Virtual communities have become increasingly popular
for the general public, using electronic mailing lists, newsgroups,
WWeb-based forums, chat rooms, etc. However, it appears that online
forums are not well integrated into the sphere of museums. Curators
have therefore not capitalized on widening their mandate and engaging
visitors as well as museum professionals themselves in effective online
This paper presents a survey of existing museum-related
forums available for discussion by museum professionals and the general
public with an interest in museums. Some of the software and facilities
available to museums for the establishment and maintenance of mailing
lists, WWeb-based discussion forums and more innovative service like
WWeb logs, often freely available, are also explored. A museum discussion
forum facility has been implemented experimentally (see under http://forums.museophile.net) using open
source software. As well as local forums, this integrates topical information
of interest to museum personnel from a wide range of online sources.
Finally, some thoughts for the future are discussed.
The first electronic communities were set up using
bulletin board systems (BBS) available on individual computers accessible
directly via dial-up modems (Robson, 2001a). Christensen & Seuss
(1978) reported their development of the first BBS that went live in
1979 in Chicago. Electronic mail had
been invented some years before in 1972 by Ray Tomlinson of Bolt Beranek
and Newmann (BBN) between two PDP-10
computers (Robson, 2001b). This led to the possibility of electronic
mailing lists on the Internet where posting to a single email address
resulted in distribution to a number of subscriber email addresses that
could be added and deleted dynamically as required. This developed into
more sophisticated systems such as the popular LISTSERV software (http://www.lsoft.com)
that allow many options for email list management, like "moderation
by a human editor to ensure relevance of messages.
Mailing lists work well for small communities (say up
to several thousand), but beyond that they start to become inefficient
since they rely on messages being sent to every subscriber's mailbox.
Usenet was developed
to allow access to and posting of messages (or 'articles') by large
numbers of people via globally distributed 'newsgroups' in a large number
of subject areas (Hauben, 2001). Tom Truscott of Duke University developed
this system initially after a summer working at Bell Laboratories in
1979. Originally Usenet messages were distributed via modems and telephone
lines, but the Network
News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) created in 1986 allowed direct transfer
on the Internet. Usenet messages were and still are stored on individual
computers typically with a good Internet connection that can be accessed
by local subscribers as desired. Nearly all universities, large companies
and major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have their own newsgroup
server that typically includes a number of local newsgroups as well
globally available groups. Access is normally limited to authorized
As digital electronic communication has improved, more
and more virtual communities have been formed (Rheingold, 2000). One
of the best known is the WELL, originally accessible as a BBS and now
available via a WWeb site (http://www.well.com). This has acted as a support
group for health issues, for example, where the very nature of the form
of communication may make people more open. It also makes it more likely
that others with similar interests and problems can be found because
geography is no longer a limiting factor. Recently a number of books
on forming virtual communities have been published; for example, see
Kim (2000) and Powazek (2001). It should be noted that social issues
are as important as technical issues when developing a virtual community
(Preece, 2000). Recent books on using the WWeb effectively include guidance
on joining virtual WWeb-based communities such as mailing lists, discussion
forums, newsgroup and chat rooms; e.g., see Lehnert (2003).
The systems described so far allow asynchronous communication
where the interacting parties do not need to be connected at the same
time. This has the advantage of allowing people to participate when
it is convenient for them, that a permanent record of the discourse
can be conveniently retained and that only a relatively low-speed network
connection is required. An alternative and increasingly popular form
of interaction on the Internet is synchronous communication where all
parties involved must participate at the same time. This may be using
text typed on a keyboard (possible with low-speed network access) or
using voice and possibly video (requiring a higher speed "broadband"
connection for good quality).
Web-based chat rooms (using Java applet technology for
example) are available for multi-way communication between several people.
Chat room facilities are available from ICQ (http://web.icq.com/icqchat),
Microsoft MSN (http://chat.msn.com)
and Yahoo Chat (http://chat.yahoo.com),
for example. Such systems are currently typically used for trivial recreational
purposes and have been largely unexplored by museums so far. ICQ does
include a Chat Room specifically for discussion of museums and theatres,
but this does not seem to be very active at present.
Most museums have a community of visitors, perhaps even
formalized as a group of friends of the museum. The possibility of building
a similar group of virtual visitors has not been explored by most museums.
It may be possible to collect email address of those with an interest
in a particular museum as a starting point. McKenzie (1997) suggests
using a virtual museum as a good basis for partnering with schools and
thus building an educational virtual museum community. In any case,
most museums have yet to establish serious virtual communities in any
Web technology provides the medium for a virtual public
forum although it is important to keep up with technical and social
developments (Mason, 2002). Computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems
like electronic mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, etc., can produce,
if recorded, large amounts of activity records which can be used to
analyze and visualize the social networks that are formed during these
activities. Analysis of newsgroups, for example, can identify subgroups
that form discussions, and it is possible to use visual techniques to
help in searching for leading authors and important articles (Chin-Lung
Chang et al., 2002).
Virtual museum visitors already form a community, but
one where interaction between them is still difficult. If two visitors
happen to be viewing an object online at the same time, currently they
are normally unaware of each other. Thus visiting museums online is
a relatively lonely experience. There have been various surveys on virtual
museum visitors. Futers (1997) reports on visitors to the Virtual Library
museums pages (http://icom.museum/vlmp).
