March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Out of Our Mines! A Retrospective Look at On-line Museum Collections-Based Learning and Instruction (1997-2006)

Cynthia R. Copeland, Director, American Revolution Digital Learning and New Media Project at the New-York Historical Society, New York, NY, USA


Over the past decade, the journey towards on-line museum learning and instruction has been a mixed bag, riddled with trepidation, scepticism, economic anxiety and varying degrees of success. Now that the groundwork has been laid, are there signs indicating that the situation is changing? As the industry matures and develops adaptive expertise, it appears we are moving into a dramatic expansion of our collective knowledge and understanding of how technology can broaden and strengthen our museum teaching practices while delivering our content to the masses. Based on cases presented in previous Museums and the Web Proceedings, this paper will provide a historical perspective and overview of the field, and will examine select art, science and history museum education departments to see where they have been and where they are heading with the integration of technology. Moreover, this paper will examine how an on-line presence has influenced museum education in general, and some institutions specifically. Inquiry and methodology will include case study reviews, an examination of current research, interviews with museum educators, administrators and other personnel, questionnaires and, wherever possible, on-line visits.

Keywords: on-line learning, collective knowledge, museum education, collections, object-based learning


And then there were ten! Happy Birthday, Museums and the Web 2006! It is remarkable to witness the advancement of the museum and cultural heritage community presence on the Web. Kudos to the pioneers who cleared out their unique collections from dusty storage shelves, crates, and bins to set the community on the path of beaming objects into space. The volume of cultural heritage and educational content available in a variety of digital formats has moved many a museum mission of public education forward to the cyber-public with unimaginable leaps.

But hardly in a day’s work. For most museums, what started as a foray into murky, uncharted territory is now, in its early adolescence, revealing endless possibilities in terms of opportunities for resource dissemination, outreach, audience development, and presentation. Over a decade ago, the World Wide Web, as it was commonly referred to, was an exciting but dubious domain that resembled the “wild, wild west.” Many not-for-profits, especially museums, approached this nascent medium bewildered and fearful. Yet, these fast-paced, ubiquitous technologies centered on the Internet wasted no time becoming forces to be reckoned with. Either on or off the bandwagon: museums would have to embrace them or remain at a disadvantage - not only for themselves, but also for their learning communities.

The cultural community has come far in cultivating this medium, but not far or fast enough for some. Only thirty-two percent of museums have initiated digitization projects and activities in the United States, according to an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Report on the Status of Technology and Digitization in the Nation’s Museums and Libraries Report, 2002. Many institutions have had their share of false starts and painfully harsh halts, and are absent from the exciting twenty-first century expedition. Yet as bastions of informal learning, museums are eager to deliver their highly comprehensive collections and educational resources to a diverse and anticipating audience using the best delivery systems that are available.

This paper explores the growth and development of the museum presence on the Web from 1997 to the present. Samples cited are from selected papers featured in previous Museum and the Web Proceedings from its inception, in addition to reviews and commentary from current literature on the implementation of uses of new media technologies in museums (as defined in a report supported by the IMLS (2003) as work that is non-textual in format, such as audio, images, video, multi-dimensional objects, etc.); museum education activities on the Web; and other digital programs and activities. This essay aims to build awareness of the growth, development, and current status of museum education in the broadest sense: its value and effectiveness in American museums specifically, and museums in general.

Museums and Technology: Theoretical Metaphor for Growth and Development

Surveying a decade of extensive reporting and documentation of museum activity in the Museums and the Web Proceedings was a remarkable and enriching learning experience. With each passing year, the articles presented a startling sense of growth, development, learning and understanding among museum professionals as their efforts advanced museum practices through the integration of technology. Every table of contents, each introduction, abstract and page of content within the volumes represented a community of practice that was slowly and methodically moving forward in conceptualization, experimentation, presentation, and grasp towards understanding the potential of the Web, technology and new media, and their myriad applications in the museum field.

Metaphorically, I likened the community’s growth and development to the learning theories of Jean Piaget, and was inspired to approach this decennial retrospective of Museums and the Web through his principles. In order for museums to educate the public, they must take their own educational journey, particularly when engaging in and integrating new practices and methods. That is why a brief examination of the museum and the Web’s growth and education, tied with Jean Piaget’s developmental theory, may not appear so far-fetched.

