Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Cultural Heritage Outreach and Museum/School Partnerships: Initiatives at the School of Information, University of Michigan

C. Olivia Frost, University of Michigan, USA

One of the most promising elements of the emerging information technologies is their potential to bring a wide and rich array resources to a broad audience, in particular to youth. The ability to make primary resources from cultural repositories available to teachers in digital form as instructional content has only begun to be realized. To develop the full potential of this opportunity and to reap the benefits afforded by digital technologies we need to create the human capital and professional resource people who can serve in these new roles. The challenge of training, however, will need to encompass more than the technical areas. Just as important as the technological expertise will be the ability to utilize the digital content in the most effective way that will enable it to reach wide audiences. Training will need to include the development of partnerships with new users of the content, and a deeper understanding of the issues and strategies needed to make the cultural resources meaningful in a K-12 educational context.

This paper describes efforts underway at the University of Michigan's School of Information (SI) to prepare professionals to work with museums and community groups, to develop models which enrich the museum learning experience through the use of digital technologies, and to promote museum and K-12 partnerships. These initiatives demonstrate the power of the Internet as a positive social force to empower communities to create, capture and share cultural heritage with new audiences.

Cultural Heritage Initiative for Community Outreach (CHICO) The Cultural Heritage Initiative for Community Outreach (CHICO) at the University of Michigan School of Information educates information professionals in areas of emerging technologies, with an emphasis on developing socio-technical skills and knowledge important for the creation and dissemination of cultural heritage resources to new audiences. The project activities emphasize diverse cultural heritage content, service and outreach to diverse communities, and the development of community partnerships and the potential for information technology to extend the reach of cultural resources. The project is made possible in large part through the generosity of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

CHICO considers the central question of how we can create a new experience for creating, presenting, understanding, disseminating, and sharing cultural heritage materials through the use of digital and collaboration technologies.

CHICO's focus is to develop, deploy and test key information and collaboration technologies which can enhance and broaden access to cultural heritage materials. However, our emphasis is not only on the design and deployment of information access tools, but also on the development of services which publicize, facilitate, and enrich the use of these tools. The CHICO initiative creates partnerships between SI, University of Michigan (UM) colleagues in the arts and humanities, and local museums and schools to create pilot projects which demonstrate the potential of information and collaboration technology. Our projects build upon museum collections in the local community and move outward from there, enriching these local collections with contributions from diverse cultural sources throughout the world.

Through CHICO, students work with museums, archives, and other content specialists to make their resources accessible to a broader audience using information technologies. Through practical engagement, a required part of the SI curriculum, students play service roles to help communities and other information professionals within and beyond the University. These service activities also bring together professionals in cultural heritage repositories - museums, archives, historical societies, libraries; and prospective users of this content - K-12 teachers, public library outreach programs, community organizations.

Concepts Underlying CHICO Activities

Within the framework of CHICO activities, several themes underlie the goals which define the various project areas:
  • Enhance, not replace the real-world engagement with cultural heritage
  • Provide contextualization to enrich and build upon the initial artifact by providing background and paths to related works and information
  • Promote the use of cultural heritage artifacts as an entry into the larger culture of which they are a part
  • Engage learners in an interactive experience
  • Encourage learners to create and share their own cultural artifacts inspired and informed by what they have seen in cultural repositories
  • Engage the larger community - parents, performers, mentors - in the learning experience

Enhancing the Museum Experience

The digital capture technology that allows viewers access to a digital reproduction rather than access to a real cultural artifact, can also enhance, rather than replace the real world experience. Museum visits can provide far more than "one-time" field trips for a short duration. With access to digital collections of local museums, students can develop background knowledge needed to understand the exhibits, and pursue their own inquiries over time. This provides an opportunity for students to develop and enhance their own understanding and appreciation of the art works, to ask and respond to questions in a collaborative setting, to create their own art and their own understanding and learning about art, and to present their accomplishments to others.

