Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Object Immersion: Database-Driven VRML and Robocam Technology in the Virtual Museum

Angelina Russo, University of South Australia

This paper aims to define an application for a particular vrml technology. It uses the museum and emerging virtual museum as the basis for exploring application of dynamic database driven vrml and RoboCam technology. As a designer with several years experience in a design museum in Australia, my interest in the digitisation of object collections and the subsequent display of this material within virtual environments stems from a desire to explore and translate existing museum roles into the virtual realm.

While mainstream museums in Australia struggle to establish methodologies for content display on the web, the translation of three dimensional space and object display are only just beginning to be explored.. Curators, education officers, technicians and museum management guide the process of digitising and presenting web material while designers watch on. The metamorphosis from three dimensional display space to two dimensional virtual space is undertaken with little research and development of the potential three dimensional representation of gallery spaces in the virtual museum environment.

Digital technology and its application within museum management is fundamental to the growth of collections and museum issues peculiar to Australia. If Australian museums do not take on the role of presenting their information on the web we can be sure that our stories and diverse history will not be told.

At the time of writing, the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia, has just won a national contract to develop AMOL (Australian Museums on Line.), a database which incluse a national directory of museums, browser, resource links and forum. Curators and museum management will, over the next year develop strategies for updating and developing digital delivery within the context of broadening museum accessibility. Whilst it represents an exciting opportunity for display of collections,it remains to be seen whether research and development of the spatial translations and object representation will form part of the project.

This paper will deal with the specific technology known as dynamic database driven vrml and will attempt to define an appropriate application within the context of presenting and displaying museum object collections on the world wide web. It will explore the interactive nature of the technology and its application within three dimensional representations of museum space.

The paper will focus on the dichotomy between real and virtual museum space and object representation within that space. In doing so, it will develop a methodology for the application of this technology within virtual museum display.


The system of organising and classifying object collections is one of the core activities of museum as a cultural institution. These very same objects are susceptible to heat, dust and light all of which result in collections spending most of their time in storage sheds away from main museum buildings and display specs. The virtual museum may, in the first instance, provide an opportunity to display more of the collection more often. Virtual museum spaces which allow objects to be chosen from databases and viewed within contextual environments could see the creation of intriguing virtual galleries constructed individually for each new visitor.

Virtual museums may provide the potential for all object collections to be viewed randomly anytime a visitor enters the virtual space. Display spaces in turn could be programmed to construct themselves at the moment of perception and events take place without curator anticipation of visitor interests. Dynamic database driven vrml which learn the habits and likes of the user are being developed at the same time that virtual reality software is allowing construction of virtual spaces in real time. Robocam technology which surveys physical space from a given point has the potential to overlap both physical and virtual environments.

The museum represents a social and political ordering manifest in the registration, classification and display of objects.

Having established a recognisable typology, the museum has concentrated on engaging the viewer in the narrative of the collection. By offering interpretative display spaces which allow the audience to engage with the discussion of ideas as a significant aspect of the presentation of objects, collections being used to support complex ideas about who we are, our histories, cultures and societies.

The museum continues to form part of the political, moral and social discourse, whether at the level of suggestion, or discussion through the development of exhibitions based on controversial, sensitive or entertaining material. The virtual museum takes its cues from the traditional museum in that it too will be responsible for ordering and representation within some social, historical or political context. Within the virtual environment, the visitor has access to the entire collection and in turn the opportunity to map his own journey through the museum space.

With many museums digitising their collections for both archive and web access, the virtual gallery has the potential to draw information on objects and collections not only from a single museum but on national and international basis. This type of collaborative venture, global access to object collections world wide falls within the continuing rhetoric of ‘information super highways’ and ‘global villages.’ The language of world wide web delivery remains in a quasi science fiction state led by a belief in the unmitigated strength of the technology.

Fisher (1) suggests that the museum holds a position of power by sourcing, acquiring and ordering cultural artefacts and this in turn creates its monopoly of history, society and culture. He speaks of the public museum as being involved in the instruction of history, culture and society and the museum display of material as an attempt to impart that knowledge. He calls this a technology of series, - the display of objects within a series of spaces which are not just representational but act as an itinerary of following which the visitor must perform. "The museum converts rooms in to paths, into spaces leading from and into somewhere. (2)

Fisher explains that this motion through space is an act of recapitulating history itself, a relentless forward motion and that the stroll through the museum is an act in harmony with history and the museum and not the object, which the museum has hidden in history.

Bennett(3) suggests that while the ‘new museum’ forms part of a new discursive space in which ‘man’ functions as metanarrator and archactor of the story of his own development, we will not understand the function and order of this space if viewed solely as a compensatory space in the face of ruin of human subject. Nor can we focus solely on its representational aspects. He offers that the museum space is not somehow separate from the representation of the object, but that movement leads to establishing links between visitor and history rather than object. This reflection on movement through space has reaffirmed the desire to explore three dimensional space in the virtual museum as a method of linking the visitor to context, that is story and history rather than the specific object of a specific collection.

The Virtual

Movement through the virtual gallery constitutes a political act in that the representation medium is one steeped in heroic rhetoric of the power and progress of technology. The represented object gains in political status through the museums’ ability to reduce and present material in this way. The virtual reality offers new modes of perception and opens new spaces for the imaginary.

Boyer (4) comments that while every avant guard artist makes self-referential claims that unconventional modes of representing reality and new state of the art sensibilities are emerging, it is worthwhile to compare these testimonies to some of Walter Benjamin’s writings in order to understand the continuing legacy of how technology promises progress yet often destroys or dissimulates.

There are, 'in all technological advances, both progressive and regressive outcomes and while new experiences and processes may occur, each step forward is fraught with anxiety and omission.'(5)

Boyer uses Walter Benjamin’s ‘bibliographic allegory’ to speak of the metaphor of Paris as a city of mirrors. Here, Paris can be read through historical memories, fragments of information, words written in her honour, yet she resists careful analysis and merely reflects back to the reader one of the infinity of images or forgotten fragments found in her reading rooms or in mirrored effects. This reading of the city is interpreted in Jacque Tatti’s film ‘Playtime’ where the fragmented images of historic Paris, the memory of the city and past moments are reflected in the cool modern materials of built environment - reflections which can only be seen but never entered.

Boyer uses this allegory as a metaphor for the virtual worlds of electronic technology. She establishes this dialogue through the fundamental understanding of ‘hypertext.’ as a process of non-sequential electronic reading and writing that offers the reader/writer a series of branch points within an interactive computer network from which to choose. It is a vast / assemblage that enables the user to shuttle constantly back and forth among words, images, sounds, maps and diagrams. (6)

The hypertext system is based on associative indexing and connectionist modes of thought rather than traditional methods of categorisation such as library card classification schemes and fixed sequential readings such as those found in the museum.

Within an interactive hypertext environment, links between spatial components be they texts, photographs, animation, film or sound, can be made in a random associative manner at the click of a computer mouse.

This definition has immediate impact on the digitisation of museum collections and storage management. If a specific object is sourced and viewed through random associative clicking through interactive hypertext environments, the actual location of the real object becomes less important. One no longer searches the collection of a particular institution, but searches all institutions for a particular collection. All subsidiary information can be viewed by accessing search engines and asking for specific topics.

Boyer reflects on the many metaphors of cyberspace and the proliferation of dialogue which refers to some element of non-space, of the labyrinth qualities of the non specific virtual space, but contained by memory space. ‘………….Numerical images can be assessed directly from a given electronic network and submitted to morphogenetic changes, at which time they quickly become contra - minated by different user manipulations and refigurings. Conse- quently, images no longer constitute a window on the world, they are no longer controlled by linear perspective and seen at a dis- tance; the spectator now penetrates into figural space, gaining access to representations within the electronic network or to image programs that are never stable but are constantly in the process of being made and remade, formed and deformed. Thus a new topol- ogy of the image is established, one that offers multiple and para- doxical hybridisations between the mode of generating images and the mode of perception, between figurative thought and logical- numerical codes or languages. (7)

Having explored the integral role of movement in the understanding of historic context, the lack of linear perspective and representation of figural space (that is space which can be mapped out and embellished by rapid and repetitive accompaniment) form the basis for translating museum collections to three dimensional virtual environments. .


The metaphor of labyrinth speaks of worlds which confront our bodies and our experiences of space and overlay new experiences of order. The labyrinth has always been a spatial conception with metaphors of disorientation, while in the virtual, Boyer speaks of them becoming ‘meta-labyrinths or strange knots and irrational dizziness. (8)

Queau (9) notes that meta labyrinths are abstract and formal, not material; they are constantly moving and changing into structures that cannot be imagined. He suggests that it is not so much a matter of losing ones’ way and the development of entirely new languages with which to move between the formal models and generated images of ‘the virtual’ and the sensual experience they provide as we move through virtual worlds. Queau suggests that once we are deep within computer generated cyberspace, we are obliged to pay close attention to the links and nodes that interlace reality and appearances, illusions and symptoms, images and models. ‘Full immersion in the virtual means that everything in it relates to the synthetic reality of cyberspace, and not to a exterior physical space.

This proclamation suggests that cyberspace is finite, made up of the parts, whether seen or unseen, which are programmed into the experience. Does this then suggest that the medium dictate the message or richness of the experience?

So many virtual museum sites remain two dimensional representations of text and images, spatial components linked by nodes and accessed by random associative clicking of the mouse. The immersion Queau suggests seems richer and more participatory than such two dimensional representations. This belief in the power of immersion through two dimensional representation seems out of place in the context of the rhetoric which is spoken about the virtual environment.

‘The virtual’ represents a complete world; it saturates one’s consciousness, it surrounds one’s imagination, it seizes all one’s attention. There is a kind of violence that ‘the virtual’ exercises on the user’s sensibility, against which there have to be methods of resistance.’ (10)

Boyer suggests that this provisional acceptance of technology as cited through historic examples of the invention of iron, can be compared to the grudging acceptance of ‘the virtual.’ With ‘the virtual’ we find feelings of awe shrouded by terminal terror toward the powerful communication devices which make them possible. Here, however, electronic technology operates silently and subversively and those applications involving memory and artificial intelligence are presented as mysterious and beyond comprehension. Thus the metaphors of energy and force which were predominant in the discussion of industrial technology have little relevance to the virtual. Their narrators will need to develop new imagery that ‘….adequately characterises the concealed and fluid processes of computers as well as the centreless and net-like structures they enable.’(11)

Boyer suggests that cyber narrators have borrowed worn out imagery and conventional terms to describe emergent technologies and have yet to deal with the fear of technology, fear associated with interruption, cessation of information, of sensory overload and excess information. Nor have they delved into their ’hallucinatory’ images of freedom and liberation - which is how the virtual is perceived, to discuss the precariousness of electronic existence. Finally, they have yet to address the issue of what is means to be human when the subjective self can now be projected onto the computer screen. (12)

This discussion of immersion is undertaken to describe the spatial conditions within which the virtual museum will operate. The interpretative agendas of modern museum display rely on the interpretation and presentation of narrative and object, contextual information which forms the greater part of informing the observer of the historic, social, political and cultural context of the object.

In an attempt to resolve the translation of narrative from traditional to virtual forms, Murray (13) uses the definition of ‘the multiform story’ to describe a written or dramatic narrative which presents a single situation or plot line in multiple version. These narratives give us the opportunity to explore multiple possibilities allowing us to hold contradictory events in our minds, to be aware of the limitless intersecting stories of the actual world.

This description well describes the virtual museum in its ability to display a fragmented multiplicity of images. Where the visitor may become entangled within the possibility of so many options, this technology may do away with the painful possibility of missing information. Murray suggests that giving the audience access to the raw materials of creation runs the risk of undermining the narrative experience. She then parallels this form of narrative within the medium of three dimensional photography. The audience can be so closely identified with the situation that the filmic techniques of medium and wide shots are not longer necessary.

Context provides details and place within the space. Murray describes her frustration in experiencing three dimensional cinema, in the imax cinema where seeing extraordinary detail and being unable to explore and manipulate her position in relation to that detail produces this response. ‘…..I am uncomfortable at these moments be cause the three-dimensional photography has put me in a virtual space and has thereby awakened my desire to move throughout it au- tonomously, to walk away from the camera and discover the world on my own. ‘(14)

This discussion of the translation of narrative to three dimensional virtual environments can be transferred to the interpretive qualities of museum display and form part of the argument for the introduction of dynamic technologies with the virtual space.

Dynamic database driven vrml

The specific technology known as dynamic database driven vrml is a webserver extension which provides dynamic information based on a visitor’s identity and associations with other people, places and things. Frameworks for the management of complex inter-relationships with options for integrated reviews, preferences, performance and event timetables, reviews and related media have been developed in real world conditions. (15)

This technology, developed by a South Australian company, Virtual Artists, is now known as the ‘Virtual Community Engine’, (VCE). It provides the informational landscape in the form of tables, fields and their behaviours and relationships. All the pages in a VCE are stored within the database. A comprehensive set of META TAGS empowers designers to add simple but powerful structural templates, automate email responses and provide a user extensible set of present VCML (Virtual Community Modeling Language) example pages and settings.

The VCE will generate automatic pop up menus for dates times, gender and opinions. You can build nested layers of structures. Built in Java script objects generate Javascript as needed. It includes uniform set of table verbs and a comprehensive set of tables and relationships.

Effectively, the VCE offers complete Web based content control so that each user can be kept up to date by accessing real audio and video. Quicktime vrml, gifs, jpegs and stories from their browser.

Automatic cookie management is used to provide highly customised interfaces which develop over time. All cookies used by the VCE are stored in the RAM of the client browser only and are not stored permanently. Many people share their browsers and the accuracy and security of the information is part of the notion of a developing community.

When you log into a VCE as an editor you will receive a different set of tools. With permission, you can maintain the site with a simple forms based interface, adding and validating your information and editing and scheduling stories. When you log in as a member, you can edit your own information, your own events, your own performances and write your own reviews.

So how does all this technology benefit the virtual museum? What application can be found for this engine which will serve all the needs of museum management and visitor. Perhaps an answer can be found in the relationship between this technology and the idea of the ‘virtual curator’.

Virtual Curator

Kerendine (16) suggests that the key for the design of the virtual museum is to allow users to be as free as possible from the controlling preconceptions of the traditional museum. She considers the central processes of collection, selection, order and arrangement to be the starting point of the museum.. Museum as interpreter of political, social or cultural act remains the product of such processes but the ongoing argument of interpretation and faithfulness to history and culture suggests that these products are not universal truths.

To describe the process where the user can manipulate both objects and stories, facts and values simultaneously, the term ‘virtual curator’ has been proposed. The virtual curator is one who has access to the storage of objects and has the opportunity to construct meanings from a choice of objects and data. The underlying metaphor is not that of a pre classified exhibition is which the user can passively select one of a limited number of paths, (17) but, one where each item in the collection can have hyperlinks to other items so that the user can construct a particular path according to personal interest.

If this is the case, the VCE engine could become the cornerstone of the virtual museum. Smith (18) suggests that the larger and more profitable the museum, the greater the opportunity to define and digitise collections for world wide web access. In Australia, the major museums represent only a handful of existing museum institutions. Rural, regional and specialist collections may well suffer the double destabilising force of fewer funds and greater reliance on sponsorship and ‘ or beneficiary support but they too hold enormously important collections within historic and cultural contexts.

Isolation, regionalism and exclusion from major international markets hinder Australian opportunities for competing on a world wide platform of access and equitability within the digital environment.

Could a technology such as dynamic database driven vrml make Australian collections competitive on in global cultural institutions. Could business terms of ‘value adding’ be adopted and the technology become the facilitator in discussions of access and equity..


To demonstrate methodologies for applying the technology to virtual museums, I will site two projects undertaken in collaboration with museums and industry. The first is in its preliminary stage and involves translating non object based cultural material into a virtual environment. The second is a project which was established specifically to develop a methodology for the application of the technology with a cultural context.

‘A Twist of Fate’ is an exhibition / interactive experience about refugees. It has been devised and produced by the Migration Museum of South Australia. It explores the circumstances which might cause an individual to become a refugee and highlight the kinds of decisions made by those who must leave their countries due to war, religious or political oppression. It introduces the visitor to a number of refugees who are now living here and show the contribution being made to Australia by refugees.

A Twist of Fate would appear to be an ideal exhibition subject to explore as a virtual environment with the added application of the VCE technology. The nature of ‘refugee’ status suggests an exhibition which is not reliant on object collections but one which must establish the architectural space in which to immerse the visitor and provide a simulation of refugee condition.

Ideally, the translation of the exhibition into virtual environment would specify a methodology for interpreting museological material within virtual space where that material is not reliant on object collection. The final exhibition would have the potential to be accessible to a wide audience through the world wide web, with opportunity of appearing as a travelling exhibition nationally and internationally.

The second project, for which we have developed a small prototype, is provisionally named Origami. Origami uses the VCE technology to establish a database of objects and a hyperlink interface.The site consists of three dimensional, virtual spaces which begin to explore the scale and perspective relationship between virtual space and the desk top computer screen. In future prototypes more immersive environments will be explored. These spaces are accessed by clicking through standard vrml interface. As you move through the space you come across coloured squares which lift and morph into three dimensional objects. For the purpose of this demonstration, folded shapes which are well coloured and lit will serve the theatrical purpose of museum object.

The objects are explored by the viewer then, according to the clicking time between views, the program either deposits the form onto the wall or continues rotating it at eye level for the viewer. Text is offered and again, according to viewer interest, is either detailed or very simple . The objects paste themselves onto walls allowing the viewer to revisit the sites, gain more information on specific objects and save the tour.

At some stage, one of the squares becomes a frame and the user has access to the Robocam technology, essentially, surveillance equipment linked to a web browser, allowing real time video of specific sites which have some relevance to the matrix of information relating to specific objects.

The space takes on visible three dimensional qualities by the display of those objects within the invisible wall grid - fulfilling the preliminary notion of the space constructing itself as the user moves through it. The viewer leaves the space and all information moves from the walls to their original positions. The visitor should be left with an overwhelming sense that each time he / she re enters, objects and information will be different; ie: the display is created from the visitors apparent interests as documented at the preliminary web interface. There should be provision for saving the visit to allow the visitor to relive that particular museum experience.

Both projects rely on the visitor acting as curator, using interactive medium to explore and define their own experience of the museum space. They begin to explore the possibility for immersion within the virtual space and the objects collections themselves are no longer restricted to collections held by one museum but collections held by multiple institutions.


This global village of collection access and unlimited hyperlinks would be enormously expensive and probably decades away from being commercially viable. Even so, this environment holds special interest in that objects themselves no longer hold the reverence of collected object, the curator no longer imparts management quantities of information, but the visitor, with unlimited access to this and other collections has unprecedented access to extraordinary resource material.

Using this configuration, the museum takes on a wider role than entertainer, educator or interpreter. It now accepts a dominant role within cultural institutions by fearlessly demystifying object, gaining in political status by reducing and presenting culturally specific material in this way. History, culture and politics are accessible through random viewing and interpretation and the museum applauds the viewer’s ability to establish individual translations of collections and context.

This paper has sought to specify an appropriate application for the technology known as dynamic database driven vrml. It has explored the interactive nature of the technology making reference to various readings on emerging roles for museum professionals. It has attempted to bring together theories of immersion, the virtual and the virtual curator and has used two project examples to attempt to specify a role for this particular technology.

The research and project work are in their infancy but, with continued exploration of three dimensional space respresentation and object immersion, the technology sited could well form part of the complex tools used to ensure wide accessiblity to both collections and histories within the virtual museum.

    1 Quoted in Bennett,Tony. "The Birth of the Museum." (Routledge,New York 1995), 44

    2 Ibid., 45

    3 Bennett, Tony. "The Birth of the Museum." (Routledge,New York 1995),47

    4 Boyer, Christrine. "Cybercities." (Princeton Architectural Press. 1997)

    5 Ibid., 46

    6 Quoted in Landow,George. "Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1992) 2-8

    7 Boyer., Cybercities 49

    8 Ibid., 55

    9 Quoted in Boyer. 55

    10 Ibid., 55

    11 Ibid., 65

    12 Ibid., 66

    13 Murray, Janet. "Hans on the Holodeck. The future of narrative in Cyberspace." (MIT Press. 1997 ) 30 - 38

    14 Ibid., 47

    15 Sagg, Dave. www.va.com.au 1997.

    16 Kerendine, Sarah. Diving into Shipwrecks: acquanauts in cyberspace, the design of a virtual maritime museum. (Curtin School of Design Journal 4 1997)

    17 Ibid., 11

    18 Smith, Steven. Digitising Collections: the redefining of Museums. www.archimuse.com. 1998

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