March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: From On-line Exhibits to On-line Experiences to On-line Community:
Thirteen Years of Science Centers Experimenting with the Web

Robert Semper, Exploratorium, USA


Science museums and science centers have been exploring the use of the Web to further their public and professional mission from the very early days of the Web’s existence. From on-line exhibits to on-line experiences, these early experiments have in turn led to the robust use of this medium as a key part of the science museum world. At the dawn of the next stage of the revolution signified by the emerging Web 2.0, it is useful to take stock of where we have been and how we got here, and forecast where we might be going.

Keywords: science centers, science museums, Web history, Web 2.0


The Web had its beginnings during Christmas break 1990 at CERN, the high energy physics laboratory in Geneva. Designed to facilitate the massive information sharing requirements of the large detectors on the LEP accelerator, the fledgling Web allowed for the sharing of text, images and even real time data with a far flung scientific team. The following year its use spread to other high energy physics labs in the US for much the same reason. But its server-based organization and hypertext origins with the resulting standardized underlying code made it of interest to people beyond the physics community. Originally confined to a Unix-based interface, the extension of the use of the Web to the Mac and PC environments that worked on desktop personal computers (through the creation of the Mosaic browser at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) at UIUC in the spring of 1993) provided the impetus for new applications to be developed. In 1994, part of the Mosaic team developed the first commercial browser at Netscape. And a year later NSF, which had controlled the use of the Internet and had enforced a non-commercial use policy, released use restrictions and turned over operation to a non-profit group. The rush was on.

Early on, the Mosaic team would publish a list of new Web sites added each week. By mid-summer 1993, in addition to an on-line coffee pot camera at the Cambridge physics lab and an on-line Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon (yes you could actually on-line dispense a coke to a lucky graduate student in Pittsburgh), an interesting set of applications that made use of the integrated text and graphic opportunities provided by the Web began to appear. By the time the Exploratorium launched its Web site in the fall of 1993, there were already 600 Web sites worldwide, and science museums numbered among them.

Two early Web sites were museums: the Library of Congress exhibition of the Art from the Vatican Library (spring 1993), and the University of California at Berkeley Museum of Paleontology on-line exhibit on sharks (summer 1993).

The Early Years

Given its development history as a way to present science to a remote set of users, it should not be surprising that the Web was fertile ground for science museum development. The few museums with on-line presence in 1993 were quickly joined by more, including the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The opportunity of creating a multimedia computer experience that could be delivered to the remote desktop was highly seductive to museums that trade in images, information and experience. At the Exploratorium, we found that our science exhibit design proclivities, far from being foreign to this virtual world, were ideal for a medium which called its interface a ‘browser’. Others in the science museum community found it the same.

Early on, science museums set themselves on an experimental course of trying to create on-line interactive exhibits, on-line exhibitions, on-line discussions, on-line lessons and on-line live connections to exhibit galleries and distant events. In each case an existing museum mode of use was translated into a Web version. Because of the interest in using graphics, images and high design, much of the early work required faster connections than the 300 baud modems to homes available at the time. Early experiments were therefore designed to reach classes in schools with reasonable connectivity. (No one really thought that there would be the high bandwidth explosion into homes. In fact, in the early years most high bandwidth users were at universities or in companies).

Along the way they were influenced by participation in a number of collaborative education projects sponsored by NSF and NASA. An early ambitious project was the Science Learning Network project, led by the Franklin Institute and involving the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Boston Museum of Science, OMSI, the Miami Museum of Science and the Exploratorium. Supported by the Unisys Corporation and NSF through its Network Infrastructure for Education (NIE) program, SLN was designed to explore the potential of fostering wholesale school change through the use of museum resources in schools by pairing each museum with an elementary school. Other projects included the NSF sponsored CoVis project, a partnership of Northwestern University, UIUC, two high schools in Evanston, IL, and museums. CoVis explored collaborative learning opportunities between classes in different schools at the high school level using museum activities and live connections to provide educational resources to the students. And finally, a series of NASA funded projects provided the experimental spark for the creation of museum-inspired space related materials and the creation of live Web casts from remote settings. By 1996, many science museums had joined the Internet and were actively developing a Web presence of their own.