Jean Piaget, Learning Theorist

Jean Piaget was a prominent twentieth century child psychologist and learning theorist specializing in developmental and intelligence theory. He spent a lifetime observing children (including his own) in hopes of informing and improving the practice of psychology, education, cognitive processes and their development, but more importantly, the way children and adults interact with one another. Recognizing patterns of intellectual growth, cognitive processes and their development, and technology integration among museums, it is hard not to notice similarities – much like a young human being in the throws of discovery trying to make sense of the world and its environments. I began to draw parallels within the museum community with how museums were adjusting to a new immersion in the Web. Can we use theoretical principles of human development to help us understand intellectual growth and development in the museum community, and the impact of the integration of the Web on it?

Dorothy G. Singer and Tracy A. Revenson (1996), social scientists and Piaget disciples posit four stages of child development: The Sensory-Motor Stage: Ages Birth through Two; the Preoperational Stage: Ages Two through Seven; The Stage of Concrete Operations: Ages Seven through Eleven; and the Stage of Formal Operations: Ages Eleven Through Sixteen. Within these developmental operations are sets and sub-sets of the growth and development of intelligence. This paper will focus on the first three stages: museum Web activity hasn’t yet reached a “Stage of Formal Operations”.

Birth Through Age Two

Characteristics of development at the earliest stage, the Sensory-Motor Stage from birth through two, include children’s limited understanding of the world and its operations based on their direct experience and contact with objects and their perceptions of those experiences. Objects tend to be fixed, and it is anticipated that the object will always be there. How children relate to those objects affects their relations with other items or people they may encounter. Intelligence is revealed through reflex – reactions to stimuli. There is a repetition of responses and interactions that are applied to every type of situation or chance encounter.

A look at the early development of Museums and the Web seems to correlate with Piaget’s developmental theory from birth through two years. At that time, the community was examining the Web with fresh eyes, and was trying to “latch” on and codify, not for the sake of being controlling and rigid, but wrapping the collective brain around the experience of the Web and all the liveliness it brought to the industry.

What the museum community brought to the Web at this time was spirit and bewilderment, and a tremendous focus on content. (Trant & Bearman, 1997). Content was perceived as “fixed”, and that is what the community knew best. Exposure to the different tools to create dynamic sites was limited, and there was a case of “arrested development” at this early juncture. Museum staff understood the Web as a marketing tool and a haven for information transfer and retrieval. Naïve and limited understanding of this new medium resulted in the transfer of information from print media to Web page. The early Web presence of museums was without thought or daring, and consisted primarily of brochures. Overall, first generation sites contained static pages that drew only a quick glance from visitors. Museum sites were stiff . . . separate from our creative and expressive side – marked by interesting colours (turquoise anyone?). Early sample surveys reported that the realization of using the Web to support educational goals was emergent. When determining a rationale for going on-line, education consistently ranked second or below collections and marketing (Varisco & Cates, 2005).

Licensing and Intellectual Property

Licensing and the Intellectual Property Rights of the collections were other issues requiring attention and action during the Sensory-Motor Stage or early years of museums on-line. Museum administrators feared misappropriation or unlawful use of collection items in the digital world. Though the community-at-large was advocating access to images and collections for the broadest possible audience to enrich public education, museum administrators, board members and other staff with fiduciary responsibilities were discussing ways to “fix” the digital image with watermarks, encryption, or any means of anti-theft deployment. According to licensing authorities, less formidable tactics for the protection of the collections included discussing and implementing creative licensing policies in the marketplace, and crafting strategies for competitive pricing in the Rights and Reproduction centers, historically departments with steady revenue-generating streams. (Sorkow, 1997; Fink, 1997)

