Conference Papers

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

Jeremy Rees
International Visual Arts Information Network

Income Producing Activity and the Web


Charging for access to information on WWW is still something of a rarity and considered by many as being contrary to the WWW ethic. The situation regarding museums, information and the WWW could be see as having certain parallels with the situation and feelings still engendered by the issue of free access, partially free access, access by donation or ticketed charging for entrance to museums and galleries. Equally it can be argued that charging for publications associated with exhibitions and collections is the norm.

This paper takes the example (and experience so far) of the ITEM (Image TEchnology in Museums and art galleries) database, developed from a twice yearly hard copy text-only small circulation international subscription publication to a subscription-based WWW site, with free public access to the introductory screens and a sampling of the text and image knowledge base.

This experience of the ITEM transformation will be used as a basis for open discussion, considering other Museum-related examples of income producing activities on the Web, including reference to the topic of images and copyright / moral rights.

1 A context

As David Bearman wrote in his paper Information Strategies and Structures for Electronic Museums in 1995, "The past five years have ushered in technologies that have the potential to dramatically transform museums as cultural institutions. What will the electronically enabled museum of the future look like to its constituencies and how will having electronic programmes change their interaction with the museum ?"

An important factor that comes into the discussion is not just what the museums will do on their own, but what sort of partnerships and coalitions will they be exploring and exploiting as between themselves and with outside third parties - whether these are traditional partners (eg book publishers) or new media partners. Furthermore, what will be the organisational, and commercial basis for such partnerships and coalitions ?

At the beginning of the decade, the discussion and speculation involved very few museums, galleries and publishers; it was based on analogue resources and videodisk; it involved very few national partnerships and no international collaborations. The rapid development of digital imaging, CD-ROM (and CD-i, now historically in much the same position as videodisk) resulted in a rapid but modest scale of development in museum-related digital publishing that produced (and continues to produce) a small number of imaginative and worthwhile publications (including some significant museum public information systems). However, the small scale market and a rash of "coffee table" or just plain inadequate publications, has failed to make sufficient commercial impact to gain the necessary shelf display space in crucial retail outlets, has led to downward spiralling pricing and to many instances of financial failures. It has been said that 95% of all commercially published CD-ROMs lose money.

Meanwhile as we progress through the second half of the decade, the WWW is opening up enormous new opportunities for museums and galleries (including the full plethora of on-line commerce) - but with organisational and cost implications that require radical rethinking of museum and gallery objectives.

Throughout these developments, key issues have been and will continue to be the development and national / international adoption of data standards that will facilitate interoperability and the "sensible" resolution of the ramifications of intellectual property rights.

2 The establishment of IVAIN

Following research in Europe and the USA in 1989/90 on the developing use of image databases and interactive multimedia in the context of museums and art galleries, in May 1990 I organised a meeting in Amsterdam which brought together people from art museums and cultural authorities from nine European countries to discuss common interests in the future development and application of interactive multimedia in art museums. It was agreed that better access to information about what was being developed and being planned in this field internationally would help to maximise the effective investment of scarce resources (time and money), encourage the development of educational uses (within and outside the gallery environment), avoid wasteful duplication of effort in the planning and implementation of projects and encourage wider international collaboration.

The Amsterdam meeting led to the setting up of what has now become the International Visual Arts Information Network (IVAIN), with objectives that included :

Following the meeting, IVAIN immediately took steps to compile and publish the ITEM database. ITEM has, since 1990 been compiled and published as a twice yearly hard copy text only reference work on subscription. In October 1996 ITEM knowledge base changed to a WWW text and image site incorporating extensive search and other facilities - on a subscription basis but with free-access sampling.

Since its first paper, for the 1990 Amsterdam meeting, IVAIN has been involved with the wider implications of Intellectual Property Rights, digital imaging and interactive multimedia resources, through published articles, conference papers, presentations and discussions at conferences in many parts of the world. IVAIN is also a signatory of the Memorandum of Understanding on Multi-media Access to Europe's Cultural Heritage facilitated by the European Commission (DG XIII and DGX) and vice chair of the Working Group on ownership and protection of IPR.

IVAIN initiated and led an international interactive multimedia collaborative Project. on the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. This set out to create a significant education and publishing (as well as curatorial and specialist research) resource on a major figure in the history and development of twentieth century art. It was planned as a museum-resident public information resource and as a published CD-ROM intended to coincide, in 1995, with the first major retrospective exhibition (in Paris and Philadelphia) for 25 years of the work of Brancusi.