This was based on a questionnaire and results collected for a project
on a Museum Studies MSc course by Rachel Reynolds at the University
of Leicester in the UK. Chadwick & Bovery (1999) studied the characteristics
and patterns of behavior of virtual visitors. Most (about 70%) are lone
visitors, unlike visitors to real museums. Bernier (2002) provides a
survey of selected museum Web sites visited by French users and suggests,
amongst other things, that museum staff should be more accessible to
online visitors. Despite the increasingly available discussion forum
facilities, it is often an aspect of the Internet that is not considered
by museums; e.g., see Gander & Melling (2002) where email is considered,
but more multi-user oriented mechanisms for communication are not.
As well as surveys of virtual visitors, there have also
been surveys of museum Web sites. For example, see Bowen (1999) for
a general survey of 986 museum Web sites from 26 countries and Micheloni
(2002) which includes a survey of museum Web sites with accessibility
in mind, an increasingly import aspect as legislation progressively
mandates improved disabled access for public facilities, both real and
virtual. Museums should be as inclusive as they can in the communities
they consider serving, both with respect to physical and online facilities.
The Altered Image Museums Group (2002) provide a recent survey considering
online museum exhibits. Bernier & Bowen (2003) have surveyed online
discussion forums for museum professionals. However online museum communities
for visitors have yet to be seriously developed or investigated.
In this paper we survey existing electronic mailing lists,
newsgroups, Web forums, news sources and Web logs (for online journal-style
recording), especially in the context of museum personnel. We then present
a possible solution to aggregating the disparate sources of topical
online information available and consider possible future directions.
Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses
not intellect but memory.
(Leonardo DaVinci 1452-1519)
Many museum organizations run mailing lists to maintain
contact with their members. For example, the International Council of
Museums (ICOM - http://www.icom.org) maintains a discussion list
focused on issues directly relevant to ICOM and "archived on the same
Web server as MUSEUM-L (http://home.ease.lsoft.com/archives/icom-l.html).
More specialist lists allow smaller numbers of globally
distributed people to discuss focused museum-related issues. One of
the largest of these is Cons DistList, the conservation distribution
list for discussion on all aspects of museum, library and archive conservation,
with electronic archives of messages impressively dating back to as
far as 1987 (http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byform/mailing-lists/cdl).
This is part of the Conservation
OnLine (CoOL) resources for conservation professionals provided
by Stanford University.
Webhead is aimed at discussion relating specifically to
science exhibitions (http://www.escribe.com/science/webhead).
A more informational resource is the Museum Security Network on reports
of cultural property incidents (http://www.museum-security.org/artcrime.html).
This allows timely distribution of information on crime committed against
museums and galleries.
In summary, there are a number of electronic mailing lists
aimed at museum professionals (e.g., CHILDMUS,
H-MUSEUM, MCG, MUSEUM-L, MUSWEB-L, RESOURCENEWS, VSMUS and WEBHEAD-L). More information on these and
further mailing lists for museum professionals can be found elsewhere
(Bernier & Bowen, 2002a&b; Bernier & Bowen, 2003). A useful
set of links to mailing lists on archives, records management, museums
and related subjects is available online listed by subject and country
This includes a questionnaire for the submission of further lists. ICOM
also maintains a useful resource on museum-related discussion lists,
distribution lists and forums under various categories (http://icom.museum/mus_dist_list.html).
An up-to-date alphabetical index of mailing lists, Web boards and newsgroups
about museums and conservation is available from the District Museum
in Sibenik, Croatia (in English!) with subscription information, including
126 examples of such Internet communities at the time of writing (http://public.srce.hr/muzej_sibenik/muslists.html).
There appear to be hundreds of museum-related mailing lists, many of
which are quite specialized. Finding such mailing lists is quite difficult,
although it is hoped that the pointers included here will be a helpful
starting point to some readers.
Although newsgroups, as introduced at the start of this
paper, are very popular with expert users of the Internet, they have
not made as much impact on newer Internet users as electronic mail and
the World Wide Web. They are an excellent mechanism for distributing
messages worldwide on the Internet to a targeted readership who have
typically expressed an interest in particular topics addressed by individual
newsgroups by selectively subscribing to a small number of them. However,
newsgroups have yet to be discovered or used by many museum personnel,
certainly in comparison to mailing lists. There are literally hundreds
of museum-related mailing lists, but only a handful of newsgroups aimed
at those with an interest in museums, despite the fact that there are
around a hundred thousand different newsgroups extant on the Internet.
Newsgroups were originally accessible via special newsreader
programs where the user
subscribed to groups of interest. This is now integrated
into Web browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape by specifying
"news:" followed by the name of a news server and/or the desired newsgroup
instead of a standard Web address. A default news server can be specified
on most Web browsers. However this depends on access to a news server,
which normally requires authorization of some sort. These are normally
available within universities and some companies, but are much less common
in museums. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) often provide access, although
they do not tend to promote this strongly.
