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published: March 2004
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October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers


Integrating Real Time Communications Applications in a Museum's Website

Greg Jacobson and Lawrence Swiader, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USA



Real time communications and messaging software is a powerful technology that allows people and groups to talk and collaborate together using the Internet. This paper will study real time communications and examine their practical use in a museum.  We will give a general overview of the technology and examine how museums can use this technology to enhance their web presence.  The various advantages and disadvantages of the technology will be examined as well as how museums can use the technology with their audiences to generate interest in their web site and provide added benefits to donors or VIP visitors.

The paper will also describe the process that the Holocaust Museum used to create a real time communications system on their site. An analysis of the planning and the implementation of the process will be discussed as well as how the museum is using the technology to further the goals and mission of the institution.

Keywords: Real time, Flash Communications Server, Web lecture, Holocaust Museum, live Web communications


It's 10 am on Wednesday, November 6, 2002 and Christopher Browning, well-known Holocaust scholar, is live and on air. In the small room with him are a cameraperson, a technician, and other interested parties. Mr. Browning is seated behind a desk—here as a convenient prop—and is looking into the camera, lights shining, delivering a ten minute introduction about the motivations of Holocaust perpetrators. After ten minutes, the first question is asked, "My question concerns your feelings when reviewing the testimonies of the perpetrators. Did you take them at face value or did you question their validity at all?" Mr. Browning responded, "an historian questions the validity of any source he uses. Even if I am reading original documents written at the time I always have to ask For what purpose was this written? Did this person have a certain agenda " And so it went for 50 minutes with excellent questions, in-depth answers and great engagement on the part of the audience and the host.

Mr. Browning is not a guest on Larry King Live, nor is this some news talk show endlessly discussing the latest fad. But it is certainly no less important to the audience who is attentively listening. This is the Web, live from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The room in which the shoot is happening is meant for meetings. One light, bounced off the ceiling, shines on Mr. Browning's face. The camera is mini-DV format and is hooked up to a laptop computer. On the other end of the video feed is an audience in nearby George Mason University viewing the Webcast in a small square "window" of a computer interface made large by a projector. Speakers attached to the computer carry the sound somewhat detached from the video because of a time lag. And the students have to ask their questions via a phone line a la radio call-in shows. But somehow the conversation carries on for an hour. After, the participants remark that they feel lucky to have made contact with the author of a book they were reading for class. The Museum staff in the room high-five one another because, for all the technical glitches, this was a success! We used a new technology to facilitate a compelling seminar. And we would do it again.

The technology that made this possible is one of the new "real time" communications offerings that allow users to cheaply and effectively interact with other users around the world. These new technologies open up many new possibilities for museums. Our technology of choice for this Web cast was the Flash Communications Server.

The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines "real time" as "the actual time during which something takes place the computer may partly analyze the data in real time (as it comes in)..." Chat is a popular example of real time. As you type other see your letters and words. Video conferencing is another example of real time. While real time communications technology has been around for many years, a number of events have occurred recently that make it a much more viable and useful technology for museums. In the past, real time communications such as web conferencing was generally available only to corporate or government environments that had large amounts of funding and a primary purpose that would be greatly enhanced by web conferences. Now, the tools to deliver real time communications are within the reach of many more people because it has become more affordable and easier to use for the participants. In addition, the availability of high speed internet connections has increased, and the tools that drive the web conference have been packaged into reusable components, making the development of customized applications cheaper and faster than before. This also allows individual institutions to build applications from scratch based on these components—thus allowing the construction of complex and rich web conferencing environments in house.

Still, there are many challenges in using the technology. Extended video conferencing is still out of practical reach for users without a fast internet connection, although audio and text-only real time communications is feasible without a high bandwidth connection. Video delivered through the Web is not television but participants often expect a TV-quality experience from the technology and that still is not possible given today's limitations. [If you prepare your users for this beforehand, however, and show them examples of what to expect, they are much more able to concentrate on the content rather than the technology.] Another challenge is that our real time communications technology of choice—the Flash Communications Server—is still largely unproven in the market.

