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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www.archimuse.comArchives and Museum Informatics Home Page

published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Using the Web to Change the Relation Between a Museum and its Users

Roland Jackson, Martin Bazley, Dave Patten (Science Museum, London) and Martin King (Bulbourne Internet Training)

The Internet will change irrevocably the relationship between museums and their users. 

 The Web allows and arguably requires museums to enter increasingly into dialogue with their users in new ways. The unidirectional presentation of content, accompanied by the 'Unassailable Voice' (1) of museum commentary, will need to evolve into a more interactive and responsive relationship through the new electronic media, problematic though that may be (2)

 A number of museums have deliberately sought and incorporated perspectives from their visitors within their physical walls. In the UK, examples include allowing the selection and presentation of art exhibitions and providing space for individuals to display their own collections of objects. 

 While it is possible for the public to occupy and affect the physical exhibition space of a museum it is much easier and cheaper online. In addition, the capacity of the Internet for communication, synchronous and asynchronous, makes it possible to make contact and develop long-term relationships with the public. Two excellent and contrasting examples of such approaches are those taken by the Bellingham (WA) public schools (3) http://wwwfms.bham.wednet.edu/lobby.htm and Illinois State Museum (4) http://www.museum.state.il.us/exhibits/athome/index.html, and a further paper by Deborah Howes gives useful perspectives on developing classroom links from museums (5)

 The Science Museum has experimented with a variety of conferencing methods, including e-mail (analysed in an interesting academic paper http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/education/framed_email.html) and a Web-based forum http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/education/forum.html. However, it is the STEM project that forms our main approach to the development of substantive relationships with educational users through online means. 

The STEM project


The STEM project http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/education/stem/ encourages students and teachers to create their own perspectives, projects and educational resources related to the Science Museum and to make them available on the Web by publishing them on their own servers. Information about the resources is sent to the Science Museum (via a Web-based form) and can then be made available on a database resting on the Science Museum's server. Links to all the contributions are accessible through the database, which is searchable freely or by particular criteria, such as topic and age-range. This project builds on the increasing opportunities for people everywhere to present their ideas via the Web. 

 At an educational level, the project explores the extent to which students and teachers can be motivated and supported, through this medium, to reflect on their experience of a visit (real or online), and thereby enhance the educational value they gain from visiting. Other educational activities can be built around it in the longer-term, from conferencing to joint projects. Another significant educational project of this type, not associated with museums, is ThinkQuest http://www.advanced.org/thinkquest/

 At an institutional level, the project can be seen as a first step in exploring the extent to which the nature and role of the museum itself can be reinvented. The museum's educational users are encouraged to reflect on the museum and its subject matter and to restructure and reinterpret it for easy public access. Potentially this process could lead to establishing longer-term relationships between the museum and many of its users. It should also result in the creation of more, and different, perspectives than could ever be achieved by the staff of the museum alone. 

 The project has a wide range of intended outcomes, both products and processes. 

 The most obvious outcome will be the production of a set of published resources and perspectives relating to the educational use of the Science Museum. The motivational incentive of seeing material published on the Web in association with an institution such as the Science Museum is clearly a significant factor in encouraging participation. So also is the possibility of winning prizes in a competition supported by Toshiba, who have sponsored the project for an initial period of three years. Given time, it should be possible to develop a set of high-quality educational resources available to all, extending the published resources produced by the Museum's own staff. Initially, we would simply like to see as many participants and contributors as possible and are aiming for up to 50 resources in the first year, many produced by groups of people. In the longer term, of course, quality becomes much more important. That, and the relationships developed with schools, will be our criteria of success. 

 Equally significant outcomes are those relating to the processes nurtured by this project. It is often difficult for museums to know how they are being used educationally and to find ways of ensuring that the experience of the visit is more than passing excitement and has the maximum chance of leading to longer-term learning. This project helps meet both these challenges, firstly by providing a means and incentive for teachers and students to explain how they used the Museum and to share it with us, and secondly by encouraging substantial reflection on the visit in the course of developing the Web resource. 

 There is one further substantive process-related objective. Most schools and colleges are feeling their way onto the Internet in the UK, stimulated by the commitment of the UK government and the launching by the government in January 1998 of the prototype National Grid for Learning http://www.ngfl.gov.uk/. This project gives schools an educational rationale and motivation for starting to explore the potential of the Web beyond information-searching. The Science Museum is playing its part in the development of Internet capability in schools nationally and a number of schools have already taken steps through this project beyond those they would otherwise have undertaken. 

