The University of Reading, Department of Computer Science
Whiteknights, PO Box 225, Reading, Berks RG6 6AY, England.
Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University
Old Ashmolean Building, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ, England
The Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD, England
Traditionally museum visitors have had to physically go
to a museum to experience what it has to offer. However, many museums
can now be accessed directly from anywhere in the world via an Internet
connection. Of course the facilities on offer on-line are different
and not of the same quality as the real museum itself. However access
to some resources such as the museum store and records could potentially
be better than those available at the actual museum. This article
explores how museums have been using the Internet for access to their
collections, and how they could use it in the future, especially from
the virtual visitor's point of view. Two case studies of a large and
small museum which have embraced the technology seriously are included.
Mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth.
Access to museums can be difficult for some people because of the expense
of travel. The
"network of networks" provides a low-cost and instantaneous means of
transmitting museums information to people over great distances using
the extremely popular World
Wide Web (WWW, or Web for short) global hypermedia system (Berners-Lee,
1996). However, a significant difficulty with the
Internet is finding information of interest (Johnson,
1997). Automated "search engines" can provide search facilities
using keywords, but this can be a somewhat hit and miss affair in practice,
requiring significant selection skill on the part of the user. On-line
directories, maintained by experts, are one way that information in
a particular domain, such as museums, can be presented in a well thought
In this article we consider the ways the museums can interact with
their visitors using the Internet. Issues with respect to the type
of visitor and the rapidly changing technical facilities available
are discussed. The experiences of two museums, one of national status
and one of small but ambitious stature, are included. Finally a view
of possible developments in the future is posited.
Museums are traditionally information providers, drawing on and interpreting
their collections for their visitors. Schools, the general public, tourists,
scholars, etc., all potential museum visitors, are information gatherers.
Traditionally these gatherers have visited the information providers
such as museums. Now, with the advent of the Internet, it is increasingly
possible for the providers to reach out and give the gatherers experiences
while still located in their home (Kraut,
1996), work place, school, local library, etc.
To quote from an
on-line article on Virtual Museums by
Jason Argoski (1995):
The new [on-line] users are looking for
both information and amusement. And these, of course, are the very
attributes that all good museums share.
Museums are well-placed to provide real content that is appealing
to network users.
What is the Network?
The Internet computer network is a new medium which now exists alongside
other more traditional communication media (McLuhan,
1964) such as mail, newspapers, radio, telephone, television, etc.
Anyone involved in communicating information can benefit from its use,
including museums. The network provides a number of facilities which
can aid in the virtual museum visitor experience:
- Electronic mail (or "email" for brevity)
allows visitors to send queries to museum curators and other staff.
These can be answered in a timely manner far more easily than traditional
postal mail. Email messages are normally more informal than letters
and replies can include sections of the original message annotated
with answers. Like letters, and unlike telephone or personal calls,
email can be answered at a time convenient for the curator. Sending
an email can be a much less intimating experience for the sender
than contacting a professional by letter or phone. It is often significantly
cheaper, especially for international communication. Thus interaction
between museum staff and the public is likely to increase, which
may become a more important role for many in the museum profession.
- Newsgroups and mailing lists allow discussion
between a group of people, potentially geographically distributed
throughout the world. Newsgroups
are divided into thousands of specialized topics These discussion
groups may be "moderated" by a moderator who checks messages for
suitability before they are distributed, or "unmoderated", in which
case messages are sent out immediately. Moderated groups are generally
of higher quality because human intervention provides an editing
Museums could use suitable newsgroups to publicize their activities.
So far they have not taken advantage of this very cheap avenue
of information dissemination to any great extent, perhaps due
to lack of appreciation of the possibilities offered to interact
with potential visitors.
A museum may wish to set up its own electronic mailing list
for distributing announcements of events and developments to interested
potential visitors (both virtual and physical), in a similar but
possibly much more informal and responsive way to postal mailing
lists (e.g., for "friends" of the museum). A larger museum could
have further lists for more specialized discussion. The expense
is far less and turnaround much faster than traditional communication
means such as mail.
- The World Wide Web is perhaps the most widely known aspect of
the Internet, and the two are sometimes confused. The Web is a distributed
but linked information system. The concept of globally hyperlinked
information has been established for some time (Bush,
1945), but the required infrastructure has only burgeoned recently.
The Web consists of "servers" (computers acting as information
providers) and "clients" running "browsers" programs for end-users
(gatherers). A major reason for the Web's popularity is the very
easy and natural point and click interface for navigation around
the available information.
Increasingly, multimedia using graphics, sound, video, etc.,
as well as text is possible. A recent survey (Reynolds,
1997; summarized in Futers,
1997) indicates that 87% of people visiting museum Web sites
expect images. A major limiting factor is the speed of access,
but this is likely to increase in the future (although not as
fast as many would like).
Why use the Network?