Rights and Reproduction

Rights and Reproduction centers maintain oversight of digital imaging, prints and reprints and image accessibility to the public. The publishing, media and communications industries have a keen interest in image access. Eleanor E. Fink of the Getty Information Institute (1997) made a prediction for 2005. Having realized how stultifying the activity surrounding these issues of fair and proper use of digital images and imaging were, Fink predicted that these issues would be largely resolved through the help of securities companies that could design and develop resources and devices to allay the fears of museum administrators. The implementation of “micro-payments” could be handled on secure sites on the Web. They would give the public effective and “on demand” access to vast collections of museum images, and would add income to the museum. Fink seemingly laid out a utopian existence for museums in the future, but in reality, she was challenging practitioners to work collaboratively to remove fixed notions that had become impediments to administrators’ and other stakeholders’ thinking. The challenge was and remains to deliver more creative solutions that are malleable, but effective, infusing fluidity in the creative process of resolving museum issues.

At the end of the Sensory-Motor Stage of development, the child carves mental images of things into visual memory and understands object permanence. In other words, there is an acceptance that objects exist and that they stay in their place (Singer and Revenson, 1996:21). At the corresponding stage of development for Museums and the Web, the record shows a small representation of collections being disseminated through this delivery system. Museum staff members were serving as Web site designers, working in isolation, with no contact with developing expertise in the industry. Clearly these “newbies” could have benefited from a world of museum “internetting;” however, such networks were only in the early stages of formation.

Reactions to the new stimuli stemmed from old and “fixed” concepts of low or no budget, non-expertise and near zero collaboration. Few museum staff placed in the role of developers had an awareness of available resources to assist in creating Web sites, or, in the case of low or no budgets, more innovative approaches towards resolving problems, such as partnerships with local universities or libraries. Even a trot toward commercial industries might have helped to alleviate some of the stress and disappointment in these earlier instances. Moreover, there was a need to enable wider use of information sharing, both internally and across the industry, to provide greater access to collections and other resources for the general public (Trant and Bearman, 1997).

Preoperational Stage: Ages Two Through Seven

There are two sub-stages of development in the Preoperational Stage: Preconceptual, occurs from ages two through four, and the Perceptual or Intuitive Thought Period, from four through seven. Piaget determined that young children were not able to handle abstract thinking and logical thought and called this stage the preoperational stage. At this point, the child is learning language and beginning to understand the power, meaning and use of language. Experiences of socialization and interaction are also developing. Likewise, the child is developing acumen for mental imaging and general thinking abilities, but is not always logical in front of an audience. In the perceptual or intuitive thought period, problem solving is introduced, and much of the resolve is based on intuition, instinct and perceptions, free from judgment and reasoning.

Preoperational Stage: Intelligence

The preoperational stage, also marked as a stage of curiosity, is a large umbrella under which intelligence is developing in small chunks. Children are not able to grasp “big picture” ideas, because they cannot relate parts to the whole. Intellectual development is influenced by play. Egocentrism is tied to intelligence development at this moment in time, and children are increasingly dependent on language as it expands and deepens. Other attributes include animism, where inanimate objects come “alive,” and natural phenomena are understood to be man-made; onomatopoeia is in wide use as sounds made are like noises that objects make. Conservation is the recognition that the qualities of a given object do not change even though there is a change in the object (Singer & Revenson, 1996: 21, 33, 36). In addition, children learn how to categorize, classify and place items into proper locations – through dogged diligence until there is success.

Building Relationships based on Language and Play

The development of character and intelligence in the Museums and the Web community reflects the attributes of the developing child at the preoperational stage. The articles published in the Proceedings from 1999 through 2003 express and underscore the need, or rather demand, for interaction. Papers and themes that dominate discussions consider learning and presenting on the Web as a new social construct.

The Web supports relationship building through social interaction and significantly builds and strengthens relationships across domains. These relationships include but are not limited to the visitors and staff at cultural institutions; intra-departmental relations crossed curatorial departments, education departments, visitor services, business development, exhibitions and museum divisions, library staff, and so on.

