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MUSEUMS AND THE WEB 1998

Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

info @ archimuse.com

www.archimuse.comArchives and Museum Informatics Home Page

published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010

Papers

A Virtual Fine Arts Museum on the Web

Emil Krén, KFKI Computer Systems Corp., Hungary
D. Marx, Lektura Publishing Company, Hungary

1. Introduction

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We do not wish to go in details of this survey as many of the results have already been outdated due to changes in the last two years.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

  • 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 and schools.
Virtual Art Collections
  • 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 artists.

2. Targets

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 where necessary,
  • 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 in education.

4. Description of the Virtual Museum

4.1 Contents

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 bigger mistake.

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 books.

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 other.

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 the museum.

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.

4.3.Technical Details

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 in texts.

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 done manually.

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 of time.

5. Experiences

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 typical examples:

  • 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 essays.
  • 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, too.

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.

7. Conclusions

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 great,
  • picture collections can be turned into a virtual museum with relatively simple tools,
  • 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.

8. Acknowledgments

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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