Case studies

St John's Angelltown School, Brixton 

 St John's is a multicultural, inner city, primary school. The school has had two computer and modem links to the Internet for a few months. Some of the children have been involved in a project on water conservation and irrigation. This culminated in a videoconference link from the Science Museum to children from a school in Philadelphia, hosted by the Franklin Institute as part of activities for Public Science Day in the US on 12 February 1998. The project inspired the children to make a video and to produce Web pages to publish their ideas and success to the world. A day was spent working with five 10 and 11 year olds showing them how to produce their material in Web page format. By the end of the day they had all had experience of scanning and editing photographs, typing information into a Web page using Microsoft Word, laying out the page using tables and inserting images and links to the different pages they produced. This meant the children had to sift through their material to select appropriate photographs and write brief accounts of what they had done. The final result will be placed on the school's website, when it is registered. In the meantime it has a temporary home at http://www.bulbourne.u-net.com/stem/angelltown/

 Soho Parish School 

 Soho Parish School is described as being "an oasis in a very mixed community", which ranges through street markets, recording studios, theatres, Chinatown and the infamous red-light district. It also has the atmosphere of being a village school in the centre of a city. This school was also invited to participate in the videoconference link to the Franklin Institute and was inspired, because of its location, to look at the theme of "Light in the City". Classes 1 and 2 (5-7 year olds) spent some time working on this theme in discovery, pictures and stories. 

 The school already had a link to the Internet, but the new computer they had been given had not been set up correctly to dial-up through the modem. A day and a half was spent getting the system running and showing the Science coordinator how to scan and edit pictures, use Microsoft Word to produce Web pages including images, tables and links, transfer files and communicate via e-mail. The training helped the teacher to overcome her initial fears, filled her with confidence and has inspired her to produce an ever-growing website detailing this project. She is looking forward to further visits to the Science Museum and elsewhere to provide more material for producing interesting Web pages. The school website can be found at http://www.rmplc.co.uk/eduweb/sites/soho/index.html 

 Verulam School 

 Verulam is a boys' comprehensive secondary school in St Albans, about 20 miles north of London. The school has had several modem links to the Internet for over two years. A group of pupils studying GCSE (15 year olds) and A Level Sports Science (17 year olds) visited the Science of Sport exhibition at the Science Museum. Their teacher produced a worksheet quiz based on the information in the exhibition to encourage a structured use of the visit. This helped pupils to gain a better understanding of the way science is used to improve sporting achievement. Half a day was spent working with the teacher, who had no previous experience of the Internet, to develop the quiz into a format suitable for viewing on screen and for printing. This helped her to improve the overall appearance of the worksheet since it would now be available to a wide audience, not just her class. This illustrates that publishing material on the Internet can encourage production of higher quality educational resources since the prospective audience is so much greater than colleagues in an individual school. The STEM project is thus being used as a means of sharing resources and ideas of how exhibits can illustrate certain parts of the curriculum. The quiz, and answers, is being temporarily housed at http://www.bulbourne.u-net.com/stem/verulam/ whilst the school's own website is being redesigned. 

 Wimbledon School of Art 

 The lecturer responsible for the Graphics Foundation course at Wimbledon School of Art had been thinking of including a project on designing Web pages in the course. When he heard about the STEM project this became the catalyst and focus for the project. 25 students (aged 18-20) were given three weeks to produce storyboard designs for websites based on various galleries in the Science Museum. Half a day was spent introducing them to the STEM project and discussing aspects of producing educational resources as Web pages. The students then spent two days in the Museum gathering information and taking photographs. Another half day was then spent helping them to get workable outlines to their storyboard designs, which were completed under the guidance of the college staff. Students who have produce good designs will be given time and encouragement to turn their storyboards into real Web pages for access through the college's website. 

 This is just one example of how non-scientists are being encouraged to use the Science Museum as a resource. Further examples include schools which are producing STEM resources to show how some aspects of the history curriculum can be taught using the historical galleries at the Science Museum, e.g. History of Medicine and The Secret Life of the Home. 


A project such as this is simple in conception but complex in its execution. 

 Issues include the purely practical, the quality and longevity of submitted material and the implications for institutional authority. 

 At the practical level, work in schools and colleges needs supporting and submitted resources need assessing and managing on the database. 

 Practical support within schools and colleges has proved vital as many institutions take their first steps in this area. We have been fortunate in that the sponsorship of Toshiba for this project has enabled us to appoint a 'field officer' in the shape of one of the authors (Martin King), who has a background in teaching and use of the Internet in the classroom. The availability of a roving consultant offers schools precisely the confidence and practical help they need to get started. 

 The database is managed via a Web-based administration area, described in more detail below. The project administrator receives automatic notification by e-mail of any new submissions, can edit the information about submissions and can even change some parameters in the database itself on the fly. 

 Quality and longevity of submitted material is a key issue. 