The Development Partners included : the Romanian Ministry of Culture and the National Museum of Art, Bucharest; Musˇe National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (MNAM); Philadelphia Museum of Art; IVAIN, Ipswich+London. Pilot technical production was undertaken by partners in London, Rome, Berlin and Dublin.

The Brancusi Project had the Patronage of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and was awarded the EUREKA Audiovisual label. The demonstrator stages received financial and other assistance from the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office London, British Telecommunications plc, KPMG Peat Marwick - and from many art museums and art historians in Europe and the USA. The completed Definition phase of its development was financially supported by the IMPACT 2 Programme of the EU.

3 The development of ITEM

In pursuance of the first of the IVAIN objectives, the Image TEchnology in Museums and art galleries database (ITEM) was set up to provide and extensive information resource on uses of image technology and interactive multimedia to enhance the value of Art Gallery and Museum collections and exhibitions for visitors, to provide better collection management and research resources for staff and to provide information on multimedia publications, with particular reference to art.

ITEM has been produced in hard copy (text only) twice yearly since 1990, co-published with CIDOC and has museum, library, university and industry subscribers in 22 countries world-wide.

The setting up of ITEM in 1990 was made possible with the help of modest grants from the European Cultural Foundation, Amsterdam; Gulbenkian Foundation, London; CCE, Brussels (DGX) and its continuing publication is result of an underwriting by University College Suffolk, Ipswich of part-time staffing costs.



"The Internet goldrush has started, with corporations racing each other for a slice of the on-line world. And the prize for success is attractive: according to reports. some £170 billion / $255 billion) of sales will be generated by Internet commerce within the next few years - that's actual Web transaction from on-line customers. Yet for some, the digital landscape is proving more than a little barren, with tales of failed Web ventures becoming the modern-day business bogeyman. So is Internet commerce the superhighway to fortune, or nothing more than a glitter of fool's gold ?"

(Matthew Bath, Internet commerce: truth or dare?, Internet Age, London, February 1997)

While statistics have to be looked at with caution, hopefully they can give some indication of trends and must form part of the context of our discussion of Museums and the Web.

The UK DTI sponsored Information Society initiative says that in June 1996, 62 million people were using the Internet and estimate that this will rise to up to one billion people and virtually all businesses on-line by the year 2000.

KPMG Management Consultants say that 59% of companies have allocated a marketing budget to the Internet and the average spend is predicted to increase by 300% over the next 5 years. The UK WebSite Consultancy says that planned budgets average £56,000 per year, with actual; budgets for sites already built averaging £22,700.

On-line specialist Jupiter Communications predicts that the total number of on-line households world-wide will nearly triple, rising from 23.4 million in 1996 to 66.6 million in the year 2000, They see the biggest market continuing to be the USA, with 15.4 million households last year translating to 36 million in 2000, but the US share of the world market in this period falling from 62.8% to 54.1% . In Europe they predict the main markets of France, Germany and the UK growing from 3.7 to 16.5 million households - a compound annual growth rate of nearly 50%. Jupiter sees the UK from 682,000 to 4.3 million Germany from 2 million to 6.9 million France (excluding Minitel) from 170,000 to 1.2 million. Pacific Rim showing a small share of the total, rising from 14% to 15%, but in absolute numbers from 3.2 million to 10 million.

Whatever selection of statistics you like to take, we all know that WWW is still seen as being in the ascendant, that many people see a large question mark over the future of CD-ROMs, that CD-i is dead (except possibly for niche training markets), that DVD is an, as yet, unknown future but that great things are predicted ... and so on.

(ITEM WWW Home Page - main menu)

We also know that advertising on WWW is not proving (at least so far) the crock of gold that was forecast and perhaps for pornography which might, so far. be considered the success story of commercial exploitation of subscription-based information on WWW.


IVAIN did not have (and still hasn't) any delusions that it is going to make its fortune with ITEM on WWW but we do believe that we can reach a very much wider and more diverse user-base and in doing so more fully justify the idealism, sweat, toil, and ambition that drives us and alleviate some of the pain and frustration! We also hope that we can achieve at least an improved economic future.


