Conference Papers

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

Andrea Witcomb
Research Institute for Cultural Heritage Studies, Curtin University

The End of the Mausoleum: Museums in the Age of Electronic Communication

The German word museal (museumlike) has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than the needs of the present. Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are the family sepulchres of works of art (Adorno 1967:175).

In this short quotation from Theodor Adorno's article, "Valéry Proust Museum", is embedded a set of ideas which until recently provided one definition of the museum, in an intellectual tradition which reaches back to Quatremere de Quincy and forward to Theodor Adorno and more recently Douglas Crimp (Sherman 1994). It is a tradition which links the museum with the more stultifying aspects of modernity. As Andreas Huyssen describes it, the battle against the museum by those on the left and in the avant garde movement has been a long one. For them, museums have "stood in the dead eye of the storm of progress serving as a catalyst for the articulations of tradition and nation, heritage and canon, and has provided the master maps for the construction of cultural legitimacy in both a national and a universalist sense" (Huyssen 1995:13).

While this intellectual tradition has a more popular face in the image of the museum as a temple or treasure house - an image which reinforces the idea of museums as having no connection to the present - it is also an image which points to the central importance of objects, to the material world, in constructing narratives of legitimacy. The materiality of objects seemed to provide an empirical basis for nineteenth century ideas of civilization as material progress at the same time as supporting ideas of authenticity and originality. By studying the fabric of objects, museum curators could classify them and order them into taxonomies in what appeared to be an objective manner. These classifications and taxonomies were themselves supported by a historical framework which used the exhibition space of the museum to popularise a narrative of western society as the pinnacle of civilisation. As Tony Bennett argues, the "emergence of a historical frame for the display of museum exhibits was concurrent with the development of an array of disciplines and other practices which aimed at the life-like reproduction of an authenticated past and its representation as a series of stages leading to the present" (Bennett 1988c: 88-89). As Bennett goes on to explain, this led to "universal histories being annexed to national histories as, within the rhetorics of each national museum complex, collections of national materials were represented as the outcome and culmination of the universal story of civilisation's development" (Bennett 1988: 89). Order was imposed on heterogeneity.

As a consequence of this focus on the material qualities of the object, museums laid themselves open to critiques which accused them of commodity fetishisation, elitism, or reflecting bourgeois values. The New Museology, for example, represents the most recent development of this line of critique. It criticises the notion of the object as possessing inherent moral, aesthetic characteristics or as reflecting an objectivist, empirical representation of the social world ( Jordanova 1991, Kirschenblatt-Gimblett 1991, Sumarez-Smith 1991, Tawadros 1990) in order to politicise museum representations. Notions of hegemony, domination and erasure of the 'other' are used to point out that such a perspective is irrevocably part of a hegemonic discourse in which claims about knowledge are presented in absolute terms.

While these critiques have been important in opening up new perspectives on museums, the focus of this paper will be not so much on criticising the focus of museums on objects but on arguing that the status of objects within museums, and hence their authority to 'speak' within this hegemonic system of representation, is also being questioned by the inclusion in exhibitions of non-objects - particularly mock-ups, audio-visual technologies and interactive computer information points. Museums are now continuous with the media. They use film, television footage, magazines and newspapers in their exhibitions as sources of information and as part of their displays. As Roger Miles (1993:27) suggests, "modern multimedia exhibitions reflect not the international world of museums as repositories, but the external world in which museums now find themselves. This is the world of our post-industrial society - dominated by technology, with pervasive media and advertising industries, and instantaneous electronic communications; a society with a pluralistic culture in which the boundaries between high art and mass culture have broken down".

Such inclusions, I want to argue, are breaking apart the centralising impetus of the museum, forcing a questioning of its authoritative voice, a questioning which is separate from, but adds to the impact of, the political critiques I just mentioned. In particular, I want to suggest that the association between electronic mediums of communication and the notion of information can serve as a useful conceptual base for currently emerging forms of museum practices. It is a conceptual tool which enables us to get away from the reified concepts of authenticity, aura and originality which have been, until recently, the basis for the museum's claim to knowledge. This, I want to argue, opens up a space for museums which frees them of their necessary association with the nation-state and with hierarchical forms of power. It does this because the notion of information and its association with electronic technology sets up a space which cannot be understood as hierarchical, as setting up a distance between a centre of power and its periphery.

