Archives & Museum Informatics








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October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

Museums and the Web 2003, Selected Papers from an international conference

Edited by David Bearman and Jennifer Trant.

Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2003.

Familiarity Breeds Content: knowledge and effect in museums on the Web

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant,
Archives & Museum Informatics, Canada


The papers presented at the seventh Museums and the Web Conference reveal that the technologies of the World Wide Web have – over the past ten years – significantly influenced the business of museums and changed how it is conducted. This introduction to the Selected Papers volume in print focuses on developments in knowledge representation, interface design, program presentation and learning theory, evaluation, the techniques supporting virtual visiting, and multi-channel information delivery. In the conference itself, an even wider set of issues were addressed. Throughout, what is clear is the speed with which a new communication genre is evolving and the radical impact that ubiquitous electronic delivery is having on a cultural institution type that, during its first two centuries of existence, was largely unchanged by technology.

Keywords: knowledge representation, interface design, online presentation, learning theory, virtual visiting, interactive, multimedia, Web evaluation, multi-channel information delivery, museums, museum missions, museum business functions, process re-engineering, electronic genres, new media


Every year, as the co-chairs of the International Museums and the Web Conference, it is our pleasure to review hundreds of contributions from around the world to the burgeoning literature on museums and new media programs. And every year, when we select the papers that we feel will have the longest term impact on the field, we are delighted and surprised to tease out the prevailing themes of discourse and reflect on their significance to the field.

The Museums and the Web Conference (MW) itself is not just a context for academic discourse, though these papers can hold their own in any intellectual discussion: MW is a many ring extravaganza, with designers holding “crit” rooms, evaluators conducting usability labs, techies teaching mini-workshops on methods, professional debates in open forums, demonstrations by dozens of museums of their redeveloped sites and exhibits from dozens of commercial companies featuring their approaches to the field. It is above all an arena of practice, where what counts is what you can do, not abstract ideas that haven’t been realized. Hence, these papers only begin to suggest the full scope of the meeting, a record of which can be found online along with all prior meetings since 1997. On the Web you can find the full text of all presentations, abstracts of Demonstrations and speakers’ biographies (this and prior years linked from

Data, Content and Knowledge Representation

Before the Web, much museum documentation was “just data”, raw information that told us what we had collected and where we put it. But in a short decade everything has changed. Now that museums and other cultural institutions are judged by the quality of the experience of their Web sites, the question of what you can do to present information in exciting and useful ways is paramount. Heightened user expectations have a direct bearing on the initial capture and subsequent management of the digital documentation of museums. If the name of the ancient city where parts of a burial urn was unearthed is recorded by the museum, whether it is stored in such a way as to make it possible to display it correctly and automatically in a cultural historical atlas, or search it with a GIS (geographic information system) interface, is central to its value as a museum asset. Ian Johnson’s discussion of TimeMap and the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative show us the potential for this kind of view of museum collections. If the information respecting this burial urn is attributed to the various sources that could tell us about it and its meaning, including the ancestors of the people whose practices it represents, we not only have layers of professional and cultural meanings to impart. We can also respect sacred cultural meanings, reserving access to those entitled to share in them, as the metadata and software designs advanced by Hunter et. al show. If, in addition, we record data in a manner consistent with the Dublin Core metadata for discovery, sharing it with other museums may assist in the virtual repatriation of knowledge, as explored by Nevile and Lissonnet. If complex representations of the 3-D characteristics of the artifact are recorded, we can link it to related works (or other parts of the same work) in other collections and build a visual representation of the object that will enable future virtual visitors to have an experience which is as complete as (or more complete than) those coming in person. Such models, as described by Rowe and Razdan, are themselves complex knowledge representations, and it matters a great deal what rules are used in their preparation.

