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published: April, 2002

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MW2002: Papers

Museophile: A community for museum e-commerce

Jonathan Bowen, South Bank University School of Computing, Information Systems & Mathematics, United Kingdom

http://www.museophile.com

Abstract

Large national museums can afford to create their own on-line mass communication services and to undertake e-commerce activities themselves. However, for other museums, this can be a daunting prospect, both technically and financially. It is also likely to be much less effective. A solution could be to create an on-line museum community of small to medium sized museums who alone would struggle to make such an enterprise a success but who together, with suitable help, could rival the efforts of national museums. This mini-workshop examines existing example of museum e-commerce and facilities that could be used by museums. It then goes on to propose a possible infrastructure for museums wishing to take their initial steps in e-commerce at low cost and low risk.

Keywords: e-commerce, museums, community, accessibility, World Wide Web

Introduction

We think of the Internet and e-commerce as being a new phenomenon but actually the idea of virtual trading has been around for a long time as the following demonstrates (Branson, 2000):

“… the late 19th century had its own Victorian Internet (Standage, 1999), and the first transatlantic cable was not a product of the 1980s but rather the 1880s. Over a hundred years ago Harrods advertised its telegraphic address, and received orders and goods and services from all over the world, even to the extent that it had as much virtual trade as a percentage of its sales in 1899 as it does today.”

-- Richard Branson (speaking in Oxford, 1999)

However the term “e-commerce” has only become a buzzword much more recently. One of the earliest examples of modern e-commerce is that of the Peapod grocery service founded in Chicago in 1989 using a dial-up service via modems (Wohl & Poole, 2001).

Initially the World Wide Web was developed as a global information transfer system in the academic world of physicists using the CERN facility in Switzerland. However, a very important turning point of the web was the deliberate decision by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, to make the technology and standards freely available not only for non-profit making activities but also for commercial ventures as well (Berners-Lee, 2000). Fortunately CERN did not object since they were interested in physics rather than computing. Without the decision, the web may never have emerged as the dominant force that it is on the Internet today, with its great potential for e-commerce, an area for which it was not originally designed. For example, a competing technology called Gopher, that was widely adopted in academia in the early 1990s, lost out subsequently to the web at least partially because the university where it was developed thought that it could be commercialized.

One of the earliest web-based e-commerce services was the sale of pizzas by Pizza Hut in Santa Cruz, California, in 1994. This was internationally known in web circles at the time, but was unsuccessful because there were not enough potential customers then, even in California. Ordering from the UK, for instance, was not really an option even though the website was viewable!

Among the early museum adopters of e-commerce was the Metropolitan Museum in New York that had and still has the resources to set up its own on-line shopping facilities with no recourse to any other similar organizations. Large museums certainly have this option, but for smaller museums, without the technical expertise or the finance to pay for this option, it is much more difficult to establish an e-commerce presence, and is probably not cost effective on their own in any case.

Like other market sectors, museums have been using the Internet and specifically the World Wide Web to further their mission of information dissemination to the public since the mid 1990s (Bowen 1995). Although many museums have an on-line presence and are increasingly using electronic mail and other Internet facilities, the nature of the sector means that there is a great variety in Internet usage. Some early adopters had web sites in the early 1990s, but others, especially those in less well-developed countries, have yet to establish a web presence.

The largest and most prestigious institutions are on a par with commercial corporations and may have an Intranet, on-line access to their collections using database technology and even e-commerce facilities to allow on-line purchase of items in their museum shop. However this represents a very small proportion of the sector at present. From these large enterprises, museums range down to very small organizations, perhaps run on a volunteer basis, and sometimes with no full-time employees. Between these two extremes lie the vast majority of museums. These “Small to Medium sized Museums” (SMMs) are the ones that could most benefit from improved support for on-line activities, perhaps in a collaborative and symbiotic manner.

This paper examines the current use by museums of the World Wide Web for e-commerce activities. It then goes on to suggest ways in which combining together into a community of museums could benefit both individual museums and the museum section as a whole in commercial activities on-line.