From treasure houses to touch screens

One way of exploring how electronic technology can set up a non-hierarchical space, is to make use of the Canadian tradition of communication studies in which technologies are understood as having cultural effects through their form as well as through their content. Television, for example, is a cultural artefact through being a particular kind of technological medium as much as through the programs which are shown. This way of viewing technology has its origins in the work of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Both Innis and McLuhan argued that communication technologies have cultural effects as a result of the very medium which they used. For Innis, any given civilisation would be prone to a particular 'bias of communication' depending on whether its dominant communication technology led to the control of space or of time (Innis 1973).

The uniqueness of electronic technology, as McLuhan pointed out, is that it overcomes both biases. It erases time and space through speed (McLuhan in his Introduction to Innis 1973). In Understanding Media , McLuhan suggests that the "obsession with the older patterns of mechanical, one way expansion from centres to margins is no longer relevant to our electric world. Electricity does not centralise, but decentralises. It is like the difference between a railway system and an electric grid system: the one requires railheads and big urban centres. Electric power, equally available in the farmhouse and the Executive Suite, permits any place to be a centre, and does not require large aggregations" (McLuhan 1967:45). Politically the implications are enormous. For McLuhan, electric speed is "bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion which has highlighted human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree. It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro, the teenager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media" (McLuhan 1967:12-13). Electronic technologies then, force interaction.

Taken to the museum, this means that the move from objects towards information, a movement which is associated with electronic technologies, should lead critical analysis away from a focus on questions of representation towards a concern with articulation - with how the museum is connected into and operates through other channels of communication such as television, the internet, and film.

Looked at in this way, it is possible to reinterpret what sometimes appears as a rather naive and utopian narrative around electronic technologies and their social effects. While the discourse which accompanies changes in museum practices makes it appear as if the links being established between the museum and information technologies are part of a democratising revolution in which the museum is being more responsible to the public, ensuring 'access' to its communities, (for example MacDonald 1987, 1989, 1992) this is a discourse which has a much wider context, a context which places the museum well within contemporary cultural change. For the push to use technology and to become part of the information society is not just ideological. It has a context in the changing nature of tourism which is becoming transnational and an economic context which demands that museums be assessed by the numbers which come through the doors and not on the civilising effect of the museum, as well as in a political climate which demands ever greater representation of and access to different social groups.

"A museum for the global village"

I now want to look at how some of these issues are dealt with by museums themselves by focusing on the Canadian National Museum of Civilisation and the Australian National Maritime Museum. The Canadian Museum has been described by its director, George MacDonald, as a museum of the "information society", and as a "museum for the global village". MacDonald's views are explicitly linked to the work of McLuhan and form perhaps, the most strongly articulated arguments from within the museum world for an engagement by the museum institution with the new social structures and values emerging out of the shift from an industrial to an information society.

For George MacDonald, "all museums are, at the most fundamental level, concerned with information: its generation, its perpetuation, its organisation, and its dissemination" (1992:161). This means that objects and other documentary material are important not for any intrinsic value but for their information value. It is thus that he can claim that museums are about information rather than objects. From an information perspective, for MacDonald, there is no difference between an object and a photograph or an oral history tape. All three represent information.

For MacDonald, this shift in valuing the object for its information rather than its material value is symptomatic of the re-organisation of the museum's social function, in line with the shift from an industrial to an information society. For the "values, attitudes and perceptions that accompany the technological transition from industrial to information society can make it possible for museums to achieve their full potential as places for learning in and about a world in which the globetrotting mass media, international tourism, migration, and instant satellite links between cultures are sculpting a new global awareness and helping give shape to what Marshall McLuhan characterised as the global village" (MacDonald 1992:161).