Pilot projects in CHICO provide students with access to museum exhibits independent of distance and time, so that students can view museum artifacts via digital connections. On-line connections can also provide students with access to museum staff to ask questions or correspond about projects. Before and after the visit, students can examine art historically and conceptually, review images, compare and discuss information, and collect images and information in their own files and projects.

These experiences have potential for further integration into the fabric of the community. Parents have an opportunity to experience the potential of the high technology tools now available for their children. The network of community organizations participating in this project can reach a diverse spectrum of the local population, if there is also public access via terminals at the public library, the school, local museum, and community centers.

Below we describe a number of CHICO projects in partnership with local museums which exemplify this potential for enhancing the museum experience. These illustrate the potential of digital technologies to enable learners to have access to cultural repositories independent of distance and time, and to experience the larger cultural context of which they are a part.

In one of our earlier partnerships with the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), CHICO team members worked with UMMA to create an interactive online site, located at the Museum, that allowed young visitors to participate in the ongoing critical interpretation of three of the Museum's 19th century paintings. Building on this initial project, CHICO partnerships with UMMA and other museum partners subsequently resulted in a number of virtual exhibits which provided extensive content for contextualization.

Contextualization in Virtual Exhibits

Curators and docents from the UM Museum of Art worked with CHICO team members to develop a digital presence for an exhibit on Venetian art. Venetian painting from the 16th and 18th century were brought to life in "Venetian Paintings and Related Works on Paper," an online exhibit designed to complement a showing of twelve paintings from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation at the University of Michigan Museum of Art from September 12, 1996 to January 12, 1997.

The project provided an introductory web page about the exhibit with ties leading to digitized surrogates of the artwork and related caption information. Digital images from the exhibit were enhanced with contextual materials and used by students in local K-12 schools to enhance art appreciation. The physical exhibition itself consisted of approximately fifty paintings, prints, drawings, and rare books. The online exhibit also featured a generous selection of period drawings and prints selected from the museum's own permanent collection as well as rare book and manuscript materials loaned from the University Library's Special Collections Division. Visitors were treated to a unique recreation of an actual gallery experience and had their understanding of the artwork augmented by several essays about the collection sources and Venetian art that were only available at the website.

In collaboration with another University partner, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, CHICO team members helped create a digital exhibit to chronicle Francis Kelsey's Near East Expedition of 1919-1920. Visitors to the online exhibit can experience the stops made by this scholar and his colleagues to points of interest across Europe and the Near East. The exhibit contains a searchable database of images from the expedition and contextual information. (

In another Kelsey partnership, CHICO team members worked with curators to develop a website called Mummies of Ancient Egypt ( As parents, teachers, and museums can attest, mummies are immensely popular among K-12 students, and Kelsey curators receive frequent requests for information about mummies. This resource targets the unique information needs of young students studying ancient Egyptian culture, and is intended to complement visits to local archeological collections. The site capitalizes on youngsters' interest in mummies to provide further learning about the culture surrounding their creation. Images of museum artifacts help kids discover what art, literature and religion can tell us about the society that produced the mummies. This site continues to generate active correspondence from viewers, and has succeeded in its goal of sparking interest in the background culture and history.

Virtual Exhibits as an Entry Point to A Larger Cultural Context The Mummies project was just one example of the use of art, whether in digital or physical form, to provide entry into the larger culture surround it. Other CHICO projects have also taken advantage of the potential of art as an interdisciplinary means of learning to link art and related culture and history. One such example is a set of virtual exhibits drawn from the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments at the School of Music, University of Michigan. Considered by museum professionals to be one of the top five musical instrument collections in North America, the Collection is open to the public, but as is typical of museum collections, is only able to make a portion of its collection available to the public on display. In addition, the display in unchanging and the instruments are housed behind glass, making it impossible to hear how they sound or see them played. By creating a digital version of the collection, CHICO provides access from remote sites to a large number of instruments, and allows visitors to not only view the instruments, but to experience in many instances how the instruments sound, and see how they would be played in a performance.