There are also Web sites that provide Web gateways to
Usenet newsgroups, and this is often the most convenient method of access
although there may be a charge. As mentioned previously, probably the
leading site for free access is provided by Google (http://groups.google.com).
This includes excellent and fast searching facilities and allows posting
of messages to newsgroups as well as reading if the user is registered
with the site. For example, it is easy to search for articles containing
the keyword "museum" sorted by date with the most recent messages displayed
It is also possible to link to a specific newsgroup although there are
not many that are directly relevant to museums, and those that are tend
not to be as active as museum-related mailing lists. For example, the
uk.culture.museums UK oriented newsgroup on museums can be viewed
In summary, there are a number of newsgroups that are
relevant to museum personnel (e.g., bit.listserv.museum-l,
However, museums have not embraced newsgroups in the same way that they
have used mailing lists. This may be partly because the process to set
up a new newsgroup is quite involved, requiring a formal online vote
in most cases, as announced under the news.announce.newgroups
newsgroup. It also requires some technical expertise and knowledge of
Internet culture, typically available in university computer support
services that have had Internet access for decades, for example, but
not at most museums.
More use of newsgroups could be made by museum personnel
for discussion and queries, but the existing mailing list infrastructure
established by museums and the advent of the Web probably mean this
opportunity will never become a widespread reality. Despite this, readers
who have not tried newsgroups are encouraged to use the Google
Groups interface to explore what is being discussed in their field
by typing a relevant keyword or two into the search box. Of course much
of the discussion is not very high-level, sometimes disintegrating into
heated arguments colloquially known as "flame wars" where not much worthwhile
information is exchanged, but if more professionals participate, the
quality of discussion could be improved.
With the advent of the Web, many discussion forums that
previously used other technologies are now using Web based interfaces,
and many new forums have been established. In particular, software is
increasingly available to install messaging systems on Web sites relatively
easily (of which more later). As an example, see the Snitz Forums 2000
community (http://forum.snitz.com) where such software
is under continuous development in the form of freeware. For a culturally
related Web site using this software, see the AboutBritain.com website
One of the most successful and high-profile uses of an
interactive forum in the museum world has been the Tate Britain" s "Judge for Yourself" ,
Turner Prize 2002
Discussion Forums (http://www.tate.org.uk/judgeforyourself),
allowing the general public to discuss the UK" s leading contemporary
visual arts prize. The forums were closed for posting not long after
the prize was awarded, but are still available for perusal at the time
of writing. The following initial questions were put forward as individual
forums to provoke discussion (the first one after the winner was announced,
the rest beforehand):
Individual threads were defined by different topics in
subject headings. Users could reply to existing messages or create a
new thread. The more popular forums tended to have more messages per
thread, although apart from two forums, the number of messages per thread
was remarkably consistent across different forums. Overall, 464 messages
were posted in 71 different threads (and 6 forums), with an average
of 6.5 messages per thread and 77.3 messages per forum over a period
of about two months. The forums were officially launched on 30 October
2002 (on the same day as the opening of the exhibition, although the
forums were available online for a short while before that date) and
were active until the end of December 2002. The Turner Prize winner,
Tyson, was announced on 8 December 2002.
Contributions to the forums were made to the discussion
by gallery staff (clearly indicated with a blue "TATE" label)
as well as the general public who could register with the site if they
wished to actively participate. Once registered, further contributions
could be made under the same username, with simple password protection.
A facility was included to track individual forums by email as well
as being able to read all forums online. Each registered user was allocated
a simple Web page including name and email address (both potentially
hidden from other users if desired), registration date, occupation,
town/city, Web site address, number of messages posted, and hyperlinks
to recent messages by subject, forum and date posted. Users could also
select viewing preferences such as threads (by subject heading) per
forum listing, messages per thread listing and time zone as well as
profile options to control the visibility of the name and email address
to other users. The forums are also searchable by keyword term, category
of forum (default all categories), date range (default all dates) and
username, with a user-selectable number of results on each page (10,
15 or 30). Overall, this seems to be a successful use of a discussion
forum by a museum, probably because of the high profile nature of both
the Tate and the Turner Prize.
For an example of a smaller museum that has implemented
a forums system on their Web site, see the Kew Bridge Steam Museum located
in west London, UK (http://www.kbsm.org/forums).
This museum has used the commercially available UltraBoard 2000 customizable
Web based bulletin board system from UltraScripts.com, Inc. (http://www.ultrascripts.com). The main
active "board" is used to post museum news. The other boards cover discussion
on steam events, steam exchange (a "virtual marketplace" ), research
and questions, clubs and societies and a catchall "off topic" board
for everything else. Anyone can read messages, but it is necessary to
register to post messages. However, these forums have yet to really
take off in practice in terms io participation. For a successful forum
Web site, there must be a critical mass of users willing to post to
the forums on a reasonably regular basis. This may be difficult to achieve
based around a single museum unless it is of national or international
Another smaller museum, the Spellman Museum of Stamps
& Postal History at Regis College, Weston, Massachusetts has a well-signposted
forum on its Web site (http://www.spellman.org/forum.php3).
Again, activity seems to be very low at the moment, but basing a forum
around a hobby could increase interest in it with suitable publicity.