The four articles that comprise this section on knowledge representation bring home a number of crucial issues that museums are facing in the era of the Web – from the very first encounter with an object through all subsequent study and use, the museum must make a choice between capturing information in ways that will support future re-uses, many as yet unknown or unimagined, and methods that will end with the task at hand. Because of the significant cost of handling original objects and devoting scholarly attention to them, the “right’ answer is totally clear: reusable content captured with explicit attribution, at a high level of granularity and in standard formats is ideal. But the re-engineering of the business processes in museums and the implementation of technical methods required to capture re-usable digital content are still major dilemmas. Furthermore, the very articulation of the problem – creating data today in ways that will be most usable and exciting tomorrow – exposes the heart of the conundrum: what will be usable and exciting tomorrow?

Interfaceless Interfaces

We struggle to present rich cultural experiences, to make the virtual environment a pure and simple extension of the real world without special methods or boundaries. Already, as we will see in articles on virtual visiting and multi-channel delivery in this volume, “on-line” is rapidly becoming a retronym, along with “wireless”. Interface devices will, according to the authors of the papers in this section, become as quaint as the dial on a phone (or a phone itself) in a generation’s time. Slavko Milekic is imagining and designing a future without interface devices. He brings the careful methods of the neurologist and the imagination of the artist to bear on systems which respond to us precisely the way humans respond – by gauging the extent of our interest and attention and providing us with feedback based on our gaze. Caro Howell and Don Porter push the interface to account for the sensory abilities of the viewer and bring visual art to life for those without vision. By designing an interface that does the impossible – in the case of the Tate, being a visual art museum to those who cannot see – they show us that interfaces can bring museums to an audience that couldn’t use them before by enabling the interpenetration of the virtual and the physical worlds. They point us towards a future in which interfaces not only permit interaction with four of the senses – touch, smell, vision and hearing – but surpass the native limitations of those senses. Steve Guynup begins with the limitations of the current screen and mouse based virtual environments (SMVE’s) and work he has done in 3D game design to suggest how the next-generation interfaces in galleries and the Web might need to feel, and moves from there to the inspirations of new virtual art for design paradigms. All art will never be digital – after all we are not leaving the physical world behind – but digital art is becoming as broad and legitimate an expressive medium as any other technique of artistic expression. As Steve Dietz , who has curated digital art exhibitions for the past decade, suggests the digital is now an artistic domain that bridges the world of visual arts, performing arts, language arts by forging new syntheses, crafting new genres, and enabling new kinds of experiences. As he explores the concrete challenges of presenting such art within the Web and in the gallery, we are introduced to concepts of interface that move us dramatically beyond our current frame of reference and challenge us to respond creatively.

Learning, not teaching

Together these visions of the way that we will relate to content – and it to us – begin to suggest ways in which the museum, and its collected knowledge, can be drawn into a dialogue with inquisitive minds everywhere. Gone (after but a few years) is the fixation with connecting (wires) to the Internet, and of special applications (instructional software) to teach set curricula in fixed loci. Instead, we are evolving anytime, any-question storytelling, exploration, way finding and meaning-making. David Schaller and his colleagues explore the constructivist learning theories that are the scaffolding on which numerous successful learning environments have been built, and suggest how learning theory can provide criteria by which to assess the value of future efforts. Their grounding of concrete museum application designs in learning theory reveals both how much we have to discover about learning, and why it is useful to use what we do know in constructing Web programs. Paul Marty and his colleagues take a specific problem in knowledge and skill building – the recognition of authenticity – and demonstrate how Web-based learning situations designed by the museum can bring learners into direct engagement with objects. This assignment both tests exploratory methods that develop the skills to assess what is real, and teaches students how to exploit what is virtual and metadata only. Where all evidence is presented as virtual representations, these skills will increasingly form the foundation both of computer-literacy and museum-literacy. At the root of the success of these didactic experiences is that they are, nonetheless, very engaging. Sebastian Sauer and Stefan Göbel explicitly address the question of what makes “edutainment” and how to mix pedagogic aims with the fun of play, the excitement of the unknown, and the comfort of a knowledgeable companion. Their Monuma pocket device for exploring museums, and the Telebuddy avatar/familiar (also described at MW2003 by Anja Hoffmann and Stefan Göbel) are (still primitive) prototypes for the future of edutainment. They provide us methods to test the ways that children, and adults, learn from accompaniment by a knowledgeable (quite cuddly) presence.