From this collection, CHICO has developed a digital resource called the Instrument Encyclopedia (, which provides a searchable database, browse capability, clickable world map, audio clips, and a guide which includes information about specific musical instruments. The resource features photographic images, sound, and video demonstrating performance technique, as well as cultural information about the context in which the instrument was used, historical information about its role in diverse communities and throughout time, and an interactive forum for sharing ideas with other users. The project is intended to introduce users to more than music; it is using musical instruments as an entry point to explore the larger cultural context of which the instruments are a part, and to look at such issues as music and identity, creative boundaries, and cultural border crossings. Related project activities also bring in a variety of performance groups, and the site includes material from scholars who are expert in the instruments in the collection.

The Collection has also generated a Javanese Gamelan tour which includes interviews, music clips, a QTVR node, slide shows, and still images ( Through these projects, CHICO seeks to encourage interest among a broad community of users in the role of musical instruments as an integral part of culture.

Engaging Learners in an Interactive Experience

Subsequent partnerships have also focused on adding interactive dimensions to virtual exhibits. These collaborations have included remote sites where CHICO students worked with curators to create virtual exhibits showcasing special collections from two major cultural repositories.

"Harlem 1900-1940: An African-American Community" is a collaboration between CHICO and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. The Schomburg Center's mission includes providing access to materials documenting black life and the promotion of the study of black history and culture. As is typical with many cultural heritage repositories, the Schomburg is able to provide only limited access to much of its priceless and fragile collections, yet there is a call for access from a variety of potential audiences ranging from scholars to elementary school students. In part as a recognition of this need for broader accessibility to its collections, the Schomburg asked CHICO to provide an online virtual exhibit of one of its most popular collections, a photographic portfolio depicting the Harlem Renaissance. At the core of the exhibit is an online presentation of the Schomburg's compelling portfolio, "Harlem 1900-1940," featuring more than 30 archival photographs. A section for educators, with lesson plans and discussion guides, will make the resource even more useful to K-12 students.

In addition, CHICO extended the original exhibit by adding a dynamic timeline and interactive database of artists, writers and musicians. The online site enabled a limited edition portfolio to reach a global audience; provided unique study guides for educators; and extended print-based materials to include interactive, audiovisual media (

In partnership with the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), CHICO team members helped transform a site-specific, geographically proscribed exhibit into an interactive, multimedia resource available to global audiences and Yup'ik school children in Alaska. This site brings together masks from museum collections around the world and the stories these masks convey, as told by Yup'ik elders, and represents the potential of multimedia communication to facilitate a stronger rapport among culturally diverse and geographically distant communities and organizations. CHICO staff developed Agayuliyararput (Our Way of Making Prayer), based on content developed by Alaskan Native American Yup'ik Elders, with an NMAI exhibit curator ( New projects affiliated with this exhibit include an interactive educational resource with content currently provided by Yup'ik students and educators. Yup'ik elders also worked with CHICO staff to transform the online exhibit into a CD ROM featuring additional oral histories and audio resources.

Community Engagement and Impact

After the development of the Agayuliyararput Yup'ik Mask CD-ROM and web site, CHICO worked to expand the involvement of those in the Yup'ik community . Chuna McIntyre , a Yup'ik artist and professor at Stanford University in the Special Languages Department, reviewed and contributed to the CD-ROM. He and his dance troupe, Nunamta, who have performed at the opening ceremonies for the Agayuliyararput exhibit at the NMAI in New York, and the Smithsonian in Washington DC, will be coming to the University of Michigan and to the annual Great Lakes Pow Wow ( in March 1999 as part of a larger multicultural initiative within the University.

The Yup'ik resource has generated response and encouragement of further collaboration with Yupik elders and community members; for example, children from Yup'ik public schools have created and contributed new materials on environmental issues. Achieving a strong level of rapport and building an infrastructure of communication is a critical element of outreach, training and teaching that has been part of CHICO from the outset.

Through the Web site version of the exhibit, users can share ideas directly and immediately with others through interactive forums designed to facilitate communication between student-to-student as well as teacher-to-teacher. Wider distribution of the CD-ROM will allow users to view higher resolution images, download material more quickly than from the Web, access audiovisual information, and experience a higher degree of interactivity. It will also provide access to a wider audience of users, including those without Web access.