As an example of a national museum-related organization,
the UK Art Fund provides
some online forums (http://www.artfund.org/ubb/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi).
They are "powered by Ultimate Bulletin Board (UBBTM) from
Infopop Corporation (http://www.infopop.com) which itself runs its
own very active general community forums Web site (http://community.infopop.net). Again,
although the Art Fund is a national body, there are not enough active
contributors to make any significant and ongoing discussion possible
on the Web site so far, although there are postings dating back to 2001.
More publicity could be helpful. For example, it is not even obvious
that there is a forums section on the Art Fund" s homepage where the
forums section is two hyperlinks away via a not-so-obvious link in a
hidden menu marked "your say" . In addition, the Web address for the
forums section is not very friendly for linking. A Web location named
http://ww.artfund.org/forums, for example, would encourage external
hyperlinks that could attract more visitors.
Universities typically have good access to technical expertise
for installing facilities like Web based forums at low cost. For example,
at Curtain University of Technology in Australia, the Division of Humanities
has a discussion forums service including one on cultural heritage that
includes messages concerning museum activities such as conferences (http://blah.curtin.edu.au/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=forum&f=4).
However there are not many messages in this forum and it has not reached
a critical mass in practice.
It may be that completely virtual online museums can sustain
a community of discussion forum users better than a physical museum.
Such a museum has no geographical boundaries, and the average visitor
to a virtual museum site may be more au fait with Internet technology
in any case. For example, the online Museum
of Fine Art has a well signposted forums facility on its Web site
At the time of writing, this virtual museum forums area has 118 members
with 2937 posts in 84 topics. This is a reasonable number and could
be deemed a successful example of the use of an online discussion forum.
The system used is IkonBoard (http://www.ikonboard.com).
As well is being able to post public messages, each user also has a
personal message area.
a museum gateway Web site, provides links to discussion list resources
aimed at museum professionals, although as yet these are not very extensive
(with only 10 links at the time of writing) or even in some cases very
It includes a link to the CharityChannel
Web site forums area for the voluntary sector that could be of interest
to some museum personnel" (http://charitychannel.com/resources/forums).
More generally, the ezboard online network community
Web site allows users to create their own discussion group (http://www.ezboard.com). This is supported
by advertising, although ads can be removed for a small annual charge.
This includes an Art Network Web site with eight forums (http://server2.ezboard.com/bart). The
Google Directory includes a section with further links to arts-related
forums and chat rooms (http://directory.google.com/Top/Arts/Directories/Chats_and_Forums).
The Forum Find Web site, ezboard" s forum searching
resource, claims to be the Internet" s largest community network (http://www.forumfind.com). It is possible
to search the site by keyword, to discover museum-related forums, for
example, ordered by criteria such as popularity (http://www.forumfind.com/search.php?Terms=museum).
Perhaps one of the simplest free bulletin board Web sites
is QuickTopic (http://www.quicktopic.com).
A new message board can be set up in minutes; for example, see one on
Messages can be received by email as well as being read online. Delphi
Forums is another general Web forums site (http://www.delphiforums.com).
This includes keyword search facilities, and searching for "museum"
reveals an active site with some worthwhile messages. General use of
the site is free, but creating new forums requires registration and
a fee of about $5 per month.
Online forums certainly provide interesting potential
for a new way of performing collaborative activities where a participant" s
time zone and geographic location do not present significant barriers,
although they can sometimes result in the miscommunication of information
(Kanuka & Anderson, 1998). The Google Directory provides hyperlinks
to a selection of further general online communities (http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Internet/Cyberspace/Online_Communities)
and also to online message boards providing Web based discussion forum
The man who reads nothing at all is better educated
than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. Thomas Jefferson
As well as discussion forums, news is available from a
variety of sources. In a museums context, the 24 Hour Museum, the UK" s
National Virtual Museum, provides regular news stories concerning museums
Other more general news services can be used to search for items relating
to museums. For example, the BBC provides Web based news that is searchable
by keyword (http://newssearch.bbc.co.uk/cgi-bin/results.pl?tab=news&scope=news&q=museum).
The well-known search engine company Google (http://www.google.com), as well as providing
what is widely considered the foremost Web searching facilities, also
gives access to a wide range of news sources in a timely manner (http://news.google.com). The problem with search
engines is that they only scan the Web periodically so any information
presented is typically weeks or months out of date. By explicitly scanning
known news sources much more often, it is possible to provide a view
of a limited set of resources in a much more timely manner so it is
only minutes or hours old. Google News scans over 4,000 continuously
updated feeds from news agencies (such as Reuters - http://reuters.com),
newspapers around the world, magazines, etc. It is possible to search
these for specific keywords, as it is with standard Web search engines;
for example, "museum" (http://news.google.com/news?q=museum),
ordered by relevance (as judged by Google) by default. Alternatively,
the most recent news items (typically only a few minutes old even when
searching for stories specifically about museums) can be displayed first
by requesting links to the articles to be presented in reverse date
It is possible to undertake more specific searches. For example, stories
with "museum" in the subject title can be selected (http://news.google.com/news?q=insubject:museum).
In the UK, NewsNow (http://www.newsnow.co.uk)
provides a similar service but with a different set of news feeds. Again
it is possible to search for recent museum-related news items (http://www.newsnow.co.uk/cgi/NewsNow/NewsNow.htm?Search=museum).
Moreover Technologies (http://w.moreover.com)
provides real-time news and business information from other 4,500 sources.
These can be customized for individual customers for inclusion on theirWeb
sites for example. News feeds are made available via RDF Site Summary
(RSS - http://web.resource.org/rss) technology,
an XML (eXtensible Markup Language - http://www.w3.org/XML)
document format that is one building block for the "Semantic Web" (Berners-Lee
et al., 2001 & 2002). Moreover Technologies provide a number
of publicly accessible RSS news feeds. For example, see one on museum
Note that the RSS format is not intended to be read directly, but rather
is meant to be regularly processed, typically for inclusion on a Web
page. Moreover Technologies provide their RSS feeds as standard Web
pages as well; for example, the RSS museum news feed above is available
in HTML format suitable for direct display in a Web browser (http://p.moreover.com/cgi-local/page?feed=265).
provides searching across an impressive 14,600 news sites (and also "Web logs" - see the next section). A search for the keyword "museum"
is possible; for example, (http://www.daypop.com/search?q=museum).
This search facility is available as a dynamically generated RSS feed
as well which could be used to integrate the information into another
Web site using suitable software that is becoming increasingly widely
There are quite a number of RSS news feeds available now.
To find them, a number of "syndication" services are available where
a new feed can be registered and approved, having been checked for validity,
etc. For example, see Syndic8.com (http://www.syndic8.com).
This is the place to visit in order to find syndicated news feeds on
a wide variety of topics. The site is searchable using keywords like
As yet there is not much from which to choose in the way of museum-related
news feeds, but larger museums could find this a good way to disseminate
recent information about their museums in a timely manner.
Facilities are available for custom syndication of news
sources. For example, NewsKnowledge collects news from more than 2,400
sources and in more than 20 different languages, with updates of news
feeds scheduled every 15 minutes (http://www.newsknowledge.com).
These sources can be scanned using keywords and combined to form a single
news feed, potentially for use on another Web site. It is possible to
try the facilities free, but there is a charge to have the news feed
Some initiatives of interest to the museum community do
already provide their own news feeds online. For example, the Dublin
Core Website (http://www.dublincore.org)
includes such a feed (http://www.dublincore.org/news.rss).
However this technology has yet to be harnessed in any significant way
by the museum community in general. Overall there are not yet many news
feeds directly relevant to museum personnel and available online. There
are also not many museums using this technology to provide news feeds
on developments at their museum. This is a technology that larger museums
should be considering now if they are not already doing so, both in
terms of gathering relevant news and providing topical information.
It is certainly an excellent way to help increase the dynamic aspects
of a Web site, and important to increase repeat visits by users.
Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to
record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in. Amy
An interesting development is the use of Web logging
software or "blogging" which allows people to create Web content in
the form of a journal, typically via a simple Web interface and including
date information automatically. Carver (2003) discusses the use of Web
logging in the context of libraries, some of which may be relevant to
museum personnel. Gateshead public libraries in the UK (http://www.gateshead.gov.uk/libraries)
provide what they claim to be the first library Web log in the UK (http://refdesk.Weblogger.com)
using content management facilities from Weblogger (http://www.Weblogger.com)
who charge from $80 per year. Alternatively, BLOGGER provides an easy-to-use
tool, including free and paid versions, together with various hosting
options (http://www.blogger.com). BLOGGER
providse an associated Web log hosting site called blog*spot
A Web log can be set up in minutes (e.g., see http://museophile.blogspot.com).
Web site, as previously mentioned, indexes a wide range of Web logs
as well as news sites. It is possible to search across the Web log sites
specifically using the keyword "museum" for example (http://www.daypop.com/search?q=museum&t=w).
There is no obvious participation from real museums so far.
A "Web log" or "blog" could be used to collect and categorize
information about a museum" s collection in a manner that is access
to other museum personnel who could add further information and comments
as desired. An important aspect of Web logs is simplicity of use that
should help increase use by those who are find computer technology inaccessible.
Many very active Web log communities now exist; e.g., see a collection
of links including ordered by the time of last update (http://www.Weblogs.com)
and Blog-City.com where users can set up a free Web log or pay a low
$2 per month fee for improved facilities (http://www.blog-city.com).
The Google Directory includes a good set of links concerning
Web logs including library
and information science, science
and culture, and also (some free) software tools
However, there seems to be nothing yet specifically relating to museums.
The online Weblogs Compendium is another useful resource (http://www.lights.com/Weblogs).
Web logs have significant untapped potential for building a community
feel to and increased interactive involvement in museum Web sites. It
is recommended that museum Web masters investigate and consider their
Currently much of the content for museum discussion forums
is distributed around the Internet in a rather inaccessible manner than
is difficult to find, as presented in the first half of this paper.
A useful facility could be a to provide a single gateway Web site where
many of these resources are gathered together in one location. As an
experiment, such a Website has been established by Museophile Limited
as part of a project with South Bank University, London (http://forums.museophile.net).
Figure 1 shows the homepage
Figure 1. The Museophile discussion
forums home page.
This Web site has two major features: local forums and
a selection of external mailing list, newsgroup and news feeds from
other sites. Locally, there are a number of forums split into named
sections that visitors can peruse. These currently include:
- informational messages;
galleries - messages specifically relevant to art museums;
- announcements of forthcoming conferences;
- general discussion that does not fit into any other category;
- announcements of forthcoming events;
- messages of general interest about museum-related topics;
Jobs - employment
opportunities, links to Web sites, etc.;
- messages concerning the Museophile Web site;
- information relevant to and about museums;
News - topical
column - articles from a column in New
VLmp - announcements
concerning the Virtual
Library museums pages;
- pointers to interesting museum-related Web sites.
This list could easily be expanded or amended at any time.
It is also possible for visitors to post items to these sections and
to add comments to existing items. The user can undertake a keyword
across these sections
and also within a particular section. Other facilities include polls
for voting on questions and diaries (like Web logs) by individual users.
It is worthwhile for anyone making extensive use of this
site to register a new user account.
This only requires selection of a username and the provision of a working
email address. Information is posted to the email address to allow the
user to log into the site, after which a new password may be selected
and further information provided if desired. While it is possible to
browse and even post items without a user account, extra facilities
are available to those with such an account. For example, any items
posted will be identified with the user and it is also possible to maintain
a personal "diary" of messages if desired.
Perhaps the most useful feature for registered users is
the ability to personalize the home page of the Museophile discussion
forums Web site. Normally, a selection of the most recent messages posted
on forums is displayed. As well as selecting these items, registered
users can also select from a wide range of feeds from external mailing
lists, newsgroups and news sources relevant to museums as discussed
earlier in this paper. Currently over sixty sources are available, and
others can relatively easily be added (and suggested by users). When
a particular feed is selected by a user, links to the most recent items
available from that source are displayed in a list on the right-hand
side of the Museophile discussion forum" s home page. Typically ten
to fifteen items are a good number, but this is user-selectable. Any
number of feeds may be displayed, although if many are selected, the
page could become quite large.
The interface to Museophile discussion forums is meant
to be relatively simple and usable on a range of browsers. In addition,
a text-based interface with user-selectable size, colors and fonts,
aimed at those with sight difficulties, is also available (http://access.museophile.net/forums.museophile.net).
Museophile Limited is especially interested in improving accessibility
to museum Web sites (http://access.museophile.net;
Bowen, 2001) both for discussion forums and e-commerce (Bowen, 2002a).
With the above facilities, a registered Museophile discussion
forums user has a single point of access for a wide range of museum-related
information sources, from local Web forums to mailing lists, newsgroups
and news sources. The system is not perfect, of course, mainly due to
limitations in the underlying software. For example, it is not currently
possible to search across the external feeds, and posting messages is
not as simple as it could be. However, it is a useful resource that
already has nearly two hundred registered users. Readers of this paper
are welcome to join and experiment with the facilities (http://forums.museophile.net/newuser).
To help assess the needs of museum professionals and
to improve the Museophile forum facilities, an associated questionnaire
has been installed and advertised on some of the major museum electronic
mailing lists, selected newsgroups and the Virtual
Library museums pages. The questionnaire was made available in both
results of this survey are presented in a companion paper with a view
to improving museum discussion forums in the future. Preliminary results
are also available elsewhere (Bernier & Bowen, 2003).
Technology is dominated by two types of people: those
who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they
do not understand. Putt" s Law
The Museophile forum system is a dynamic Web application
based on an SQL (Structured Query Language) database. The forum software
is called Scoop (http://scoop.kuro5hin.org)
and is implemented in the Perl programming language (http://www.perl.com),
supported by a MySQL database (http://www.mysql.com).
This software is all running on a commercially hosted PC running the
GNU/Linux operating system (http://www.linux.org).
The Scoop software runs with an Apache Web server (http://www.apache.org),
the most widely used Web server software in the world, via the "mod_perl"
this closely integrates the Perl programming language with the Apache
server, allowing Apache functionality to be replaced with or extended
through Perl code. Linux is a free Unix-like operating system for a
variety of platforms. It has been found to be as reliable as commercial
Unix implementations, for a fraction of the cost.
All of these key components are "Open Source" Software
(OSS) as propounded by the Open Source Initiative (OSI - http://www.opensource.org).
Open Source is an approach to software licensing where software is made
available free of charge (or for limited and reasonable distribution
cost), with full access to the source code, and with the right to redistribute
that code, subject to certain restrictions (Ming-Wei Wu & Ying-Dar
Lin, 2001). The Google Directory provides access to many Open Source
resources online (http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Open_Source).
Some OSS licenses require that modifications made to the
software by licensees must be contributed back to a common repository
of code for public use. All of the licenses for the components of the
Museophile forum framework were considered to be open enough to make
it possible for the Museophile code as a whole to be redistributed freely
and without cost; this was considered an important factor in the success
of the Museophile project.
The Scoop forum system is customizable, both in terms
of appearance and functionality, through an extensive framework system
that gives control over the layout of pages and over the content that
is accessed to fill the page. This gives some flexibility in use (for
example, functionality can be limited or extended to fit the profile
of the Museophile forums) and capacity for future expansion, to keep
up with discussion forum trends.
