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



Alan Smith, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand

This paper is very much a "work in progress". As the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa shifts from project mode to operations, now that its striking new building is delivered, the Web presents an opportunity for more revolutionary thinking about what a national museum might be in the new information age.

The Museums and the Web conference is being used as a forum to test, provoke and explore with colleagues some ideas about how the Web can add strength to Te Papa's goal to be "a forum for the nation" of New Zealand. That goal was set down in law almost a decade ago - long before the Web became what we know and rely upon so much today.

This paper will not dwell much, if at all, on technology. It will take the Web as a fact, a given in Te Papa's New Zealand context. Part of that given means that the ideas being raised take as an assumption that there will be rapid and continuing change in the ways in which the Web will evolve - some good, some bad, some sustainable and some undoubtedly blind alleys. The paper's focus is really on the Web's unique ability to combine in one delivery mode the power to :

  • Neutralise geography - minimising the tyranny of distance;
  • Provide interactivity - drawing in information as well as sending it out; and to
  • Hyperlink between collections, institutions, languages and differing perspectives.

So the aim is to explore ideas, not to present solutions. The outcome should be that, through the forum of this conference, Te Papa can build and share its understanding of best practise as we test ideas for growing the concept of "a forum for the nation."


On February 14 this year the newest and largest national museum project in the world opened its doors. This was the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, for which the branding TE PAPA has very quickly achieved recognition among New Zealanders. The best-known part of Te Papa is the new building on the waterfront of downtown Wellington, the capital city. Built over some 7 years at a cost of $NZ317 million, this 36,000 sq.m. structure spread over six levels is, in fact, the largest single cultural investment ever made by a New Zealand government. Set against the latest census population for the Wellington urban area of 336,860, the first year visitor target of 723,000 had been seen by many critics as unachievable. In fact, in the first week alone after opening, over 100,000 visits were recorded into the building.

What does this investment, this market response and this whole museum, say about the country it both projects and reflects? The hard data of official statistics show a March 1996 census night population of 3,618,302 - just a bit more than British Columbia - living in a country of 266,171 sq. kms - i.e. about double the size of Newfoundland island. 4 out of 5 residents identified themselves as Pakeha [European ethnic] , 1 out of 7 as Maori - the indigenous first nation - and 1 out of 21 as Asian. 17% of the total were born outside of New Zealand i.e. are immigrants. Like Canada, it's a constitutional monarchy. Like the US, it has a high rate of technology take-up: 1997 surveys showed that 95% of homes had telephones, 25% of homes had a PC, and 1 in 7 New Zealanders had access to the Internet.

Web browsers will give you more data from many sites - from http://www.govt.nz which is the official but definetly non-monolithic "New Zealand Government On-line" to a host of quirkier sites like http://www.teararoa.org.nz called "a benchmark of local on-line writing". For Te Papa the first visitor numbers are impressive, but they are of course tiny in comparison to the reach of the Web. So is the new building just another monument to national glory? No. Firstly, there is much more to Te Papa than this one building - there are other premises, laboratories, collections, staff and programmes. Secondly, the founding statute of 1992 is very clear that:

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is a forum for the nation to present, explore and preserve the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment in order to better understand and treasure the past, enrich the present and meet the challenges of the future.

This forum is provided in many ways, most obviously through:

  • Exhibitions offering visitor engagement and lively debate
  • Research, Scholarship and Matauranga Maori drives
  • Public programmes, events and presentations.

All these, and every other activity of Te Papa, is firmly based on the Four corporate principles -

bi-cultural: reflecting the two languages and the dual knowledge value systems of the partners to the founding 1840 Treaty of Waitangi;

Speaking with authority: reliable, consistent, sourced, objectively neutral. Waharoa to/from other knowledge sources. Scholarship.

Commercially positive: market effectiveness. Cost/benefit. Process efficiency. Set-up cost. Vs. operating costs. Marginal costs.

Customer-focus: seamless access. Not necessarily collection-based. Common-use searching terms.

How can a single museum like this aim to be a forum for a nation like that?

A good dictionary definition of a Forum is: a meeting or medium for open discussion or debate.