Recent Science Museum Developments

As the Web matured, many science museums developed on-line resources based on their collections and interests. Science centers, because of the nature of their subject matter, were able to take advantage of the wealth of current and everyday science material being made available on the Web. Natural History museums created access to their scientists and collections, zoos created on-line species profiles, history museums created virtual tours of historic sites, planetariums created access to images from space. Science museums explored providing access to current events of scientific discovery such as the Mars Lander images or total solar eclipses. Some offered access to scientific equipment like telescopes or microscopes or live operations. The advent of live and archived streaming media on the Web ushered in the world of Web casting. Museums began to develop Web sites for current physical exhibitions as ways of furthering interaction with existing museum activities. And in an interesting trend, individuals outside the institutional museum community developed virtual museums on their own, bypassing traditional museum authority.

While many of these resources were originally focused on the school audience, an increasing number of users in recent years have been out of school, either working on school projects from home or just enjoying out-of-school learning. As the boom began to develop in the late 90’s, the key issue for museums became not how to engage this new medium but how to pay for this engagement. As search engines developed their potency, the primary role of the Web often became marketing tool rather than program medium. Web versions of museum stores proliferated. Often the Web development group in a museum resided in the marketing or public affairs part of the organization. A few ambitious science museums even joined their art museum colleagues in business ventures designed to provide resources for a fee.

Future Developments

As the Web moves beyond the world of presentation and shopping and enters the world of Web 2.0 with its increased interactivity, personalization and wireless anywhere browsing, it is valuable to revisit the role of the Web in the science museum context. The new world of high bandwidth connectivity, home multimedia production, fluid two way and multi-way interaction, shared images, sounds and blogs and personalized Web browsing opens up new opportunities for museums to make use of this new technology to further their own goals.

To make use of these new opportunities productively, museums need to enter a phase of research and exploration just as they did thirteen years ago. In particular, it is important to investigate the following areas:

Tagging and Indexing

For museum resources to be useful in education, new ways of tagging and indexing them need to be developed. The ‘key word popularity searches’ provided by current search engines do not provide easy ways for learners to find the right resources for their needs. Can museums become more coherent players in distributed learning environments?


Individualized use of media is soaring, and the advent of podcasting (audio and video) with its corresponding low cost of distribution means that on-site museum activities can reach a much wider audience than before. Can museums develop the right economic model to support this work?

Wireless Access

Ubiquitous wireless access means that the whole world can be made into an exhibition. The question to explore is, what kind of experience does wireless access to visitors’ own handhelds provide inside a museum? And can museums develop new kinds of exhibitions outside their walls?

New Community Tools

Personalized Web presence such as blogs, collective image sharing, friendster connections and unsanctioned podcast tours all provide new community tools which museums need to investigate to see how they can become part of the developing on-line community. How can collaborative filtering (used by commercial sites like and community building tools provide museum audiences with new access?

Audience Analysis

Audience analysis is critical to the future development of appropriate museum resources. Targeted offerings can reach members and other users. Museums still do not really know who is out there browsing. Who is using museum on-line resources and why?


The development of current museum activity on the Web has happened over the amazingly short time frame of thirteen years. Museums have the original material, the ongoing support model and the brand recognition to continue to be a major player in the Web over the next thirteen years. Some would argue that media and the Web are a distraction from the physical visit that is the core enterprise of the museum. I would argue that, on the contrary, handled innovatively, the Web is the key to the long-term sustainability of the science museum community.

Cite as:

Semper R., From On-line Exhibits to On-line Experiences to On-line Community: Thirteen Years of Science Centers Experimenting with the Web, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at