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published: April, 2002

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MW2002: Papers

The Uses of Virtual Museums: The French Viewpoint

Roxane Bernier, Université de Montréal, Canada


The mingling of the arts and of the Internet gives birth to new criteria of presentation for curators as well as of appreciation of masterpieces for visitors. However, does this new formula facilitate getting information on the arts, and do digitized works of art help redeem the aesthetic experiment. I will investigate how cultural institutions make use of the Internet as a specific mode of access to the arts, and therefore examine from a French perspective what resources should be used when browsing on-line exhibitions, as museum web designers possess little knowledge of users' tastes.

Referring to a qualitative research undertaken by the Direction des musées de France on ten web museums, I will demonstrate that the use of the Internet for museums is perceived as “knowledgeable information” for users. It is stressed that a virtual museum can cause users who cannot evaluate the site from content on the homepage to lose interest. Nevertheless, I assert that emerging electronic language forms undoubtedly influence the course of “individual learning”, but also offer a particular outlook of masterpieces, as visitors must get acquainted with the ergonomics through a myriad of informational and technical patterns (e.g., hypertext links, icons, VMRL). From an elaborate grid, I will show what sort of homepages, computer graphics, navigational paths, types of content and application software are preferred.

Keywords: evaluation, virtual museum, cultural preferences online


This paper investigates what a “virtual museum”, also known as an on-line and web museum. Virtual museums offer an alternative to visiting physical showrooms with a huge access to works of art, retrospectives on the life of an artist, new acquisitions, current and past exhibitions, quizzes, databases, and so on. As Mokre (1998) and Davallon (1998) stress:

“none of the limitations of the physical museum apply to the virtual museum. There are no awkward display spaces, no limitations on the number of objects accessible to the visitor, and indefinite storytelling about those objects from which we can pass on tradition.”

On-line exhibitions are thus seen as more suitable for a wider audience. We also like to think that behind the concept of on-line museums there is a process of democratization of the arts, bypassing social status and cultural backgrounds. It provides an opportunity to learn about museums throughout the world, and all free of charge!

Premise of the research

We put forward in this paper that visitors become “users,” as they require computer skills, when they personally seek information on the arts through a virtual environment. We question the curators’ ability to quench the visitors’ quest for knowledge within the cultural field. We are nevertheless convinced that the framing of users with key-paths (e.g., hypertext links), captions (e.g., Picture of the Month), pictograms (e.g., icons), and higher-end technologies (e.g., VRML) demonstrates the curators’ attention for mediating concepts, objects, or names of artists considered as salient information, and therefore brings about a particular outlook on masterpieces. Those components raise significant issues for a) the control of and access to information, as well as, b) the dissemination of content. We will examine how web museums can provide “knowledgeable information” for the French population, based on the premise that personalization of content allows for better learning attainments.

Selected web museums

The results originate from an exploratory study undertaken for the Direction des musées de France (Vol and Bernier, 1999) on 10 on-line museums (both French and English) drawn from an international overview of 300 sites with various orientations (educational, historical, artistic, etc.) through multiple search engines (e.g., Yahoo and Excite). They were then classified into 5 fields of collection [1] : Archaeology and Antiquity, Ethnology and Civilization, History, Fine Arts, and Heritage. The museum sites chosen are listed below in Table 1.

  1. Museum of Fine Arts of Bordeaux - http://www.culture.fr/culture/bordeaux
  2. Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York -
  3. National Gallery of Art of Washington [8] -
  4. Medieval Paintings in the South of France - http://www.culture.fr/culture/medieval/en/index.htm
  5. Canadian Museum of Civilization -
  6. Museum of Natural History of London -
  7. Virtual Museum of New France [9] -
  8. Memorial of Caen [10] -
  9. Museum of Lausanne Antique -
  10. Jacques-Edouard Berger World Art Foundation [11] -

Table 1: Selection of the 10 virtual museums


Our methodological perspective follows the Hypermedia Design Model (HDM) which includes five basic elements. The content relating to semantic means, the structure carrying the application content, the navigation referring to possible links, the dynamics defining the interactivity, and the presentation describing the layout elements. This model was found to be useful for analyzing virtual museum designs (Garzotto & Discenza, 1999; Paterno & Mancini, 1999). All participants were invited to browse the web sites of five museums and tell us on a coding sheet which ones they appreciated best with respect to five features: 1) homepage, 2) ergonomics, 3) computer graphics, 4) content, and 5) technological adds-on.


