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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Museum of the History of Science


Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford






The Museum of the History of Science houses an unrivalled collection of historic scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building, the Old Ashmolean on Broad Street, Oxford. It was also one of the first UK museums to have an online presence: an initial version of the website in 1996 included their first online exhibition, an early image library, and a user feedback form. The website has grown dramatically in the 15 years since their initial online venture. In 1999 the museum made their collections available online, another far-sighted initative that extended the museum's access. In the following decade, the museum added twenty different online exhibitions and updated their online collections to connect with KE EMu, their new collections management system. In 2009 the website was redesigned and relaunched using WordPress, an open-source content management system (CMS).

The museum's homepage is both functional and bold, and provides an excellent overview of the museum's aims and activities.  The homepage incorporates a visually-stunning panoramic banner image of objects from the museum's diverse collections; a list of upcoming events, current exhibitions, featured items; a summary of the main website areas; and essential contact information. In addition, the homepage establishes the standard structure of the overall museum website and entices the visitor to further explore the museum's smorgasbord of web resources.

The museum's online collections are an essential part of the museum website and, as such, have also been incorporated into the new content management system thereby demonstrating the museum's dedication to the long-term continuity and sustainable future of their website. The online collections provide access to almost all of the objects housed by the museum and is popular with both casual visitor and academic researcher alike.

The museum's website stands at the forefront of UK museums, producing a steady stream of high-quality online exhibitions. Over the years these exhibitions have expanded to include digital material beyond the scope of, and yet complementary to, the physical exhibition itself. An excellent example of this is the Small Worlds' exhibition microsite which includes a wealth and depth of content alongside engaging exhibition material such as a fun animation and performance poem.

The museum is also fortunate to hold one of the world's pre-eminent collection of astrolabes and has both an online catalogue and an online exhibition dedicated to these beautiful, intricate scientific instruments. In addition, recent exhibitions such as Steampunk have used external web resources such a Flickr photoset, a YouTube video and an exhibition blog to interact with an online audience beyond that of the traditional museum audience with great success and enthusiasm.

Finally, the Museum's Virtual Tour is a collaborative effort across the University of Oxford, and attempts to give a flavour of the museum experience to the potential and virtual visitor alike.

From the early days of the world wide web through to today and beyond, the function of the museum's website has remained clear: to incorporate online versions of the museum's diverse range of exhibitions alongside more research-focused activities such as the permanent collection. The main strength of the museum's website is, I feel, that it truly is more than the sum of these many parts. It broadly recreates many different aspects of the museum experience while providing digital resources that complement and add to the physical museum experience.