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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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Using the Web to give life to Museums

Alberto Proença, Universidade do Minho, Portugal
Mário Brito, Museu D. Diogo de Sousa, Portugal
Teresa Ramalho, Universidade do Minho, Portugal
Helena Regalo, Museu Nogueira da Silva, Portugal


The main activity of museums is to present to a wide audience, sets of objects that represent the cultural heritage of a particular region, time or people.

In Portugal, about 260 museums are engaged in these activities 1. Most museums are small - over 80% have only one curator and less than 10,000 objects - and with scarce resources - low budgets and staff shortage to perform all the required tasks. They have a very wide range of procedures that are adapted to the real conditions of each museum: the nature of the collections, their location, and the technical and support staff.

Interaction with local communities is one of the main roles of small/medium size museums. Solving most communication problems that a museum has to face requires an understanding of social change, in order to adapt them to the museum practice and to redefine the museum public.

The basis of a museum's existence and activity is its collections which must be accessible (both the real object and data on each object), exhibited and interpreted.

Exhibitions are the most common means employed by museums to communicate with the public. Through exhibitions, museums provide contact between the objects and the public, and "virtually all museums are preoccupied in one way or another with the display of their collections - or perhaps one should say more accurately, of part of their collections" 2.

The new multimedia and interactive technologies represent new ways museums can improve the communication with the public, to attract remote (virtual) visitors, complement a real visit, and explore new potentials - some only possible due to recent information technology.

A common strategy is under development and implementation in North Portugal: several museums are joining efforts to share the costs of a move towards the new technologies, through a Science & Technology project, Geira 3 whose aims include the use of new technologies to promote the national cultural heritage.

Project Geira is organised around several heritage areas: science & technology, documents in libraries and archives, objects and its locations in museums or archaeological sites, and environment, namely the geological and biological aspects. Current funds give leadership of Geira to two universities: University of Minho 4 (UM) and University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro 5 (UTAD).

The museums thread in Geira has the following goals:

  • to increase the level of museum awareness of the available tools in information technology. This can be achieved through workshops with museum curators, the development of a documentation system to catalogue and manage the museum collection, the supply of information on national and EC programs to fund innovation projects, and the organisation of professional training courses;
  • to promote, among curators, the use of standard and integrated digital inventories of the collections that represent a national cultural heritage, such as those proposed by international organisations/initiatives like the Museum Documentation Association, the International Council of Museums/CIDOC, the Canadian Heritage Information Network, and the MoU-Multi-Media Access to Europe's Cultural Heritage (A Memorandum of Understanding and European Charter);
  • to promote, among museum directors, the use of the Internet as a new communication tool. This requires the development of tools that let the museum staff dynamically produce their own Web pages. Current results show the success of this task - in just a few months several new Web pages with museums contents were created and published using the same "data base template" 6 (Museu Abade de Baçal 7 , Museu do Ferro e da Região de Moncorvo 8, ...);
  • to promote public access to the museum collections, through multimedia and interactive presentations on the Web (and on CD-ROM's). This goal is the main topic being addressed in this paper.

To accomplish these goals, each thread in Geira involves collaboration between institutions with the content experts and each University. UM selected Museu Nogueira da Silva as a partner in Geira: it is a house museum, created as a result of a donation to UM. The museum collections are mainly fine arts - about 7,000 objects - but it also contains a relevant photographic collection - especially old images of Braga with 5,000 film negatives and glass plates. The museum has only one curator, besides the director; both are in charge of all museum activities.

This communication mainly addresses the issue of "public access to museums on the Web" and it has the following structure: section II presents the traditional approach museums have adopted to be on the Web, with some sample sites; section III addresses the techniques curators use daily to attract visitors to their (real) museums, which are further explored in the following section as good examples to adapt and to implement on virtual museums, on the Web, and how these guidelines were followed at a particular museum in Portugal (Museu Nogueira da Silva); section V shows with a finer detail a case study of the application of some of these ideas to the primary school visits; section VI concludes this communication with the final remarks.

Traditional Web approaches

Several museums around the world are already committed to a strong Web presence and many others will adopt one very soon. Dynamic museum leaders understood that the increasing number of net surfers require special attention from museums: Internet - and CD-ROM's - represent new media that will challenge museum communication strategies.

Two distinct Web approaches are being adopted by the museums. Some regard their presence on the Web as another way to publicise the museum and to promote their activities; others use the Web as a powerful resource to achieve their purposes: to conserve, to study and to display.