It is worth considering the reasons why a museum might wish to use the
Internet. A number of these are enumerated here, some of which are generally
applicable to many organizations, and some of which are more specific
to the museum sector in particular:
In any case, it is very important for a museum to think carefully about
why it wants or needs a virtual Web site, and what potential benefits
this could bring (Strimpel, 1995;
Fernström & Bannon,
1997; Worden, 1997).
- Maintaining a presence on the Internet provides the potential
for instant worldwide publicity. Information such as tourist information,
opening hours, press releases, etc., may be included. At the most
basic level the information may be considered as "brochure-ware",
containing much the same material that may be found in a glossy
leaflet describing and advertising the facilities offered by the
- Fast and convenient communication with colleagues, the public,
etc., is possible using electronic mail. This depends on building
up a critical mass of visitors with suitable email access.
- An important facility for museums is the possibility of virtual
exhibitions, perhaps mirroring actual exhibitions in the galleries,
both temporary and permanent, but also allowing access to material
not otherwise generally available (e.g., objects in store, normally
by far of the majority of a serious museum's collection, or those
too fragile or sensitive for display). A recent survey has discovered
that around three quarters of virtual visitors expect to find virtual
exhibitions at museum Web sites (Futers, 1997;
- The network may be seen as an alternative, cheap, and complementary
form of information provision. In just the same way that recorded
music on CDs encourages rather than discourages attendance at live
music concerts, virtual exhibitions are likely to act as a draw
for those who are local enough and can afford to see the real thing.
- Remote access avoids the expense of travel, especially for international
access. Availability of on-line material is not affected significantly
by distance, apart from speed of downloading. Potential visitors
who may not be able to appreciate a museum's collection in any other
way can be given a chance to do so; and of course they may be encouraged
to visit the museum at a later date if the opportunity arises.
- On-line information gives relatively easy disabled access compared
to installing the required physical facilities in an actual museum.
Thus those who may never have a chance to visit a museum can be
afforded some degree of experience by the museum.
- An important development for the future will be increasing availability
of on-line databases for remote scholarly research of collections
(Mannoni, 1997). The possibility
of searching across a wide range of information distributed around
the world is now physically possible. If existing museum catalogues
can be digitized, research which previous took months or years could
take orders of magnitude less time to undertake.
Virtual Museum Sites
Sites containing museum information may be set up for a variety of reasons
and can give very different virtual experiences for on-line visitors.
The following are a few examples of why museum Web sites have been established
and what can be expected as a result:
Commercial production of a Web site is expensive and often results in
a site which may look impressive when accessed locally, but could be
very slow for more remote access. It may well lack real content unless
there has been a high degree of effective interaction with museum staff.
In addition, maintenance of the Web site will be a significant and continuing
expense if undertaken commercially. Unfortunately unmaintained sites
tend to date quickly. For example, a current list of events at the museum,
accurate opening times, admission prices, etc., are desirable. A major
benefit of the Web is that updates can potentially be done very cheaply
if a reasonable amount of technical expertise is gained by one or more
of the museum's staff.
- Enthusiasts, perhaps with no formal contact with a museum, sometimes
set up information, often very worthwhile in nature. This is especially
likely for specialist museums concerning popular hobbies (e.g.,
railway museums) or in areas where important museums exist without
good information available.
The problem here is that the information can date relatively
quickly, perhaps because the individual loses interest, moves
from the institution where the information is provided (often
a university), or whatever. However, this may not be immediately
obvious to the average virtual visitor, who could easily be misled.
- Information may be provided as part of some tourist resource.
The information is normally perfunctory in nature, but can act as
useful "brochure-ware" for potential visitors to museums, including
opening times, entrance fees, directions to the museum, etc. Provided
the content is kept up to date, this can be a useful source of information
on museums for visitors.
- Local government is in a good position to provide information
on local museums in a particular area. For example, in the UK, most
local councils provide some sort of on-line information, indexed
from the central government Web server under http://www.open.gov.uk/.
Some (but not yet many) now provide good museum information, again
normally in the form of brochure-ware.
- In some countries, the central government is itself directly
instrumental in providing and promoting on-line museum-related information.
For example, in France the Ministry of Culture has an extensive
Web site (Mannoni, 1996,
see under http://www.culture.fr/),
and provides some significant databases which are accessible on-line
around the world (Mannoni, 1997).
- Some regional museums services are setting up museum-related
sites which often list the museums in their area. This normally
only consists of basic information, but at least the providers are
in a position to maintain the information, and hopefully develop
it further in the future, perhaps in collaboration with the museums
concerned. The North of England Museums Service is developing such
a site, which may be helpful for tourists to the region, local schools,
- A museum may itself decide to create a site for marketing, educational
or other purposes. Often the impetus for such a site results from
the efforts of an enthusiast within the museum rather than a directive
from the management of the museum, although this is likely to change
as understanding of the Internet percolates through to higher levels
A dedicated museum Web site obviously has the potential to provide
the most comprehensive and dynamic information on the museum concerned.