Museums learned they can benefit from staff’s framing external relationships with outside educators – elementary, secondary and post-secondary teachers and museum staff from a variety of departments. Furthermore, it may be necessary to break down barriers and embrace cultural institutions with similar missions, to work with organizations that are perceived as competitors; through collaboration, institutions can determine how knowledge and expertise can be distributed, to move the sector forward. Within these constructs there is interactivity. In a word, this is play, and in play, intra- and inter institutional socialization begins at the preoperational stage.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Kicking off the twenty-first century, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) turned the conservation of a painting into a core exhibition for a broad and wired audience. Partly an experiment and partly an attempt to improve relationships with their visitors, the MIA took a unique approach to engage their audience with a damaged work from their collection. Other motivations of increasing socialization and testing new educational methods helped drive the plan. A painting from their Masterworks collection was the exhibit, and it was set on display as a “live” performance art work. Visitors had a very unusual experience that combined opportunities for public viewing in the gallery with a quirky “behind the scenes” tour, which was actually presented out front and close to center. At the same time, those who could only make a visit on-line had a private viewing in “real time” by logging on to the Web site. Visitors to the MIA’s Web site experienced what the gallery visitors experienced in “real time” by getting the information tour through a “live feed.” Traditional museological standards and practices, such as didactic panels and further interpretation by the docents, were integrated into the visit. The success of this unusual exhibition stemmed from making one item from MIA’s collection central to the story, and integrating museum staff and volunteers. But most of all, the MIA involved visitors by immersing them in the museum process and using a variety of new media delivery systems to keep them engaged.


A fine example of learning by interacting with others is “Collaborative Cultural Resource Creation: the example of the Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO)”. AMICO was created as a non-profit consortium of repositories holding works of art to provide a comprehensive service of images and multimedia to the educational community. Consortium groups are both members and users of the digital library. AMICO was a model organization that demonstrated how cultural heritage organizations and schools together created and sustained an extraordinary multimedia digital library, respecting the copyrights of many works, bolstered by rich content and available at a reasonable cost (Trant, Bearman and Richmond, 2000). Play was unusual because competitors were assembled together at the table and learned how to work with one another to set policies and common goals.

*In June 2005, the members of AMICO ( voted to dissolve their collaboration. Parts of The AMICO Library remain available through through the Research Libraries Group's CAMIO, HW Wilson’s Art Museum Image Gallery™, and David Rumsey’s AMICA Library™ (,,

Language and the Web

Essential to the Preoperational Stage are language and literacy. In Piaget’s developmental terms, museums are grappling with language and literacy, both visual and text-driven. Work on the Web during these early formative years was somewhat incoherent, due to lack of understanding of these mercurial and Herculean media and technologies and of the language that fuels the technology. Policies were not widespread and the importance of universal naming conventions was not acknowledged. In a literature review, Kravchyna and Hastings noted that collections information was floating in a universe with “contextless digital bits” – esoteric data – providing little intellectual knowledge and supplemental, descriptive narrative to the user (2002). Many of the first Web pages were built with static HTML, which we now know prevents expansion and improvement as sites grow in complexity (Donovan, 1997). Moreover, use of unqualified staff and lack of funding sources may have contributed to a poor showcasing of the institutions with a Web presence.

The increasing level of maturation that comes with each developmental phase is best illustrated by what was done with language. The language of the community of practice of museum and Web users in the preoperational stage is adaptive and more technical. Language and mindset indicate that there is acceptance of the Web as the means of effective communications. Unlike a child in this latter phase of perceptual and intuitive thought, the museum community began to look at the world in bigger chunks and expanded slightly beyond its own space. Taking greater interest in outside forces, the community spoke of the need to address anaemic communication skills on many levels. The community acknowledged that museums, in general, must hone their language skills to hear and to address the needs of diverse audiences.

By 2000, museums demonstrated greater degrees of sophistication in their approaches to present materials, stories, primary sources, resources, merchandise and educational resources on-line. There has been a lot of play and curiosity, from which came new tools, techniques and methodologies for delivering content.


Play with language, tools, multi-media and networks brought members of this community of practice to understand the potential of The Electronic Guidebook ( This handheld initiative, created by a partnership of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, Hewlett-Packard, and the Concord Consortium, is a mediation tool. The Electronic Guidebook is meant to support museums’ roles as multi-dimensional learning centers. More specifically, the integration of the Guidebooks into the museum helps users engage with the exhibits and assists in other educational programs. This portable device is hooked up to a wireless network and extends the experience so that visitors can continue their search for knowledge in shared museum spaces with other visitors, or work remotely, beyond the boundaries of the museum. But questions remained. Even though the technology is at hand, the real work begins when we explore what kinds of learning we can facilitate through interaction with our visitors. How can we create science resources that stimulate discovery and reflection? (Semper, 2002).