"Electronic publishing not only promises great increases in the value of information but also the advancement of a virtual marketplace based on quality information. As we face the Information Society, however, problems of information overload and disorientation are increasing. Today's online content is often untargeted, difficult to find, and of questionable quality and relevance."

(Electronic Publishing: Strategic Developments for the European Publishing Industry towards the Year 2000. European Commission, Brussels - Luxembourg, 1996)

"I was very impressed by your IVAIN ITEM database. It seems to be a very useful resource."

5.1 underlying considerations

While ITEM was providing the most extensive reference resource on the world-wide use of image databases and interactive multimedia in its field, it became increasingly clear that images in the form of screen shots to give some indication of the "look and feel" and the range of facilities of the projects and publications described were becoming a necessity. With the rapidly accelerating in-house use and publication of IT text and image resources about art and related subjects by museums and commercial production by traditional and new IT publishers, it also became clear that more frequent update facilities than a twice-yearly publication were needed.

5.2 development options

In first looking at these more than two years ago. WWW was a very much less likely course at that time. Further discussions (parallel with the development of WWW) led to the concept of an annual CD-ROM with linked WWW regular updating.

Although from an archiving and several other practical viewpoints we would like to have included a CD-ROM version as some element of the package, economic considerations (ITEM is compiled and published on a totally nominal budget) and the rapid development and take-up of WWW led to the decision to concentrate our attention and efforts on a continuously updated WWW site.

We had no delusions about the fact that any process of transformation involving lead-edge and rapidly evolving technology on a nominal budget would be a fraught and probably painful process. We were encouraged by initial reactions to our plans from an international media organisation from whom we were receiving some help on another project. Unfortunately a major policy review led to their cutting back on their scope and staffing. The person who had started working with us on the software programming generously agreed to continue working on the development of ITEM but we found ourselves in a communication web stretching from Brussels to Ipswich and London and subsequently also involving Bordeaux and Paris.

5.3 scope

This looks like developing into a really useful resource for anyone contemplating a public access system for a museum, but why limit it to just the arts? The problems of scientific and technical museums are very similar."

Since the launch of ITEM in 1990, it has been very difficult to know where to draw the line as to what is included and what is not - and who should realistically be the target audiences for ITEM.

(ITEM search menu and Titles listing)

Our feeling was that ITEM would be of more value if we used our very limited resources to work within certain confines that set out to cover possibly relatively narrowly defined areas in as much depth as possible, rather than a wide scope covered thinly. This has, so far, resulted in ITEM being described as primarily concerned with the visual arts in the context of collection image databases, museum IT public information resources, publications about the visual arts and their context and research projects that include applied art, archaeology and aspects relating more widely to the visual arts, such as Art Theft.

At the outset, because there were a comparatively small number of projects in all, other museum and related projects were included where they might have a relevance to application in the visual arts field. With the emergence of PhotoCD, it started to become difficult to know where to draw the line as some digital publications were little more than captioned slide collections.

The now rapid development of museum and artists' sites on WWW raises questions as to whether ITEM should seek to cover some or any of these. The complication is where to draw a line as to where a line is drawn as to when museums become interesting resources in their own right, rather than just a floorplan, opening hours, forthcoming events listing, a small sampling of the collections and a museum shop site - or when artists' sites offer information relevant to the scope of ITEM.

Clearly there is no point in ITEM duplicating the excellent work of listings such as the Global Virtual Library Museums Directory URL It will be interesting to see how projects such as the UK site ADAM (art, design, architecture & media information gateway)develop their role. URL:

But, just as most of the CD-ROM directories of CD-ROMs do not give a great deal of descriptive, technical or visual information about the publications they catalogue, even the most elaborate WWW site listings do not in themselves give much or any indication as to the "look and feel", the resources and facilities of the sites they list. Consequently it is becoming a more and more daunting task to discover what is "out there". We are very interested to hear people's comments and suggestions on the role ITEM might play in relation to documenting Museums sites on the Web - and other sites involved in art and the digital image.

5.4 content

he content of the ITEM on WWW records obviously drew heavily on the already established content of the hardcopy publication. The bonus of the WWW development was the inclusion of screenshots, the search facilities and the printout capabilities. A further bonus is the potential of hypertext links to relevant parts of many museum, developer and publisher sites as well as relevant parts of ICOM, European Commission and other international organisations.