Flash Communication Server

One of the latest products from Macromedia, the Flash Communication Server (FlashCom) is server software that allows you to multicast real time audio, video and text (chat) from your Web site. To make the product work, all you really need is a Web browser, a camera with a microphone, and a high-bandwidth connection to the Web.

The costs for using the FlashCom server are reasonable when compared to other ways of achieving the same result. The developer edition for a 1Mbit/10 user license is $499. The Professional license for 10Mbit/500 users is $4500. To augment the amount of users or bandwidth, you'll need to buy a 10/500 Capacity Pack for $4000. These costs compare favorably to simliar products such as Lotus/IBM's "Sametime" at $5000 plus $20 per seat or TopClass at $5000 and up (source: David Strom, http://www.strom.com/places/wc.html).

For our Web lecture, we invested in the $4500 Professional edition as we envisioned delivering content to more than 10 users at a time. The USHMM currently has two T1 connections (3Mbit) to the Internet, so we would max out our bandwidth before using up our user license. The server software is running on a new but simple Pentium 4-class machine running Windows XP.

First Tests

Our first experiments with the FlashCom server led us to conclude that the most important components in achieving a high quality production are the amount of bandwidth you have connecting to the Internet, the amount of bandwidth your users have, the camera quality, and the audio quality. The first test we did was between the authors. One was at home on a DSL connection while the other was at work on a T1 so bandwidth was plentiful and not an issue. What was apparent, however, was that the author at home using his high-quality mini DV camera was sending a much clearer picture to the server than the other poor author using his Web camera. To date, using a high quality camera for our productions has resulted in the most marked improvement.

These first tests also included monitoring our Web site activity for unusual blips. As we added users to the mix (we added as many as two others) we could only detect a small increase in activity. The FlashCom server is efficient. An important point to remember is that as you add users the amount of bandwidth utilized increases exponentially. Adding a third user means having to send a signals (audio and video) to two others and receive as many. We were able to affect performance by adding more users, but making some of the connections one-way or audio only improves the situation.

Live for the First and Second Times

The Web lecture that Christopher Browning delivered used one-way audio and video. Questions were asked via the phone. Other than making sure the mute button was activated on the phone during the lecture to prevent feedback, this was seamless. The video size for this first Web cast was a 250 pixel square image on a black background (the site is viewable at http://www.ushmm.org/gmu_chat/).

For our second Web lecture we choose a location farther from Washington at James A. Garfield High School in Garrettsville, Ohio. The topic of this lecture was Victims of the Holocaust and was delivered live by one of our staff historians, Dr. Will Meineke, to class of students viewing a projected image of the lecture.

To build on the success our first lecture we decided to improve the quality of the audio by reducing the video size. Less video information results in more bandwidth for the audio. It worked. Where we had gaps in the audio during the first lecture, we had none reported during the second. In addition to reducing the video window's size we added two-way audio to the equation. This time we asked our participants to connect a microphone to their computer to ask questions. After adding speakers to our end to hear the questions, the sound quality of the participants' questions was better than the phone. Still there is improvement we hope to make on the quality of audio that we are delivering to our participants. We plan on achieving this in future lectures by purchasing a high-quality microphone and by improving the quality of the sound card in the laptop that is connected to the camera and microphone.

Both lectures were unmitigated successes in that the communication reached its destination and quality of content delivered was high. That is the bottom line. It has never been this easy to create advanced multi-user applications.

Other Possibilities for Real Time Communications in Museums

In addition to delivering regular lectures via the Web to secondary school and university audiences, we envision using the real time communications technology in various other ways.

A Virtual Tour

We have had some experience recently with adding curator's comments to the Museum's online exhibitions. The Web pages on which those comments—in audio or video format—appear are very successful. They are the stickiest on the site. In the online exhibition The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk, the pages with the curator's comments have an average viewing time of around seven minutes per page according to out Web analysis software! The pages are simply composed of video interviews and edited "b-roll" footage of movement on stills. Using real time communications to deliver live tours of online exhibitions then should be an attractive gateway to Museum content. The curator's comments become a sound track to a presentation of Web pages.

