Published: March 15, 2001.
Applying High Technology to a Museum Web Site (The Amber Room Project)
Tatyana G. Bogomazova, Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir A. Bronnikov, Ctor_Studio Lanck, Russia
The paper explores issues in applying new technologies to a museum web site through analysis of the visual relationship of museums and their visitors, the levels of perception of visual information relating to cultural heritage, and functional (documentation and diffusion) features. As an example authors describe "The Amber Room on the Web" which provides access for a broad public to information about the process of reconstructing a monument. The project is seen as an integral part of the museum's digital policy: by serving as an information gateway to tell and illustrate the entire process of reconstruction of the Amber Room, it reveals specific goals of the project, its history and conception, planning and creating the content, web development, technology applications, navigation, usability, design issues and basic evaluation parameters.
Keywords: Visual perception, virtual environment, technology, visual representation effect, documentation, interpretation, diffusion, the Amber Room, on-line exhibit, Macromedia Flash, WebNavigation.
Creating a virtual environment through applying high technologies to a museum web siteis a special problem in museum information representation. The strategy of applying flash, panoramic video, 3D graphics and reconstructions, immersive imaging as well as multimedia to a museum web site anticipates solving problems of both technological and visual relationship of a museum and its visitors, and of understanding how visitors use a museum web site. Providing user the experience of the reality-virtuality continuum (P. Milgram, H. Takemura, A. Utsumi, F. Kishino, 1994) is a basic objective of representation of museum information.
Our methodology in applying presentation technologies to a museum web site involved two basic tasks:
I. Visual relationship of museums and their visitors
Our first research to understand the visual relationship between the museum and its visitor was carried out in 1997 ("Museum Sociology: Visitor of Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkammer) of the Russian Academy of Science (MAE RAS)". The main conclusions of this work could be summarized as follows:
Museum webs are learning environments where people of different ages and interests acquire further education. The web resource should provide information and documentation in a way that favors the learning process and, stimulates users' enquiries and practical experiments. New technologies can simulate some learning environments in order to reproduce some interactive of "hands-on" exhibitions. Other resources may include auto-evaluation or quizzes for youngsters as a way to learn by playing games.
Levels of perception of visual information relating to cultural heritage
Surveys of our visitors allowed us to define 5 simulated levels of perception of visual information each having specific relation of cognitive/visual information perception and corresponding manifestation (V.Uzunova, T. Bogomazova, 1999):
1. Perception level "beginner".
Here it is sufficient to look in order to see. On this level there arises the desire to see something new. Here novelty isvaluable in itself. Interest is attracted by nonessential details. Perception easy slides from one thing to another and from topic to topic. Museum technologies appealing to this level of perception include any kinds of virtual reality facilitating overall observation suchas 3D models, 360-degree panoramas, and VRML simulated environments.
2. Perception level "curious".
Here the purpose of looking is to understand. On this level learners seek to gain new knowledge and have a psychological predisposition to remember, to compare, and to be keen in their intellectual search. Museum technologies appealing to this level of perception include interactive guided 3D models, annotated 360-degree panoramas, VRML simulated environments with feedback.
3. Communicative perception level.
Here the algorithm of information perception is to see, to think, to connect, and to associate. Perception, memory, imagination, thinking should be claimed at this level. The latter is the level of setting communication. Color, music, video, text - all these elements of one scenario provide input for aesthetic cognition. Here combinatorial associative principle becomes operative. Associations appear as a result of ability to find out, to discover evidence of similar relationship between human beings. Technologies combining 1. and 2. in different variants are useful here.
4. Creative search perception level.
Here the algorithm of information perception is that it is not sufficient to look and think, it is necessary to invent. Here we enable our visitor to discover, i.e. we open for him horizons of undiscovered, unknown knowledge. Here we unwrap the theme of the unique. Museum technologies appropriate to this level of perception may include a combination of Virtual Reality with plain texts, images, audio and video clips navigated according to user's choice thus being reassembled in the process of knowledge acquisition.
5. Perception level "master".
The algorithm of information perception here is the universal principle of humanitarian knowledge - "a great many of all possible worlds" and "a great many of all logically possible facts and ties of things", i.e. perception as recognition of the universal. Appropriate technologies permit the opportunity to manipulate fragments of appropriated knowledge and to reconfigure and redesign it to tie into universal cognitive experience.
In each case, the main objective is to make high quality text, image and sound accessible on-line for any user, notwithstanding current technological hindrances. Since every user may have diverse interests, the aim is to develop an advanced system that takes into account these individual needs. Likewise a virtual resource can be also a meeting point for all specialists in similar subjects and serve as an entrance to other resources of museum collections.