Encouraging Learners to Create and Share

Increasingly, the Internet brings students an opportunity to publish and share products of their academic work with each other as well as with humanities specialists as well as peers; for example, through a gallery exhibit of artistic creations. Teachers are also able to collaborate with their peers and exchange ideas on instructional strategy and can build professional communities of practice that are not artificially bounded by time zone and geographical location.

CHICO models help build a community of learners and an extended resource base and support network of mentors with special subject expertise, such as museum curators and archivists. This network helps give a human face to subject content, and can provide personalized assistance in problem-solving. Mentoring relationships thus distribute responsibility for teaching and augment schools by providing more experts in classrooms. The projects also use collaboration technology to allow members of the community to communicate with each other in an anyplace-anytime mode. This can help students to interact with others interested in and involved in the subject content they are learning, provide mentors beyond the classroom, and can assist students to communicate with peers who are engaged in related project learning.

These potentials are exemplified in recent projects undertaken by CHICO and museum partners in which K-12 students are actively engaged in learning on site, on-line, interacting with their peers, teachers, and museum experts, and creating their own art to be exhibited along with the art they have studied. At the same time, the potential of digital technology to encourage viewers to share their experiences and to interact with each other in response to a viewing experience, is another area in which technology can add rich potential. In these museum projects, young audiences have become active contributors to exhibits, creating guides from their own perspective, and creating their own artistic works inspired or influenced by what they have seen in an exhibit.

In a CHICO partnership with the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and a local school, a set of fifth graders from a local school were engaged in developing a guide to the exhibit which would reflect their perspective but also have its content reviewed and validated by UMMA curators. Together with the UMMA museum professionals, the students, their art teacher and the school's technology specialist, CHICO helped create "Monet at Vetheuil", an online, interactive exhibit guide. This project helped empower middle-schoolers to develop their own web-based resource to a visit of Monet paintings being featured at the Museum.

Youngsters were able to research specific artistic resources and painting techniques in consultation with curatorial experts, and to create their own works of art based on their experiences and learning. A bulletin board and online quiz facilitated communication among students, educators and the exhibit curator, and welcomed responses from a global audience (

CHICO and the UMMA joined forces in the winter of '97, producing a collaborative project with local middle-school students, art and technology teachers, the museum director of UMMA and outreach coordinator of CHICO to collectively enhance the learning process through an experimental elective course. In the Stylistic Journey Project, CHICO developed a webboard which was used extensively to facilitate online discussions among teachers, curators and students. Like the Monet project, this activity illustrates effective online collaboration among information professionals, museums and K-12 students and educators (

The structure of the experimental class consisted of three components - historical, studio, and research. The historical component was comprised of class discussions, museum visits and the online mentoring board. Students made site visits to the UMMA to learn about different techniques of art. The museum director conducted on-site discussions around the original works of art brought out for viewing and served as mentor at the website for questions the students would have after the initial field trip. After the site visits, the students returned to their classrooms for the studio and research components. The studio component took place in their art class where students worked in each different medium from tonal drawings to Asian inkstroke technique, egg-tempera panel pieces, and finally a pointillist piece. The fifth graders created their own works of art in specific styles in consultation with UMMA curators; these were digitized and featured in an online gallery. The research component was ongoing throughout the semester but evidence of this work was represented at the website where students published their final papers and included digitized images to support the research. The resulting website ( represents this collaborative process that engaged the students in a multidimensional laboratory for learning. An online art gallery also exists with digital representations of the students' original art.

Engaging the Larger Community: Museums and Cultural Repositories as Resources for Local History The Students on Site project builds on a UM-Ann Arbor collaboration to use primary resources centering on Ann Arbor's historic African-American neighborhood to explore community-based teaching and learning about local history and public places. In this broad-based university and town partnership, CHICO, K-12 teachers, archivists and university faculty work together to select archival materials such as maps, photographs, letters, and other primary documents which are made available in an online archival resource ( K-12 students will create their own stories, essays and art to be published in the online resource.