The Existing Market

In the UK, as an example, there are around 1,500 museums and around the world there are a hundred thousand museums or more (depending on one’s definition of a museum). Only a relatively small proportion have their own website even now. The percentage depends on the country, with the US not surprisingly leading the way. However, the UK is perhaps around a year behind developments in the USA and the Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) on-line directory of museums [www.icom.org/vlmp] lists several hundred museums with websites in the UK.

The leading national museums have significant websites on their own web servers, with their own Webmaster to maintain the site. However, even for these museums, e-commerce and on-line databases are still a relative novelty and are by no means universally available. A recent guide on the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) issues to independent museums in the UK (Gander and Melling, 2002) covers basic issues of planning and maintaining a website, and even accessibility concerns (Getchell and Rubin, 2002), as well as the use of email, but makes no mention of more advanced issues like the incorporation of e-commerce facilities.

Museum / Sales

Jan 2000

June 2000

Jan-June 2000

1

0

5,168

16,725

2

0

6,916

19,105

3

4,173

7,756

38,198

4

3,880

88,329

251,482

5

6,710

26,827

103,025

6

1,905

0

9,522

7

2,007

19,883

83,404

8

726

11,530

40,341

9

32,540

104,313

352,236

10

81,128

98,413

519,821

11

6,450

16,960

83,969

12

3,453

25,846

75,391

13

10,879

19,866

94,699

14

21,085

0

147,983

15

7,260

19,483

80,128

16

5,643

28,353

99,017

17

5,617

26,594

97,317

18

14,266

79,336

227,403

19

4,310

8,630

36,883

Total £  (2000)

217,655

620,797

2,573,970

Total £  (1999)

199,776

618,281

2,627,765

Figure 1. Sample shop sales for 19 independent UK museums:
Information collected by the UK
Association of Independent Museums

Figure 1 gives a sample of 19 independent UK museums showing their shop sales for two months (in and out of season) and for a half-year period from information collected by the UK Association of Independent Museums (AIM) [www.museums.org.uk/aim]. In the summer season, sales are around three times winter sales. On-line the difference may not be so marked.

Currently none of these museums have on-line sales so the market is wide open for development. A reasonable target in the long-term would be for on-line sales to equal on-site museum sales, especially if the museums worked together in marketing their on-line e-commerce facilities. The model has been implemented successfully for the on-line family history fair and genealogy bookstore website GENfair [www.genfair.com]. This was launched in January 1999; by October 2000, it already had over ten thousand purchasable items from 52 UK Family History Societies and 35 related organizations on its website.

There is currently no on-line marketplace specifically for museum B2B (business to business) transactions. Even the US has not developed this area for the museums sector yet. Indeed, there are still research issues to be addressed in B2B e-commerce provision; e.g., see Fensel et al. (2001).

Yahoo provide a general B2B website [b2b.yahoo.com] and a search for “museum” reveals seven product headings (in February 2002), although these seem to overlap somewhat. The categorized products break down to include cases, displays, equipment, supplies, furniture and gifts. However, there are not yet many companies listed under some of the product headings, but there are 73 under “Equipment & Supplies”, 66 under “Cases: Museum Display”, 91 under “Exhibits: Museum” and 22 under “Furniture: Museum”. However, many of the companies listed do not have a website or email address included in their entry! Despite the current shortcomings, given the reputation of Yahoo, this site could development significantly in the future.

In the UK, the Museums Association [www.museumsassociation.org] include a list of museum suppliers, who have become corporate members of the Museums Association, on their website. This is searchable by company name, category and keyword. The resource has the potential to be developed into a B2B e-commerce website in the future.

Some companies are aiming to aid website creation for particular vertical markets. For example, Biblion [www.biblion.com] describes itself as a bookshop of bookshops; it allows antiquarian book dealers to create and maintain their own website using a web-based interface, with a selection of standard templates for different design styles. A full domain name is available as part of the service, which is provided at a cost of around $45 per month. A similar model could be used in the museum sector.

