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October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

Museums and the Web 2001, Selected Papers from an international conference

Edited by David Bearman and Jennifer Trant.

Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2001.

Introduction: The Web as a Fact of Museum Life

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

The fifth year of Museums and the Web comes at a time when the use of the Web by museums – and the need of museums to take advantage of the Web – are givens. No-one questions the appropriateness of a museum Web site, only how well it achieves the goals the museum has set, and how fully those goals encompass the mission that the museum could be taking on in an age of nearly ubiquitous, increasingly broad-band, and narrow-casting. Each of us now expects to be able to use the Web to get instant information about museum offerings both in-town and around the world. In North America we imagine receiving Web content on ever larger monitors at home and the office; in Europe, with the proliferation of cell phones and wireless PDAs, the dynamics of access may soon (if only for a short time) feel very different. But the assumption of instant information, on demand, anywhere, anytime, remains.

For museums, the opportunities have never looked greater. In the wake of the bursting of the e-commerce bubble of the year 2000, there is a new focus on mission – both in the corporate and non-for-profit sectors – and a reaffirmed desire to use the medium to connect with our audience and to create something really useful.

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The past year also saw the first, brave moves of ICANN, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (http://www.icann.org), towards opening up the name-space of thematic Internet Top Level Domains beyond the familiar .com, .edu, .org, .gov and the two-letter country designations. The place of museums on the Web was reaffirmed when MuseDoma (The Museum Domain Management Organization – http://www.musedoma.org) was granted the right to administer a .museum top level domain. (See http://www.icann.org/tlds/mus1/ for the application, and http://www.icann.org/announcements/icann-pr16nov00.htm for the announcement.) MuseDoma, was founded by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the J. Paul Getty Trust purposefully to submit the .museum application to ICANN, “for the benefit of the museum community world-wide and for the Internet itself. This new TLD was intended to give museums the possibility of registering Internet addresses with a distinct museum identity and would allow the users of the Internet to recognize this as a sign of authenticity” (http://www.musedoma.org/).

MuseDoma now faces all the challenges of administering a collaboration in the open world of the Internet. As “registration in .museum will be restricted to museums and museum organizations” (http://www.musedoma.org) the refinement of the ICOM definition of museum and the development of MuseDoma operating policies and procedures that both maintain the distinct sense of museum space and encourage the inclusive and participatory philosophy of much net art and museum Web activity will be a difficult task.

We offer our collective thanks to Cary Karp, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and Ken Hamma of the J. Paul Getty Trust for their leadership in developing MuseDoma and the .museum domain. The Museum Web community owes it to itself and its users to stay abreast of this debate, both through the online discussions hosted by MuseDoma (http://listserv.musedoma.org/archives/musedoma-news.html) and through membership in that organization itself, when that becomes possible. Our domain will only be as good as we make it!

User Influenced Design

Awareness of the needs and requirements of users was one of the main themes of MW2001. The first four papers in this volume explore means and methods of involving users of museum Web sites in their conception, design and evaluation, and offer ideas of how we can integrate the needs of all kinds of users in to the Web presence of our museums.

Carrie Adams, Traci Cole, Christina DePaolo and Susan Edwards of the Seattle Art Museum lead the volume with an essay on “Bringing the Curatorial Process to the Web”. Working with sixth-grade students from the Seattle area, their My Art Gallery Project used the curatorial metaphor to help students understand and appreciate the intricacies of museum operation. An engaging guide, Mona, personalizes the site. Designed in an iterative process with direct input from users, Mona, and the application she unveils, set the tone desired by the target audience.

Other ways of finding out what users want are equally valid, and can lead to development of appropriate applications that surprise us with their ground rules. Research conducted at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center by John Vergo and his team over ten intensive months revealed what user-centered design might dictate for a model museum Web site. Using interviews, questionnaires, and surveys, they identified a preference in a generalist audience for “less interactive narratively structured streaming experiences with a human voice” as a way to for many users to augment their cultural experiences and attendance at cultural institutions. Is it distressing to find that users want enhanced TV like experiences? Or is it a challenge to convert them with more interactive offerings? Or is the even greater challenge for us to change the character of what we often want to deliver?

We are also charged to reach out to disabled users whom we may initially think are unable or unwilling to visit the virtual museum. Enabling access for a broad range of users is the theme of Susan Anable and Adam Alonzo’s paper. They point out how easily museums can accommodate the needs of people with disabilities, with a small amount of planning and forethought. Not surprisingly, the design discipline required makes the resulting Web site better for all users.

Developing the skills to conduct rigorous user studies of museum Web activity is a challenge for many museum professionals. Ilse Harms and Werner Schweibenz, of the University of Saarland in Germany report on a research project that applied methods of usability engineering to a museum Web site. Their methods, built on foundations constructed in usability engineering and systematic qualitative human-computer interaction research, offer a model to which many museums will aspire. The partnership between computer scientists and museums is also a model to keep in mind.

Designing for (re-) Use

Effective and efficient information design remains a challenge as we struggle with the complex nature of cultural information. The second group of papers in this volume reports on projects, methods and tools to help us create information architectures that support the design of virtual exhibitions and the re-use and representation of their informational components.

The ViEx system developed by Christian Breiteneder, Hubert Platzer and Martin Hitz in Austria is one such tool to assist in the authoring and management of a virtual exhibition. Their framework of content repository, editorial tools, and Web page generator supported the creation of the complex exhibition Bhutan – Fortress of the Gods (http://www.bhutan.at) and is being generalized and tested in other applications. The approach – beginning at the end of a traditional multimedia design and reverse engineering a toolset that can make the same end product – is definitely worth further study and application. Detail sof the content and presentation choices made in presenting the Bhutan experience can also be found in a complementary paper on the accompanying CD-ROM.

Gilles Falquet, Jacques Guyot, Luka Nerima and Seongbin Park also address issues of reusability of museum information in their paper on the “Design and Analysis of Virtual Museums”. Using a database publishing tool called Lazy, this group demonstrates the efficiencies in design that result from a rigorous analysis of structure, and the refinement of that structure using grammatical formalisms. If the building blocks are sufficiently solid and modular, constructing new multimedia content packages could indeed be something even the ‘Lazy’ could do.

Slavko Milekic explores the implications of content repurposing on interface design in his paper, which builds on his experience in creating informative and engaging user interfaces. Milekic proposes a typology for content repurposing, and points towards some of the benefits that intelligent repurposing could offer. Adaptive delivery of information content tied to user interest or ability, and effective redesign of information presentation, are two such areas where further research and exploration is required, particularly in the realm of converging media.

New Content, New Uses

Museums house and deliver a wide range of information content in many media. Much of the deep and exciting content of museums is, of course, served from databases rather than presented as static HTML pages. As a consequence, even the information that museums would like to make widely available to the public is hidden in the “Deep Web” (Bright Planet, 2001, see: http://www.completeplanet.com/Tutorials/DeepWeb/index.asp) where search engines cannot tread and most users never go.

John Perkins reports on the CIMI Consortium’s work with the Open Archives Initiative as one way that museum can surface their deep content, and make it available to metadata servers that support information discovery on the Web. CIMI members are working with other partners in the international metadata community to develop methods for museum and other deep content servers to place metadata in harvestable packages for easy collection and updating of metadata servers (or search engines, as they are more popularly known).

The Cleveland Museum of Art has taken on another of the challenges of moving museums out to interested publics in trying to create the partnerships and methods needed to launch a broadband network for the delivery of museum content to seniors in assisted living residence facilities, community centers and disabled persons in their own homes. Len Steinbach reports on this unique collaboration, funded by the Technology Opportunity Program of the US Department of Commerce, that brings together museum and other cultural organizations’ content expertise, the technological expertise of local ISPs and public broadcasters, and a network of community partners. These diverse players are working together to bring life-enhancing programming to under-served, and ready audiences – and it seems that they are having fun while they are doing it. (Maybe it’s just too early in the project…)

Jim Spadaccini reflects on his experience in delivering streaming audio and video in a number of museum contexts, and offers some thoughts on the limitations of current technologies and implementations. After reviewing the relative experiences and evaluations of participants ‘on the museum floor’ and on-line, he designed modifications in the Webcast viewing environment that would greatly enhance the viewers experience – moving them from a passive recipient of pushed content to an active participant in a multi-media dialogue. Spadaccini’s thought experiment cum requirement statement should inform the next generation of streaming content viewers – the ‘killer app’ of the users John Vergo and his colleagues at IBM interviewed.

Personal Web Experiences

Methods that enable visitors to museum Web sites to have active and relevant experiences have been the goal of museum Web designers since we began to take advantage of the Web’s dynamic capabilities. The next group of papers explores methods and means for enabling the personalization of the museum Web experience.