Documentation involves the creation of a complex database (a relational or object-oriented design) to facilitate the access to information of objects in the collection. In many cases this information is prepared for researches and museum staff in their diverse departments (Management, Conservation, Documentation, Administration etc.) and everyone has a different means to access their corresponding data. Documentation includes digitization of collections, whether texts, images (fixed images and video) or sounds. Collection digitization is an important tool for the professionals, so it needs to take into account acquisition policy, collection management, information diffusion, exhibition organisation, cultural policy, visitor management and virtual access to museum rooms to overcome any obstacle in accessing collections and documentation due to physical distance or time difference by enabling users to get the information on-line. Documentation enables display since digitised objects can be incorporated to an exhibition as virtual elements.
If documentation is important for bringing information to specialists in some subjects (narrow casting), diffusion of cultural heritage is essential to a wide public (broadcasting). First of all it provides visual ways of dynamically interpreting some data or process.
Much of our architectural and historical heritage has not survived well preserved to the present day. New technologies can overcome those presentation problems for a general public by creating virtual world that reconstruct some of cultures and buildings of the past heritage. 3-D visualisation and virtual objects represent a didactic alternative for diffusion. They involve an interactive use of images for the diffusion of works of art, architecture and heritage. Except for some extremely high quality images, they should be easily accessed on-line in an interactive way. In most cases it is possible to work with 2-D fixed images, however the use of dynamic images and 3-D reconstructions can be sometimes also be necessary fort visualization. In addition, video may be helpful in narrative presentations and audio may contribute to recreating a particular atmosphere.
Reconstruction of the process of creating or renovating,the dynamics of an object's life cycle, or visualisation of stages of a cultural phenomenon such as a rite, ritual, or game can greatly benefit by visual modelling. Here tools of dynamic visual representation are appropriate, such as animation, Macromedia Flash, or video. Script writing is central to development of appropriate delivery methods and requires the rigorous selection of those objects that will be delivered dynamically.
Making a decision
The first step is forming a research team constituted by members of diverse specialities in content (Heritage) and in new technologies. This team will plan the solution taking into account methodological and organizational issues, as well issues pf documentation, interpretation and information dissemination.
II. Case Study: The Amber Room Project on the Web
The secret of the Amber Room is, without exaggeration, one
of the most stirring riddles of the twentieth century, not only in Russia,
but all over the world. As with any plot having epic implications, the
story of the Amber Room tends to grow on itself, acquiring new details,
names, and twists of plot. Its mysterious history induces renewed bursts
of interest, which are reflected periodically inheadlines in authoritative
journals, books of famous writers and publicists, and documentary films
and TV programs. Until recently, the importance of the Amber Room as an
artistic monument, and information about its history, and particularly
the labor-intensive work of dozens of people in its reconstruction, remained
Careful studies of the photographs have revealed numerous losses and various levels in the amber decor of the interior and required serious research devoted to more than two hundred years of the history of the Amber Room in Russia. Due to many years of research, it became possible to determine the structure of initial decoration of the Berlin study and the origin of the Florentine mosaics built into the interior, as well as the time of later additions of amber decorations to the room.
Preparation for the project of restoring the Amber Room was carried out under the supervision of the principal architect of the Catherine Palace, the esteemed scholar of culture Alexander Kedrinsky. The design documentation included materials on restoration of all of the art decorations of the room: wooden gilded carving, mirror pilasters, painted plafond, and the inlaid floor.
A starting point for any process of reconstruction of a lost original is the architectural plans, which, in one's turn, are based on historical materials . The design documentation for the reconstruction of the Amber Room, developed by group of architects under the supervision of Alexander Kedrinsky, included full-scale drawings of all amber panels and reproduction of details in color. On the basis of the plans, and pre-war photos, the sculptor-modeler makes figured models in plastic and plaster, i.e. moulds all elements decoration in full scale. Color and molded standards are the initial materials, which serve as a basis for the actual process of the reconstruction of amber details, carried out by the restorers.
By the time the project started we had all illustrative materials digitized. The project was seen as important integral part of the museum's digital policy, allowing it to fulfill the demand for online access to its information resources from Russia and worldwide audience. It serves an information gateway to tell and illustrate the entire process of reconstruction of the Amber Room from the beginning to the end.
Conventional cameras proved to be one of the most indispensable tools, allowing the Tzarskoe Selo Amber Workshop staff photographer to shoot and "process" images on an ongoing basis. These images were digitized, organized and archived on the computer in the form of web gallery As the general outline of the reconstruction process was not designed from the onset to allow documentation of the actual process to be inserted into the program, additional attempts were made to coordinate on-line and on-site documentation. Each time any of the amber panels was changed, detailed visual documentation was generated. Specific goals of this stage of the project were:
Specific goals of the project were:
Stages of the project
The tight timeframe demanded rigorous planning to meet project deadlines. The project is divided into 3 stages:
Funding of the project
Reconstruction the Amber Room began in 1979, and during that 20 years, the project has been financed by the federal budget with $7,754,000. During this time the team of the Tzarskoje Selo Amber Workshop succeeded in reconstructing 30% of the amber decor, but taking into consideration all the preparatory work done in the past two decades, one may estimate the degree of its completion as 60%. During the period of state financing, the last panel was installed in the Amber Room in 1996.
The financing from the federal budget was unstable, therefore the Direction of the State Museum Reserve "Tzarskoe Selo" decided to look for additional sources of financing. An agreement concerning exclusive sponsorship of the reconstruction of the Amber Room was signed on September 6, 1999 by the Ministry for Cultural Affairs of the Russian Federation, the Tzarskoje Selo State Museum , and "Ruhrgas AG". The grant from "Ruhrgas AG" for completing restoration of the Amber Room amounts to US$3.5 million.
Funding for the project on the web was secured through the State Museum Reserve "Tzarskoe Selo" project funds, and the project was undertaken as public relations action to advocate and publicize these events.
Planning and Creating the Content
Soon after the team of the working group was approved, a number of planning meetings were held where the on-site and online aspects of the exhibit were introduced and discussed. Strategies were developed to re-purpose and share information between the Tzarskoe Selo Amber Workshop and Tzarskoe Selo Museum Reserve and apply graphic resources as efficiently as possible. Plans were made to coordinate the work of text writers and designers developing the didactics for the web site. Plans were also set how to put the production contract. This was awarded to CTORSTUDIO. All curatorial and research work was to be done by the museum, all issues concerning web development including strategic web content planning was to be done by the studio and the author of the paper acting on behalf of it. Curators identified details and a timeline for the reconstruction process and key resources related to the history of the Amber Room to ensure consistency in style and form.
The Director of the project together with the Advertisement and Information Department of the Museum were responsible for overall control of the project, the choice of technology and installation. The project manager was responsible for the day-to-day operation, system design, and producing and managing the content.
Because the online exhibition focused upon an ongoing, developing process, the text and images needed to be designed to interpret the events as efficiently as possible and thus provide appropriate dissemination. Two methodologies were developed to address these needs:
curators and conservators identified images and generated text describing the standard steps in restoration and the known history of the work of art itself
the Tzarskoe Selo Amber Workshop offered its assistance in visually documenting the process.
Web site development
The web site needed to run trouble-free on as many browsers and platforms as possible, so versions suitable both for users with Flash plug-in and not having it were created. Advanced version included the features and plug-in content. The site was designed to work with the major browsers version 4 and above. The web site was compiled from the source databases.
The database was used to manage all the data for the system - text, images, and design data. The database and system structure continually developed as the project progressed and particularly as new materials were added. In addition to the object and contextual information, a variety of extra features were added to make the system more entertaining and informative to the user - jigsaw puzzle, search engine, feedback form, and an audio sample on the first page.
1. Overall structure of the web site
The structure of the web site is built to ensure its ease of use. Basically it has two-level structure. It is constructed in the way that ensures explaining the research and reconstruction process that resulted in the restoration of this outstanding monument. It contained the following pages:
To simplify and accelerate the process of web site development the CTORSTUDIO's 'WebNavigation' technology was used to provide optimal way of logical and representation structure definition. Separating process of content delivery from logical structure definition and HTML template design and coding it provided a simple way to change some portions of the web site. It was especially important for updating dynamic part of content and images.
Though contextual links and cross-referencing help visitors to navigate, navigation of the project combines two paradigms: linear and nonlinear (M. Douma, 2000). Linear navigation is used only on the 3rd level; two first levels are subjects of nonlinear navigation. To enhance visitors' experience the menu of the web site was made as a dynamic one. The visitor uses a menu as he clicks on the section and underlying sub-sections are displayed using Macromedia Shockwave (or Flash). This enables transparency of navigation. As for image navigation on the pages, it allows the visitor to view many images and magnify them. One of the most dynamic sections is the section of the site is "the work to reconstruct the Amber Room since 1999" page, which provides users with a sort of virtual journal of the ongoing progress of the project. It contains scanned watercolor images of all walls, which could be archived for further documentation of the project. The reconstructed amber panels and Florentine mosaic are filled with color, those being in progress are black-and-white (fig.2). To facilitate the efficient maintenance and expansion with a minimal amount of additional markup a special template was made. These interactive online materials contributed the popularity of the project.
