Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

Museums and the Web 1999, Selected Papers from an International Conference

Edited by David Bearman and Jennifer Trant
Pittsburgh: Archive & Museum Informatics, 1999

Interactivity Comes of Age:
Museums and World Wide Web at Five

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant
Archives & Museum Informatics

Co-chairs, Museums and the Web 99, USA


A snaphot has the advantage of catching a moment that will never again occur and fixing an image we will likely forget as change erases the particular over time. The Museums and the Web Conference in March 1999 gives us such a moment, and an opportunity to reflect on how museums are being transformed by the World Wide Web as well as to understand the challenges that they are being presented with by the demand for parallel virtual programming.

The World Wide Web at five seems to be maturing much like a five year old child who interacts with the world much more intensely, proactively, predictably and constructively, than a younger child. If there is a pervasive theme in Museums and the Web 1999, it is social interaction. In his keynote address, Peter Walsh documents how interaction with the virtual is conditioning how we see the world. Throughout the meeting, leaders in the design of new web sites for museums are engaged in shaping interactions between people and virtual objects, between people and others visiting virtual spaces, between people and systems responding to their non-algorithmic curiosity. The demand for interaction is fed by discoveries made in evaluating the experiences of visitors to first generation web site, and driving the reconstruction of the leading second generation sites around the world. And the Web, as a dynamic, interacting, virtual world, is bringing with it new social relations, new communities, and new roles and rules.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the WWW is a new medium, different from printing and broadcasting technologies that preceded it, and that virtuality will alter the way in which we think about and act in the world. It is equally clear now that the near ubiquity of the Internet, and WWW, projected to happen within a decade, could even come sooner. The speed at which this technology has been diffused is unprecedented. New economic opportunities created by advertising and selling on the Web are giving rise to offers of free access which in turn are increasing the size of the audiences for who the world of the Web is an extension of their everyday world. [A free service offered in the UK achieved, in its first two months, double the size of AOL’s subscriptions which had been built up over several years].

As a consequence, every institution in our society is challenged with finding new ways of representing itself and of realizing its programs in the virtual world of the WWW. It is exciting that museums are responding to this challenge as well, as profoundly and with as much skill, as the commercial world. For once, we can see the creativity and knowledge resident in our cultural institutions teaming up with academic and technical innovators to define the very frontiers of novelty on the Web.

Breaking Out of the Machine - Sharing Experiences

The experience of being online, facing a computer, typing on a keyboard, has been a solitary one. The success of e-mail and the runaway explosion of chat rooms, hinted at the pent-up desire for more social engagement in cyberspace, but in its first few years the World Wide Web did not provide for it. Now we can see what it might look like and why it will transform reality. A team of researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of Milan and museum colleagues at the Leonarda Da Vinci Science and Technology Museum have demonstrated a profound new dimension of web-based virtuality - shared experiences in visiting a museum. We can still barely envision the revolutionary impact of enabling dispersed families, expert guides and interested visitors world -wide, teachers and the classes, to visit a remote space together, without goggles and gloves, over the WWW.

An equally radical removal of the computer is evident in the work of Slavko Milekic, who socializes the monitor for children by turning into a finger painting/pointing table, face up with a touchscreen and then creates software that responds differently to match the physical abilities of its users. By removing the keyboard interface, and socializing the screen, by making interaction visceral or verbal rather than symbolic and textual, the computer interaction with museums is made available to preliterate children and handicapped adults and transformed to a group activity.

In a case studies of the Brazilian Museum of the Person, we see how the very contents of a museum can be contributed by its virtual visitors, and American media artist Andy Deck explores how a museum can be an expression of a single person.

Virtual Objects Receiving Input - Learning through Interacting

It is not enough that the environment of using and experiencing the Web become interactive, that which we encounter in the virtual world must expect our input, respond to our interaction, and be personalized and connected to us through our involvement with it. In the Virtual Menorah experiences designed by Susan Hazan and her colleagues at the Israel Museum, the virtual experiences carry back over into the classroom and the home, back into the “real” world, and then these in turn feed back into the virtual. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Arnold Kramer and David Klevan hurl their visitors into the virtual world by having them interact with themselves, in the shoes of virtual people. These virtual people, who are the visitors themselves, are in turn representative of historical persons whose lives the visitors are thereby living.

In a case study, researchers working with the Museum of Marble in Carrerra have designed to accommodate the various perspectives of different visitors, exploring what it means to make our systems adaptable, or perhaps even adaptive. And Sandy Buchanan relates how the Scottish Cultural Resources Network has created tools of a generalizable sort to enable teachers and students to interact with a wide range of materials.