Five Years and Counting

The year 2001 marked the fifth anniversary of the Museums and the Web community. Still young, the collective museum was no longer sceptical of the technology. The brilliant work of our colleagues was astounding and inspiring. At five, community members were excited by what had come and gone in the industry and couldn’t begin to guess what new tools and capabilities were yet to come. However, resonating throughout the selected papers, informal chats, presentations, and emerging through surveys by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the Institute for Museums and Library Services, (2002) is the message that we must strengthen the collective body of knowledge about our industry by doing more scientific evaluation and assessment.

The Atlanta History Center was in its final stages of evaluation, using a controversial heuristic methodology “where experts are trained in usability but who are not the end users of the proposed technology project compare the proposed technology against established usability principles,” some of which were developed by Nielsen in the 1990s (Haley Goldman and Bendoly, 2003). Front-end, formative and summative evaluation was necessary to provide evidence, using proper survey tools and applications for gathering accurate data for analysis of Web activities. Systematic, methodical evaluation of Web activity continued to elude the community, leaving us lacking in data that could help move the industry forward (Bearman & Trant, 2001).

Concrete Operations Stage: Ages Seven Through Eleven

The third stage of Piaget’s developmental theory, the Stage of Concrete Operations, ages seven through eleven, is where classification of objects is less challenging and children tackle the activity with ease and accuracy. Abstract thinking is a stage away, but children are able to handle the concreteness of objects that are physically present. Conservation is no longer an issue; socialized language supports interactivity through language, discussion, understanding and play. Children can mentally reverse the direction of their thoughts. Their thoughts remain in the present. How the children relate to the world and all things in it is much more logical, with reasoning and reflection as part of the process (Singer & Revenson, 1996).

Again, parallels between Museums, the Web and Piaget’s child development theory are notable. Museums by all accounts were delving deeper into their being and were asking questions related to value (contributions to the broader community), meaning (of self and relationships) and relevance (to others). There was introspection, dialogue and action based on assessment, investment, commitment and mental musing. The tools and ideas that had brought the community thus far were very familiar, perhaps from the constructive play in the preoperational stage. Playing, or rather learning how to use the technologies and discovering their applications, was significant in that it gave community members insight into how to look at their Web and new media situations in multifaceted, innovative ways. Play was important for foundational building, for in the preoperational stage, museums are preparing to move towards the realm of rational thinking and concreteness, putting it all together with abstract thinking. This would help museums achieve more success with existing and future Web projects.

As We Approach Year Ten

The presentation of papers and other related literature, coupled with conversations with peers in 2004 and 2005, suggests that the community of museum Web users is quite serious about and more dedicated to advancing Web practices. These last two years in the cycle of community growth and development have been seminal. The demonstration of activity suggests that we are collectively interested in accountability, diversity, and restructuring and revitalizing the work done so far.


The need for accountability is a sign of maturity among institutions. Museums understand that documenting the process, creating tools, and establishing metrics to demonstrate the value of technology efforts are positive steps for the institution, but more importantly for the end users, and help the larger museum community mature too.

The implication of accountability is threaded through the discussions about evaluation and assessment of our uses of the Web. Web sites are expensive to produce; funding is competitive and not readily available. No longer is evaluation an after-thought or incidental when initiating Web-based projects and activities. Evaluation is what drives new Web initiatives, and it now has a seat at the planning table. Rather than proposing technology for technology’s sake, hard questions about sustainability, institutional growth, impact and effectiveness on users and staff, and in general, about how this helps meet institutional goals, are being asked.