The research was done in two phases, with a total of 37 Parisian users (21 men and 16 women), between the ages of 15 and 68 (average age of 45 years), mainly university graduates, with various levels of familiarity with the Internet (i.e., newbies to daily users). Reynold (1997) reports the average age of virtual visitors is between 40 and 64 years. The Seventh GVU Survey (1998) also unveiled that cultural web sites attract an older crowd than the typical Internet user whom is a male his mid-thirties. Bowen’s analysis (1998) is akin to the previous research as he shows that: “46% of museum virtual visitors are women.” In other words, gender is more balanced than for overall web users.

French subjects are particularly relevant for a study of virtual museums because they are newly accustomed to the Internet [2] . We thus made our selection of users according to two characteristics “field of study or profession,” taking for principal variable “strong and little sensitivity to ergonomics.”

During the first phase, in April of 1998, we composed a sample of 27 well-schooled assiduous users 14 men and 13 women, in their mid-thirties (between 22 and 52 years old), with a Bac+2 (i.e., sophomores). They were mainly graduate students in the Hypermedia program, especially Master’s in Documentation [3] and DESS Hypermedia candidates [4] , at the Université Paris 8. We also found independent workers with technical training as well as people in the cultural sphere. As for the occupation of virtual visitors, Bowen’s results (1998) show that nearly 40% count for the General Public, Business people (approx. 30%), and Education-related professions (approx. 25%). The second phase took place one weekend in January of 1999 during workshops on the Internet at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris, and would inform us about novices. Among the 10 more users (7 men and 3 women, with an average age of 40 years, which possessed a Bac+4 [i.e., Master’s degree], except for 2 high-school students). Almost half of them were first-time surfers [5] .

We also investigated their museum practices. That is, regular visitors visit museums twice a month, and are mostly interested in temporary exhibitions [6] , and dislike “blockbusters,” as they are already well acquainted with the permanent ones. Occasional visitors frequent museums every two months, whereas the neophytes of the arts seldom visit them (i.e., every six months). These two types of visitors appreciate blockbusters of national art galleries. It is also an opportunity for them to discover national museums. Regular visitors favor traditional topics, occasional visitors and neophytes of the arts however have a preference for broader topics, like artistic trends. Regardless of their museum practices, all visitors look for well known Art or Civilization museums, and mention that on-line visits are a great opportunity to plan a trip abroad or to get acquainted with regional museums. We also learn that cultural web sites are implicitly linked to leisure.


There are three limitations of this research: 1) the primary motive for browsing on web museums was initiated by our survey. It was noted by Bowen (1998) that their main benefit is to explore a personal interest (up to 70%); 2) the panel was limited to 37 people, considering that the overall number of Net surfers is 375 million users as of May 2000 (French users represent only 2,5% of them, eTForecasts, 2000), and 3) our sample was exclusively French speaking Parisians, in comparison to Internet users among whom three-quarters have English as their mother tongue. However, Chadwick (1999) mentions in his study of web visitors that: “recruiting of participants via the Internet brings [also] a self-selected population and contributes to a gender gap, as more men than women complete on-line.” Moreover, Bowen’s VLmp findings (1998) show that “88% of virtual visitors live in North America,” this high percentage may be explained by the fact that on-line questionnaires are only available in English.

French viewpoints of virtual museums

The prevailing perception of the web museum is one who provides information on Fine Arts museums, and that emphasizes taste for aesthetic experiment. French users indeed look forward to getting content on art collections. Oono’s results (1998) indicate that virtual visitors are mostly interested in art collections and exhibition rooms (52.5%). Users claim on-line exhibitions with many images and little text, although one should not forget that museums are a place of literature to pass on culture through a textual environment, not just by displaying objects, because the image is contingent without words. We also found that culture is intrinsically linked to an iconic language (e.g., mosaics of paintings), in particular art objects which carry a symbolic load for the French. Futers (1997) reported that 85% of web visitors want images of works of art. Users also expect specific information from a virtual museum, such as temporary exhibitions, entrance fees, and upcoming conferences. Reynolds (1997) has stressed that general information counts for 41% of the demands.


The homepage is the paramount feature that encourages the visitors to plug-in to web museums and entrust themselves to on-line exhibitions. It must be colorful, quickly downloaded, with an optimal view of available components (e.g., navigational paths, captions, technological adds-on), and would therefore enhance interest according to personal queries. Regardless of the museums chosen, a majority of visitors agree that most homepages give a general idea of the topics. Users thus appraise highly the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York (MET) and the Museum of Natural History of London (MNH) because they aim to reach specific audiences. For instance, For kids: games, guide, hunts at the MNH (See Figure 1), or Explore and Learn of the MET. These museums raised a strong interest as visitors can test their knowledge.

