info @ archimuse.com
published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010
Using the Web to give life to Museums
Proença, Universidade do Minho, Portugal
Brito, Museu D. Diogo de Sousa, Portugal
Ramalho, Universidade do Minho, Portugal
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"
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
whose aims include the use of new technologies to promote the national
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
The museums thread in Geira has the following goals:
Abade de Baçal 7
do Ferro e da Região de Moncorvo
- 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"
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
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,
de La Plata 10,
de Física (at Dep. Física,
Facultad de Ciencias Exactas, U.N.L.P. 11)
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:
des Beaux Arts de Montréal
it is a good example of a Web page that exploits several interesting
features namely the Gallery
67 with a dedicated exhibition
space; the Gallery
67 is a "virtual gallery
on the Web where cyber-creations can be exhibited" 14,
and supporting the registration
of user's profiles 15;
Museum of Anthropology at The University of British Columbia
it contains panoramic views (QTVR technology) applied to a traditional
structure to present the collections; the Student Exhibits - Online
is another interesting feature of this site;
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;
Art Museum of San Francisco, Mongolian Exhibition
it is a good example of the net use in exhibitions, due to the quality
of the interface design design, the available information, and the
navigational features (QTVR).
History Museum of Los Angeles County
it is a site with a large amount of data associated to a search
engine, and with specific information for children (games) and other
da Imprensa 20:
it is a site with an excellent number of links to related museums
whether they are on the Web or not.
- 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;
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
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:
- to give to the public close contact with art and/or heritage objects;
- exhibitions - permanent, temporary, special and loan
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
school oriented activities 25,
guided tours 27
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
The MNS site interface was designed for three adult user profiles
- the "occasional", the "intentional" and the "expert"
user - and a "kid"
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
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
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,
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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