Diversity comes in many packages, and the community is working to strengthen efforts to discover, address needs, and deliver content and general information to a more diverse community as their needs dictate educational and program offerings. In a paper delivered at a Web Wise Conference, it was noted that priorities become clearer when institutions understand visitors’ needs. This understanding is essential when planning and implementing initiatives and service offerings (Bell, 2003). Gathering and analyzing the data from our evaluation processes and usability studies will help us identify voids in communities we need to tap into. The more data collected, the greater the chances of meeting our outcomes: reaching targeted audiences, covering social and economic concerns, and simply acting on institutional values and principles.

Restructuring, Reorganization and Rethinking

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what does a Web site say about an organization? Earlier iterations of museum sites illustrate two things: the history of an evolving medium, and the development of sophisticated intelligence pertaining to Web use.

Museums are discovering new ways to repurpose digitized material so that it can be interpreted and presented to audiences in a variety of ways. They are reorganizing content and digital images to restructure the look and feel of their sites. Large and mid-sized museums continually expand their awareness of the technologies that offer viable solutions to move education on-line forward.


In order to disseminate the latest in research and scientific discoveries in astrophysics, earth science and biodiversity, the American Museum of Natural History developed Science Bulletins, a cross-media, open-source publishing initiative. Stories are updated and featured in timely fashion on high-definition video displays, exhibition kiosks and the Web (Gano, Kinzler & Trakinski, 2005). Voice recognition, soon to become the “most powerful information broker-live and interactive” (Anderson, 1999), 3-D imaging and PDA-digital guides are innovative technologies still being tested by large institutions with large budgets.

One ambitious and virtualized model incorporating these and other features is The Eternal Egypt Project, a collaboration of the Egyptian Center for the documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CultNat), the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and IBM (Tolva, 2005).

Also, there is the virtual historic house field trip replete with storytelling and extensive 3-D mapping: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Explorer (Johnson, 2005).

Delivery Systems

The RSS feeds are giving people what they want, when they want it. With the advent of the iPod, and other MP3-formatted tools, audio files are all the rage as museums seek out low-cost delivery systems for getting their materials to the public. Additionally, cell phones and other personal handheld devices are becoming more familiar and fully integrated into information access and retrieval plans for offering educational content, general information and museum service offerings. These personal devices allow for the creation of tailored, or customized, information for individual users (Hafner, 2004). Urban meets rural and vice versa through video conferencing, which has also become part of the technology mix. Users are contributing content to Web sites, making the Web sites and database collections excitingly user-generated. This is producing a unique dialogue. Visitors, now active participants, see the value of being stakeholders as they help museums further their collective mission of public access and education.

Let’s Talk Numbers, Shall We?

In the past decade, Web technology integration increased slowly in the American museums industry, not through lack of desire but through lack of funding and proper resources. Excerpts from Getting Serious Online, a study by the Pew Internet Life Project, 2002, illustrate the status of technology and digitization in museums and libraries in America. At the time of the report, 15,437 museums were eligible for the survey, but only 1,558 surveys were sent and 341 (22%) were returned. History museums (31%), historic houses/sites (23%) and art museums (16%) had the greatest response rates.

Of the returned surveys, 67% were from small museums with annual budgets of under $250,00 per year, while those with budgets of $1,000,0001 to $10,000,000 had a 14% rate of return. Though 87% of museums use technology to support programming and automate daily operations, 13% do not have access, and 42% of those do not anticipate automating in the near future.

These percentages fall behind technology use and funding for public libraries (99%), Academic Libraries (100%) and State Library Administrative Agencies (100%). Only 62% of museums have Web sites and 54% use technology to support programming such as exhibit information and educational programs. Also, 32% of museums report current digitization activities. The bulk of the imaging includes historical documents/archives, images of artifacts, images of items in the collection, and photographs. Increasing access to the collections and collections records was the highest priority, and increased interest in the museum ranked fifth. Operating funds provide 24% of museum technology budgets, and 11% of funds originate from foundation grants; 14% from gifts from donors.

Within the museum Web community, there is a digital divide, where only the large and strong will survive. The 87% of technology users are not necessarily present and accounted for on the Web, but likely have a computer for day-to-day museum operations and are on-line, with Internet and e-mail access, but not much beyond that. Having a presence on the Web often requires work “on the fly,” a situation which suggests a need for the establishment of policies and procedures. Not only do the policy and procedures serve as guidelines for handling the digitization process, but they also leave behind an architectural blueprint from which others can learn, or can expand the project with build and add-ons.