Increasingly, we are learning how to determine if what we are doing on the Web works and finding that, often, it does and that it certainly can. The continually growing literature on evaluation and its increasing sophistication encourage and validate investment in assessing our activities. In the first of what we hope will be a series of self-conscious evaluation reports, Haley-Goldman and Laura Bendoly define a methodology to rigorously compare the heuristic evaluation methods – often favored by museums because of their cheapness and speed – with other methods of evaluation. While the study is still in progress, the framing of the question with respect to the record of heuristic evaluation in other domains is already an important contribution, and the methodologies suggested for the longer-term cross-method testing will contribute to evaluation of museum Web activities in the future. Barbanell and her colleagues have conducted a major collaboration with teachers and museums engaged in video-conferencing in conjunction with the Web across the State of New York. A substantial part of their effort has been directed to building a framework for assessing such technological, pedagogical and institutional innovations. Concrete evaluation results from these projects reported elsewhere at MW2003 validated the video-conferencing initiative. Burrough et. al. have implemented an interactive design experience in which kids and experts interact in real-time, and in virtual space, to meet a concrete challenge in engineering. Kids Design Network involves teachers as co-learners and adults as mentors. This challenging multi-model program has become the object of continual evaluation and feedback refinement. Different evaluation methods were used during the course of the implementation, and the development process was engineered with distinct points at which to take findings into account. By subjecting the entire venture to continuous, multi-method evaluation and feedback/redesign, this group demonstrates how the genre of interactive learning can best evolve, and reports on an important instance of using the Web, remote expertise, and classroom problem-setting to construct a compelling educational experience.

Virtual Visiting

Many of the themes of the Selected Papers volume and the conference converge in this chapter. Robust knowledge representations and novel interfaces meet the learning environment in a successfully synergetic application metaphor – the virtual guide. Not surprisingly, these applications also pose new challenges to evaluation methods and (presaging later papers) demands for multi-channel delivery. The numerous papers given at this year’s conference on the virtual exhibits, the virtual visitor experience and storytelling and narration come together in the effort to craft lively virtual companions that can engage in entertaining, knowledge-based discourse with visitors to virtual museums. The technical, social, engineering and ontological issues posed by this application have been finding their way into more and more Museums and the Web papers each year; the progress that has been made in a few years is astounding, though the distance that we still have to travel (carefully delineated now) remains vast.

The first two papers in this section extend the pioneering work (now four years old) at the Science Museum of Milan. Di Blas and her colleagues have focused on the problems early implementation exposed in the virtual environment and visitor orientation. They are building a new generation of guide system that incorporates yet a more complex discourse structure, and connects to the technology of “chat” so popular in on-line spaces, especially with the young. Gaia and his colleagues push the boundaries of ‘chatbots’ towards virtual guide technology, offering a blueprint for the levels of problems to be resolved: obtaining appropriate knowledge; enabling written input and response; enabling spoken response, followed by spoken input; and ultimately connecting the bot’s knowledge-base to the museum knowledge-base and beyond. These progressively more challenging stages in deploying such a bot document the research program museums face before successfully deploying this technology. In a simulated guided tour, Almeida and Yokoi have made considerable progress in narrowing the domain of questions, documenting the structure of the tour guide storytelling, and analyzing the means for linking databases in order to create a knowledge-base about concrete objects and contexts, and about the structure of discourse genres. Knowledge-base structuring and interaction, from written queries to spoken responses, frame this exploration. Finally, Iurgel has focused on the affective interaction important in art appreciation, and designed characters that are optimized to respond in ways that people might perceive as friendly and empathetic. The breadth of this research, no less than the fact that the researchers span the globe from Japan to Germany and Israel to Italy, reveals the vast interdisciplinary challenges involved and the ways in which this application arena sits at the heart of the new media revolution.