The exciting buzz of people engaging in the Te Papa experience since the new building opened on February 14th 1998 is good evidence that the museum is well positioned to be this kind of forum. There is the stimulating mix of: people and objects; objects and interpretation; objects in contexts; objects and their interpretation telling stories; people enquiring further into the museum knowledge resource. The task now is to build on this start: to attract and retain customer loyalty, to secure repeat visitation and to develop new business opportunities.

There is a striking contrast between the long build-up from the Colonial Museum of 1856 to the Te Papa which opened in 1998, and the short life history of the World Wide Web, let alone of the even shorter timespan of the use of the Web by museums. Te Papa is the beneficiary of what is surely one of the great co-incidences of our age: the new building coming to maturity at exactly the same as the Web becomes truly mainstream. One commentator - Paul Reynolds, writing in NZ Infotech Weekly on Monday February 9 1998 - even placed the co-incidence to the same month, February 1998. Reynolds saw that "as far as the Internet is concerned, historians of the birth of the digital age might well look back and extract from [these events] moments when massive change occurs". Those two events were particular points in, firstly, the battle between Microsoft and the US justice system and secondly, White House proposals to "improve the management of Internet names and addresses".

The key point about this great co-incidence is that all the principles, concepts and ideas underpinning Te Papa, which I have outlined above, are as equally relevant to its use of the Web as they are to its new building. The Web can complement the building -not a museum without walls, but a museum beyond the walls, giving increased access to its collections and its knowledge resources without prejudice to the core task of secure, trans-generational preservation. The Web becomes one more medium for enabling the function of being a forum for the nation to be realised.

Well, yes - but HOW exactly? First we need to look at some context.

In 1997 Esa Saarinen, a philosopher from Finland, identified four force fields now affecting cultural agencies. Each of these is reflected in Te Papa's corporate principles, and each reinforces the value of a sound Web presence in the museum.

  • The heritage industry - the heritage of stories and ideas, as well as of artifacts
  • The commercial force field - market economics setting the framework of analysis
  • The force field of museology - the changing notion of the museum in relation especially to items and to stories.
  • Integrity as an underlying force field: a place in which argument / evocation can be staged productively. The growth of new knowledge depends on the "clash of information", on debate and enquiry: and so on the dictionary definition of forum.

Saarinen went on to identify, from these force fields, four pressures on us now and into the future:

  • The globalised economy, with market ideology affecting everything
  • Networking revolution - the Web and the whole "information age" paradigm
  • Changes in discourse formation - cross-cultural, and inter-disciplinary
  • [The least obvious, but the most important] the feeling that the resources available should be letting us produce something monumental, not just improvements.

Now, a national museum is not the only player endeavouring to project itself in this field of heritage and of identity. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, it is a crowded stage, a forum in itself of organizations jostling to represent national identity. There are other Crown-owned forums too - like the National Library and like emerging new groupings in national heritage operations and policy. The Prime Minister at the time, The Rt. Hon. James Bolger, said at the launch in December 1997 of the long awaited Historical Atlas of New Zealand that "now the Atlas joined the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and Te Papa as a monument to the way NZ saw itself in the late twentieth century".

In fact, national identity is usually framed by technology - TV, movies, music and so on. So technology is not an artificial intervention - it is part of the cultural fabric. The Web, now established as part of the core information infrastructure, is part of that cultural fabric and is central to the debates and informed communication which the forum function will demand.

Te Papa and its building project has had a long and complex history. The planning and policy development has been detailed and intensive, the investment in time effort and money huge. In contrast, the museum's website has had a spasmodic, un-co-ordinated series of brief lives even though the Web offers the key to building the core function of being a forum for the nation in a highly efficient manner.

The website has always been a marginal issue, and mostly seen as an "IT thing" - perhaps this is not uncommon in museums and indeed in many conventional organizations. At each stage of its spasmodic life, the initiative has come from different people in different parts of the organizational structure, rather than being driven from any corporate view of core business. The site's brief history is:

March 1995 - the first Museum of New Zealand website was launched, running off a University of Auckland server. The main content was description of exhibitions showing at the Museum's Wellington building.

