrangement in spatial depth reflects an individual preferential ordering of the documents. Simpler recognition is yet another advantage. This concept allows the representation of a great number of documents (comparable to administration via a tree structure) without overloading the available space. The user can always add, delete or move single pages.
Figure 8 View on Lookmarks
3.2.5 CD-ROM Production
The tools developed in the project make it possible to create a static CD-ROM version from the dynamic one, with the structure of directories remaining intact. Especially after all editorial and technical changes have been made, it would be useful to produce a CD-ROM version, which will particularly be advantageous for presentations with slower or lacking internet connections.
3.3 Converting Original Material
The text sources that could be used included the exhibition catalogue (cf. Schicklgruber and Pommaret, 1998), which was designed as a specialist book and consisted of individual articles. In addition, there were rather short descriptions of the objects used in the real exhibition. In the course of developing the project, it became clear that 90% of all texts had to be written anew. When describing the objects it was possible to do that in much more detail than in the real exhibition.
Pictures of objects were adapted from the exhibition documentation and new materials were used for the field shots. The video clips were partly taken from the exhibition and partly from other sources.
Because the exhibition was no longer in Austria at the time when the project was initiated, spatial panoramas of the Viennese exhibition could not be made. The original plan was to make object movies of the most important objects, but that was not possible since, after the last exhibition in Leiden the objects were taken down immediately and returned to their various owners, as well as the Bhutanese government, who had been waiting for their return for a long time.
4. Lessons Learned
4.1 Research Aspects and Results
For the present project "Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods", the topics development process and development technology were projected as main research aspects. In practice the primary goal to develop a fully functioning website, which would go far beyond the usual status of a research prototype and would thus be able to meet all demands made on a production system, has led to the approach to restrict technological experiments mainly to the initial project phase and its accompanying development of prototypes respectively. Important new insights were gained in particular on the development process level as well as in developing explorative prototypes such as database editing interfaces and the visualization of bookmarks (lookmarks).
The following discussion focuses mainly on features specific to the development of a virtual museum/exhibition or similar WWW-applications, which can be defined through the following normative characteristics:
Such applications will consequently simply be referred to as "Virtual Exhibitions" (VE).
The practical experience gained by the project management yields essential findings from which the ideal-type structure of the process involved in the development of a VE can be deducted. It is the so-called waterfall model in its purest form, which is characterized by the fact that each stage in the development process has to be completed and its results must be frozen before the subsequent stage in the development can be initiated.
For an idealized process the following requirements have to be met:
The waterfall model represents a theoretical optimum because it minimizes any kind of multiple expenditure. This is particularly important in this case because sometimes there are extreme interdependencies between the individual stages and their predecessors. Examples for such interdependencies are, for instance, content modification after translation or the modification of design defaults after content production.
Of course it cannot be assumed that this idealized process model can be completely implemented in practice (as experience gained in software engineering in general and from the Bhutan project in particular have clearly shown). In order to keep negative impacts arising from potential process aberrations as low as possible, it is highly recommendable to make adequate provisions that have proven successful also in the implementation of the Bhutan project.
One of the most essential aspects in this context is to clearly separate content, structure and layout. By content we understand the presented information (text, pictures, videos etc.), while the structure describes interrelations existing between individual content elements (e.g., "text body x is the first module of chapter y"). The layout finally defines the way in which the information is presented. Due to this clear separation, so-called modification locality can be maximized: If modifications along one of the three dimensions become necessary, they can usually be carried out locally, i.e. without any major impacts on the other dimensions. In this context especially decoupling content production from other activities is essential. In concrete and real processes, tools and techniques develop through and while editing the content, and the need for any necessary technical support becomes obvious only gradually. In order to guarantee an efficient project progress, it is therefore important to make sure that these findings gradually gained during elaborating the contents, do not impede content compilation and implementation.
As another important development paradigm the aspect of re-use was integrated in the process and the software architecture. A "modular system" was introduced to guarantee use or/and reuse of individual parts of the VE in a variety of different ways. The most important elements of the toolbox are as follows:
In the case of text modules, however, re-use is considered as rather problematic. In order to reach the (originally set) target to provide various points of view on the contents by re-using text modules, the individual modules need to be virtually free from contexts. In the present project this would have caused a non-affordable increase of text production work. Therefore the text modules of "Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods" were used only once (apart from their re-use in the low tech version).
4.4 File System versus Database
For "Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods" two different software-architectural approaches were pursued simultaneously, which are associated with different paradigms: the file system approach and the database approach.