The facility for return e-mail forms and responses was very important to us and currently we have included a new and updated record entry form, a subscription form and an evaluation response questionnaire as well as, optimistically, a Bulletin Board.

5.5 design considerations

" I think it's very nicely constructed and the scope is quite broad. My first thoughts were, here's a great example of how to package and deliver metadata."

"I thought this was a very well presented site, the layout was good and the quality of the reproductions good. As someone still fairly new to the electronic environment I was also impressed how user-friendly it was."

"Generally nice and clean. Nor overburdened with heavy graphics and the frames work well"

(ITEM sample record, page 1)

(ITEM sample record, page 2)

What should ITEM on WWW actually look like : a re-vamped text document, a slick database, a cousin of WIRED...? As with CD-ROMs, some WWW projects are "overpackaged" in relation to their actual content, while others are under-resourced in content.

The brief we established was based our view that the important factors were that visually the main impact needed to be the screenshot images and the ease of searching and reading of the records.

The need for speed of access ruled out extravagant graphics as the screenshots would anyway add considerably to the access time.

We felt that the screen shots as thumbnail Gifs) should be of sufficient size to at least give a feeling of the particular resource, with the added facility of half-screen JPEG enlargements. In most cases this would mean that the images could be reasonably viewed and in many cases the text would be readable.

We had originally planned to undertake the design development in partnership with a relevant new MA design and IT programme but the course plans were delayed and we had to proceed on our own. However, we are still interested in such a collaboration for the further development of ITEM.

5.6 IPR (copyright and moral rights)

We worked with the specialist IT department of a leading UK law firm, Bird & Bird URL: on the basic copyright information and disclaimers for the site.

Understandably, many museums, publishers and other underlying rights holders are nervous about images going on the WWW. The big test for ITEM would be whether we could achieve a sufficient positive response to our initial requests for images for the relaunch on WWW, that would then lead to others following with their agreement. It was interesting to see how few publishers had cleared rights for at least a small range of screenshots for use in publicity and marketing. If people could not see anything, what incentive was there for them to purchase the CD-ROM publications? In relation to museum information resources that were not published for retail, why produce something and then not show it to anyone beyond your walls? Clearly, these are over simplistic questions, but they do help to highlight some of the dilemmas that are currently occupying the minds of many people.

copyright line appears above the thumbnail screen shot section of each ITEM record, but the size and limited quality would make such images of no commercial and little other value if used out of this context. The half screen JPEGs incorporate a copyright line in the border which is an integral part of the image, so that any downloading would include the copyright line. While it is true that this could be subsequently retouched out, again the limited reference quality of the image does not make it of any commercial value. We did consider watermarking but felt that at these resolutions it was not necessary. However, with the incorporation of a watermarking facility in Photoshop v.6 this is an option we may reconsider.

In this context it is interesting to see the basis on which SCRAN (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network) URL are working on image resolution and copyright in their £15 million (half from the UK Lottery) project to digitise large parts of Scotland's collections. SCRAN feel that once images are on WWW they are effectively in the public domain and they are working with three levels of definition :

  • web
  • educational quality (by site licence)
  • commercial quality (fee based)

    In devising policy for ITEM on WWW we started from the reality of an existing base of a modest number of subscribers spread over 22 countries world-wide for the twice yearly hard-copy version - was becoming increasingly expensive to produce and mail .

    While the subscriber geographical spread was good the numbers had to be increased to justify the investment of time and other resources.

    A series of scenarios were explored, on the basis of the technology available or about to become available.

    annual subscription only

    pros:relatively simple
    cons:eliminates real contact with potential users and future subscribers

    annual subscription plus guest access

    pros:wider potential
    cons:user/subscriber contact

    "encryption envelopes" for "sealing" information/product which can only be downloaded once payment has been made.

    At the time ITEM on WWW was being planned, the then existing secure payments (eg on Netscape) while relatively safe, were viewed with great suspicion by most people.

    free- but per-element access

    pros:maximises contact
    cons: as yet an unfamiliar process (micro payments / "millicent" payments) eg 2p or 0.2 (anonymous digital cash) (micro payments now being trialled by Visa, Mastercard, Netscape, Microsoft cost of brokerage ? none of these micro payment options were effectively available at the time we had to make initial decisions.

    free - but develop on-line and off-line cd-rom sales *

    pros: ties in with ITEM as information provider
    cons: capital intensive servicing intensive high risk
    * A typical worldwide CD-ROM mail order distributor in the UK may list 1750-1800 CD-ROMs, of which the Arts category may account for 60 titles (3.3%). ITEM currently lists 120 CD-ROMs titles available for purchase worldwide.

