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Published: March 15, 2001.


Augmenting On-line Exhibitions: Building a Multimedia Knowledge Repository: Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality on

Randall Packer, University of Maryland,USA


This paper focuses on the creation of a knowledge base that provides educational support for museum exhibitions in the hypermedia environment. The subject of this report is "Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality," a project commissioned by and created by multimedia artist and historian Randall Packer. The site explores the broad historical trajectory in the arts and sciences that has converged as multimedia, providing a critical foundation of media history, aesthetic inquiry, and social critique that enriches the viewer's visit to "Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality" embraces the dynamics of multimedia in its study of the medium, providing the on-line visitor with a better understanding of the language of media, the complexity of non-sequential learning and exploration, and new ways of thinking about essential concepts of media such as interactivity, immersion, hypermedia, integration and narrativity. The site's contents, which include a timeline of multimedia's pioneers, an illustrated historical narrative of multimedia, and in-depth studies of the creative work of seminal artists and scientists, serves as a knowledge base that provides historical and theoretical context for several of's exhibitions that showcase media art. A section devoted to using the site in the classroom, from which teachers can derive presentations, enrich on-line syllabi with links, and give students research assignments, becomes a model and educational tool for both students and teachers - guiding them in the use of and how it extends itself into the classroom. The paper will include a detailed explanation of the specific educational objectives of the site, its integration with exhibitions, and how it is being prototyped in digital arts curriculum, notably Randall Packer's courses at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore.

This project is part of a larger hybrid-publishing project, which includes the book of the same name, co-edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan and published by W.W. Norton for April 2001.

Historical Background

Vannevar Bush, in his famous treatise from 1945, "As We May Think," declared that some day the world's "cultural record," as he described it, would be accessible to all of mankind. Despite the fact that the first electronic digital computer (ENIAC) was just completed that year, a hulking, non-programmable device that took up 18,000 square feet, Bush foresaw a miniaturized information workstation that he dubbed "Memex" as the future of how knowledge workers would some day store, access, and retrieve information.

Bush was so far ahead of his time that his Memex was conceived to operate as a microfilm reader, the technology of his day; it would take many technological strides before the information workstation would be based on digitally stored 1's and 0's. Nevertheless, it was here that Bush conceived the notion of indexed information that could be linked associatively, a formidable breakthrough that would lead to the concept of the hyperlink. But even more importantly, Bush's groundbreaking ideas guided many generations of scientists, engineers and scholars in diverse fields to pursue an effective means of storing large quantities of data, as well as suggesting that some day there would exist a system for easily creating and organizing information in its various forms. These individuals included Ted Nelson, whose own concept of Xanadu, a revolutionary new system for publishing and accessing digital information. preceded the Web by over twenty years; Douglas Engelbart, whose invention of the mouse and other essential information technologies during the 1960s enabled him to realize his dream to facilitate collaboration teams or communities of knowledge workers with the tools for boosting the "collective IQ; and J.C.R. Licklider, director of ARPA during the 1960s and guiding light behind the formation of the Internet, who imagined a symbiosis between man and computer, inspiring many scientists to think about the possibilities of human-computer interactivity.

Eventually, with the widespread use of the World Wide Web, Bush's dream of a vast information space became a reality, and it was only a few short years before countless institutions, from museums to libraries to government agencies, began to publish the global cultural record he envisioned.

The Knowledge Repository

Bush, Nelson, Engelbart, and Licklider, long before the Web, felt that the widespread creation of an information network would lead to digital libraries and collective repositories of Knowledge. They envisioned that these knowledge bases would result in any number of applications, from Engelbart's "community handbooks," living, dynamic collections of shared data documenting the changing policies of an institution, to Nelson's Xanadu, where writers could deposit their intellectual property and receive royalties every time the public accessed a work from anywhere in the world. Engelbart and Nelson could not have imagined how dramatically their ideas would be adopted. Although history did not exactly imitate their vision, it is now a fact that institutions all over the world are creating repositories of cultural information, scientific research, and commodity space that truly boggle the imagination. Who could have imagined that virtually every museum in the world would someday have a Web site containing some portion of their collection on-line, generating an extraordinary database of artworks accessible to anyone with a personal computer and a modem? Projects such as AMICO ( have attempted to take advantage of this widespread digitalization of intellectual property by creating a higher level system of access and organization.

It suffices to say that repositories of information are increasingly becoming the valuable cultural resource foreseen by Bush. Once a repository is put into place by a museum, a university, or network of universities, this repository becomes the resource of any individual or institution that incorporates it into its own applications. With the ease of hyperlinking, it is possible to build interactive educational materials that seamlessly link to any number of repositories that provide relevant and related information.