The first approach is characterized by the fact that all accumulated materials such as modules, templates, style sheets etc. are filed directly in the file system of the development platform in a physical structure that widely corresponds to the logical structure of the VE. Furthermore this structure also resembles that of the production platform.
This approach has the following advantages:
In the database approach, on the other hand, all information relevant for the VE, except for layout templates (in the case of the VE "Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods", however, the big multimedia files were also stored outside of the database for pragmatic reasons), are managed by a relational database management system (DBMS), and linked up as a website by a generator program (basically a complex database report).
This approach has the following advantages:
Compared to the file system approach, however, three disadvantages can be identified:
A final assessment of both approaches can only be carried out seriously in the presence of a concrete application profile of the planned VE. On the basis of already gained experiences, it can be said that most advantages of the DBMS-based approach only prove fully useful in case of a significant re-use rate within the overall process. This means that in projects that primarily aim at a one-time exhibition presentation, the increased tool evolution costs cannot be amortized.
4.5 Integration of Standard Tools and Interfaces
One major factor for successfully implementing web presentations is a timely selection and a team-wide definition of development tools. While the VE-specific tools used during the work on the project "Bhutan -- Fortress of the Gods" were gradually specified and implemented in the course of the project, at least part of the development complexity could be reduced due to timely selection of standard development tools. This applies in particular to the interface between the implementation of the exhibition and editing of the contents, as well as to data analysis, which is necessary for taking over the content into the simultaneously developed database-based versions of the exhibition.
Specifically the following tools were applied:
4.6 The Impacts of the "Browser War"
One of the most significant inhibitors in developing a platform-independent VE is the incompatibility of different browser types. With regard to the basic idea of complete platform-independence of WWW-contents once pursued by CERN, the commercial war between the browser suppliers is extremely counter-productive and has considerable repercussions on application development.
Although the technical details on browser incompatibility is not discussed here, it has to be pointed out that, depending on the respective project stage, about 30% to 60% of the technical expenditure is due to this very problem which could easily be avoided if effective standards actually existed and were respected by the browser suppliers.
In May 2000, five students examined the VE "Bhutan - Fortress of the Gods" during the course "Exercises on Software Engineering", which mainly focused on "Software Ergonomics". They analyzed the German pages available at that time and tested the website's fitness for use as well as its conformity with existing style guides. The results of these studies were discussed in the development team. In most of the cases respective modifications of the VE were taken into account so that listing them here would no longer be relevant at the time being.
However, it has to be pointed out that several deviations from recommendations given in widely-used style guides were identified, which could no longer be corrected when the tests were carried out because the design defaults had already be fixed, or whose correction was considered as undesirable. Some of the critical points are discussed below:
At this stage, the virtual exhibition has not been visited often enough to be able to fall back on an extensive amount of visitors' feed back. One of the reasons is the fact that, due to its dynamic generation, it's not been integrated in many search engines yet.
Each of the two kinds of exhibitions, virtual and real, has its specific strengths. Both exhibitions deal with the same objects, but present them in a way that is specifically adapted to the respective medium. While the real exhibition depends on the authenticity of the objects, the virtual one offers the possibility to interlink different pieces of information. Added to this, the virtually exhibited object has to share its role as carrier of the narration with other multimedia presentations in the web.
We would like to acknowledge the support of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture under contract number GZ 50.501/4-III/9/99, the additional financial support by the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna, the Society of the Friends of Ethnology and Druk-Yul, the Austrian-Bhutanese Society, and thank especially the Kingdom of Bhutan and all the people participating in the project.
Bowen, J. (2000). The virtual museum. Museum International, UNESCO, Paris, No. 205 (Vol. 42, No.1, 2000): pp. 4-7.
Breiteneder, C., Hitz, M., & Platzer, H. (2001). A Reusable Software Framework for Authoring and Managing Web Exhibitions. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2001 Proceedings. CD ROM. Archives & Museum Informatics, 2001.
Garzotto, F., Matera, M., Paolini, P. (1998). A Framework for Hypermedia Design and Usability Evaluation. In P. Jonhson, A. Sutcliffe, J. Ziegler (eds.) Designing Effective and Usable Multimedia Systems (selected papers from the IFIP 13.2 Working Conference - Stuttgart - Germany, Sept. 1998, Chapman & Hall publisher, 1998.
Haber, A. (2000). MUVA. A virtual museum in Uruguay. Museum International, UNESCO, Paris, No. 205 (Vol. 42, No.1, 2000): pp. 26-31.
Hoopes, J. (1999).
Anthropology Museums Online.
Schicklgruber, C. and Pommaret, F. (1998). Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods.