A Virtual Fine Arts Museum on the Web
Krén, KFKI Computer Systems Corp., Hungary
Marx, Lektura Publishing Company, Hungary
Since the appearance of the Web, a new horizon has opened in transferring
pictures and viewing them on-line on Internet. Admittedly, besides
scientific applications, the primary purpose of creating the Web,
the first widespread utilization of this possibility was in the area
of "adult pictures". However, the Web being suitable for exhibiting
works of art, fine arts also appeared in due time.
It was fairly obvious from the very beginning what the Web technology
had to offer in education, especially in areas where pictures do not
serve merely as illustrations, but are carriers of essential information,
as in art. (The same applies e.g. to zoology and botany, too.) Recognizing
the immense potential of the Web, a survey was carried out in May
1996 on the way it is utilized in art and on what the Web, becoming
more and more commercial and extending its scope at the same time,
might offer to surfers. We approached these questions as information
technologists and people who are keen on art rather than art historians
or museologists. After surveying the sites on art history of an academic
nature as well as those where works of contemporary artists were exhibited,
we focused our attention on the pages of major art museums and the
virtual collections of pictures.
We do not wish to go in details of this survey as many of the results
have already been outdated due to changes in the last two years. Instead,
we are summing up conclusions which led us to start the program the
result of which is given in the present paper.
Web Pages of Museums
Virtual Art Collections
- On the whole, museums reacted with reserve to the new medium demanding
a new approach. They may have had several reasons for doing so,
e.g. they may have assumed that the numbers of visitors would decrease,
they may have had doubts on the quality of digital reproductions
and feared illegal use of reproductions now widely available.
- The majority of art museums is present on the Web: they supply
information and small size illustrations in order to encourage the
public to visit their art collections. In some cases, the information
supplied is comparable with the contents of guide-books but they
typically do not aim at presenting and describing their collections
either in a representative or complete way. (The first signs of
a change in this direction dated from the months following the survey.)
Museums failed to take the possibilities offered by the Web in education
- They were established independently of museums on the initiative
of citizens who, with some academic background, were capable of
utilizing the potential of the new technology. Neither museum politics,
nor the closed nature of a collection can set limits to virtual
collections: pictures come from secondary sources.
- With regard to size, the most significant
collections contain 1,000 to 5,000 digital reproductions in
the size range of 500-1,000 pixels, they are of 100-200 kbytes and
in JPEG format. Additional information to pictures is little and
scanty, if any.
- In content they are defined neither by time nor subject,
the only criterion of development being size: the bigger, the better.
They reflect a predisposition to painting since this is the most
spectacular genre of art, others are not represented well.
- With regard to aim, they are intended for browsing without
offering a possibility to search for a particular work of art. They
are usually structured only according to the alphabetic list of
The survey made it clear that, besides publication, the Web had much
to offer in art both in culture and education. Three aspects closely
associated with one another were considered to be particularly important:
- establishing a virtual museum,
- developing a virtual textbook published on the Web, and
- creating a database founded on authentic data which is then made
available for the public.
In order to demonstrate possibilities and because of our cultural
commitment, we decided to launch a project to create a virtual museum
of Hungarian art with the additional aim that the museum thus established
should serve as a basis for virtual textbooks and a database on art.
We wished to create a Web site which
- covers all areas and periods of Hungarian fine arts as well as
all significant artists and their works without aiming at the presentation
of each and every single work of art,
- contains bilingual (English and Hungarian) information on all
artists as well as major data on all works of art, and descriptions
- is capable of handling pictures and texts together (i.e. they
can be downloaded together) and links various types of information
within the system (and outside it if and when needed),
- allows search for various aspects with an easy-to-use system,
- offers visitors of the virtual museum further services in order
to make their visits more efficient, pleasant and convenient.
3. Phases of Realization
Realization was planned to be carried out in five major phases:
- developing a system design,
- creating a model and publishing it on the Web in order to develop
major elements and to gather operational and maintainance experiences,
and, furthermore, to receive and analyse feedback,
- creating the Web site of Hungarian painting,
- adding further branches of fine art to the Web site, and
- developing the site for education and database puposes.
The program was launched immediately after the survey. Once a system
design had been made, we decided that the model was going to be in
English and limited in subject-matter to European Renaissance painting
and sculpture in the center but including also the preceding Byzantine
and Gothic art as well as the following Manierism and early Baroque
(13th and 17th c.). The reason why this was decided was that a part
of the pictures necessary for the selected topic was available from
Internet sites with free access, thus our scanty means were efficiently
allocated for tasks related to the model. Our choice was justified
by the fact that the art of the Renaissance is popular all over the
world, and that there were no analogue sites on the Web. Our hopes
for receiving relevant reactions from the international public appeared
to be well founded.
The Web Gallery
of Art, a model with 1,100 pictures, was opened in October 1996,
which was then supplemented in several steps to reach the current
number of 3,500. All elements of the virtual museum applied by us
were tested in this model. "Painting in Hungary from the Beginning
to the Mid 20th Century", a Web site with 1,200 pictures was opened
in May 1997. It has been doubled both in size and content since then
and now serves as a virtual museum of Hungarian art with the title
Fine Arts in Hungary
from the Beginning to the Mid 20th Century.
When the state project was launched to help Hungarian schools have
access to Internet, the first measures were taken to encourage utilization
4. Description of the Virtual Museum
Pictures in the virtual museum are large size, quality digital reproductions
showing the whole, untruncated works of art intended to be viewed
on a screen with a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels or higher.
Hungarian fine arts are presented as art in Hungary, as customary
in Hungarian art history, which means that the collection contains
works of art produced in Hungary at the time. (Borders of the country
have been modified several times in the course of her history, for
the last time after World War I. As a consequence, several major towns
which played a significant role in Hungarian art history, together
with works of art associated with them, are no longer parts of the
mother country.) Works of foreign artists (e.g. Franz Anton Maulbertsch),
who influenced the development of Hungarian art while working in the
country, are also included in the collection. The collection covers
the period from the beginnings (the Hungarian state was established
in the 11th c.) to the mid 20th c., excluding only contemporary works
and artists. We endeavoured to cover both painting and sculpture in
full when major artists and works were selected for presentation but
we also tried to include as many representatives and works of other
genres as possible (e.g. miniatures, sculptural decorations, glass
windows and carpets).
Curators of major Hungarian museums were of particularly great assistance
at selecting pictures and sources suitable for digitization. Catalogues
and other publications made available mostly by museums served as
sources of pictures. Unfortunately, Hungarian fine arts are rather
scantiliy documented in quality photographs, consequently the contents
of the collection were limited by documents available and suitable
for digitization, and a certain disproportion was introduced into
the collection. Due to lacking visual documentation in appropriate
quality, we were obliged to present some of the major works in reproductions
of poor quality, knowing that excluding them would have been a far
Biographies of all artists (supplemented with portraits, self-portraits
or photos if available), major data on all pictures presented (title,
year, technique, size and owner) together with additional information,
reviews and analyses are included. Data on pictures and biographies
of artists were taken from catalogues of museums and reference books.
The majority of analyses came from catalogues and only a minor part
was written for the collection by distinguished art historians. This
proportion is expected to change after more artists and works of art
are added to our collection.
For the Web Gallery of Arts pictures were at first collected from
various Web sites, with kind permission of the Webmasters, then the
collection was systematically supplemented with pictures which we
took from books and albums for digital reproduction to be carried
out by us. Texts and data were compiled from encyclopedias and reference
In oder to make visits to the virtual museum efficient, search engine
and guided tours, two fundamental services, are required which have
been continuously introduced and completed with further services.
Additional services, e.g. a glossary to make texts easier to understand,
and presenting major Hungarian museums were also considered to be
indispensable. Pages with such information are continuously added.
As the names of towns and villages in reviews and additional information
have changed over the years because they do not belong to Hungary
any more, an index was compiled to help identify place names. Information
on technical details is also available for visitors inexperienced
in browsing. Sending pictures, a recent invention, has become popular
with our visitors: any picture of the collection can be sent as a
virtual picture postcard. Visitors can
send their comments on the gallery via e-mail to the webmaster and
sign the guestbook where they are welcome to exchange ideas with each
4.2. Visiting the Virtual Museum
Visitors can enter the museum on the main page
where they can decide between the Hungarian and the English version.
(Visitors can change from one version to the first page of the other
at any time during their visit.) There are three ways of visiting
First, select the name of the artist in the alphabetic
index, then click on it and the biography
of the artist appears on the screen. Links above and under the text
lead to the page where his/her works of art
can be viewed. Major data together with file data can be found next
to pictures in thumbnail size (80 pixels wide). There is an icon to
show if there are any texts to go with the picture. Clicking on it,
visitors can read the comment on a page
where the picture appears in medium size (about 200 pixels wide).