Online Help

Another possible scenario is to offer immediate assistance to users seeking questions about a topic related to the museum. Users visiting that area of the Web site pose Holocaust-related questions to an historian that is "on duty" that day. The historian can chat with the user to answer their question, select an answer from a "canned" list, or refer them to another area of the site. This would offer the user immediate feedback and peak interest in other areas of the site. All comments and questions could be archived and put into a searchable database. This database would become part of the museum's knowledge base and integrated in some way into the search on the museum's site or placed in a special "transcripts" area of the site. This is much more powerful than asking a question via a simple email.

Standard Business Applications

There are all kinds of the standard business applications that apply here such as letting Museum staff communicate between offices. In a museum environment, one could set up a wireless network at an archival location and then allow people doing research at a far away site interact and search for items directly. Using a wireless camera and/or wireless computer allows you to move around a location. While the person might be able to talk on the phone with someone, the web conferencing offers a number of advantages:

  • A wireless network can reach places a cell phone cannot. You may not be able to use cell phones in that area
  • A visual picture of items can be shown to both parties. The party at the archive site can show the person at the other end exactly what the item or document looks like and they can then agree that this is the item or not
  • There is no per minute cost like there would be with a long distance phone call

Scholars from like universities could collaborate in real time on research and have a virtual meeting without the costs associated with this. Again, you can do this with current commercial web conferencing systems but they are expensive and cannot be customized to the level needed by the institutions.

Web Events

Event can be broadcast in real time from your Web site for a very inexpensive price. For example, if our museum wanted visitors to promote our tenth anniversary year, we could have an event with appropriate "stars" only available via the Web (the event could also easily be saved onto tape for use in a video news release for the press). Users could ask questions or listen to commentary by the guests or museum's historians about the event.

This same procedure could be used with other video that is not real time such as films. As an example, a museum could broadcast part of a film or documentary relevant to the topic. As questions or comments about the film came up, the historian could answer questions.

Virtual "Comment Book"

Visitors to the Web site can leave "virtual notes" about their experiences while visiting your physical or online exhibit, your web site in general, an event or topic of interest, etc. These notes can be searched, archived and made part of the exhibit. All the visitor needs is a Web cam and a connection to leave a video message. Of course you would need some kind of screening process so you got material appropriate for the site.

Not Just For Conferencing

Conferencing is just the most visible aspect of real time communications. The core technology really allows users to communicate and interact with each other using what is called a "shared space." Audio and video conferencing are just the most common examples of a shared space but there are many others. As an example, this technology can easily be used to build and cheaply host online educational games that make your site more interactive and fun. For example, for "The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame," the winner of the 2002 "Best of the Web" award at the Museums and the Web conference these collaborative technologies could be used to build a multiplayer version of the game that lets many people play and learn at once. Other ideas include matching wits with historians on a subject (note that the subject could be fun and not necessarily directly related to the historian's topic of expertise) where you could have a trivia or skill game that would pit people against scholars or experts in an educational game. You could also have users play against or with each other to solve problems with an historian available and watching to offer hints and teach as the users play the game.

Deconstructing Pictures

A museum could use this technology to point out various aspects of pictures (or paintings, or other forms of art) to users. The technology would allow art experts to draw on top of the pictures and talk at the same time thereby providing a sound track.

Question and Answer Sessions

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is planning on facilitating using this new technology question and answer sessions with survivors. If there is one aspect of this technology that is most important it may be that it makes human resources more available. Instead of traveling, survivors can engage with students in classrooms around the world at the same time. Historians and curators can make themselves available to members-only audiences possibly creating a real demand for a "Web membership."

These are just some of the possibilities one can imagine using these new technologies to attract visitors to your site.

Back on Air at the Museum

The last question comes from a young woman in the Ohio, high school class. "How did Hitler come up with the ideology for blond hair and blue eyes?"

Dr. Meineke's answer, "ah that goes back to Aryanism,' if you will. The Nazis weren't the first racist thinkers. There were other racist thinkers that toyed with the idea of the Nordic European being the best example of the superior race Hitler considered himself a South German Aryan."

Before signing off the teacher asks one final question. I will be at the Museum with my class on January 27 and we were hoping to meet you.

"Great," Dr. Meineke responds, "I'll check my calendar."