To walk through reconstruction process exploring its key stages and see it directly on the panels being restored a special template for pipeline photo galleries was also made. Its methodology was designed to expand the visitor's context for the reconstruction by highlighting items such as color and molded standards, technology of working process (four stages), and the methods of processing amber including flat assembling, profile composite carving, figured carving, and internal engraving (intalia). Photo galleries of images can be viewed in sequence, both thumbnails and magnified ones. This creates an effect of a 'pipeline' or viewing conveyor, allowing details of each image to be directly compared. When the visitor points their cursor at a region, a floating description is displayed next to the cursor (fig 3.).
3. Design issues
Sites that target a multicultural audience and should have an international appeal must meet audience expectation of performance art and be aesthetically appealing, especially if the web site is dedicated to a famous art object.
The design of the home page was put out to tender among 6 designers, who finally presented 16 variants of design with 21 variations. As a result of voting in the museum, a basic variant was selected and then turned into dynamic script for Macromedia flash, representing in a visual form all stages of amber processing during reconstruction. Final image in the script serves as a front pages for users having no appropriate plug-in. (fig.4)
4. Jigsaw Puzzle
In this jigsaw puzzle a mosaic panel is split into 49 pieces, while the real mosaic consists of more than 800 pieces. Pieces can be moved, rotated, if a piece matches its position, it will add on to the puzzle. A 'Hint' function allows players to look at the assembled mosaic. The number of times you may use 'Hint' is limited to five. 'Mix' causes the pieces of the mosaic to be randomly placed ready to put back together. 'Assemble' causes the jigsaw puzzle to be assembled automatically. 'Help' provides detailed instruction how to play (fig.5)
This creative element serves as a power in the visitor remembering and learning through experience. The puzzle should carry out not only entertaining, but also educational functions. Therefore algorithm of action of puzzle is designed by a principle "from simple - to complex".
There were 2 main technologies used during this web site creation:
WebNavigation allows us to simplify and speed up the process of web site creation by providing a rapid way of defining logical and display structure. It allows dynamic definition and redefinition of the logical structure and templates used on a site. By separating the process of the content delivery from the logical structure definition and HTML-templates design and coding, it can provide a simple way to change some portions of the website without additional work. This is especially helpful during the dynamic site updates.
WebNavigation used on "The Amber Room" website is upgraded with additional modules that customize the site behavior relying on a user browser capabilities. e.g., if a user doesn't have a Macromedia Flash plugin 4.0+ installed on his computer, an equivalent version without Flash add-ons will be loaded, with a small lack of presentation but none in functionality (fig.6).
The architecture of the WebNavigation is shown in fig.6.
At first, the user generates a request for a specific page. This page does not exist as a static object on a server, so web server forwards the request to the WebNavigation (control flow #1). WebNavigation analyses the forwarded request and chooses a presentation template to be used (control flow #2) and the content to be delivered (control flow #3). The template can contain presentation information, such a design used on a page, and navigation linking information, such as information about where and how the navigation links should be inserted. Content can be handled either as a static data or as dynamic requests from the external data sources, such a database.
After these steps, template and content are combined together using special commands, inserted in the template and forwarded to the web server (control flow #4) in case of adding special information, such HTTP headers, or performing additional processing for this page (thus can be applying XSL stylesheet to an XML data, for example). The final generated page with the according HTTP headers and other information is delivered to the user.
As it was mentioned above, Macromedia Flash was used to create the "Florence mosaic: Touch and Smell" jigsaw puzzle online game. Also Flash was used by its presentation capabilities to give the end user attractive visual effects.
Estimation of the efficiency of the web solution and concept will include:
We have presented the solution that we have provided in web site for the Amber Room web site. The project combines multimedia and cutting edge technology with well-prepared and well-managed content for a global audience, which allows to capture information about ongoing reconstruction process and provide both documentation and interpretation/diffusion features. It deals with cultural and historical implications of current day of the famous monument, enabled through communication between the Museum and its audience. The project which is still in progress, strongly supports museum mission and helps to promote the Tzarskoe Selo Amber Workshop as a center for excellence carrying out restoration and conservation of objects from amber.
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