Private owners and public access; using the web to provide access to historic properties and their contents
Michael Hiley , De Montfort University, United Kingdom

Short Paper: Short Paper 3: Case Studies

This paper examines the practical problems of providing public access to historic properties across the United Kingdom, many of which are privately owned and yet contain objects of key importance to Europe's cultural heritage. It describes the development of Heritage on the Web as a web gateway and the presentation of houses and their contents on the web sites reached through that gateway. Many different issues are involved from physical security of valuable items to the development of technologies to provide on-line access to priceless objects too fragile to be put on show, or handled.

Five years ago a consortium was formed called Heritage on the Web and gained the support of the Duke of Buccleuch, the owner of the most extensive estates in Europe with houses in Scotland and England. The group was given a project award by the Department of Trade and Industry (U.K. Government) to develop a demonstrator web site for Boughton House. This went live in 1997 and is still under development. It is the largest and most advanced site for any historic property anywhere in the world, with hundreds of paintings and pieces of furniture on show, using many advanced VR and other technologies. (see

In order to locate web sites together and therefore increase traffic through them we have established a web gateway - Heritage on the Web - at This provides access to, for example, William Morris's house at Kelmscott Manor, and the Charles Rennie Mackintosh house at 78, Derngate, Northampton. These sites draw on our experience gained from the Boughton site but are each custom built.

One disadvantage which historic houses face is that they are usually unable to draw on public funding to any great extent, despite the fact that they are repositories of enormously important cultural artefacts. Whilst museums and galleries receive financial and technical support from public sources, private owners worry about replacing their own leaky roofs. Yet the private and public collections inhabit the same world and false divisions between them should not be made, particularly where this affects access to cultural heritage on–line.

The web gateway which we have built is itself only a stage in the continuing evolution of the web and the way in which it can provide access to sites and objects of cultural interest. The way forward will involve interlinked databases and hopefully links between privately owned items and those in the great national museums and galleries. Many items of key cultural heritage importance originally came out of private houses.

The fragmented sector of historic houses will need guidance and help to move forward and bring their web access up to new and changing standards. It is a great challenge, but the houses and their contents are of such international importance, as well as great tourist attractions, that the rewards to be gained if this can be achieved are themselves immense.


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Published: 01/09/01
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