After clicking either on the thumbnail or the medium-sized picture,
visitors can now view the full picture.
Links helping navigation are placed at the top and bottom of every
page, thus visitors can easily find their ways in the museum.
The search engine allows search for any
picture or information in the text, and the use of Boolean operators
makes advanced search possible. In addition, search for the name of
the artist, the type and year of the work of art, and the museum where
it is located can be easily carried out.Search
results are presented with thumbnail images and associated data.
Visitors can join virtual guided tours to concentrate on a certain
aspect, e.g. the art of a particular artist, a period, a style, a
genre or a group of monuments. Guided tours are supplemented with
extra pages relying on already existing pages of museums, on artists
and works of art.
The collection is planned to contain 7-10,000 pictures when complete.
Taking into account all other files, the number of files in the system
is several times as much depending on system organization. The most
omportant technical problems to be solved included the following:
- automatic generation of the large number of HTML files (up to
50,000) which can be necessary to organize and present the collection
(to minimize manual work), and
- working out a flexible engine for searching pictures and information
given in text form.
The system was built on JPEG picture format, the most generally accepted
one in Internet. It is a highly compressed format where reduction
by 10-15 times of file size results in no or hardly any visible deterioration
of quality. Data and texts on pictures are integrated into the comment
blocks (part of the file restricted to text) of the JPEG format, a
solution not applied in picture collections before. Thus, picture
and related text are joined in a single file which, on the one hand,
is the basis of the automatic file generation and, on the other hand,
allows pictures and texts to be downloaded together (downloaded pictures
can be easily identified later).
Based on pictures in JPEG format, a program, running under Windows
3.1 and Windows '95, was developed which integrated the functionality
of the file manager, picture viewer and text editor so that all operations
can be carried out while the collection is being compiled or modified.
Bearing in mind that repeated changes made and saved in JPEG format
deteriorate picture quality, we developed the program to change and
save the text in the comment block without actually having to resave
the picture in order to ensure unlimited modifications of information
Furthermore, we developed a program which, combined with the previous
one, automatically generates all pages in html format necessary for
handling the collection by using the texts associated to the pictures.
The program generates the pages for the Hungarian and English versions
separately. The process in either language takes a medium capacity
computer appr. 20-30 minutes without an operator to intervene in case
of a collection with 3,000 pictures.
Thus, compiling the collection is definetely easier, errors are less
likely to occur, maintenance and up-dating are easier to do. Digitizing
pictures and typing textual information, however, still have to be
When the search program was developed, it was a major criterion that
it should be similar to other search programs on the Web both in appearance
and application and should fit the nature of the collection.
We tried to minimize technical requirements for visitors of the virtual
museum. Browser specific solutions were not applied, possibilities
offered by frames were not exploited until recently when they were
introduced to guided tours. We avoid producing too big pages and using
decorative graphics. A page typically has no more than 10-12 thumbnails.
The only significant technical requirement for visitors is that they
have Internet access and computers which allow large size pictures
in JPEG format to be downloaded and viewed in a reasonable period
According to counters placed on their first pages, the virtual museum
and the previous model attracted more than 40,000 visitors during
the first 18 months of operation. (This number, however, does not
include visitors who enter the museum on a page other than the first.
As visitors who keep returning or arrive at the museum with the help
of Internet search engines, generally skip the first pages, the actual
number of visitors is significantly higher.) Although this number
is of no commercial significance, it is considered to be good and
satisfactory for a site of this profile and program developers attempt
to do their utmost to attract more and more visitors.
We received hundreds of notes from visitors of the Web Gallery of
Art either by e-mail or by signing the guestbook. Notes contained
appreciation and expressions of gratitude, and, as had been anticipated,
suggestions for modifications. Most of them were carried out, thus
our visitors contributed to making the virtual gallery really "user-friendly".
The breakdown of letter-writers by country indicates the distribution
of Internet access: the majority of letters came from the USA , Canada
and some Western European countries. However, letters arrived from
all over the world, from South America, Australia, New Zealand, South
Africa and Japan. Letters justified the assumption that the collection
was available to and widely used by the public.