Overview of the Site

Inspired by Bush's notion of the knowledge base, I created a site for Intel's, entitled "Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality". In this project, I organized over ten years of research in the history of multimedia, including rare and often unknown analysis and documentation on pioneering artists and scientists whose work was seminal to the evolution of the digital medium. The project was created in association with W.W. Norton, publisher of the book of the same title (to be released this spring), and the other half of this hybrid publishing project that joins print with the World Wide Web.

The site is organized into four main parts: (1) Overture, a hyperlinked narrative that overviews the history of the medium: its themes, pioneers, and the essential paradigms that underscore the intersection between the arts and sciences; (2) Pioneers, a chronological, interactive timeline that focuses on the medium's pioneers and the concepts that inspired their artistic and technological work; (3) Concepts, the conceptual framework of ideas and paradigms and how they emanate from five essential underlying concepts: integration, interactivity, hypermedia, immersion, and narrativity; (4) In Depth, an archive of documentation profiling five leading pioneers in the arts and sciences drawn from the timeline.

Educational Objectives

"Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality" was commissioned by Intel's and their Arts and Education program. The purpose of the site is to function as an educational resource on the history of art and technology, critical to their mission to support and develop on-line museum exhibitions, many of which have focused on contemporary media art. These exhibitions include the Bill Viola Retrospective, Refresh (on-line screensavers), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's recent 010101: Art in Technological Times.

The site is specifically designed to allow viewers the opportunity to explore how the work of Bill Viola, for example, fits into the larger historical context, noting his artistic influences and mentors, including Nam June Paik and John Cage. It also broadens the viewer's knowledge of the key concepts that underlie the work of media artists. For example, it discusses Viola's concept of "dataspace," and how this idea has evolved in the work of both artists and scientists. It is possible to hyperlink from 'dataspace' in the Concepts section to the many related ideas that reveal the shifts in narrativity as a result of new media technologies. One could also travel from Viola, to the work of such seminal engineers like Billy Klüver, who in the 1960s pioneered many of the earliest works of art and technology by artists such as Cage, Rauschenberg, Tinguely, Warhol, and Johns, many of whom were highly influential on Viola and the emerging media artists of his generation.

In 010101, a very forward-looking exhibition of art and technology, "Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality," reveals the historical precedents for the changing aspects of art, the individual, and society, the subject of this show. It is surprising to many, however, including the artists working in the new media, to discover that early 20th Century artists, such as the Futurists, were envisioning similar social, political, and artistic transformations through the incorporation of the technology of their day. At the time of the Futurists, the medium was cinema; their Manifesto, "The Future of "Cinema," is an important historical precedent for the way information technologies have become the catalysts of change today.

Current and Future Implementation

We have just completed the first phase of the project, which was to build this site detailing the history of multimedia. But we are still only scratching the surface of how a repository of information can serve as the foundation for a variety of educational applications.

One of these applications is distance learning. Currently, I teach the history, theory and practice of multimedia at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. I am currently using the site as a repository for my courses, linking to specific topics according to my syllabus. In fact, I am using an on-line syllabus that allows me to link directly into the site for the purpose of giving classroom presentations, particularly since the site itself was specifically designed with this in mind. Furthermore, students are able to use the syllabus and its links into the site for their own research and study.

Since this is such a new area, there are relatively few texts available on the subject, and unfortunately, they become too quickly outdated. With "Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality," the extensibility and changeability of the site affords the unique opportunity to maintain it as a dynamic, living document on the history of art and technology, keeping it relevant and useful as a resource for academics working on the leading edge of the field.

Additional educational components for the site are planned to provide teachers, with templates for organizing their own syllabi, as many them are creating new curricula, programs and departments around the burgeoning new field of the interactive media arts. These templates will provide professors with effective educational materials that will serve as essential tools for their teaching.

Additionally, we are exploring opportunities for distance learning through the creation of a prototypical on-line course on the history of art and technology to maximize the educational and exhibition resources of


In the spirit of Vannevar Bush's dream of the "cultural record," our efforts attempt to achieve these results through the creation of specific educational resources that make available to the public a vast repository of materials and resources that can be used freely and openly by scholars, artists, scientists, and general audiences exploring the genesis of multimedia. It may appear an idealistic notion, but it is in fact the world that Bush envisioned. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web, intended that it be used without commercial or government restriction. While he is still fighting that battle, his dream, as inspired by his predecessors, has made it possible for such projects as ours to heighten the collective knowledge of audiences all over the world by expanding on the 'cultural record.'

References Sponsored by Intel Corporation.

Bush, Vannevar 1945. "As We May Think," Atlantic Monthly, July 1945 The Atlantic Online, Digital Edition. (

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Art In Technological Times.