The developers of Scoop describe it as a "collaborative
media application". From the Scoop project Website:
It falls somewhere between a content management
system, a Web bulletin board system, and a Web log. Scoop is designed
to enable your Web site to become a community. It empowers your visitors
to be the producers of the site, contributing news and discussion, and
making sure that the signal remains high.
Scoop is a Web forum and content framework system implemented by the
administrators of Kuro5hin, a technology and society advocacy and discussion
It is maintained by and for its developers and a small group of users,
most of who run Scoop-based discussion forums themselves.
It is implemented in Perl and mod_perl, and is licensed
under the terms of the popular GNU General Public License (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html).
This is the same license under which many common pieces of open source
or "free" software are distributed, including most notably the key pieces
of the GNU/Linux operating system.
The developers of Scoop describe it as a "collaborative
media application". From the Scoop project Website:
It falls somewhere between a content management system,
a Web bulletin board system, and a Web log. Scoop is designed to enable
your Web site to become a community. It empowers your visitors to be
the producers of the site, contributing news and discussion, and making
sure that the signal remains high.
The content is presented as a series of recent news or
discussion items, with the most recent at the top of the page, and with
a thread of discussion attached to each. These items are in various
categories, each of which can be viewed individually, again as a similar
list. Scoop allows items or categories to have polls associated with
them for users to vote on relevant topics, and Scoop site users can
often have their own personal Web diaries for other users to read.
Scoop has been developed to support a site where the bulk
of the page content has been provided by the users and is thus a good
candidate for the implementation of a discussion forum system such as
Museophile, which aims to combine both locally-hosted discussion and
externally-hosted content such as email-based discussion lists, Internet
newsgroups (Usenet), and content from other Web sites via various methods
The forums provided by Scoop are entirely Web-based, once
installed. All the major maintenance of the site is done by Web users
with administrator privileges. Various levels of administrator privilege
can be assigned, ranging from simple moderation rights, where certain
users can "mark down" content they consider to be illegal, offensive,
inflammatory or simply irrelevant, to full administration rights, where
templates can be changed, code can be added or modified, etc.
Scoop supports these aspirations by being modular. The
content of the page is laid out using components called "boxes" and
"blocks" , which can be either content from a database (such as a message,
a reply, a diary entry or a poll), or additional functionality implemented
as Perl code. These components are laid out in page templates which
allow the entire style of the site to be specified in one place.
Scoop supports syndication (distributing content feeds
to and aggregating them from other Web sites) via a syndication format
called RDF Site Summary (RSS - http://web.resource.org/rss),
which is an application of the Resource Description Framework (RDF -
used by museums and library organizations. RDF is itself an XML document
format. XML is the eXtensible Markup Language (http://www.w3.org/XML),
a core file format somewhat similar in style to HTML (which can be made
XML-compatible), and used in all aspects of modern Web architecture.
RSS site summaries are now a very common form of Web site
syndication, and they represent the main way Museophile intends to integrate
foreign content into the forum system. The Scoop software can be scheduled
to regularly collect and store RSS summaries from Web sites, and the
modular presentation framework allows this content to be integrated
in various ways. Scoop can also produce RSS summaries of its own local
content, so Museophile can be syndicated in the same way. The Museophile
discussion forums news syndication file is readily available as an external
feed online and is regularly updated with the latest items posted
on the Museophile site (http://www.museophile.net/backend.rdf).
The format is not intended for direct viewing by users, but rather for
processing by software into suitable form (e.g., HTML).
Alternatives to ScoopScoop is by no means the only candidate
for discussion forums software. It was chosen for the Museophile project
because of its range of features, and because the technical aspects
of the system were a good fit with the existing Museophile project prototypes
which are all implemented in mod_perl. Many alternatives exist, written
in most Web programming languages and under a variety of licenses (commercial
open source). Some of these systems are very like Scoop in their scope
of application, and others are more simple discussion forums.
The main alternative considered was the Slash system (http://www.slashcode.com),
which is the open source community Web site system developed by and
supporting the popular technology Web site, SlashDot (http://slashdot.org).
Slash is considered to be the "grandfather" of all news and discussion
Web sites, having essentially defined the format that most community-oriented
news sites follow. The Slash code is very substantial and requires quite
a lot of understanding and maintenance, and was considered to be a little
too large for Museophile's requirements, but presents a useful alternative
for future expansion. Scoop was selected as a simpler, more immediately
customizable code-base, and has proved to be an interesting choice.
Other possible alternatives include Phorum, an open source
Web based discussion software application written in PHP (http://phorum.org). Commercial bulletin
board hosting is also available (http://www.bulletinboards.com)
as is message board and forum software/hosting (http://www.message-boards.net).