October 1995: - This site won the "best Museum site" award at ICHIM in San Diego.

December 1995 Sponsored by Telecom (New Zealand's largest phone company) the educational page "Seaweeding", based on the museum's superb marine science expertise, was launched.

April 1996: With the closure of the Wellington exhibitions programme, as part of the transition to the new Te Papa building, the site was changed to give static corporate information only.

November 1996: A cross-museum survey revealed that some eleven separate projects were under way for "putting things out on the Web".

January 1997: The Marketing Department was given the task of creating a new website as part of the Museum's re-branding in August that year as Te Papa.

September 1997: The new site was launched, on the New Zealand Government On-line server. Focus was on promoting the new building and its facilities to raise visitor interest. Some (not all) of the collections were described, but there was no path offered for supplying further information from or about them.

February 1998: The 1997 site was revised to clear up most of its obvious faults

This revision was launched on February 11th to fit the launch on that day of postage stamps carrying pictures of the new building and (believed to be a world first) the website address.

This latest revision has been actioned as Phase I of a general re-positioning of the Website as a more focused part of Te Papa's stated goal of becoming a leading provider of information about the New Zealand experience. In July 1997, while the new Marketing site was just about to be launched, Te Papa management approved the strategic policy that both the new building and the website would be projected as knowledge resources. This policy about the Museum's role as an information provider was formulated after consideration of market conditions, market opportunity, current and projected Web uptake in New Zealand, and on the need to deliver the Museum nationally and not just from a single Wellington site.

Over the last 10-14 years there has been much "re-inventing government" in New Zealand, with consequent re-structurings of both people and finances within all state-owned operations - including museums. The results are, however, often more form than substance. Over the last year, the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration has been exploring the impact of new information and communication technologies and is still finding that policy advisers, managers, IT and information are largely compartmentalised within organizations. Making the Web central to the museum's core business will be one way of driving though better internal synergies, as well as a way of actually giving better knowledge delivery to customers.

At Te Papa, the next step after agreeing on the museum's role as an information provider - which includes projecting its Website as a knowledge resource - is to develop generic performance standards for all information deliveries. Discussions at this conference, where museum best practise is represented, are part of this process. Our initial thinking on generic standards for delivering Te Papa knowledge, whether through exhibitions, interactive screens, enquiry centres, publications, websites or any other channels, are the obvious ones:

  • Currency: frequency of updating
  • Consistency: validation, "speaking with authority"
  • Seamlessness: links between datasets, minimal replication
  • Clarity on ownership, copyright and intellectual property rights
  • Links to related sources with partners and others outside the museum
  • Usage recording and analysis, and linking this to efficient pricing
  • Business opportunities for bi-product possibilities esp. schools
  • Auditable / documentation trails / robustness

Other initiatives which may help our policy development include work from the European Union's Raphael programme on co-operation for the presentation of heritage to as large an audience as possible. Likewise, the 1997 work reported in Government Information Quarterly by Eschenfelder and others on criteria for the evaluation of websites would seem to have value for applying to other modes of knowledge delivery. We will be very interested to learn of how or whether such projects as these have resulted in practical performance development in European and North American museums.

When we take all these issues together, a remarkable common factor is that they all - whatever their originating factor - reflect characteristics of the Web. The Web exists, and presents a de-facto set of established standards and protocols to which the wider computer-using public are accustomed. So, by using the Web shrewdly, we can at the same time

  • advance those goals of being a forum for the nation
  • achieve internal efficiency, and
  • overcome local or regional tensions about the accessibility of national collections.

Equally it would be easy to use the allure of the Web as an excuse to waste large amounts of money. In late 1996 the National Libraries of both Australia and of New Zealand had to abort, at considerable cost, a huge project to make their resources available on-line. The reality of the Web is that it provides, for anyone with basically a PC and a telephone connection, to enter, explore and move between huge and ever-growing knowledge resources world-wide. None of this reduces the need for the individual knowledge seeker to make judgment choices between competing sets of data, or to make a personal visit to sift out particular information at micro levels. The case for single large databases painstakingly put together is surely diminishing as much as the case for most other forms of centralised command economy.