New Metaphors for Discovery: Seeking, Finding and Using

Gone from the virtual social world are the fill in the blank, look for keyword = ‘whatever’, approaches to finding information. These can be safely left to the real world of ATM machines and library catalogues (and perhaps commercial search engines). In the experimental museum web interfaces being developed by Dworcman, Kimbrough and Patch, we find systems that can answer the kind of complex questions about why the world looks as it does and what it means that some previously noted fact pertains in a particular, and complex, context. In the rich environment of sound and motion images at the Bush Presidential Library, for which Goh and Leggett are creating web interfaces, there are no ASCII texts that represent the rich multimedia through which text string searches can be conducted. Other metaphors and mechanisms for retrieval need to be explored.

Equally exciting, at the level of new architectures for research across the web, are the explorations ogf metadata and standardized (Z39.50) search facilities explored in case studies about the GEM and AHDS services.

What if we knew what they thought? - Evaluating our creations

Interactivity, and the ability to observe in great detail how people interact with the virtual worlds we’ve created, challenge us to think of ways to systematically assess virtual experiences and ways to predict the success of various design strategies. As Teather and Wilhelm show us, the criteria for success depend on the reasons the users is visiting, and understanding these reasons is critical not only for evaluating our success, but ultimately for engineering a successful experience. Since purposes of visitors differ dramatically, so must our metrics. Yet there must be ways to anticipate design choices that will contribute to, or interfere with, enjoyment, learning and engagement. The research tem led by Franca Garzotto reports just such frameworks based on assessment of a very wide range of multimedia interactives.

In case studies Jonathan Bowen and John Chadwick each report on survey results of the sort that are continuing to help us understand the changing user base of museum web sites and their expectations.

Getting it right - the Continuous Task of Re-constructing

Museums may have been developing web sites for only a few years, but in the fast paced world of changing presentation metaphors and ever increasing interactivity of users, these sites are old already. Remaking the site is reinterpreting the real and the virtual museum, reinventing the virtual experience in the context of evolving real programs, and repositioning the museum in the rapidly evolving ecology of WWW sites. The process of reconstruction, as each of the authors in this section affirm, is itself a critical moment in the discovery by the museum staff of its self-representation on the Web, and thereby becomes an opportunity for engagement by the entire staff, and extending the ownership of the virtual museum from the web master work station in which it was born, to the community professional which will sustain it. While the outcomes of the second generaton make-overs reported here are different, the processes by which each institution assessed its existing commitment and determined its next stage tactics, are strikingly similar and raise most of the issues others will face soon.

Evolving Social Relations of Production and Distribution

The imperative to create and manage dynamic programs for the virtual museum as well as the real one, and to create avenues for people with many perspectives to enjoy, learn, and engage in the web museum, creates an equal imperative for new methods of working. New social and information technologies are being introduced into museum daily work life, as documented by Marty, and we can expect these to become more common, and more pervasive, over time.

And as we have come to expect, all these activities are impacting on the social contract which has evolved in copyright laws worldwide. The pressures to extend previous concepts of acceptable behavior into realms that are new and dramatically different from what has come before is going to challenge the society as documented by Graham Cornish. We can expect that museums as holders of unique information, as non-profits devoted to public education, and as fragile institutions in need of financial support, will be struggling with the proper balance to strike between free access to cultural heritage and the need to find self-sustaining mechanisms to re-present the objects in their custody in the virtual world.

Finally, making virtual museum programs known will require the kinds of promotion described in the case study by Gaia, and maintaining a wealth of offerings for different audiences and different curatorial collections will increasingly involve the kinds of partnerships and range of programs described by Frost.

Building an Engaging Virtual Social Space for Culture

The outlines of the personality which museums will assume on the World Wide Web are now becoming apparent - they will be developing virtual spaces in which visitors can experience the sights, sounds and ultimately the feel of cultural artifacts, and interact with each other and with experts as they come to understand and appreciate that culture. They will be creating spaces in which members of that society can give back experiences, information and the pleasure of discovery, and in which the museum can form on-going relationship with remote visitors.

Parallel programming in virtual space will not be easy or free, but the opportunity to engage millions of people from distant cultures will prove compelling. For the experiences we create to be as compelling as the opportunity they offer, we will need to socialize virtual space and give intelligence to virtual objects, so that our virtual visitors can engage with us, each other and the alien materials that make up our rich collections.


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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.