The most common attitude is to consider the Web as a simple sum of the different kinds of information already in use by museums - specially printed information - but gathered in a global structured way. These data include a museum description and a list of activities and collections, where a typical Web page structure contains: collections and exhibitions, visit planning and conditions, new acquisitions, projects and activities, museum organisational scheme and educational programs.

Several museums on the Web follow this approach. They may not be the sites that most museums would like to have, but nevertheless they made an effort to use the available resources. Among them it may be worth a visit to St. Louis Children Museum 9, Museo de La Plata 10, Museo de Física (at Dep. Física, Facultad de Ciencias Exactas, U.N.L.P. 11) and Library of Congress Vatican Exhibit 12; this site has a good image quality, but with a traditional structure to present the exhibition themes.

Some museums demonstrate greater innovation in their Web presences: they have temporary exhibitions on-line, promote virtual visits and access to their databases, present technical information for museums professionals and researchers, keep available information about previous activities and exhibitions, and organise links to related sites.

For these museums the Web is also an exhibition and a presentation medium that must be integrated in the communication policy of the museum. They deserve a short presentation to comments on their strengths and the interesting points they show:

  • Museo Arqueológico Nacional de Madrid: it is an example of the public access to the museum's database; to access an object's description and its image, the user may search by name, collection, period, number or other items;

  • Museo del Prado 17: another example of guided visits to some objects, where detailed explanations about paintings - author and techniques - are made available; detailed pictures help the visualization;

  • Museu da Imprensa 20: it is a site with an excellent number of links to related museums whether they are on the Web or not.

The importance and advantage of the Web depends, above all, on the quality of the presented information, according to the interests of the different kinds of potential visitors. But a Web site of a museum should also follow human communication rules: they must be interesting and useful, and they must be both educational and entertainment (usually referred as "edutainement"). And they must also exploit the best current technology: interactivity, audio-visual and 3D capabilities.

Techniques to attract visitors

Museums are considered important institutions in the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage. However, traditional concepts associated with the museums' role and activities are confronted with social changes.

Museums are usually seen as a boring place with tedious and non-interactive exhibitions - that usually remain unchanged for too long, and are typically designed for very specific audiences. To overcome this outside view, curators and museums professionals are questioning the role of a museum in the society, trying to improve their communication.

Several well known techniques are being used by museums to attract visitors - not only new ones, but also how to persuade actual visitors to return to the museum - and some are very successful. These include the organisation of:

  • exhibitions - permanent, temporary, special and loan 21 - to give to the public close contact with art and/or heritage objects;
  • entertainment and cultural events, such as concerts, conferences, workshops, musical and/or audio-visual shows, ...;
  • educational programs addressed to well identified audiences, with a special focus on young people, and on professional training on themes where the museum or its associates have some expertise.

In some museums, special attention is still devoted to the younger generation - the primary school children - among the educational programs. The same priority was felt at the museum acting as a Geira partner - the Museu Nogueira da Silva - where a joint project with the Institute of Children Studies (an academic "faculty" of UM) and four primary schools, is currently running: "Look, listen and feel a museum".

School projects occur at the right time to motivate younger generations to enjoy visits to the museum. This project includes up to four visits of a primary school class to the museum (its structure is further described in section V) and it aims to develop a different attitude and consequently a different opinion about a museum.

Web techniques to give life to museums

A museum web site requires special techniques to make it a place worth visiting: the site must have interesting and useful information and be organised so that public access is simple and enjoyable.

Net surfers represent a new type of museum visitor that could become, sooner or later, a real visitor. The success of this attraction relies on the quality of the presentation and on the contents. Special techniques should be used to make a Web museum a place worth visiting; they include navigation in virtual worlds 22, animated audio-visual shows of the museum rooms and collections, traveling through time and through the stories of objects 23.

Some of these ideas are being currently applied in a prototype site on the Museu Nogueira da Silva 24 (MNS). The site structure follows a conventional approach - the museum background, school oriented activities 25, the collections 26, guided tours 27 and the art gallery 28 - but it also includes some innovation in the way the site is built, both at the presentation level and at the contents. This section further explores the presentation level, while next section addresses the contents.