Other Internet start-ups are aiming at related vertical market sectors such as schools for B2B activities. See, for example, the UK school oriented commercial website called Schools for Schools [www.schoolsforschools.com] which is planning such facilities for suppliers of goods for schools.

There has been significant activity in the US creating companies to help with museum networking and e-commerce (Bowen, 2000b). In particular, MuseumNetwork.com and MuseumShop.com are two companies with aims in this area. MuseumNetwork.com has offices in the USA and also in the UK. A website has been established, although this is undergoing redevelopment, and a significant amount of venture capital has been used to establish the company. They have interests in being a museum portal, e-commerce and educational support.

MuseumShop.com has partnered mainly with larger museums, although there are still less than a hundred museums involved [www.museumshop.com]. Most are in the US, the company having being started in the USA, although the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a number of other European museums have been added more recently. The cost and commitment of partnering with Museumshop.com is such that it may deter smaller museums from joining. They have their own fulfillment center in the US and are expanding in Europe. Users can register with the website and receive regular electronic mail shots. The website includes 64 museum partners (in February 2002) mainly from the US but with an increasing number from Europe. The site is browsable in a variety of ways, including by museum, artist and period, and in the themes of art, science, maritime, children and historical. In addition, browsing by item type such as jewelry, home & garden, sculpture, prints & posters, books, entertainment, stationery, clothing & accessories, and toys & games. Information on the partner museums and external hyperlinks to them are also available.

In Europe itself there is still little centralized commercial on-line museum support although the US on-line museum companies have their eye on this market and are starting to expand outside the US. One European effort, Museum.com is based in Germany and aims to act as a portal particularly suitable for access by WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) enabled mobile phones. Currently there is no direct competition based in the UK itself, even though there is a thriving museum community. MuseumNet does provide a commercial UK museum portal [www.museums.co.uk].

At the 2001 UK Museums Association conference in London (Bowen, 2001b), a specialist workshop on E-commerce, Mail Order and the Museum Shop was organized by Retail Matters [www.retailmatters.co.uk], who concentrate on retailing for historic houses, museums, gardens and cathedrals in the UK. The first presentation focused on the mail order operation associated with the Science Museum in London, although there is an associated website [www.sciencemuseumstore.com]. The second presentation gave an overview of the first steps in e-commerce by the St. Paul’s Cathedral shop [www.stpaulsshop.co.uk]. This has started out on a small scale with orders being sent to and fulfilled by the shop itself. Interestingly, the vast majority of customers are from North America and many order the guidebook for perusal before their visit.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York was one of the first museums in the world to provide its own on-line sophisticated shopping facilities to its virtual visitors [www.metmuseum.org/store]. They allow users to register free and send periodic electronic mail shots that are not too obtrusive. This museum is large enough to undertake sophisicated web developments completely independently of any other museum.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has an on-line shop including books, exhibition gifts, fashion items, goods for the home, jewelry, items for children, notes, calendars, prints, etc. [www.mfa.org/shop]. It also includes a separately presented on-line outlet store offering substantial discounts on some items [store.yahoo.com/mfaoutlet]. Both of these use on-line store facilities provided by Yahoo.

The Museum Company runs a chain of physical shops selling museum-related items as well as having a website with the usual virtual shopping bag facilities [www.museumcompany.com]. The website explicitly targets corporate sales (e.g., aimed at rewards for staff, presents for business partners, etc.), as well as more standard retail sales to the public. The Museum Company is a partner with Yahoo, presenting a number of museums and related items for sale on-line [store.yahoo.com/museumcompany].

For a directory of existing museums around the world that provide on-line shopping facilities, see the Musee.com museum stores on-line website [www.musee.com].

Related Organizations

To undertake e-commerce effectively, it is (or would be) necessary for most museums, apart from the very largest ones, to partner and cooperate with other organizations to make a success of the enterprise. Here we suggest a number of example organizations and companies that could be helpful in establishing an e-commerce presence for museums.