Multi-Channel Communications

What, we might reasonably ask, will be the future of museum Web activities, or of the Web itself? It is likely not to be very recognizable to those seeking computers or even monitors and expecting data to flow over wires to pre-determined places. The outlines of the webbed information services of the future are only now coming into view, but already it is clear that we will carry with us our own personal devices, that the information will follow us (or come to where we are), and that the form of the communication will not be broadcast, nor narrow-cast, nor point-to-point in the way that telephonic communication has been implemented. The model, rather, is of an information ecology, in which the environment is an organism that responds to our presence by delivering (to a broad range of receivers simultaneously), personalized responses (narrowly cast), that are delivered to any sensors we might be carrying or near (many points), all of which can interact to provide a variety of fully surrounding sensory/information experiences. The dashboard of our vehicle, our cell phones, the sidewalks we walk on, the walls we pass, and perhaps the clothing we wear, will respond with image, sound, and possibly tactile sensations, to inform, entertain, and engage us. And we will reply, in speech, with gesture and with touch, to stimulate, direct and structure the experience.

And how close have we come to the Web of tomorrow? Zancanaro et al. report on how to explore a single work of art hundreds of times the size of their PDA in a way that can take us into the details of the scene. With in the confines of the PDA screen, they suggest how a knowledge of cinematographic techniques and story-telling structures permits the construction of an engaging dialogue. Zimmermann et. al focus on the information brokering tools needed to mine the knowledge-bases of museums and locate the facts that form the core of personalized chat. They then link these methods, using talk as the interface, in an environment alive to actions and locations. Proctor and Tellis report on the state of handheld tour devices and detail the next generation of this rapidly developing technology. Their report on user surveys points out directions for future development. Finally, Garzotto et. al explore the museum implications of the explosion of delivery channels. An engineering framework for multi-channel delivery and a set of scenarios for user experience in different receiving environments are defined, and the requirements they pose for museums outlined. Finally, the practical task of constructing different interfaces to the same data, personalizing interactions, and creating guided (situated knowledge-based) strategies are explored.

Concluding thoughts, beginning ideas

Several major themes that have been present throughout the Museums and the Web conference series continued in evidence at the 2003 conference, but are not fully reflected in this book. (All the conference papers are available on-line at and can also be found on the CD-ROM accompanying this volume.) The challenge of understanding our audience, and particularly the needs of children, continues to engage educators and public outreach professionals. Integrating Web resources within the physical exhibition space occupies exhibit designers. The problems of digital content management over the life of institutions are a focus of studies and tools presented by information technologists. As in the past, it was clear that the Web is forcing major changes in business practices on the museums and that it is engaging nearly all the knowledge workers in these institutions in rethinking their methods and the very purposes of their institutions.

In a few short years we’ve come a great distance exploring the role and reality of museums and the Web. We’ve moved from simple brochures to collections catalogs, beyond e-commerce and to interactive, on-line programs with targeted audiences and tie-ins to the physical museum. But the pace of change is increasing, and the near future holds a Web unlike the space we’ve been confined to for the past seven years. No longer tethered by content developed for another purpose and time and captured in legacy computing systems, we are challenged to create digital content as we work in ways that are re-usable, interoperable and sharable. Then we can seek to implement systems that make content nearly ubiquitously available with no apparent interfaces, that communicate with visitors and passers-by in natural language, and that respond to their affect and attention. We are challenged to script our discourse to convey knowledge in the course of entertaining and engaging conversations and lively social experiences.

In a decade, will the resulting institution look like a “museum”? It will, if a museum is a place where objects that represent culture and humanity, natural and physical diversity, are cared for and interpreted. It will if our experiences of museums on the Web confront us with novelties and leave us with understanding. But it will be a different place than it was in 1990, or even in 1997, when we first erected virtual billboards to announce the opening hours and location of the building.

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant
Co-Chairs, Museums and the Web
March 5, 2003
Toronto, Ontario, Canada /






















































Informatics: The interdisciplinary study of information content, representation, technology and applications,
and the methods and strategies by which information is used in organizations, networks, cultures and societies.