Only if the museum itself is directly involved in the production
of a Web site is the virtual visitor likely to gain anything but
the most superficial experience of the museum's resources, and
even then much effort and expertise is required from the museum
1997b) considers a number of museum sites and briefly discuss
their potential interest to virtual visitors. The
Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) also described in these papers
and elsewhere (e.g., see Marshall,
1996) provide an extensive directory of on-line museums categorized
by country. This was originated by Bowen in 1994 and was adopted by
the International Council
of Museums (ICOM) in 1996. ICOM wishes to keep abreast of technology
(Anderson, 1997) and the
Internet provides an ideal way to bring the international professional
museum closer together (Karp, 1997).
Volunteers for around the world now maintain information for specific
countries within VLmp. The directory provides a good starting point
for any potential virtual visitor wishing to explore on-line museums
(see under http://www.icom.org/vlmp/).
In this article two example museums are considered in more detail
by personnel from the museums themselves. One example is a very large
museum, in fact the first to have itself own Web server in the United
Kingdom. The other is a much smaller museum in physical terms, but
is one that has embraced the technology enthusiastically and effectively.
On-line is it perfectly possible for a small museum to outshine a
large museum, and also to do so at a fraction of the financial cost
if suitably qualified enthusiastic volunteers with the right technological
expertise and design flair are available.
Case Study 1: A large museum
The Natural History Museum in London first ventured onto the Web in
January of 1994, and was the first UK national museum to have a WWW
site (see under http://www.nhm.ac.uk/).
At first, the Web pages were simply a link into the Museum's library
database, but it was soon realised that they could be used to promote
the Museum and advertise new exhibitions. New material was added and
the site grew organically.
By the middle of 1995, it was decided that the Web site needed a
complete overhaul. The overall design and layout of the pages was
not of the high editorial and design standards that the Museum requires
in it's printed literature. It was decided that the site should be
given a "look and feel" consistent with the Museum's corporate identity,
and a navigation system that would allow the visitor intuitive access
to all the material.
The re-design of the site took around five man-months to complete,
and the re-designed site went live in December of 1995. The launch
received publicity in the Information Technology sections of the UK
national daily papers, and several articles in the computer press.
Almost immediately after the launch, the site experienced a rapid
rise in usage, with the number of users increasing almost three-fold.
This increase was not just a temporary peak, but has been maintained
since then. Figure 1 shows the increase
in usage of the site over one year from August 1995. The dotted line
shows a 4% projection which illustrates an estimate of the average
growth in number of users of the Web as a whole.
In 1996, the Museum Web site received about 20,000 visitors a month,
approximately one sixth of the number of visitors the Museum receives
through the door. Figure 2 shows
that the majority of these visitors are from the UK or US. The demographics
of visitors to the Museum's Web site is similar to that of the Virtual
Library museums pages (VLmp) suggesting that it is similar to the
demographics of the Web as a whole. However, the NHM's Web site differs
from VLmp's in that it has a much higher proportion of visitors from
the UK (compare
Figure 3). This suggests that although physical location
has little influence on the accessibility of material on the Web, people
still prefer to access material from the Web sites of organizations
of which they are familiar due to their physical proximity.
The feedback form on the NHM's Web site has provided further information
about visitors to the site. Educational establishments are well represented,
with around one third of visitors from universities and about one
fifth from schools and colleges. The museum receives feedback from
teachers and educationalists using the Web site in the classroom,
mainly in the US and Canada. There is little evidence that schools
in the UK are using the Web in the classroom yet. Around one fifth
of visitors to the Web site are business people, often browing the
Web from work during their lunch break.
Overall the Museum's Web site has proved to be a valuable and very
cost-effective means of communicating to a wide audience. We anticipate
the significance of the Web to grow significantly for the Museum in
the coming years, and it is likely to become a vital tool in the NHM's
mission to maintain and develop its collections and to use them to
promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment
of the natural world.
In 1997 the museum put on a "Virtual Endeavour" temporary exhibition
using state-of-the-art virtual reality technology to present Captain
Cook's ship the Endeavour. A survey was undertaken to evaluate visitors'
experiences of the exhibition. This indicated that the major draw
for younger visitors was the ability for free movement around the
ship, whereas for older visitors, the content of the exhibition was
This type of exhibit is currently only possible for visitors actually
visiting the museum because it requires computer hardware costing
around fifty times that available in most homes, and would need an
extremely fast connection if delivered remotely over a network. However
given the rapid exponential advances in the speed of computer technology,
we can expect this type of virtual exhibition to be possible on the
Internet in years to come. Meanwhile, an on-line exhibit using today's
generally available technology is accessible from: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/VRendeavour/
The main Natural History Museums Web site is available at: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/
Case Study 2: A small museum
A few words are needed to introduce the relevant characteristics of
the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It is a small museum,
with a total staff of under eight full-time-equivalent posts, including
warding and cleaning staff. We have an outstanding collection of early
scientific instruments, housed a building of the first importance for
museum history - the original home of the Ashmolean Museum, built for
that purpose in 1683. As part of the University of Oxford, we are an
academic museum, involved in teaching and expected to carry on research
as well as acting as a research resource for the history of science
community. Our displays reflect these academic interests and, in particular,
our special exhibitions have historical themes relevant to current concerns
in the history of science.