In the United Kingdom, the 24 Hour Museum [www.24hourmuseum.org.uk] has established itself as the foremost UK museum portal on-line with support from the UK government Department of Culture. It has been officially designated the first national virtual museum. This type of organization would be in a good position to help museums with e-commerce opportunities by channeling potential on-line shoppers to the relevant part of their website.

The leading on-line bookstore Amazon [www.amazon.com; www.amazon.co.uk] has an associates program in both the US and the UK in which any book sales generated result in a 5–15% commission depending on if the sales was due to an indirect or direct hits on the Amazon site. Museums could partner with such facilities to gain a percentage of the sales of books related to their museum with little further effort once the facility is set up apart from maintaining a suitable list of books with links to Amazon’s website(s). A search for “museum” on Amazon returned 29,212 results within the zShops section (a collection of on-line stores) and 9,707 results in the books section (in February 2002). There were even 9 results for computer and video games, consisting of classic well-known games from the past for a selection of more recent games consoles. The related CatalogCity.com found 1,418 products from 89 merchants matching “museum” [www.catalogcity.com].

The leading search engine Google [www.google.com] offers partner opportunities. Google is an excellent state-of-the-at search engine that returns very accurate results since it uses information about the hyperlinks between web pages as well as the contents of the web pages themselves. The use of Google technology to search only officially recognized museum websites (e.g., as held by the museum portal) could reason in excellent high-grade search results, useful for educational and other purposes. For the record, a search for “museum” on Google resulted in around 11.2 million pages, taking only 0.41 seconds (in February 2002). Searching for the plural “museums” gave 3.31 million pages in 0.55 seconds. The Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) were top of this list [vlmp.museophile.com].

Yahoo provides on-line stores facilities to create on-line shops at a reasonable price (around $100 per month upwards) [store.yahoo.com]. It is be possible to partner with Yahoo to create an on-line shop for an individual museum. This could be even more effective for a collection of museums, perhaps with a related theme. This would allow easy cross-museum shop searching for visitors. An advantage of a typical Yahoo store visitor is that they may be more inclined to buy on-line than a usual museum virtual visitor, who may be more interested in accessing information than shopping. Yahoo provides a shopping portal for on-line shoppers [shopping.yahoo.com]. Searching for “museum” via this portal resulted in 23,035 products in 775 stores (in February 2002), so it can be seen that Yahoo has a significant number of museum-related items offered for sale.

eBay is a highly successful leading on-line auction site that is set up to be easy for individuals and others to use [www.ebay.com]. Searching for the keyword “museum” resulted in 2,711 items being found (in February 2002). The first 11 items were due to be sold within an hour’s deadline of the time of the search. Many items are described using the term “museum quality.” eBay also runs on-line stores as well as its well-known auction section [www.ebaystores.com].

Technology Issues

There are many technologies that can be used to aid e-commerce, both proprietary and non-proprietary (Deitel, Deitel and Nieto, 2000). There are numerous books available to help with the design, implementation and maintenance of facilities for web-based business e-commerce; e.g., see Reynolds and Mofazali (2000).

Although proprietary software may seem attractive initially, especially because it often includes support, it is now possible to make significant use of both open technical standards, and “Open Source” [www.opensource.org] software in developing software and website facilities (Ming-Wei Wu and Ying-Dar Lin, 2001). This section outlines both these concepts, and explains their relevance and benefits with respect to business-oriented applications (Wall, 2001).

The core technologies that comprise the Internet are open standards, available for anyone to use freely for commercial and non-commercial purposes. A business can attempt to extend the use of standardized technologies for its own commercial purposes. For example, business-specific file formats can now largely be derived from XML (Extensible Markup Language), which is an open standard document description language coordinated by the World Wide Web Consortium [www.w3.org/XML]. The choice of XML as a basis for document design improves the accessibility of document formats, including promoting their exchange and their translation to other Internet standard document languages.

The Open Source software movement aims to create freely available implementations of common application software. Open source software is:

  • available at no cost;
  • available with source code;
  • freely redistributable, with or without modifications.

