Using the Web to Change the Relation Between a Museum and its Users
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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 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.
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
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
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
Last modified: March 21, 1998. This file can be found
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