In this session we explore what we see as a major direction for
museum web sites in the future - the use of the internet for in-depth
research by the full spectrum of public users, including the most
advanced scholars. To date, this has been developed by only a
few pioneering museums, but we believe it will become a public
expectation and a challenge we will all have to meet. As we become
aware of the wealth of behind-the-scenes information and objects
in public museums, the public will, quite rightly, expect access
and will demand the right to participate in the study and interpretation
of these objects and information. The public will no longer accept
the role of passive receivers of information but will want to
observe the research process and to participate in the creation
of new content.
This opens up dramatic possibilities for society, for it is life
affirming and life enhancing to be involved in exploring the meaning
of our past and present through the study of our cultural heritage,
and through this to be involved in charting our cultural future.
In preparing our papers, we have attempted to rethink the nature
of research and of the important role of museums in facilitating
it. What do we mean by research? Fully understood, research
is a universal human activity. When we look up a number in the
phone book, even when a child asks the name of a neighbor, we
are engaging in research. But we do not consider this advanced
research because this information is already known by many other
people and is readily available through easily available sources.
There is then a broad spectrum of research activity, from student
research for high school reports, to docent research for exhibition
tours, to structural research when designing a bridge. At the
extreme of this spectrum research involves information and ideas
that have not previously been available, in some cases not previously
known by any other human being. The reconstruction of historical
events, the discovery of new phenomena of nature, and new interpretations
of any of these is advanced research at its most specialized.
Is this a justifiable area for museum web sites? Not only justifiable
we think, but essential.
We all benefit from the wealth of new information and ideas flowing
from advanced research in all fields, and museums house the evidence
on which much of this research depends. Museums are responsible
not just for the preservation and display of their collections,
but also for their study and interpretation. Thus curators, conservators
and other museum professionals are leading participants in advanced
research, some hold joint appointments, and some museums are themselves
part of research institutes or universities.
One of the reassuring themes in nearly all recent discussions
of web sites has been the emphasis on content. Worded in hundreds
of different ways, document after document emphasizes that the
initial fascination with inventive design and interactive manipulation
(important as they are) will, in the long run, not substitute
for the content people are seeking, whether text, images, or sound.
But here also we need to clarify the concept we are discussing,
because everything on every web site is content. It is not the
existence of content that needs recognition but its nature. It
is the accuracy, the depth, the range, quality, and relevancy
of that content with which we should be concerned. Most importantly
for this session, it is not just the provision of content, not
even just the reformatting of content for new exhibitions and
publications (important as this surely is), but the creation of
new content for which museum web sites hold such untapped potential.
Without this, as the creation of web sites is forcing museums
to recognize, there is nothing to reformat.
There is a widespread misconception that advanced research is
the preserve of an academic and professional elite, with needs
too specialized and too remote from the public to deserve the
major space they would require on the web sites of public institutions.
This is a tragic misunderstanding that fails to recognize all
the bright students in colleges and graduate schools preparing
reports and term papers on original subjects, not to mention the
thousands of graduate theses being researched and written every
year, for which original discovery and interpretation is of course
a requirement. This widespread misconception also underestimates
the serious interest and frequent specialized expertise of the
public. Even focusing on advanced research, there are members
of the public who are expert on every conceivable topic, often
with specialized information on specific objects, not in the files
of any museum or known to the relevant curators. Web sites have
begun to give the public opportunities for feedback, but people
can only feed back information and ideas related to content provided.
Think of the amount of specific information out there (related
objects, past owners, in situ photographs) ready to be freely
provided, if only we will make our collections available.
Advantages of Web Sites
By good fortune, the full spectrum of research information, from
the dates of current exhibitions to detailed conservation reports,
can coexist happily on a single museum site. One of the most
striking advantages of web sites over hardcopy publication is
the comprehensive content that can be accessed through a single
web site, organized in such a way that the information sought
by one researcher need not intrude on researchers looking for
entirely different levels of information. With hardcopy publication,
when we pick up a slim introductory guide book, a dense text book,
or a large coffee-table book, we know immediately what type and
level of information to expect. When we wish to move to a different
type or level of information on some aspect of the subject, we
must find an entirely different book, but we may not know where
to look. On the web, we can browse introductory material when
we like or go quickly to indepth information (if it is there),
and we can move easily from one to the other.
The web has the potential to make available comprehensive information
on all aspects of museum collections and activities, at all levels
of detail and specialization, simultaneously. Browsing such sites,
we can be introduced to areas of the museum which we did not even
know existed, for favorite objects we can discover new types of
information, and we can pursue advanced research in areas of our
I hope it is clear that, while in this session we focus on the
immense potential of museum sites for advanced research, we see
this as densely interconnected with all other levels of research
and indeed with all other uses of the entire Internet.
Different Disciplines, Different Needs
This session is based on the premise that different disciplines
often have different research needs, needs that can be undervalued
or even unrecognized by other disciplines or by information specialists,
but which are essential to work in particular disciplines, whether
anthropology, paintings conservation, or medical testing. For
this reason, I have invited scholars from a variety of disciplines
to present papers in this session. The five experts in this session
represent not only different disciplines but also different types
of institutions, and different roles within these institutions.
None is primarily a computer expert, but each of us is deeply
involved with uses of digital information, with museums and the
I have suggested that each of us present aspects of existing museum web sites that have proved useful for work in our disciplines, describe how museums might more richly provide for the research needs of their diverse audiences, and speculate on the long-term potential of the Internet as a means for us all to share ideas and to engage in cooperative scholarship.
Last modified: April 15, 1997
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