A developer who makes modifications to an open source application may (according to the particular terms of the license) be obliged to make those modifications available under the same terms as the original distribution. Open source software has a reputation for quality and robustness, as it has a widely established “peer review” mechanism; developers who find problems in the software can fix them and contribute the corrections back into the main distribution of the software. Examples of open source software in wide use on the Internet include the Linux operating system [www.linux.org] and the Apache web server [www.apache.org]. An open source effort relevant to e-commerce is the OpenSSL Project to develop a robust, toolkit implementing the SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) protocols for security on-line transactions, together with a general-purpose cryptography library [www.openssl.org]. SourceForge is a major website that supports the collaborative production of open source software [sourceforge.net].

A major reason for adopting an open source strategy could be because of the close association between the open Internet standards and open source implementations of those standards. Having an open source strategy could attract some customers who would otherwise be put off by the continuing maintenance cost of a traditional “closed source” application.

However, open source software provides an “insurance” benefit. Small enterprises can afford to experiment with open source software knowing that they have no ongoing license fees. Furthermore, the source code is available should anyone wish to migrate their data to a new application framework in the future, or expand their use of open source software in ways specific to meet their goals.

Other Issues

There are many books espousing principles for developing a business on the World Wide Web; for example, see Schwartz (1998). However there is not much information specifically aimed at museums wishing to enter this area. A museum aiming to do so must typically seek outside help, and hence must have substantial financial resources to do so. In practice, this limits e-commerce to larger museums at present. For a smaller museum to set up e-commerce requires considerable entrepreneurial spirit (Southon and West, 2002) and technical expertise, but in time it will become easier for such museums to market their shop items on-line. Normally a museum will wish to outsource e-commerce facilities (e.g., to an application service provider) and indeed often its entire website unless it is large enough to warrant its own in-house support team (Susarla, Barua and Whinston, 2001).

Fulfillment (delivery of the physical goods) is an extremely important part of the e-commerce process. This is the one part that cannot be achieved electronically. On a small scale, museums could implement fulfillment directly from their physical shop. For a larger turnover, use of a fulfillment center is more cost-effective, but this does depend on a significant guaranteed volume to justify the expense involved. On the other hand, fulfillment of delivery of data (e.g., images, audio recordings, documents, etc.) could be achieved almost instantaneously after purchase, the speed of Internet connection permitting. This could be attractive way of selling photographs for a museum’s archive, for example. Issues to consider include the fact that the data could be copied. Digital watermarking is one technique to monitor misuse of images (e.g., for copyright protection) and this is still an active topic of research; e.g., see Yiwei Wang, Doherty and Van Dyck (2002). For an overview of digital watermarking issues, see De Vleeschouwer, Delaigle and Macq (2002).

Copyright concerns are of course extremely important to museums (Wienand, Booy and Fry, 2000); a museum may own an object (e.g., artwork) but not necessarily the copyright to reproduce it as an image. In the UK, the Museums Copyright Group [www.mda.org.uk/mcopyg] monitors and responds to copyright issues relevant to museums.

Undertaking e-commerce typically involves opening a merchant account to allow credit cards to be accepted over the Internet. A (commercial) guide on this process can be found on-line [www.gotmerchant.com]. A newer easier alternative is the sending of secure and cost-effective payments via electronic mail. This is now possible using facilities provided by the rapidly expanding California-based company PayPal [www.paypal.com]. Signing up for a PayPal account is free and it is particularly popular with sellers on auction websites such as eBay. Currently payment is conducted using US dollars, but this could be extended to Euros, for example, in the future.

Trust is very important for people when using e-commerce facilities, as in real life commerce, and this must be built up and maintained by providing a reliable secure service (Michener and Mohan, 2001). Recently, Atif (2002) has proposed a network of Internet-based intermediaries to help with this aspect. However trust involves human perception as well as reliable security in practice so it is an inexact science.