The letters, in addition to pointing out some minor errors and suggesting
ideas for improvement, contain requests and questions which highlight
the purpose of utilization beyond the simple browsing. Part of the
questions is naive, but the majority deserves more attention. Some
- Quite often a picture or information about a picture is required
which is not included in our art collection. In most of the cases
reasons are also given (e.g. the letter-writer has seen the original
picture somewhere and would like to recall it with the help of the
Gallery, or he needs additional information for his school essay).
- There is often an interest in romantic elements of biographies
of artists aroused by television programs or films.
- Letter-writers frequently ask for help to identify a work of art
which they describe in their letters or enclose a photo of it (questions
to be answered are e.g. who painted the picture, what is the title,
and where it can be found). In some cases these works of art have
been inherited and new owners wish to have them valued.
- Notes are sent by visitors who claim to be descendants of great
artists, or persons portrayed in our museum (e.g. we received letters
from a Verrocchio, a Lorenzetti, a Mazarin).
- Some letter-writers are interested where printed reproductions
of or books on pictures in our collection are available.
- The bulk of letter-writers is represented by students from the
USA who wish to have a variety of questions answered urgently at
the time of examinations or finals. Letters expressing gratitude
show that information from the virtual museum was quoted in school
- A number of teachers from the USA asked for permission if they
could use the Web site as a teaching aid.
We have received somewhat less feedback on the Hungarian gallery.
The letters came mainly from Hungarians or their descendants living
outside Hungary. The questions are similar to those mentioned above,
but some of these letters contain an element of patriotic emotion,
6. Further Targets
Based on the results so far achieved, we wish to continue the program
in several directions if the necessary means are available.
- In order to give a more detailed presentation of fine arts in
Hungary, we hope to increase the number of works of art to 5,000
at least, thus current disproportions might be reduced. At the same
time we are going to increase information in texts.
- We would like to extend the number and content of the guided tours.
Doing this we shall try to create a new tool for the propagation
of general knowledge on art, a special genre which comprises the
characteristics of art exhibition, catalogue, guidebook and essay,
based on multimedia Web technology.
- Based on pictures and texts included in the virtual museum, we
are going to take steps to create virtual textbooks on art history.
We are planning to develop softwares to generate tasks and test
knowledge, as well as attractive solutions involving multimedia
to make students more interested in learning.
- We consider it justified that an art center be added to the virtual
museum in order to organize special (periodic) exhibitions, to publish
an art journal on the Web and to maintain an interactive forum to
keep in touch with visitors. Contemporary works of art can be exhibited
in the virtual exhibition hall in order to counterbalance the lack
of contemporary art in the virtual museum.
Experiences in connection with the virtual museum and its model can
be summed up as follows:
- with regard to technology it is possible to create and maintain
on Internet a large-sized, searchable art collection involving pictures
and bilingual texts,
- the demand (especially in countries where the use of Internet
has become wide-spread and popular) for virtual art collections
offering search and functioning as an interactive forum is considerably
- picture collections can be turned into a virtual museum with relatively
- in school education there is a considerable demand for information
on art history available on Internet, and
- the virtual museum can be turned into a device suitable for making
national culture better known.
Although our experiences have not proved it so far, it can be claimed
that virtual art collections supplied with authentic data and texts
can function as databases and help art historians and museologists
with their work. Virtual art collections will, however, never be able
to substitute professional databases necessary for museums.
The favourable reception of our work have proved that virtual museums
created on the Web outside the framework of the museum organizitions
are definitely justified. It is true that lack of professionalism
may result in deficiencies, however, these can be counterbalanced
by technological know-how, by being fully aware of the needs of visitors
and by enthusiasm whithout which a task like that could never be accomplished.
Nevertheless, we are convinced that creating a real virtual museum
needs museum experts. In our capacity as visitors of museums we do
seriously hope that museums are soon going to discover a new identity
in the virtual world outside stately buildings of museums and face
challenges of modern communication technologies.
The virtual museum was created with the financial assistance of the
Hungarian Cultural Funds and KFKI
Computer Systems Inc. Publishing on Internet was rendered possible
with the help of Computer Networking Centre of MTA
KFKI RMKI. Contributions of curators of the Hungarian National
Gallery (Budapest), the Hungarian National Museum (Budapest), Janus
Pannonius Museum (Pécs), Déri Museum (Debrecen), Koszta József Museum
(Szentes) and Thorma János Museum (Kiskunhalas) were indispensable
to the project. Our grateful acknowledgments are due to each and everyone
who contributed to and supported our project.
Last modified: March 14, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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