Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Jean-Louis Pascon

Ministère de la Culture/Direction de l'administration générale, France
Tel : 33 (0) 1 30 85 67 74
Fax : 33 ( 0) 1 30 85 68 68)

Developing A National Strategy for Multimedia Cultural Heritage

In a society where information and communications technologies are increasingly reshaping the approach to knowledge acquisition and dissemination, a major opportunity is created in the area of cultural and architectural heritage. This shift towards an information based society has a strong impact over the cultural public sector, particularly since museums and organizations in charge of architectural as well as archaeological heritage are at their most fundamental level information institutions.

The new emphasis given to information acquisition and dissemination for cultural organizations is clearly reflected in some public statements, among which that of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the June 1991 document that was adopted by 34 governments. In this document the following statement was made on culture and heritage :

European countries own the largest part of the Western-world cultural heritage, and this heritage, have been extensively described and catalogued by professional curators and researchers.

In most European countries an important effort has been done, often during centuries, to preserve, describe and index the cultural heritage. More recently, many public authorities or private entities have undertaken to digitalise a more or less important part of this heritage. Digitalization means creating databases containing images, reference documents, factual data, sounds, describing as precisely as possible the items constituting the cultural heritage. Paintings, sculptures, monuments, ancient manuscripts, music instruments, historical furniture, art photographs, etc. can be described by digital information, thus offering potentially to a large population of users an easy access to our cultural heritage.

This digitalization effort will have to be carried-on for several years to reach some completeness. Very large information bases containing millions of images and documents are going to be constituted.

Since the 80's, computer systems become a privileged way for cultural organizations to extend their reach, and develop a new type of relationships with third parties, be it professional users and specialists (like art galleries, teachers or researchers), or a wider audience.

Some cultural organizations have set a priority on making the information available to external users, using the resources that were available. Interactive multimedia technologies stand as a catalyst, accelerating the implementation of these changes through organizations. They significantly enrich existing information systems, particularly since they provide access to images, video and sound, therefore compensating for one of the limitation of textual databases which could never allow for a comprehensive description of work of arts. Simultaneously, associated with hypertexts and hypermedia they provide for a much easier, and friendly-user interface than previous technologies.

In France, three years ago, we decided to study the new role of computer systems in this area. Based on this study, we could define a strategy to produce distributed multimedia information systems, to offer access to inter-related reference multimedia documents, standardized notices, still and moving images, describing the cultural heritage: paintings, sculptures, monuments, musical instruments, historical furniture, etc.

Before to describe this strategy, it's necessary to explain the current practice of information systems in French cultural organization and added value of multimedia technologies.

Management of cultural heritage involves the accomplishment of the following of missions, which to a greater or a lesser extent are allocated to public sector organizations by law or policies defined by local authorities :

These missions tend to be implemented by different categories of professionals within cultural organizations, for instance museum registrars, conservators, curators and scientists differ among themselves in what they view to be the key attributes of an object. The registrar will focus on inventory control which involves fields of information such as storage location, the object number and name, it's condition and valuation. The scientist, will be more concerned with in depth information on a smaller part of the collection, focusing on precision's regarding the object exact condition (for instance how it is made, and the associated technics of fabrication).

Therefore the practice has often led to the development of individualized information systems, satisfying the needs of these various users. Simultaneously reflecting the diversity of content managed by different cultural organizations, individualized information systems have been created, allowing for the management of distinct types of collections.

But for the most part of professionals involved in the French experiments the resulting improvements for the management of these resources are significant :

In summary, "computers can help manage the information, but the structure of the information that is important about collections must be determined separately for each institution" .

The added value of interactive multimedia technologies to cultural organizations.

The major result of the study is that multimedia technologies substantially modifies the underlying problematic of cultural organization computerization :

Interactive multimedia technologies enhance computer systems' performances both as a working and as a research tool for the different categories of users within cultural organizations.

Interactive multimedia technologies as a working tool

To begin with multimedia adds a new dimension to the execution of some tasks conducted within cultural organizations. A rapid overview of the resulting benefits applied to some of the missions of those institutions illustrates this point :

Interactive multimedia technologies as a research tool

Art scientists and researchers have stimulated the development of projects focusing on the development of systems using high resolution images, and virtual reality. They have successfully initiated the development of various European projects in the area of high resolution images. To this day the most important projects are :

In France these researches have led to positive achievements, such as the reconstitution of monuments such as Cluny church, Strasbourg cathedral, or sites such as Paris in the 18th century, or the old city of Marseille.

The strengthening and diversification of knowledge dissemination

Over the past years public sector cultural organizations have put a greater emphasis on their mission of knowledge dissemination to external users, including professional users, specialists and domestic users. As main owners of contents in the area of art, and archaeological cultural heritage they play a central role in spreading information related to culture throughout Europe. As a consequence, more importance has been given to satisfying the needs of different publics.

Progressively this is leading to the development of a segmentation of their market, this involves "distinguishing different subgroups, so that each group is characterized by an homogenous set of needs" , this approach results in thedevelopment of different types of services positioned so as to address the needs of target users. In this context interactive multimedia technologies enable cultural organizations to implement those strategies of dissemination with a tool which diversifies the way information can be structured and communicated to external audiences.

Shaping effective content for target users

Multimedia technologies provide for a new approach of content management. It breaks the linearity of traditional ways of creating, composing and disseminating information. It creates new opportunities for presenting an object, using the support of different media (text, images, sound and video), and offers the possibility to interact and navigate in the displayed information. Thereby the status of the audience changes, rather than "reader", or "spectator", from now on the audience is composed of individual users with specific characteristics.