It is in this respect that the concept of information becomes important. For MacDonald, the concept leads to a more dynamic conception of the museum, beyond that of a repository, towards that of a resource which can be tapped by users all over the world. Technology is crucial in turning the museum from a repository to an information resource. In this light it is interesting to take note of an article entitled "The intelligent museum", by Eiji Mizushima, a Japanese systems engineer involved in the construction of new museums. Mizushima defined the contemporary museum in terms of information, a concept which he places in opposition to old fashioned museums which he saw as static receptacles:

In speaking of modern museum architecture, I believe that the museums should no longer be seen passively as a receptacle for collections and visitors but, actively, as a device that receives and transmits information and supports various museum activities dynamically (Mizushima 1989:242). For Mizushima, an 'intelligent museum' is "in essence one that highlights information, and therefore makes structural provision for information circulation and management" (Mizushima 1989:241). An intelligent museum is one that (a) can control automatically museum operation and management and exhibit management; (b) can control the museum environment (exhibit environment and conservation environment); (c) is structurally equipped, both within and without, with information/communication capabilities; and (d) can control with computers and 'new media' equipment a visitor information service (Mizushima 1989:242).

For Mizushima, a museum which is premised on a notion of information is dynamic and interactive rather than static and authoritative. Such a museum is, for Mizushima, contemporary in orientation. The technology needed to establish the information flows is one which breaks the association of the museum with a mausoleum, with the dead past.

Another example of such a re-orientation can be found in the Australia-USA Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum.1 This gallery is interesting for it combines an indifference to the status of objects with the way it uses electronic technology as well as reproductions in its displays. The loss of the sanctity of the object, and its ability to provide a direct link between past and present is apparent in the way in which the opening exhibition for the USA-Australia gallery was developed. One of the most pressing problems the gallery faced was the difficulty in finding appropriate objects with which to tell the story of the maritime links between the USA and Australia. Many of the interesting objects were already in major collections in the USA and were not always available for long term loan. Furthermore, the nature of the narrative was not always compatible with the use of objects. A 'televisual' documentary approach could deal with the issues the curators wanted to explore more effectively. This was the case, for example with the display on Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War for which a data base with a computer touch screen was developed. This database used material broadcast on television during the Vietnam war - a comment on the mediatised nature of the war itself and one which was also used to great effect in the display dealing with the Gulf war which was experienced in the West as a non-stop televisual spectacle - as well as interviews with navy personnel and their experiences during the war.

These display techniques highlight the way in which objects have lost their central position within museum activity. Not only was collecting display driven, but the need to develop the exhibition meant that collecting objects was not the gallery's only task. To begin with, photography became extremely important to the gallery's activities as did film. For example, if objects were not available for loan, particularly those located in America, a photograph was requested instead. These eventually became graphics with accompanying labels, having a similar status as objects in their narrative role. The value of both was defined in terms of information. The juxtaposition of graphics and objects is one of the means by which the opposition between an original and its copy is currently being confused. The focus on information has meant that messages previously communicated by the object alone can now be communicated as effectively by a photographic image. Graphics became important not only as background material, providing context for the objects, but as artefacts in their own right. A reproduction is just as valuable as the original for this purpose, despite a residual sense of loss amongst the curators that the original was unavailable for display. The mystique of authenticity had all but disappeared.

This process of the disappearance or displacement of the object was taken one step further in the creation of an exhibition in video and in computer data bases, accessed by touch screens. There was in fact a curatorial position within the staff of the gallery assigned entirely to the research and development of these electronic exhibitions. In the Australia-USA gallery, videos were used to expand the interpretation of objects and to cover stories which could not be told through objects. Videos became an exhibition in themselves achieved through the visual reproduction of the real event or object. So, for example, the themes of the gallery are introduced by a video wall which uses a pastiche of images, superimposed on one another and constantly changing to communicate the subject of the gallery. The only interpretative aid is a musical/special effects sound track. There is no label and no spoken narrative. This exhibit is in fact an example of the way in which museum spaces are becoming virtual spaces - where images of museums, collections and displays precede or become superimposed on actual museums, objects and displays.