The MNS site interface was designed for three adult user profiles - the "occasional", the "intentional" and the "expert" user - and a "kid" profile 29. The "occasional" user gets to the museum site purely by chance; he/she uses his/her spare/leisure time to browse on the net; the home page should be attractive and simple enough to persuade someone to stay and to further explore the museum site. The "intentional" user already expects to find a typical structure of a museum site and he/she is curious about the available data on that particular museum. The "expert" user knows exactly what to look for, though they may need some help to find it; the available data on the searched items should be complete and detailed and include graphics, which is the basis for all three user profiles. Kids have a special entrance to the museum: the aim is to learn through playing; this "kid-oriented" pages also play a complementary role to the school visits.

A consistent interface which integrates the available data on the museum, is crucial to our design. Consider the following as an illustration of current experiments: from within a virtual visit to the rooms of the museum, a visitor can "look around" at the objects on the shelves with a panoramic view, click any relevant object to search and display the available data on the museum digital catalogue, and perform a 3D manipulation on the object image to see details. Some object records have links to additional data, including environment settings that are relevant to better define the context of an object. The navigation facilities were designed to provide an intuitive and user friendly interface.

The major emphasis on innovation at the presentation level is towards the use of concepts that were borrowed from the virtual reality environments: current experiments explore the power of VRML - virtual worlds mixed with real images - and QTVR - navigation in panoramic views or on-screen manipulation of 3D objects.

Relevant pages that explore these technologies include:

  • a VRML visit to the current or previous exhibitions at the art gallery of the museum (the technical details are addressed in a Geira companion paper in this conference 30);
  • a VRML trip to a virtual "built your own exhibition" art gallery, that shows art objects designed and/or displayed by Web visitors, using a tool provided by the Web site (the technical details are addressed in the Geira companion paper just referred to);
  • a guided tour through the museum rooms and gardens, using QTVR technology and voice over. Once in a room, if you click an object, a record with the object description is taken from the data base and the data is displayed on the screen; when required, additional information may be added, such as background music, 3D interactive view of the object, or finer detail of the image.

Case study: school visits

For children, visiting the museum is an important opportunity to establish a relationship with their cultural heritage through a story, a reference, or an idea, which allows them to built fantasies and creative scenarios about the past. To establish this contact through a single object a time, in an interdisciplinary, concrete, playful and sensitive way, is what makes this a significant experience - - "Les enfants, font preuve d'une intense spontaneité, d'une exceptionnelle receptivité. Plutôt que de leur imposer le modèle culturel des responsable muséaux ou de la société dominante, on donnera carrière à leur esprit critique, à leurs capacités d'observation, à leur sensibilité.", Georges Henri Rivière, 1989.

Guided by this philosophy, different institutions concerned with culture and education - Museum, School and Community - cooperated to mount the project "Look, listen and feel a museum", which has four main goals:

  • to destroy barriers in the relationship between children and the museum by creating a relaxed, creative and entertaining environment;
  • to fully feel - to look, to listen and, whenever possible, to touch, to taste and to smell - the objects and the ambience of the museum;
  • to create behaviours, values and evaluation criteria - through the established communication with the objects - and to stimulate answers using different means of self-expression: plastic, musical, spoken, written and movement;
  • to gather information, vocabulary, principles and generic concepts.

After a first visit to the museum - to introduce the children to the museum location, history and to a particular object - the children return to the museum (more than once) to feel that particular object in different ways. All the visits end with a plastic activity.

Based on a example of a painting from the XVII century - representing the Port of Naples - these are some of the activities developed by the children :

  • see the museum - observe and talk about the painting: shapes, colour, light, hour of the day and theme. If there is not enough data on a topic, engage the childrens creativity to invent stories related to the painting (destiny of those boats?...). Once back in school they can go deeper into curricular subjects (the volcano, the gulf, Pompeii, the ships, the sea, ...). In the end the children are given room to paint what they saw.

  • hear the museum - the 2nd visit is dedicated to the sound; classic music will be heard to dramatize the painting and contrast the violence of the volcano's eruption and the calm of inactivity. The children "listen" to the painting, the invented story, the trip, the feelings of who stays and who leaves, the storm, the silence and the calm. The visit ends with a new plastic activity (cut, bend & paste, ...);

  • feel the museum - during this visit to the museum (the last one in this project) all the activities are synthesised with a play that will use the invented story, the texts the children have produced and the music they listened to.

This project is being adapted to the Web during 1997/98, using the following methodology:

  • the set of preparatory documents are no longer distributed on paper but on the Web; the documentation includes some puzzles for the children to draw/paint on printouts, some questions related to objects on the museum that they have to identify/answer during their visit and some other educational games to keep their interested attention once inside the museum;
  • during the visits, some video shots are taken with interviews or just watching and listening to their comments. These clips are later inserted on the Web, so that children can enjoy watching themselves on the Web back at home or school;
  • after the visits the drawings/paintings/sculptures the children produced -and related to their visit to the museum - are inserted in the museum virtual gallery, as a team activity for themselves and their teacher.