Yet what truly makes multimedia applications ideally suited to knowledge applications is the implementation of the hypertext, and hypermedia model. Their implementations allows users to browse, and/or skip from a set of relevant information to the other. They are empowered to apply an autonomous approach to knowledge building, navigating through vast quantities of information that can be cross- referenced to one another.

As a result, it appears that the development of an interactive multimedia on line application in the area of cultural heritage benefits more (at least in a first phase) from linking and integrating information resources across different organizations, than of diversifying the types of media used to support the development of multimedia modules.

So far three ways of structuring multimedia information have been developed, they are used either separately, or in combination in existing off line and on line multimedia applications :

Diversified access to information resources

Digitized information can be communicated over networks, and therefore can be used in a greater variety of environments. They contribute to integrate cultural organizations into a wider community. This evolution combined with the power of multimedia data compels these organizations to move towards the interconnection of their resources, to collaborate and expand their reach.

This is clearly reflected by some public statements such as that of ICOM, which recommends that : " Museums in all countries be encouraged to develop and implement effective methods of bringing together and disseminating all manner of museum information". Additionally it emphasizes that "there should be closer collaboration between museum curators, conservators-restorers and educators in the production of publications on collections, exhibitions and objects so as to provide precise information about them"

The need for the development of interconnected and open networks To fully grasp the existing opportunity cultural organizations need to operate in a more integrated manner, and therefore overcome some of the limitations resulting from the establishment of heterogeneous information systems. This involves being able to exchange information in a seamless way through an interconnected and open network. It also involves developing standards allowing to share effectively existing resources.

Developing a network over which information can circulate transparently is the first prerequisite towards the building of an integrated cultural community. In the absence of any other widely spread solution, over the past years Internet has become the open network increasingly used by cultural organizations. Particularly since it fulfills many of the functions that are expected for : E-Mail, file transfer, log-on remote computers, and a diversified range of research tools (the most commonly used being WAIS , gopher , and the World Wide Web ).

Recent years have witnessed the developments of many applications :

It is thought that in the near term future current limitations of Internet in the area of secured transaction processing will be solved. Simultaneously it should be possible to implement identified copyright solutions on the network, once they are selected.

Towards the developments of standards in cultural organizations

The potential of on-line multimedia applications has given a new importance to the exchange of information within and between cultural organizations. It has therefore stimulated the ongoing work on the definition of standards that enable interchange of information between organizations.

Keys of the strategy

Four keys for a national strategy for multimedia cultural heritage result from this study :

A distributed system

The digital information describing the cultural heritage is created by a large number of private and public entities : museums, photography agencies, specialized public services in charge of national or regional heritage, public libraries, etc. For a given request, a user is likely to need to access to information elements owned by several of these entities and located on different information servers.

The project aims at defining common standards for representing, indexing and communicating cultural information. All the entities who will accept to store and disseminate information along these standards will participate in an international cultural heritage network. A user having access to modern telecommunication facilities(e.g.: ISDN) will be able to search information in the whole network, respectively of the physical location of the information matching his request.

Advanced browsing and retrieval functionalities

Classical database system have demonstrated strong limitations in the possibilities offered to the user to retrieve information. Quite often the user encounters difficulties in expressing the complex semantics of his request as a query composed of a Boolean combination of values or ranges of values. Recent multimedia information systems offer richer and more flexible interaction paradigms: the user may of course express Boolean queries as usual, but he can also create templates for regular requests, define constraints on the value of composite variables computed during the querying process, express questions in free text, follow links representing hierarchies, cross-references, or various semantical relations between documents, and browse a set of selected documents to explore freely their content.

Furthermore, as mentioned before, the target system will be an international network of information servers, accessible world-wide. A user should therefore be offered the possibility to express his requests in his national language. Last but not least, the distribution of information among servers should be hidden to the end-user, for transparent access.

A safe, fair and reliable system

The private or public entities owning the items constituting the cultural heritage, and those building and feeding the digital information banks representing it, need to keep some control on the usage of this information. Some information may have restricted access rights, some may be accessed only under specific copyrights limiting further reproduction or dissemination. Most users, if not all of them, will probably have to pay some fees to contribute to the cost of the information system itself, and may eventually have to pay some part of the information which is not in the public domain.

For all these reasons, the target system needs to offer reliable protection of the intellectual property rights, effective protection against unauthorized access, and flexible mechanisms for billing and charging users.

Strong attention will be given to the issue of reusability of the information, to guarantee that the digital information will have a much longer life than the technologies used to store and disseminate it.

Professional oriented

The primary users of the target system are professionals : museums curators, public administration in charge of protecting the cultural heritage, commercial companies in multimedia business, art galleries managers, etc.

The target system will facilitate the realization of information products (i.e. CDs or virtual exhibitions) for a large public, who will benefit indirectly from the professional system.

The study analyses users needs and motivations, assesses the economic, technical and organizational constraints, identify the elementary projects that should be undertaken to implement it successfully, and assess motivation and willingness of the main potential actors to contribute to it.

Basically, users belong to three broad professional categories :

Regular users

Occasional users

"Producers"

Conclusion

It is therefore important to design information systems that will make possible effective management of these huge information banks, easy retrieval of the relevant information, that will address the needs of the professional users and that will facilitate the realization of interactive presentations for the general public.

The challenge is to define services that address adequately target users needs. Professional services will tend to use retrieval tools identical and/or very similar to the ones implemented on electronic databases, they often assume a significant level of computer literacy from users. To the contrary, those aiming at wider audiences (educational, or domestic), will design new user interfaces characterized by their user friendliness. This often involves selecting carefully a limited number of research criteria to facilitate users' navigation through the displayed information.

Today in France, we have two different roads: one for professional use, one for general public.Targets are not the same. Forgetting this reality would be a great mistake.

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Last modified: February 28, 1997
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