At another level, the idea of the virtual museum is also being taken up in representations of cyberspace. For example, in the film Disclosure, cyberspace holds the information which will provide the evidence needed by the protagonist, played by Michael Douglas, to prove his innocence of the charge of sexual harassment. Entry to this space of information is through a traditional museum like atrium, entered through a classical doorway. In this space are many doors which lead to different files. The space is a maze as well as an archive of information.

The use of the traditional museum as an architectural symbol for virtual reality or cyberspace illustrates the complex nature of the changes involved in the way we conceptualize museums in the age of electronic communication. In the popular imagination, as well as in established academic discourses about museums, museums represent centralised power and the material world, while virtual reality represents a more democratic and immaterial space. If this is the case, why are museums becoming a popular way of representing cyberspace? Why is it that, as the museum moves away from a referent in a reality constructed through objects, as they change their architectural design towards more open and less imposing architectural forms, virtual reality takes up on the museum, in its nineteenth century form, as a symbol for itself?

One possible answer is indicated by the tone of the literature on virtual technology and the internet - both emphasise questions of access and democracy. Irrespective of the argument surrounding the issue of whether the information highway is indeed more democratic than other media, taking up the museum as a symbol for a virtual space makes such a claim more concrete. As I have argued so far, museums have been associated with privileged access to knowledge. They have been 'sacred spaces' open to those who know how to read its rituals and texts (Duncan 1995). They were socially and culturally exclusive. Putting museums on the net or into virtual reality immediately undermines such claims to exclusiveness - anyone can visit the Louvre or the Tate without physically having to go there. They can behave and comment as they want while doing so. They can even download or print copies of the artworks they see. Making 'forbidden' spaces open is a recurring practice of virtual reality technologies - in video games where military activities such as flying fighter jets are available to children in simulation, and of course through simulated pornography. The availability of museums alongside these forms of entertainment only adds to the ways in which the museum, as a cultural icon, is increasingly implicated in contemporary media flows. Virtually reality is one of the ways in which traditional discourses of museums are being re-troped so that new associations for old institutions can emerge.

At the same time however, it is the popular association of the museum with materiality and presence which also gives the museum its difference from the world of simulation. For some commentators, the increasing 'museumfication' of the world through such things as historical recreations in film and television documentaries means that the museum is now inseparable from other media (Baudrillard 1983). But, as Andreas Huyssen (1995) argues, because of the museum's continued claim to materiality, museum and television gazes are not the same. For Huyssen, the suggestion that the mass media, especially television, have created an unquenchable desire for experiences and events, for authenticity and identity which television is unable to satisfy, puts the museum in a unique situation. The idea is particularly suggestive if one notes that the current museum boom emerged at precisely the same point at which electronic technologies became the basis for discussions about the 'information society'. The increasing virtuality of the world seems to demand its own counterpoint in the materiality of the object that has withstood time. Existence in time creates its own aura, as Walter Benjamin (1973) pointed out, but this only becomes significant if it can be counterpointed by its opposite. As Huyssen argues, "the need for auratic objects, for permanent embodiments, for the experience of the out-of the ordinary, seems indisputably a key factor of our museumphilia. Objects that have lasted through the ages are by that very virtue located outside of the destructive circulation of commodities destined for the garbage heap. ... The materiality of the objects themselves seems to function like a guarantee against simulations" (1995:33).

It would seem then, that the same objects' existence in virtual space or in reproduction enhances its auratic presence in the material world. The increasing museumfication of the world and the parallel mediatisation of the museum have meant an uneasy tension in which the world of simulations guarantees the continued relevance of the material world. While electronic media have, I argued, enabled a questioning of the status of objects in museums, with a consequent freeing up of the kinds of narratives museums use in the interpretation of their collections, this electronic, virtual world has at the same time, ensured the continued relevance of the material world. The challenge for museums is that they now have an opportunity to negotiate these tensions and, in the process, re-invent what we might mean by a museum.


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