 In the early days of this project we expect a wide variety in the quality of material submitted. However, part of the aim of the project is to encourage dialogue about educational activities and the nature and quality of the resources produced. The process of feedback from us to potential contributors is valuable in itself as well as potentially establishing longer-term links. A critical element of the project is that submissions reside on the contributors' servers, with information about them on the Science Museum server. Information will date and sites will move. Depending on experience, we may retain links for a specific period (unless the contribution is resubmitted). In addition, we may need to examine automatic means of checking whether Web pages have been updated or moved since submission. 

 Then there is the thorny issue of institutional authority. 

 We have taken the decision to require contributors to put their resources on their own websites, simply sending us summary information for indexing within the database of contributions. It is clear, therefore, that the resources themselves are the responsibility (and indeed copyright) of the authors, and not of the Science Museum. We make every effort to monitor contributions, but also state clearly that we are not responsible for material encountered outside our website. 

Technical aspects

And for all you techno geeks out there...just a few details on how STEM works. STEM runs on the Science Museum's Web server. This is a 200Mhz Pentium machine with 128Mb of RAM. We use Netscape's Enterprise Server 3.0 running under Microsoft's NT4. The server is connected to JANET (The UK's Joint Academic Network) via Imperial College. 

 STEM is built around a program called OYSTER that has been developed Cognitive Applications http://www.cogapp.com/. OYSTER allows simple databases to be implemented, accessed and maintained just by writing HTML. OYSTER combines data from the database with a set of scripts written in an HTML-style language to generate web pages. The OYSTER program can be written in several different forms, for example in C++ or JAVA, but the version installed at the Science Museum is a CGI script written in Perl.

 STEM is divided into four parts: the HTML pages the users see http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/education/stem/; the Oyster program; a text datafile; and some administration pages. 

 Oyster allows four operations to be carried out. It can view, search, update (which may involve creating a new record, field or even database) and delete the database, or selected records or fields within the database. Oyster takes requests from the user and generates a customised HTML response. When a user wishes to submit a new STEM resource they fill in a form about the resource that is sent to the server. Oyster processes the form, adds the resource information to the datafile but marks it as 'needs checking'. Oyster then e-mails the administrator to say that a new resource needs checking. The administrator checks the resource and uses Oyster to update the record's status field from 'needs checking' to 'active', and carries out any other necessary editing. The new record will then appear when users search the database. 

 The administration section of STEM consists of a number of password-protected pages. The administration pages allow Science Museum staff to make resources live, update resource information, delete resources and even modify aspects of the database structure on the fly, as well as changing the administration password. 

Future development

The project is very much an experiment. We can anticipate some future developments already but there will almost certainly be others. 

 One major extension to the project is already planned. The Science Museum is a part of the National Museum of Science and Industry, which also includes the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (in Bradford) and the National Railway Museum (in York). While the three museums are geographically separated, networking allows them to come together more easily in a common project. The intention is to extend the STEM project to all three museums in the autumn of 1998. 

 The second significant development is the creation of an analogous project, the COMO project, focused on the topic of materials rather than on museums specifically. The purpose of the COMO project is to support the development of educational projects bringing together schools and colleges, museums and the materials industries. It is inspired by the Challenge of Materials gallery at the Science Museum. The principal sponsor of the Challenge of Materials gallery http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/challenge/ is the UK Steel Industry and a pilot project is currently underway, led by British Steel, to encourage and support schools to develop projects stimulated by a visit to the gallery and to publish them on the Web. The prototype website http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/education/como/ contains selected links to websites of educational relevance relating to materials and could develop to become a comprehensive source of projects and links to educationally valuable sites. 

 Many other possibilities exist for the longer term. As relationships develop it is likely that individual schools, colleges, teachers and students will be inspired to create substantive online exhibitions, including the increasing possibility of virtual 3D examples. Those of particular quality or popularity may be highlighted within the database, and it is not impossible that suitable exhibitions could eventually be integrated into the Science Museum's own website. We would like to explore ways by which high-quality perspectives from the public are incorporated more seamlessly with the products of the Museum's professional staff. 


1 Walsh, P., "The Web and the Unassailable Voice", Museums and the Web, 1997: Selected Papers, 69-76. (Back to text) 
2 Gere, C., "Museums, Contact Zones and the Internet", ICHIM, 1997 Proceedings, 79-87. (Back to text) 
3 McKenzie, J., "Building a Virtual Museum Community", Museums and the Web, 1997: Selected Papers, 77-86. (Back to text) 
4 Lewis, L., "At Home in the Heartland Online: forming a museum/school resource via the Web", Museums and the Web, 1997: Selected Papers, 329-336. (Back to text) 
5 Howes, D., "Connecting with Classrooms through Computers", ICHIM, 1997 Proceedings, 88-99. (Back to text) 


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