Legislation and government intervention is likely to be applied to e-commerce as a new form of trading. The US government provides a website on its e-commerce policy [www.ecommerce.gov]. The US Department of Commerce also provides information on e-commerce [home.doc.gov/Electronic_Commerce]. Information in the European Union is available from an electronic commerce team [europa.eu.int/ISPO/ecommerce].

Future Directions

Most museums have restricted resources and are unable to undertake on-line activities on their own, without the help of outside contractors. At the simplest level, a museum may just require a basic website advertising their existence (sometimes dubbed “brochureware” since the nearest equivalent is the color brochure distributed by many museums), access to the Internet and standard email facilities for museum personnel. This is reasonably readily available in the general marketplace. However, at the next level of sophistication, the Internet can be used for business opportunities, both business to consumer (B2C or museum to visitor) and business and business (B2B or business to museum), and also for more extensive information dissemination, via a collections database for example. These are less well supported for museums and are certainly potentially much more expensive.

Setting up an on-line shop for a medium-sized museum is a daunting prospect and may well not attract much attention from the general public in any case with significant marketing. However, if several hundred or even thousands of museums were to combine to produce a museum shop of shops selling unique items from the individual museums, this would have much more impact due to the very size of the enterprise.

The shop could be searchable by product type as well as by museum. Customers could be guided to items suitable for particular gift ideas (e.g., for children) as well to help finding appropriate suggestions quickly. Initially fulfillment could be undertaken by individual museums, although a commercial fulfillment center could be worthwhile for large volume items. Items chosen by museums need to be unique for that museum ideally and also need to be of reasonably high value and low weight for cost-effective delivery to customers.

A flexible approach to submitting orders to individual museums would be required, using direct email or email to fax as appropriate, depending on the facilities available at the museum. The ordering process should be as automated as possible, and customers need to be kept informed of progress or delays by email. Amazon is a widely known on-line company that handles this aspect well [www.amazon.com].

Although many museums do already have their own websites, many do not, often due to lack of technological expertise or perceived costs. Facilities to allow museums to create and maintain there own website with minimal technical expertise and at a reasonable cost could be useful to many museums. Template structures for typical initial museum websites and for page designs could be selected by the museum and further personalized later as expertise is gained if desired. Facilities for easy uploading of content such as text and images should be included.

Most museums, even if they have a computer database for their collections, are not in a position to make this material available on-line. Even those that have done so have normally implemented this on an individual ad hoc basis in general. When museum users wish to visit real museums, they must do so individually due to geographical separation. However, on the Internet this is not the case even if the data is stored in a distributed fashion. Many visitors may prefer a single portal to find museum information, including searching across many databases simultaneously. Existing museum standards such as SPECTRUM in the UK should be followed to ensure compatibility (mda, 2002). The Museum Documentation Association (aka mda [www.mda.org.uk]) supports documentation standards and activities in the UK, including the use of databases and Internet technology. The mda were an early adopter of the Internet in the UK museum world and developed the SPECTRUM standard for collection records and fields.

Educational resources are an important part of a museum’s remit. While facilities for children on-line are best made available free of charge to ensure widespread usage, supporting material for teachers could be marketed as on-line teachers’ packs. Multimedia interactives and other resources could be helpful to attract and maintain the interest of children on-line (Bowen and Houghton, 1999).

Micropayments, where a very small charge (of the order of a few cents) is levied for each page that is viewed, may open up the realistic and reasonable provision of educational and other similar material in the future. Unfortunately the implementation of micropayments has proved problematic in practice and activity in this area coordinated by the World Wide Web Consortium has been suspended [www.w3.org/ECommerce/Micropayments]. For the moment, it could be best to charge for supporting teacher’s resources and make pupil’s resources freely available.

Museums require specialist equipment for exhibitions and also more general items such as furniture and stationery. Individually, museums, even large ones, have limited buying power. However, as a combined force, they have significant strength. Currently there is no on-line B2B marketplace explicitly for museums, even in the US. This is an area that would need significant investment to develop and is very speculative.