The cost of a commercial service with no advertisements starts from
around $10 per month. However some of these systems use Java applets
which may be slow to run first time and possibly require installation
of suitable "plug-in" software if it is not already available on the
user" s computer. The Forum Company (http://www.forumco.com)
provide similar facilities that seem to be faster, perhaps since they
do not use Java. For further links to bulletin board systems, including
(much of it free), examples of Web
discussion boards, etc., the Google Directory provides a good starting
The best way to predict the future is to invent
it. Alan Kay
For the future, museums could borrow from research into
networked multi-user and multimedia environments for learning and collaboration
such as MOOs, object-oriented versions of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons)
that originated from the computer gaming fraternity (Bowen & Houghton,
1999). For example, see LambdaMOO, now an open source project" (http://sourceforge.net/projects/lambdamoo).
This provides an interactive, multi-user network-accessible, programmable
system aimed at the creation of text-based adventure games, conferencing
systems and other collaborative software.
Research into Web based collaborative teaching environments
could be useful for museum Web sites, especially in increasing their
educational role (Curran, 2002). Computer Supported Cooperative Work
(CSCW) technology is important in fostering new virtual social networks
between people with common interests (Chin et al., 2002).
The increasing use of wireless networks by small communities
means that the Internet will become more and more ubiquitous in the
environment (Flickenger, 2002). Indeed, "ubiquitous computing" is a
term that is now rapidly gaining widespread recognition, and the effects
on groups and in a social context has been considered (Grudin, 2002;
Jessup & Robey, 2002).
Much of the Web currently consists of "dark matter" inaccessible
to search engines because it is only available in search databases with
no direct hyperlink to the material available. Some material is just
not available, even if it is stored on computers around the world. Sometimes
this is for security reasons, but there is much interesting archive
material that is not easily accessible online just because of lack of
facilities, expertise, finance, etc., rather than any particular technological
barrier. Certainly there are quite a few discussion forums of interest
to the museum community that are not viewable to non-subscribers and
are not archived even for subscribers. For example, the MCN-L discussion
launched in October 1995 by the US Museum Computer Network (http://www.mcn.edu), is freely
available for subscription to anyone interested, but is not currently
archived online, although there are plans to do so.
Current search engines are very text oriented both in
their search capabilities and in their presentation. It is likely that
more visual approaches will become more widely available in future.
An example of what is possible using current technology is available
in the form of the KartOO search engine (http://www.kartoo.com). This
search engine aims to use information visualization to give two-dimensional
graphical presentation of links between connected resources on the Web
using Flash technology, available on many modern graphical Web browsers.
Enough of the Web has been mapped by this resource to make it a worthwhile
Web search tool already. The same technology could be adapted to search
discussion forums and news feeds. See Figure 2 for the results of a
search for "museum discussion forums".
Figure 2. The Kartoo search engine results
with a search for
"museum discussion forums"
The "Semantic Web" has been heralded by Tim Berners-Lee
and others as the next major step forward for the Web (Berners-Lee et
al., 2001 & 2002). The technology for this concept is currently
under development and should allow much better Web-wide searching facilities
using semantic information and knowledge rather than just the syntactic
keyword search that is currently widely available. This vision has itself
spawned a community of believers (http://www.semanticWeb.org).
RDF is an important part of the underlying technology for the proposed
semantic Web so examples of the searching of newsfeeds as discussed
earlier in the paper are a relatively small-scale example of what could
be achieved. The same approach could be adapted for Web-wide searching
of discussion forums, for example if suitable standards are widely adopted
in the future.
For more interactive forums, open protocols are really
needed to open them up to any participant. For example, Jabber is an
XML-based protocol for two-way communication of messages offering an
open system that claims to be extensible, decentralized and secure (http://www.jabber.org). Something
similar for multi-way communication as needed in chat rooms would also
be a worthwhile development for the future.
There is no greater mistake than the hasty conclusion
that opinions are worthless because they are badly argued. T.H.
Huxley (1825-95) ." "
There is still much potential for museums to develop their
use of discussion forums. The technology continues to become more sophisticated
and easier to use. What is needed from museum professionals are ideas
on how the technology can successfully be used in a virtual museum setting
to develop communities of people with an interest in museums online.
The unique aspect of museums is their collections, and these could be
a good resource around which to base interactions.
For example, why not allow virtual visitors to add comments
and discussion to individual objects in an online collection database,
perhaps using Weblog or discussion forum technology? Of course it should
be made very clear what material has been provided by museum curators
and what has been submitted by visitors, but this is a matter of presentation.
If there are enough visitors online at the same time, instant interaction
to discuss objects could be possible using text, audio and even video.
Software to do this has not yet been adapted for a virtual museum environment,
but all the elements and infrastructure needed are available now.
Advances in the "semantic Web" continue, and this is certainly
an area that museums should monitor; e.g., see ERCIM (2002) for a selection
of articles. Developments in RSS/RDF XML technology, as mentioned earlier
in this paper, are likely to be of particular pragmatic importance in
improving search facilities for news feeds, Web forums, etc.
The development of online communities by individual museums
and groups of museums is likely to become increasingly important and
interesting as the Web becomes a less static and much more dynamic space
in which to interact. Imagination is as limiting a factor as technology
and adequate funding, but of course all three are required for success.
Overall there is considerable scope for museums to exploit this currently
underutilized but rapidly changing aspect of the Web.
The research and development presented in this paper were
supported by the Business Award & Support Scheme BASS/HEROBAC Museophile
project through South Bank University, London (http://www.museophile.sbu.ac.uk).
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