In an interview with program officers at the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA), and from review of public records regarding grant rewards for technology projects throughout the state, grant requests have fallen in the past five years. This can be attributed to the realization that NYSCA grants are not substantial. They are suitable for small projects in collections care and research, and offset costs for larger projects in museum education and interpretation, services in the field, and in exhibitions. And recently, the agency’s ruling regarding requests for general operations precludes those same organizations from requesting grants in other categories. The projects that tend to receive funding are collaborative in nature, with other societies, organizations, colleges and universities. In general, pooling resources leads to winning grant proposals that are thoughtful and well-crafted, with realistic goals and budgets. Unfortunately, smaller museums often do not have the resources and expertise to guide the project and proposal process, and end up with requests that integrate technology, for the sake of its integration, and nothing else. (K. Herron & F, Chu-Rinaldi, personal communications December 15, 2005, January 13, 2006).


The Web has impacted museum education tremendously by making collections accessible; increasing public use and understanding of museum collections; offering innovative presentations of material; supporting interactive programs and use of mixed media; reaching out to diverse groups; serving as a catalyst to form affinity groups which together are creating wider access and exposure to greater collections; improving museum teaching and learning practices; and advancing visual and information literacy; heightening museums’ understanding of user needs and expectations; and making museums relevant in the twenty-first century.

After an initially cautious start, museums and cultural heritage institutions realized early in the game that the Web was the most effective means of communicating and disseminating museum content, educational resources and news (K. Herron & F. Chu-Rinaldi, December 15, 2005). Educational resources, offered specifically by art museums and likely by other types of museums, include on-line instruction, learning activities, lesson plans, on-line exhibits, guided tours, collections, lectures/demonstrations, research databases, learning links, conversation tools, and other miscellaneous resources (Varisco & Cates, 2005). Today, museums and their Web sites are considered “as multidisciplinary educational centers that provide information for a variety of cross-curriculum requirements” (Kravchyna & Hastings, 2002). Museums have learned that simple dissemination of collections is not enough; we must enable use of the information.

Years later, the museum community is more comfortable with the Web, seeing it as a playground for learners. The application of Piaget’s three development stages in growth and intelligence, from birth through age eleven, indicate that it is through “play” that museums attempt to discover new ways to present collections through exhibition, interactive media and museum education programs. As a community of practice, Museums and the Web has matured and embraced more abstract ideas. And at the next stage of advancement, Piaget would anticipate that museums are likely to be “learning by interacting with others on the Web;” “knowing through doing and active listening;” “reconstructing: making and remaking;” “evaluating and assessing;” “sharing and collaborating;” “creating and tapping into new funding sources; and “influencing policy;” while “maintaining the magic;” and sharing case studies about our experiences as we move forward (Bearman & Trant, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005).

The Web offers an alternative experience that can ease traditional museum restrictions associated with time, travel and inaccessibility to collections, and prohibitive costs to groups. Kravchyna and Hastings summed up the relationship of Museums and the Web best, stating that the Web “accommodates more visitors at once than any single gallery and serves all simultaneously.” Establishing a Web presence of museum and library holdings via Internet technologies helps to contribute and to transform educational content which can serve a global community, meeting the common educational goals of museum missions and raising the visibility of institutions. There is representation of the community on the Web, with quality sites and innovative activities. Professional practitioners have provision for ongoing training. There is more and dedicated funding support from organizations such as the IMLS and other federal and state agencies, as well as private funding. But there is still vast room for expansion.


I wish to express my gratitude to the authors of hundreds of papers written in the ten-year span that the Museums and the Web Proceedings have been published. Also, thanks to members of the New York Chapter of Museums and the Web, Infinite 8 and to the Museums and the Web community at large, Kristin Herron, Fabiana Chu-Rinaldi, Susan DeCarava, and Ray Shah for the continued support and perseverance.


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Cite as:

Copeland C., Out of Our Mines! A Retrospective Look at On-line Museum Collections-Based Learning and Instruction (1997-2006), in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at