Despite the academic setting, we see ourselves as enthusiastically
a public museum and we want to communicate more effectively with our
visitors. We are keen to have more visitors and to offer them a more
involving and rewarding experience, and we seem to be having some
success in this respect. Visitor numbers have more than doubled over
the last couple of years.
Since all of this is relevant to understanding our Web site, perhaps
an important point must be that a site should be individual and serve
the particular set of needs of the museum concerned. If it is to be
valued by staff and visitors, it needs to grow up in the museum, and
to represent what those involved care about. It is doubtful whether
it could be introduced successfully without a great deal of thought
and consultation. While you can gather ideas from other sites, it
would not be wise to do too much copying. The ingredients must come
from the museum and the museum must set the agenda.
We were one of the first academic museums to offer substantial material
via the Web, and it might be wondered why we bothered. We had plenty
of other things to do and, in any case, there were certain risks involved.
In academic circles in Britain the Web was - and to some extent still
is - associated with superficiality and triviality, and not without
justification, since much of the material on offer is disappointing.
We had to endure a fair amount of disdainful snorting and scepticism.
It is easier to explain how this affected our approach to building
a site than to explain why we bothered in the first place. But new
staff with experience of networks elsewhere introduced an enthusiasm
for linking the Museum to the extending university network and for
maximizing its usefulness. We then approached Web applications for
our newly installed local Ethernet network in an experimental frame
of mind. It was the coming thing and we wanted to be there - an unworthy
motive admittedly, but a human one. We could see advantages for accessibility
and publicity, and we relished the opportunity to challenge our somewhat
staid and austere image by being fairly early with something new,
unexpected and unproved.
How did we get started? There we had the unfair advantage of being
part of a university. This gave us access to the support and advice
of a computing service, and meant that we were connected to a local
network and through this to the
Joint Academic Network, JANET. It also meant that there were mainframe
computers on which we could lobby for space. We deliberately did not
build up gradually. Visiting sites "under construction" is always
a dispiriting experience: so many links take you to apologies and
appeals for indulgence. We felt that, such was the scepticism in our
world, that we had to offer something worthwhile from the word go,
so we launched only when we were satisfied that this was the case.
We found that getting started was not so difficult as might be thought.
We do not have an IT officer and there is no-one on the staff with
a qualification in computer science. It was useful that the university
runs relevant training courses and we did manage to find someone who,
though not formally qualified, was particularly enthusiastic and talented,
and to find some funds to employ him part-time. By giving him day
to day responsibility for maintaining the site and for designing its
various features, he was able to develop his knowledge and skill.
It is due to this member of staff, Giles Hudson, that the site maintains
a high standard of presentation. The relative ease mentioned earlier
relates to the situation when we began; there are potential difficulties
when dealing with prospects for the future.
Like most people in museum work, "our world" was a world of objects,
and it is from this obvious truth that much of the scepticism we met
derived. It was not a world where the real could be replaced by the
virtual. Of course no-one involved with museums on the Web imagines
that it could, but there is a fear in some quarters that this might
be a creeping displacement of traditional museum virtues, rather than
an adjunct to them. We had to demonstrate that there was something
worthwhile here even for object-based scholarship.
This was one reason why, from the beginning, the star attraction
was the presentation of a virtual version of the then current special
exhibition, "The Measurers: a Flemish Image of Mathematics in the
Sixteenth Century". This was meant to be a serious contribution to
the history of science, with a fairly challenging narrative, detailed
catalogue entries and very large images. It was important to prove
to our traditional audience that worthwhile material could be offered
on the Web. The success of this virtual exhibition has led to a policy
decision to offer virtual editions of each of our special exhibitions.
These are available in the gallery alongside the real exhibition and
also worldwide over the Internet. They contain much more information
than can be presented through the traditional resources of an exhibition
- labels, graphics, and so on - and, since the images are offered
at different resolutions, it is often possible to see more detail
on the computer screen than in the showcase. In addition, the exhibitions
are available via the Internet from anywhere at any time.
Further, we do not remove the virtual exhibitions when the real
ones are dismantled, so they stack up into a library of exhibitions.
It has been very helpful that we design our exhibition catalogues
on computers in house, as much of this work contributes to making
the virtual exhibitions. At present they are available from distant
computers via the Internet and also via a public computer located
in the museum. It has been very rewarding for the curators that all
the work involved in organizing an exhibition is not lost when it
is dismounted. The main benefit, of course, is accessibility for the
public and, despite the fears of some traditionalists, there is evidence
of virtual visitors being stimulated to come along in person, as well
as of history of science courses in other universities making use
of our material on the Web.
If the virtual editions of special exhibitions represent our major
effort, we also offer other things on the site. There is information
about the museum, of course, about the graduate course taught in the
museum, and about publications and postcards. Our newsletters are
published electronically as well as in print. There is a small image
library, a response form for comments and suggestions, and a collection
of links to other sites concerned with the history of scientific instruments.
In addition, we sometimes add virtual exhibitions that have no counterpart
in the galleries. One, for example, is of early photographic images
that we could not display for any length of time. Space is made available
for our students to mount their own virtual exhibitions based on material
in the collections, and the first of these is now on-line.
What difficulties have we experienced? Where we have included large
images - some in "The Measurers" exhibition are as large as 2 or 3
MBytes - downloading can be very slow, and well-nigh impossible for
users not connected to the high-speed UK university Wide Area Network
SuperJANET. We have modified this
in later exhibitions. A more serious difficulty is keeping pace with
technical and design developments. Sites tend to be judged by appearances
and it will become increasingly difficult for a small organization
not to look dated, but that is a familiar problem in more traditional
museum media. For the future, we look forward to improving accessibility
to object documentation, and to developing shared resources with museums
in the same field. One such initiative was successful in obtaining
a grant from the European Commission, and our existing commitment
to accessibility via the Web was a factor in the success of our bid.
In summary, we have found developing a Web site (location: http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/)
really worth doing, with increased accessibility as the chief virtue.
The library of special exhibitions is probably our best and most valuable
feature. It is vital for the museum curators to be as involved as
possible, so that the site really reflects the interests and priorities
of the museum. We are continuing to update the Web site as the technology
develops (Sphæra, 1997).
Producing a Web site can be difficult for museums. The first question
should be "Why do we want or need a Web site?". Answers will vary for
different museums, but it is very important to consider the experience
from the point of view of the virtual visitor and what they might wish
to gain from using the museum Web site, rather than just considering
what the museum has to offer. Here are some points to consider when
creating a museum Web site:
Perhaps most important in the design of a Web site for a museum is the
"home page" or location at which most virtual visitors first arrive.
This sets the scene and tone for the rest of the site and has a similar
role to the front entrance hall of a real museum. It should be very
obvious for different classes of visitor where they may wish to proceed.
Pointers for tourists, children, teachers, researchers, alternative
languages, etc., should be prominently located. The information presented,
which may be originally derived from the same or similar content, should
then be tailored for that class of visitor, and different aspects should
be emphasised as appropriate.
- Find an expert in the technology. For a large museum this may
be a professional company, which could cost a significant amount
of money, or it could be an enthusiastic volunteer for a smaller
- Use university contacts if possible. Museums normally have both
educational and commercial roles. It is worth exploiting academic
contacts since all universities already have good network access
and experience which it may be possible to exploit. For example,
computer science students may be very willing to undertake Web-based
projects in conjunction with a museum, at no financial cost to the
- Do not try to re-create the "traditional" museum experience.
The Web is a different medium with its own strengths and weaknesses
which should be exploited to enhance the virtual visitor experience.
Vast amounts of information such as museum catalogue databases can
be made available on-line at relatively little cost since computer
disk storage is cheap.
- Design Web pages with care. There are many technicalities and
tricks of the trade which may be used to dramatically improve the
apparent downloading speed of Web pages. Graphical images should
be used sparingly for fast access, especially on pages used to traverse
a Web site.
Any multimedia content requiring significant downloading time
should be at the "leaves" of the hierarchy of Web pages within
a Web site. The average time spent by a Web user on most pages
is only a few seconds since much time is spent following links
from page to page in order to arrive at a page where the content
may be of actual interest to the visitor. This process should
be made as painless and as fast as possible to ensure the visitor
is not discouraged.
Obvious and consistent navigation aids should be included on
all pages within a Web site to allow a visitor to move easily
within the site. For example, in a physical museum it may be difficult
to find the entrance hall from some galleries, but in a virtual
museum all locations should include a hyperlink directly back
to the "home page" for the museum.
- Keep your WWW pages up to date. Continuously updating a Web site
with new virtual exhibitions, and the latest information on activities,
opening times, etc., at the real museum will encourage re-visits.
Museum personnel must be actively involved in the Web site content
for its long-term success. One feature lacking in most current
museum Web sites, although highly popular and encouraged at academic
university sites, is the inclusion of a "home page" for each member
of staff, with interests, individual contact details such as an
email address, a photograph, publications, links to further personal
pages or interests, etc. This adds a personal touch totally lacking
in most commercial Web sites. Given that museums engage in commercial
and educational activities, more informal and dynamic areas in
a museum's Web sites should be encouraged, as well as the formal
more controlled parts. Such facilities will encourage interaction
with virtual visitors.
- Avoid making high-quality graphical images available unless you
are happy for them to be reused by others. Such images are slow-loading
and should never be included in navigation pages within a Web site.
In addition, copyright issues may need to be addressed. It is worthwhile
including a copyright notice where appropriate, but on-line copyright
is an evolving area. Virtual visitors expect images (Reynolds,
1997), so low and medium resolution images (which do not print
very well, but are adequate for screen viewing) should certainly
- Use the Internet for publicity, not for direct income generation
(yet), although attempts are being made in this area (Rees,
1997). Unless you are a very large museum you are unlikely to
make any significant direct income from a Web site. There is some
hearsay evidence that virtual access increases actual visits to
museums. In any case, a museum that intends to embrace the Internet
seriously should build up a virtual museum community of both the
public (potential actual visitors) and also professional contacts
Reynolds (1997) has found that the second
most popular reason for visiting a museum Web site (after pursuing
a personal interest) is to learn about a museum not in the virtual
visitor's locality. This certainly raises awareness of the museum
and could well influence a visit if the person is ever in the
physical locality of the museum in the future. This would bear
further investigation to see exactly how large the effects are
in practice. Whatever the influence exerted, it is likely to increase
exponentially because of the expansion in use of the Internet
Once a Web site is installed, it is important to ensure it is
registered with the major "search engines" (e.g., AltaVista: http://altavista.digital.com/)
and Web directories (e.g., Yahoo: http://www.yahoo.com/
and for museums VLmp: http://www.icom.org/vlmp/)
to allow potential visitors to find it. Reciprocal links are also
worthwhile with related sites such as similar museums or non-museum
sites covering the same subject area. Most visitors to on-line
museum arrive via a link from another site, although many also
arrive by chance such is the serendipity of traversing the Internet
(Reynolds, 1997). Much smaller numbers
hear of Web sites through more traditional means of publicity.
- Sponsorship or support may be possible through one of the large
computer companies, but this is probably only realistic on any significant
scale for museums of national or international standing.
For example tourists may wish to know how to find the physical museum
and where it is located, including the postal address, information
often lacking or well hidden in many existing museum Web sites. Children
may want to access on-line interactives in virtual exhibitions. Teachers
could be interested in education packs, both on-line and in paper
form. UK teachers would probably like to know how the museum could
help with aspects of the national curriculum. Researchers may well
wish to access the museum's database catalogue if it is available,
or to contact a suitable member of staff via email.
Other classes of visitor may also be relevant for different types
of museum (e.g., hobbyists). Currently the most common reason for
visiting a museum Web site is to explore a personal interest (Reynolds,
1997). A survey could well help with ascertaining the most useful
types of information presentation and a museum could put more effort
into more popular parts of their virtual site. Most Web servers can
record the number of "hits" per page automatically, and this information
could be very useful in determining how the Web site is being used.
On-line forms for feedback (similar to more tradition visitor books)
are also worthwhile.
More surveys complementing that of Reynolds
(1997) are needed to gain further insight into the demographics
of on-line museum visitors. Ideally a survey of interviews with such
visitors would add to the information already obtained via Web site
log files and through on-line interactive questionnaire forms.
The Future of Networks
Predicting the future of technology is always a hard and error-prone
activity where there can be many different points of view (Wieners
& Pescovitz, 1996). Here we consider some general trends with
regard to the Internet over the next few years.
Computer networking is still in its infancy, perhaps as developed
as personal computers were a decade ago. Different countries are also
proceeding at vastly different rates too. Over half the activity on
the Internet occurs in a single country, namely the USA. Interestingly,
when normalized against population, Singapore lead the world in use
of the Virtual Library museums pages (Bowen, 1997b).
This is a small country that has decided to embrace networking seriously
and has the resources to do it. The country's physically compact size
means this has been relatively easy to achieve in a very short space
of time. Other countries are also expanding in their network usage
at astonishing rates. Brazil's use of VLmp expanded 22-fold between
1995 and 1996, outstripping all other countries in growth rate (Bowen,
Figure 4 shows the expansion in total virtual visitors
using the VLmp resource up to the end of 1997.
For the network to succeed, the technology must be as easy to use
and ubiquitous as well-established equipment such as the television
and telephone is today. A reasonably cheap "black box" that plugs
into the wall and works first time is required.
WebTV is an attempt at this. Many information provision sectors
broadcasters, newspapers, libraries, etc., are converging as the
underlying technology converts to digital form (
Negroponte, 1995). Future black boxes may
handle many digital media such as satellite and cable TV, video phone
Internet, etc., in a seamless manner.
A reduction and harmonization in the cost of communication will
occur. However for the moment, communication costs in some countries
are an order of magnitude more than those in the US. Telephone lines
currently limit the speed of communication significantly. Even ISDN,
although digital at least, will only be a stopgap measure in the long
run. Cable TV speed of access allowing full screen moving image presentation
will be required. A future novel means of fast connection, the infrastructure
for which is already widely installed, may be via the electricity
In the US local phone connections are often free, unlike most of
the rest of the world. This has significantly boosted the use of the
Internet in the US since communication costs are fixed for 24 hour
access. In the future, costs may well be for volume (and content quality)
of data transmitted rather than for the time connected.
Faster access will become increasingly available using fibre optic
connections and high-speed network protocols such as ATM (Asynchronous
Transfer Mode) or gigabit Ethernet (a hundred times the speed of much
local area network technology). Network transfer of audio, video,
virtual reality and interaction will then be feasible at low cost,
assuming that computer hardware speed and capacity continue to develop
at current exponential rates.
There will be increased access from different sectors. As well as
universities which have traditional had excellent wide area network
communications, broadcasters, companies, homes, hospitals, libraries,
local/national government, museums, newspapers, publishers, schools,
shops, tourist offices, etc., are all increasingly providing information
for and gaining access to the Internet.
On-line charging will become established, providing a mechanism
for possible income generation, such as shopping. Micro-charging may
allow a small amount to be charged automatically for each page accessed.
Security allows the protection of sensitive information. This can
be effected using passwords, by the location of the client host accessing
the information, etc. Encryption of the data transmitted on the network
is possible to help ensure data such as credit card number or money
transfer details is only available for authorized access. Efficient
and trusted security mechanisms will be essential for the expansion
of network use in many areas, especially where financial transactions
The On-line Future for Museums
The world wide web enables you to visit
sites around the globe. Stroll through virtual museums, listen to
music, or catch up with the latest news ...
-- Cable Internet leaflet, Telewest Communications,
Bristol, UK (1997)
The cheap and simple availability of network access is essential
for the majority of information gatherers who may be potential virtual
museum visitors. Schools are still in the process of gaining on-line
access and are likely to be voracious users of on-line museum material.
Tourists, especially from more technologically advanced countries
such as the US, will increasingly wish to check museums facilities
before their trip. Currently major potential on-line museum visitors
are typically either enthusiasts of the technology or have convenient
Virtual visits before and after actual visits are likely, e.g.,
for school parties. On-line questionnaires could be helpful for feedback
on the actual museum visit as well as the virtual experience.
The majority of museums are still not on-line, especially among
smaller museums. As an interim measure, it may be easier for some
museums to provide on-line information en masse, e.g., through a regional
museums service or local government administration. Increasingly on-line
information will be provided directly from museums, as the technology
become ubiquitous, reliable, cheap and easier to maintain. Virtual
multimedia exhibitions, including interactive exhibits will become
the norm for museum Web sites.
Direct income generation will become realistic when cheap and secure
charging is available. Most museums will provide on-line shopping
facilities, perhaps in alliance with other museums or commercial partner
Comprehensive on-line directories of all museums throughout the
world will be available. This is already the case in some countries,
such as the service provided by the Netherlands tourist board.
Scholarly research based on museum objects will become vastly faster
with parallel searching of museum collection databases using standard
protocols such as Z39.50. Most preparation will be possible remotely.
If it is necessary to see a object physically, this can be located
and prepared for viewing before the actual visit, saving time spent
at the museum.
and the Web conference has now been established, the
first of which attracted over 400 delegates in 1997 (
Bearman & Trant, 1997). This is likely to
act as a focus for those who wish to keep ahead in the development of
improvements in the virtual museum visitor experience in the years ahead.
Naming on-line is an emotive issue and is open to change in the
Garber & Korzeniowski, 1997). Currently museums
have no "top-level domain" name of their own, unlike companies (".com"),
education establishments (".edu"), government (".gov"),
organizations (".org"), etc. Domain names can also depend on
the country involved (e.g., ".uk" for the United Kingdom).
For some examples, see some of the "URLs" included in this article.
A given museum may be placed under any of these domains, depending
on it inclination, or on its Web site provider. In the UK, academia
(".ac.uk") and schools (".sch.uk") have their own
sub-domains. In the future, museums could establish a worldwide domain
name such as ".mus", perhaps under the auspices of
ICOM, or sub-domains in individual countries (e.g., ".mus.uk"
in the UK). However, this will depend on action by the museum community
itself, either internationally or nationally.
A benefit to virtual visitors of a more uniform naming scheme for
museums could be an improvement in the ability to find a particular
museum on-line. A directory such as VLmp (Bowen,
1997a & 1997b) could be (semi-)automatically
generated from such information, and become much more comprehensive
and reliable as a result. This is an important issue that museums
have yet to address satisfactorily. Exact developments in this area
remain to be seen, but it is hoped that the museum community can organize
such developments in the future.
At the 1997 UK
Museums Association conference, Alex Morrison of
Cognitive Applications posited the following provocative statement:
Object fetishism is on the way out. Museums
will collect and display information, not artifacts.
Most museum professional would probably argue against this statement
since collections of objects are one of the most important features
that distinguish museums from other institutions such as libraries.
However the worth of objects without their associated provenance is
significantly diminished, and interpreting objects for the public
is also an extremely important part of a museum's raison d'etre. Thus
museums certainly do need to collect and display information, and
the Web is a valuable tool in distributing this to a potentially much
wider set of visitors than has previously been possible.
If used wisely and sensibly, the Internet is a effective way in
which potential visitors can access up-to-date museum-related information
conveniently. Maintaining timely information is a costly endeavor
and finding the desired information can be difficult in the sea of
data available on-line. Automated search using keyword access is effective
if the term or terms used are reasonably unique and semantically unambiguous.
However, specialized directories created by human expertise will always
have the edge over automated means of searching if they are available.