Museum curators are struggling to increase the number of visitors to their museum. They ought to address not only specific publics that already go to a museum, but also the most recent kind of museum visitors, those with no face: the virtual and remote visitors, also known as the (Inter)net surfers.

Net surfers have high technological expectations: they want virtual visits and presentations, 3D object manipulation, more interaction, animation.... This suggests a new approach to the museums collections that will benefit all kinds of public. And curators should not be afraid of emptying their museums with the use of the Web; instead they should consider the Web as another important way to publicise the museum and diversify the audiences.

Current experimental work on a museum site - Museu Nogueira da Silva - shows that there is plenty of room for creativity to take advantage of this new media to give life to museums. The museum site has a conventional structure, but it includes references to temporary exhibitions - 3D virtualisation of real ones, virtual-only exhibitions - animated guided tours - through a theme, through space, through the time - and educational outreaches - school teacher's guides according to the age levels, pre- and post-quizzes, video clips on the Web showing the children reactions during the previous visit.

It is still too early to evaluate the results of this prototype, since this paper describes an on-going implementation of a multi-disciplinary project. More time is required to complete the object cataloguing and the consequent integration stages, to prepare the virtual tours of the remaining spaces, to include more stories about the objects, and to assess the school responses to the museum activities.

Further technological improvements are planned for the near future. Reference can be made to two particular ones: to use visitor registration and profiling to customise a visit, and employing techniques that simulate a virtual environment to contextualize historical objects.


The work presented here was developed under project Geira, as a result of a collaborative work between the Computing Centre at University of Minho, Museu Nogueira da Silva, Museu D. Diogo de Sousa and School of Arts at the Portuguese Catholic University. The authors acknowledge the financial support of FCT - Fundação Ciência e Tecnologia - and the European programs FEDER and INTERREG II.


1 NABAIS, António, Museus na Actualidade. "Iniciaciação à Museologia". Universidade Aberta, 54, Lisboa, 1993, p.66

2 VERGO, Peter - The Reticent Object. "The New Museology", Ed. Reaction Books, p.42

3 http://www.geira.pt

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6 BULAS-CRUZ, José et al, "Beyond traditional Web pages design - a communication language between designers and web page developers", Proc. 26th Computer Applications in Archaeology, Barcelona, Spain, March 1998

7 http://www.utad.geira.pt/abadebacal

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9 http://www.magichouse.com

10 http://www.unlp.edu.ar/museo/index.html

11 http://www.unlp.edu.ar/secyt/museofis/index.htm

12 http://sunsite.unc.edu/expo/vatican.exhibit/exhibit/b-archeology/Origins.html

13 http://www.mbam.qc.ca/index.html

14 http://www.mbam.qc.ca/galerie67/a-galerie67.html

15 http://www.mbam.qc.ca/cyber-copain/a-cybercopain.html

16 http://www.moa.ubc.ca/Collect/MOAVIEW.HTML

17 http://museoprado.mcu.es/prado/html/home.html

18 http://www.sfasian.apple.com/mongolia/Home.htm

19 http://www.nhm.org/

20 http://www.imultimedia.pt/museuvirtpress/

21 BELCHER, Michael- Types of Museum Exhibitions. "Exhibitions in Museums", Leiscester, University Press, 1991, p.58

22 JOHNSON, James, " The Virtual Endeavor Experiment: A Networked VR Application", Proc. 4th Int. Conf. Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums, Paris, September 1997

23 DOBBYN, C., ZAJICEK, M. and PHILLIMORE, R. "Accessing the Collections of an English County through Time, Space and Theme", Proc. 4th Int. Conf. Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums, Paris, September 1997

24 http://www.um.geira.pt/mns

25 http://www.um.geira.pt/mns/escola

26 http://www.um.geira.pt/mns/col

27 http://www.um.geira.pt/mns/visit

28 http://www.um.geira.pt/mns/gal

29 http://www.um.geira.pt/mns/kid

30 FERNANDES, António, PIRES, Hugo, RODRIGUES, Rui, "A Virtual Interactive Art Gallery", Proc. Conf. Museums and the Web '98, Toronto, Canada, April 1998

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