The Natural History Museum of London ©
Figure 1: The Natural History Museum of London © http://www.nhm.ac.uk/interactive/index.html


We learn, independently of familiarity with the Internet, that our users are conventional in their ways of surfing on-line museums since they mainly use the hypertext and the table of content. Furthermore, users expect a “virtual cartography of the premises” such as the greeting of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, to easily locate oneself and freely browse in and out of the showrooms. Novices and occasional visitors expect a map as provided in the physical museum with a list of paintings as well as an index of artists.

Assiduous surfers seek information in a traditional way, as the privileged paths for browsing on virtual museum is the hypertext (e.g., highlighted word) followed by the table of content. A synopsis is also suggested, as for instance a bookmark that facilitates returns to preceding consultations, or more links towards images, that is, moving through web pages without changing subject. Regular visitors also expect “Pop up Bubbles” to discover works of art available on their personal computers. However, novices favored the table of content, back and forward commands then the hypertext.

Most users are displeased with the absence of regular shape of indexes on virtual museums. It is stated as a major inconvenience to become acquainted with the exhibits. Garzotto and Discenza (1999) have indeed noted from an analysis of 32 Best of the Web museums that only 9% have a singular shape of browsing.

Computer graphics

Users want an iconography that is very intuitive such as the pictograms of Medieval Paintings in the South of France with its vaults and chapels, where the mosaics of images match the information to be obtained. For instance, the “death's-head” icon convinced an occasional visitor to browse on this section, even though he was more or less interested in the topic of religion. Along the same vein, consultation of on-line exhibitions is closely related to features such as color, text, and images. Vol and Léger (1999) reported that, from both a French and a Canadian’ perception on Christmas Traditions, images are extremely important, but sound makes the information less grim since it personalizes content; it makes the browsing less unpleasant for occasional visitors. In this respect, users said that the National Art Gallery of Washington and the Museum of Fine Art of Bordeaux have sober homepages. Fortunately, they did not provoke a lack of interest in its content. Nielsen (1996) however pointed out to avoid loud colors for background screen, and emphasize content within a transparent navigational structure (i.e., neutral).

Many users claim a graphic processing affixed on paintings, which is called a “lighting effect” which highlights the texture, as provided by the National Art Gallery of Washington (See Figure 2). Regular visitors stress that they do not want to stare at microscopic masterpieces on a computer, whereas in reality they lose themselves when looking at them in the showroom. Indeed, the reproduction of works of art on screen is not always of the best quality to convey aesthetic experimentation.

The Museum of Fine Arts of Bordeaux ©
Figure 2: The Museum of Fine Arts of Bordeaux ©


Regular visitors best appreciated the Tours of the National Art Gallery of Washington and Les 100 chefs d’oeuvre of the Museum of Fine Arts of Bordeaux (See Figure 3), because their art collections are said to be very exhaustive in terms of number of paintings. These museums are particularly relevant for developing a “visual memory,” especially among neophytes of the arts.

The National Gallery of Art of Washington ©
Figure 3: The National Gallery of Art of Washington ©

Regular visitors have the impression that the Internet involves specialized museum vocabulary whereas several occasional visitors find the language too general (e.g., Themes), too narrow for their media consonance (e.g., Education), or too unusual (e.g., Cabinet of Curiosity) for the given information. We learn that users appreciate titles sorted by captions, and whose terms are not hermetic. This criticism is all the more true when curators offer a set of topics that are supposedly known by the general public, but rather answer what the public ought to learn. Regular visitors consequently expect a virtual museum that focuses on “personalized features”, by questioning them either on a technique or on current depiction movements. Their suggestion is to offer a variety of glance proposals like What’s New? Pick of the Month, even statements from contemporary painters rather than getting the traditional perception of curators.

The content proposed from the Memorial of Caen on the World Wars is said to be simple and accessible to all audiences (See Figure 4). Therefore, this web site seems to correspond to their expectations, as users are looking for a “museography of viewpoints,” by various social actors (e.g., scientists, children) to instigate the visit, or which express actual positions on artists for national art galleries.