In the museum field, one such directory is the Virtual Library museums
pages (VLmp). To access this directory on the
World Wide Web, use the following Universal Resource Locator (URL):
Finally, remember that on-line services are complementary to tradition
museum services; "virtual" museums will not replace real museums!
Thank you to all those who have helped develop the
Virtual Library museums pages, especially
Cary Karp of the International
Council of Museums. The case studies are based on presentations
given as part of
a session at the 1996
Museums Association Conference, Harrogate, UK. An abridged version
of the Museum of the History of Science
case study appeared in the November 1997 issue of the Museums Journal
(Bowen, Bennett & Morrison, 1997).
A shorter revised version of
this paper is also due to appear in a special issue of the journal
Publics et Musées in September 1998. This extended paper
is being presented at the
MW'98 conference with the permission of the Publics et Musées
- Anderson (M.), 1997.
Moving museums beyond technology. ICOM News: Newsletter of the International
Council of Museums, 50th anniversary special issue, pages 22-23.
- Argoski (J.), 1995.
Virtual Museums: The Web experience. The Virtual Mirror. URL: http://www.vmirror.com/rov-int/museums.html
- Bearman (D.), Trant (J.),
Museums and the Web, 1997: Selected Papers. Archives & Museum
Informatics, 5501 Walnut Street, Suite 203, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
15232-2311, USA. URL: http://www.archimuse.com/
- Berners-Lee (T.),
1996. World Wide Web past present and future. IEEE Computer,
- Bowen (J.P.), 1995. The
World Wide Web Virtual Library of museums. Information Services
& Use, 15(4):317-324.
- Bowen (J.P.), 1996. On-line
museums. Revue Informatique et Statistique dans les Sciences Humaines,
- Bowen (J.P.), 1997a. The
World Wide Web and the Virtual Library Museums Pages. European Review:
Interdisciplinary Journal of the Academia Europaea. 5(1):89-104,
- Bowen (J.P.), 1997b.
The Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp): Whence and whither?
In Bearman & Trant (1997), pages 9-25.
- Bowen (J.P.), Bennett (J.),
Morrison (I.), 1997. On-line museums: Case studies. Museums
Journal, 97(11), November. Based on
a session at the 102nd Museums Association Conference, Harrogate,
UK, 1996. URL: http://www.cs.reading.ac.uk/museum/ma96/
- Bush (V.), 1945. As we may
think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176:101-108.
- Fahy (A.), Sudbury (W.), editors,
1995. Information: The Hidden Resource, Museums and the Internet,
Proc. 7th International Conference of the MDA, Edinburgh, UK. The
Museum Documentation Association, Jupiter House, Station Road, Cambridge
CB1 2JD, UK. URL: http://www.open.gov.uk/mdocassn/
- Fernström (M.),
Bannon (L.), 1997. Enabling Technology for Museum Visitors:
Issues and Experiences. In Bearman & Trant
(1997), pages 191-199.
- Futers (K.), 1997.
Tell me what you want, what you really, really want: A look at Internet
user needs. In Proc. Electronic Imaging and Visual Arts (EVA),
Paris, France, September. Varsari Enterprises, Alexander House,
50 Station Road, Aldershot, Hampshire, GU11 1BG, UK. URL: http://www.brameur.co.uk/vasari/
- Garber (L.), Korzeniowski
(P.), 1997. Internet splits over domain name controversy. IEEE
Computer, 30(7):12-14, July.
- Johnson (J.), 1997.
Untangling the Web. Museums Journal, 97(5):32-33, May.
- Karp (C.), 1997. Internet.
ICOM News: Newsletter of the International Council of Museums, 50(1&2):9.
- Kraut (R.), editor, 1996.
The Internet@Home. Communications of the ACM, 39(12):32-74, December.
- Mannoni (B.), 1996.
Bringing museums online. Communications of the ACM, 39(6):100-105,
- Mannoni (B.), 1997.
A virtual museum. Communications of the ACM, 40(9):61-62, September.
- Marshall (L.), 1996.
Code for a Grecian urn. Wired Magazine, pages 75-104, September.
- McKenzie (J.), 1997.
Building a virtual museum community. In Bearman
& Trant (1997), pages 77-86.
- McLuhan (H.M.), 1964.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Reprint edition, MIT Press, 1994.
- Negroponte (N.), 1995.
Being Digital. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Rees (J.), 1997. Income producing
activity and the Web. In Bearman and Trant (1997),
- Reynolds (R.), 1997.
Museums and the Internet: What purpose should the information supplied
by museums on the World Wide Web serve? M.Sc. thesis, Department
of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK.
- Sphæra, 1997.
The Newsletter of the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford,
Issue No. 6, page 5, Autumn.
- Strimpel (O.), 1995.
Museums on-line: Worth the visit? In
Fahy and Sudbury (1995), pages 181-185.
- Wieners (B.), Pescovitz
(D.), 1996. Reality Check. San Francisco: Hardwired.
- Worden (S.), 1997. Thinking
critically about virtual museums. In Bearman
& Trant (1997), pages 93-109.