The Web thus is clearly central to the museum organisation: it is

  • Not just another product, but part of the core infrastructure. If it ever was, it is no longer just an IT application, or just another billboard or brochure.
  • A much faster-moving development than large organizations have so far generally been used to managing. Each website is competing for attention in a crowded marketplace. Attention to best practise, strategic business fit and to a robust technical platform are even more critical.

Of course there are risks. Like all business risks, they can be managed. Among them:

  • Just because you can do it on-line doesn't mean you should! The real dialogue between subject expert or curator and enquirer should never be automated out of the transaction.
  • The lack of robust archiving is a real weakness of the Web as it stands. It has been said cynically that a hundred years from now people would look back on the 1990s as the great information age - if only they could find any preserved evidence of it! Trans-generational access to collections and to knowledge must never be prejudiced by excessive resource switching to faster cyber-access for today's customers. Museums, like libraries and archives, are society's assurance that the nation's intellectual heritage will be preserved. This all reinforces the reality that the web is not a substitute for the collections or for physically-accessible buildings, but is another dimension for leveraging the yield of both of these.
  • Exposure - it takes courage to expose yourself on the web. The audience is international and will be making judgments on what they see. Full exploitation of the Web's potential is part of stepping away from the comfortable restrictions of self-enclosing practices.
  • Commercial leakage - revenue-gathering processes on the Web are not yet perfect, although they are not necessarily any more risky than other ways of trading in the wider marketplace.
  • Undesirable links - who hyperlinks to whom, and how the customer's view of you is influenced by the sideways Web paths by which he or she reached your site, is an inherent risk in a web presence. Audit and monitoring processes to regularly check that your intellectual property position is not being degraded through inappropriate linkages will be part of the cost structure.
  • For all the Web's reputation as a tool of rebels and free-thinkers, there are websites around which show that it is also a State propagandist's dream.
  • Elitism - it is probably true that over-reliance on the Web as the preferred channel of access may increase the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor.

All the above risks exist for museums disseminating knowledge by print. They can all certainly be seen as risks in offering access to knowledge through museum buildings.

Some Issues for New Zealand:

Being a Forum for the Nation implies informed debate. The Museum's ability to speak with authority, and to be acknowledged as an objective, neutral forum depends on the growth of information through research and scholarship drawing from all knowledge value systems.

The traditional oral and visual strength of Maori knowledge transmission transmits well to sound and audio-visual recording. As long as ease of access can be assured - as it has been with television and the telephone - the Web should grow as a useful way of offering access to knowledge treasures.

The actual museum experience, as thousands of New Zealanders are now discovering for themselves at Te Papa, does add to that intangible feeling of belonging - national identity as collective memory.

Delivering some of that Museum experience through the Web is something free from issues of "crowd pleasing on the ground" AND at the same time it is yet another way of drawing the virtual audience to become the live audience through real visits.

In these ways, the lively Te Papa experience, and the knowledge reach of the Web, are both putting the museum right in the centre of public dialogue.


The Web is now part of the core infrastructure of the museum - not just another product, or application, or marketing device. However chaotic it sometimes seems, the Web is an existing and universally-accepted set of standards. Orphan systems outside of it are unlikely to flourish.

Hyperlink development, management and audit is essential. Te Papa cannot be isolated from all the other parts of the total New Zealand resource of heritage knowledge: it is a small country with a distinctive culture. Synergy with other collections and organizations is made more possible because the Web can sidestep the whole business of lack of common standards. A forum requires the interaction of a whole range of different viewpoints, making the Web's ability to link - Waharoa - a multitude of sources extremely well suited to the task.

The Web is a great geography neutraliser - a powerful tool for any organization claiming national relevance. Having said that, it is not a replacement to buildings, but a way of expanding the customer reach of them.

The Forum role for Te Papa was set in 1991, before the Web was even really dreamed about in New Zealand. Now and into the foreseeable future, the Web enables this role to be leveraged and enriched.

Alan Smith
Manager, Public Information Project
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
P.O.Box 467Cable St.Wellington

Last modified: March 19, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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