    There was then the question of the attitude of : providers of data to each of these scenarios - although they would be getting free promotion (but should ITEM charge for hypertext links to their WWW sites (including their sales sites) ? subscribers to each of these scenarios including the natural nervousness of on-line payment and the unfamiliarity with micro payments.

    We chose to develop ITEM on the basis of free access to the introductory screens, guest access to a small (regularly changing) same of ITEM records and our searches, with full access on an annual subscription password basis.


    "Finally I am able to get through to ITEM: the result is wonderful"

    "We jumped in at the deep end. We have succeeded, with very little funding and an erratic staffing situation, in launching a sophisticated and complex site of which we can be proud. How the future will develop with regard to financial returns remains to be seen. Do not consider such an ambitious project unless you have access to dedicated and enthusiastic staff and be prepared to accept that problems can sometimes be painfully slow to resolve."

    (Sue Hagley, Administrator, IVAIN)

    If you are providing a site which has access (or part access) by charging in some form, then the text and image data resources, the ability to manipulate that data, the speed of access, ease of navigation and the quality of presentation take on a far greater importance.

    7.1 programming

    To what extent can the necessary programme development and implementation be successfully carried out on a part-time consultancy basis and part-time in-house technical staffing ?

    With the rapid development of HTML authoring tools and editing packages, that aspect is becoming monthly more straightforward to realise. Linked image files and compolex search facilities are still a far more complex challenge. The achieving of typographical precision and niceties is gradually becoming less frustrating but the on-screen variations between use of Netscape and Internet Explorer and from one computer to another continue to be a major frustration to producers and users. We, like a number of others, are having to accept the fact that, at least for the time being, it is necessary to go to the lengths of providing the option on the home page of access to versions optimised for either Netscape 3 or Internet Explorer 3.

    7.2 server and web-site management

    Despite goodwill and practical help, unless your site is one of the core responsibilities of the computer site that houses your server, problems will inevitably arise. They will arise anyway, but just more so ! And who would have anticipated two major power failures... ITEM was originally launched end October/beginning November. Then because of technical problems a new server and site had to be set arranged, giving rise to a new URL and the time consuming task of informing subscribers, press, search engines, listserves, and other sites with hypertext links to ITEM, not to mention the sites who carried links to ITEM, of which we were not aware.

    7.3 investment

    Many of our problems arose from undertaking an ambitious development on a nominal budget. Goodwill may be plentiful, but will it ensure that others can prioritise the solution of your needs and problems when it comes to a crunch ?

    7.4 data and image collection

    "This is a great way, I expect, to keep the ITEM entries up-to-date, since the contributors will now have strong reasons (seeing it on screen) to make it accurate and keep it so."

    Regarding the image quality issue - they are adequate for what I assumed is the purpose - to bring the viewer to the next step of deciding they want to see the thing from its source."

    One of the biggest problems, as others have found in comparable circumstances, is the time intensive data gathering and verification - to which we were now adding the complication of the obtaining and handling of images, in a variety of carrier sources and formats.

    We certainly hope that museums and other producers and associated publishers will recognise the value to them, as well as to their potential audiences and markets, of being well represented in ITEM.

    7.5 subscribing

    "I looked at the site when you first informed us about it, but was a bit daunted by having to figure out how to send money - you'd get more subscribers if you could offer subscription via credit card."

    As a small organisation, we do not have clearing arrangements with the major credit cards - a definite problem in selling on line subscriptions and one which we will have to resolve very quickly.

    8 THE FUTURE - and the PROSPECTS

    I had hoped to be able to be able to quote extensive (and exciting) statistics, but the site breakdown following the successful trial weeks and initial launch in November 1996 have set back our timetable but some statistics will be available for the presentation at the Conference.

    We have recharged our optimism with the relaunch at the end of January 1997 and are looking forward to the fruits of two years of hard work and many frustrations.

    We hope that the next twelve months will see the introduction of a Multi-lingual ITEM and international organisational links / collaborations with others, together with user feedback that will form the basis for the further development of ITEM and its user base.

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