The Caen Memorial ©
Figure 4: The Caen Memorial © http://www.memorial.fr/gb/expo/expo.htm

Once again, virtual museums are said to exclusively aim at museum professionals, that is, a painting’s presentation for unconditional art lovers, especially the Museum of Fine Arts of Bordeaux and the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. This comment is more strongly pronounced for the Jacques-Edouard Léger Art Foundation (See Figure 5) and the Museum of Lausanne Antique, as they did not appeal to users. Both Swiss museum web sites harbor a tedious homepage with drab scripts. On-line museums are more likely to serve the research community with their database [7] . Thus, Siegel and Grigoryeva (1999) underlined that database interfaces are often designed for academicians and museum professionals, by offering content on artists, material, dimension, catalogue number, etc.

The Jacques-Edouard Berger World Art Foundation ©
Figure 5: The Jacques-Edouard Berger World Art Foundation ©

As for the volume of information, within ten minutes of surfing on a virtual museum, users get a good idea of the types of information, whereas in terms of content retrieval, our users consulted around three pages per topic on virtual museums. In the same vein, Norbotten (2000) found that less than 50% of web users select one theme or more and look at approximatively three pages per subject, knowing that most topics ranged from two to eight pages.

Technological adds-on

Novices and occasional visitors have a preference for specific software applications like a palliative for the visualization of masterpieces (e.g., magnifying glass) as well as audio and video comments about the life of an artist. Numerous occasional visitors criticize the absence of audio and video comments for Medieval Paintings in the South of France as well as the under-utilization of images for the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Museum of Fine Arts of Bordeaux.

Assiduous surfers welcome sophisticated software such as VRML and QTVR in order to “feed the collections,” as proposed on some cultural web sites. Virtual Tours of the Musée du Louvre is exemplary in that matter (See Figure 6). Considering the newest developments (e.g., TOURBOT discussed by Barbieri and Paolini, 2001), curators must take advantage of usability of IT by increasing the participation of individuals within an interactive knowledge setting, and consequently provide a contemplation of masterpieces in vivo.

The Louvre: Painters of Louis XIV ©
Figure 6: The Louvre: Painters of Louis XIV ©


Several assiduous surfers who are regular visitors wish that web museum designers create a “network of knowledge” for informal exchanges, as for example, live discussions on specialized art topics (e.g., IRC, newsgroups) with friends of the museum as well as with foreign visitors that would set a sociability similar to the one found in the physical institution. Other users argue that a greater access of to museum staff through the Internet would augment their desire to learn about the arts, as museum employees are too busy on the physical site. Thus, they request that a virtual museum plays a “pole of reference,” by suggesting links towards other web sites, with frequent updates, as it is the case for the Memorial of Caen. Further analysis can be done in this direction.


We have stressed that, when designing a virtual museum, the know-how of virtual visitors must be carefully looked at, as it appears that it is less the knowledge of the arts which is put into question than the mapping of content on museum web sites.

Museologically speaking, the virtual museum should fall into the four “learning styles” elaborated by Gunther (1990): 1) giving facts and details (e.g., index on artists), 2) supporting pragmatism and skill-oriented exploration (e.g., higher-end technologies), 3) sharing ideas (e.g., newsgroups), and 4) bringing about self-discoveries (e.g., quizzes). Web designers should aim at giving content on the arts in a more “user-friendly way,” that is, through new search associations according to available captions which best correspond to the needs of various audiences (museum professionals, art lovers, first-time visitors, etc.).


Barbieri, T. and P. Paolini (2001). "Co-Operation Metaphors For Virtual Museums", Museums and the Web Conference, March 15-17, Seattle. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/barbieri/barbieri.html

Bowen, J. et al. (1998). "Musées virtuels et visiteurs virtuels" in Publics, nouvelles technologies et musées, R. Bernier et B. Goldstein (coords.), Publics et Musées, no. 13, Presses universitaires de Lyon, Lyon, p. 109-127.

Chadwick, J. (1999). "A Survey of Characteristics and Patterns of Behavior in Visitors to a Museum Web Site", Museums and the Web Conference, April 16-19, Minneapolis. http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/chadwick/chadwick.html

Citédoc Explora. "Nouvelle image, nouveaux réseaux : passeport pour le Cybermonde" (1999) in no. 55, Direction de la communication, CSI, Janvier, Paris.

Davallon, J. (1998). "Une écriture éphémère : l'exposition face au multimédia" in Penser le multimédia, P. Lardellier (coord.), Degrés, nos. 92-93, section h, hiver/printemps, Bruxelles.