More generally for the future, the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, is promoting the “semantic web” [www.semanticweb.org] as the way forward for the further development and improvement of the web (Berners-Lee, Hendler and Lassila, 2001). A DARPA Agent Markup Language (DAML) effort, started in 2000, has the goal of developing a language and tools to advance the aims of the semantic web [www.daml.org]. The effort towards a semantic web could make searching the web much more directed and intelligent than the current simplistic keyword approach adopted by most search engines. This could improve the results of searching for on-line information dramatically, including the searching for goods for sales in on-line catalogues, for instance.

Museophile Plans

Museophile Limited has recently been established by the author and Michael Houghton, a web consultant, in the UK to help museums with their on-line activities [www.museophile.com]. The enterprise is supported by South Bank University [www.museophile.sbu.ac.uk].

Specifically, the company aims to help museums improve their on-line accessibility, especially for the disabled (Bowen, 2001a). There is currently little information on this area, although an on-line article is available providing hyperlinks to a number of related resources [www.museophile.sbu.ac.uk/access]. There are few books on the subject, but Paciello (2000) is a worthwhile book for this wishing to find out more on this subject.

Legislation and standards will increasingly dictate the accessibility of websites. For example, in the US, Section 508 covered accessibility of Information Technology facilities made available by Federal agencies for people with disabilities [www.section508.gov]. Further legislation and directives in the US and around the world are likely. Even if a particular museum is not legally required to consider accessibility of their website, now is a very good time to start considering such issues. Ethically, disabled access is an area that all museums should try to address in any case, be it to physical or virtual resources.

Currently it is widely accepted by museums and other organizations that undertake interactivity with the general public that their building must be accessible with suitable features like ramps, elevators, etc. Similar considerations apply to websites. With the rapid diversification of web technologies in recent years, many websites, including those of museums, have been becoming less rather than more accessible. Some museum sites have been designed with accessibility in mind (Bowen & Bowen, 2000) and others have been explicitly investigated with a view to improving their accessibility (Bowen, Brigden, Dyson and Moran, 2001).

Museophile also has a funded project to produce an example website demonstrating collaborative e-commerce involving a number of museums. This project is currently underway and the results will appear on-line under www.museophile.com. Initially three UK museums are explicitly involved in the experiment, but we hope others will join in due course if the pilot study is successful.

Other facilities supported by Museophile include discussion forums to allow those interested in museums to post messages about topics of concern. The site also provides support for the Virtual Library museums pages (Bowen, 1997) along with a number of other sites that mirror this facility around the world. Future areas for possible support include distributed databases, business to business (or in this context “business to museum” - B2M) e-commerce, education support, etc. It is likely that Museophile will partner with a number of other sites to provide support for facilities like on-line donations to museums, statistics gathering, etc.

Conclusion

E-commerce is very much in its infancy despite recent advances, especially in the realm of museums. Some larger museums do have on-line shops, but these have typically been undertaken as individual initiatives. Museums sell a number of unique goods that may currently only be available by visiting the museum in question. However, placing these items on-line in an individual manner is likely to mean that they are difficult to find by potential customers around the world. Acting in a more coordinated manner is likely to gain much greater exposure since an e-commerce site presenting items from many museums is likely to be of much greater interest and to attract more visitors that an individual website. The financial cost of involvement for smaller museums needs to be as near to zero as possible; otherwise participation will not be attractive for such museums. If a critical mass of museums could be reached, a significant museum e-commerce website could be created. Certainly the unique set of items available from museums, both large and small, around the world gives the museum world a potentially very distinctive e-commerce resource. Prediction is especially difficult in a fast developing area like the Internet (Bowen, 2000a), but it will be interesting to see how e-commerce develops in the museum field over the years to come.

Acknowledgement: Michael Houghton was influential in some of the ideas presented in this paper, especially with respect to open source software.

References

Atif, Y. Building trust in e-commerce. IEEE Internet Computing, 6(1):18-24, January-February.

Berners-Lee, T. (2000). Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Desitiny of the World Wide Web. Harper Business.

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