This venture results from a partnership comprising CHICO, the UM History and English Departments, School of Education and the Bentley Historical Archives, and the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Teachers and students from third grade and high school classes work with archives and other information professionals to learn how to use primary resources in their community to create their own print- and web based learning materials. The project, a University of Michigan Arts of Citizenship initiative, is jointly funded by CHICO, the UM Vice President for Research, and the Michigan Council for the Arts.

The project work has included the building of team of teachers and UM staff, planning meetings with teachers, development of tutorials for teachers on how to use archival resources, a summer workshop for teachers on integration of primary resources into curriculum, planning and implementation of an archives website, and implementation into the curriculum.

Another broad-based community partnership was the Flint Timeline, which brought together the University of Michigan School of Information, Flint Public Library, Flint Public Schools, to empower youth to create and share online resources drawn from the local community, to learn research, writing, and technical skills, and to gain a greater awareness of and pride in their local community. Together with the School of Information's Community Networking Initiative (CNI), CHICO and students and staff from Flint's Central High School, staff from the Flint Public Library introduced a website which chronicles two centuries of Flint history through images and narratives ( CHICO and Flint Library staff assisted the high school history class in developing basic web-ready pages featuring these images and their research. Library staff worked in close cooperation with regional educators to integrate this project into the English and History high school curricula for 1998/1999. The project invites community participation.

Fostering Museum/Educator Partnerships

The Students on Site and Flint projects point to the potential for partnership which brings together content providers and cultural repositories (museums, archives, historical societies, libraries) and new audiences for users of this content (K-12 schools, library outreach programs, community centers) to provide broader access in virtual and direct form to primary resources. A key part of the challenge lies in getting both content providers and content users to gain a deeper understanding of their respective strengths and potential for partnerships, and how they might serve the needs of their partners. Museum professionals and K-12 educators will need to understand each other's missions, priorities, and how they can work together effectively, whatever their technological skills and access capabilities.

To address these challenges, CHICO hosted a workshop in August designed to foster collaboration between cultural repositories and new users of this to make a wide array of cultural resources from local and global communities available to a more diverse audience. A preliminary needs assessment conducted before the workshop revealed that while prospective participants would welcome technology training, the greatest need and interest was in partnership building, and the opportunity to learn more about each other's organizations and how they might work together to provide educational uses for primary resource content.

One of the primary goals of the Museum/Educator Workshop was to facilitate dialog between educators seeking to better utilize museum resources in the classroom and museum professionals committed to enhancing outreach activities to a K-12 audience. Our goal was to promote partnerships between cultural heritage repositories and potential new users of their content, with the particular goal of using information technologies in making these primary resources more widely available to K-12 classroom teachers and students.

Museum participants represented major cultural institutions both large and small from the region, and with a range of technological infrastructure. The workshop provided a venue for teachers and museum educators to identify areas of potential collaboration and to exchange views on the challenges and opportunities for partnership, and to gain a greater understanding of institutions with whom they can form effective partnerships; for example, teachers to learn of other teachers engaged in innovative use of primary resources, as well as museum education programs with resources to support their curriculum needs.

These and the other project initiatives undertaken by CHICO have demonstrated the Internet's potential as a mechanism to broaden access to cultural heritage resources, to enhance appreciation for real-life exhibits, and to promote cross-cultural, cross-generational discourse and exchange to enrich K-12 learning about diverse cultures. Project experiences also suggest ways in which digital technologies can be used in providing context useful to promote and contextualize museum resources, and provide ready access to repositories, where access to physical collections may be limited or even non-existent. This potential offers classroom teachers and museum educators a challenge in developing collaborative strategies to enrich learning through effective use of digital and on-site primary materials in museums, archives, and other cultural repositories. It poses a challenge as well in educating new professionals to assume roles in forging cross-institutional partnerships. The goal of CHICO is to provide leadership in the education of professionals who can play key roles in making cultural heritage materials accessible to a broad array of audiences through the innovative use of emerging information and collaboration technologies.