Futers, K. (1997). "Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want: a look at Internet user needs", Proceedings of the 7th Electronic Imaging & the Visual Arts Conference, Paris.  http://www.open.gov.uk/mdocassn/eva_kf.htm

Garzotto, F. and A. Discenza (1999) "Design Patterns for Museum Web Sites", Museum and the Web Conference, March 11-14, New Orleans. http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/discenza/discenza.html

Gunther, C. (1990). "Museumgoers: Life-Styles and Learning Characteristics", Journal of Continuing Education, p. 151-169.

Mackenzie, D. (1996). "Beyond Hypertext: Adaptive Interfaces for Virtual Museums", Proceedings of the 6th Electronic Imaging and the Visual Arts Conference, Scotland. http://www.dmcsoft.com/tamh/papers

Ministère de la Culture (1998). "Les pratiques culurelles des Français. Évolution 1989-1997", Bulletin Développement culturel, no. 124, Direction des musées de France, Ministère de la Culture, Paris. http://www.culture.fr/culture/editions/r-devc/dc124.pdf

Mokre, M (1998) "New technologies and established institutions. How museum present themselves in the World Wide Web", Technisches Museum Wien, Austria.

Nielsen, J. (1999). "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design, Revisited Three Years Later" in the Alert Box: Current Issues in Web Usability, May. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990502.html

Nordbotten, J. (2000). "Entering Through the Side Door - a Usage Analysis of Web Presentations", Museums and the Web Conference, April 16-19, Minneapolis.  http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/nordbotten/nordbotten.html

Oono, S. (1998). International Museum Web Surveyhttp://www.museum.or.jp

Paterno, F. and C. Mancini (1999). "Designing Web User Interfaces Adaptable to Different Types of Use", Museum and the Web Conference, March 11-14, New Orleans.  http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/paterno/paterno.html

Reynolds, R. (1997). Museums and the Internet: What purpose should the information supplied by museums on the World Wide Web serve? M.Sc. thesis, Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, United Kingdom.

Siegal, P and N. Grigoryeva (1999). "Using Primary Data to Design Web Sites for Public and Scientific Audiences", Museum and the Web Conference, March 11-14, New Orleans.  http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/siegel/siegel.html

Vol, A. and A-M. Léger (1999). Evaluating and Monitoring the Internet Site "Christmas Traditions in France and in Canada", Canadian Heritage/Ministère de la Culture, Ottawa/Paris, janvier, 83 pages.

Vol, A. and Bernier, R. (2000). Pratiques et représentations des utilisateurs de sites-musées sur Internet, Rapport d’étude, Département des publics, Direction des musées de France, Ministère de la Culture, Paris, décembre, 39 pages.


[1] This study aimed at evaluating taste and aesthetic feeling which best correspond to traditional art museums.

[2] France was ranked 11th out of 13 European countries concerning familiarity with the Internet (Citédoc Explora, 1999).

[3] Documentation Master’s Degree is close to the deuxième cycle Biblioeconomic’s program in North America.

[4] The DESS program stands for “Diplôme d’Études Supérieures Spécialisées”. This diploma is a one-year certificate at the Ph.D.

[5] France Telecom and Médiangles in 1997 carried out quantitative surveys which showed that 35% of French users have an annual income higher than 300 000 francs (approx. 50 000$ US) where 85% have a school level equal or higher than Bac+2 (i.e., sophomores). 20% of them are equipped of a computer at home, and 40% possess a CD-Rom. One estimates the number of surfers between 1,4 and 2 millions at the end of 1997. Another report undertaken by the French Ministry of Culture (1998) pointed out that only 1% of the French (15 years old and up) use the Internet.

[6] The term Exhibition evokes to users more than art showcases, but also refers to artists’ workshops, commercial art galleries, and gardens.

[7] Mackenzie (1996) found that most English-speaking historians at the TAMH refer to old German names for Eastern Baltic ports which are unfamiliar to non-specialists (e.g., Reval for Tallinn).

[8] Finalist for the Best Research Site from the Museum and the Web 2001, that is, ease of use for both neophytes and experienced researchers, accuracy, consistency of material, depth of content, currency of date links, and great references towards other sites.

[9] This site was awarded the Web Art Silver prize in 1996 from ICOM.

[10] It has won the Web Art Gold prize in 1998 from ICOM.

[11] It has received the Internet Guide Award by the encyclopedia Britannica.