Timoty Barbieri and Paolo Paolini continue their exploration of the nature of on-line collaboration in their paper on “Cooperation Metaphors for Virtual Museums”. Building on their experience in developing the Web-Talk environments presented at previous MW conferences, they systematize and enumerate the requirements for virtual group behavior. This analysis offers a strong guidance to the designers of collaborative systems, and articulates the benefits of a group experience over a solitary visit. By making it clear how much social experience depends on shared time and space, Barbieri creates an exciting conundrum for virtual experience designers; they need to create virtual worlds in which groups of people have the same grounding they feel in the real world!

In their discussion of the “HyperMuseum Theme Generator System” Peter Stuer, Robert Meersman, and Steven De Bruyne explore another way for virtual museum visitors to gain a personalized take on museum multimedia content – in this case, it’s a Take Away. Their prototype system enables the creation and extraction of ‘personalized themes’ from the HyperMuseum Server, and to create a their own view of that information, in a chosen information display and/or manipulation environment.

Providing Personalized Assistance is the goal of the designers of the SAGRES Virtual Museum. Brazilians Ana Carolina Bertoletti, Márcia Cristina Moraes and Antônio Carlos da Rocha Costa have developed multiple paths through their virtual collection for Visitors, Teachers and Students. Each type of visitor also has access to a software agent or Personal Assistant, represented as an animated character. Their evaluation, shows that users are satisfied with this kind of on-line help, and would choose to have the assistant join them on their next visit.

Customizing the environment for experts working with multimedia archives is the goal of the OPALES project, reported here by Henri Betaille, Marc Nanard, and Jocelyne Nanard. Working with the French Institut National de l’Audiovisuel this group has defined authoring and reading points of view, which enable categories of annotation and viewing of specified information content within personalized workspaces. They are also defining a collaborative work environment which enables geographically and temporally separated experts to work together annotating documents and videos.

Being a Museum, Digitally

Since its inception in 1997, Museums and the Web has explored the impact of network technology on museums and museum programs. Creative use of the Web has expanded and enhanced museums’ missions.

In a very few years, the Web has evolved a number of distinctive genres. Kevin Sumption of the Powerhouse Museum and Australian Museums Online takes a broad look at the models and metaphors informing presentation of content by museum Web sites in their delivery of Web-based Education. He presents a typology of learning styles and provides examples of museum Web sites that have exploited each of these approaches. While Sumption concludes that further evaluation of museum learning is required to develop consensus around when and how particular on-line educational methods are effective, his initial typologies provide much for designers to use and students of this evolving communications medium to ponder.

Sarah Kenderdine, also of the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, profiles an innately virtual exhibition created to celebrate the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia. She highlights the active interpretive choices involved in making digital archaeological reconstructions and reviews the components of this digital museum that integrates many kinds of media in a compelling manner.

C. Olivia Frost explores the changing nature of authorship through the model of the collaborative on-line exhibitions developed by the CHICO project at the University of Michigan. Uniting content specialists, educators, and information specialists in cross-disciplinary teams she explores changing professional roles and the nature of creation in a collaborative environment.

The “Unseen Discussions” that took place in conjunction with the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center Exhibition Greater New York: New Art in New York Now, changed the nature of this museum exhibition from a one-way delivery to a two-way dialog. Anthony Huberman outlines the E-Mail Project, created as a vehicle to enable direct communication between contemporary artists and the people who viewed their works in this show. By giving each artist an email address and distributing these widely (including on the exhibition labels), PS 1 enabled museum-goers and other critical publics to connect directly with the creators of challenging works of contemporary art.

Conceiving of the Web as the museum has been the logical next step for contemporary artists and curators alike. Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook of the UK have explored the issues involved in the creation and curation of this new media arts space through the CRUMB Web site, a “Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss”. Artists, Archives, Audience and Aesthetics are analyzed and the authors’ experience shared in this overview of approaches to the confluence of digital media and museum reality.

Maintaining the Magic

Susan Hazan sends us off with a warning not to disregard the importance of the ethereal in aesthetic experiences. Following the requisite tour of Malraux and Benjamin, she challenges us conceive of the virtual museum as one with all of the magic and mystery of other museum spaces. Using examples from virtual (and not so real) museums around the world, her exploration reminds us of the emotive and evocative power of the arts, and the seduction of the truly beautiful. We mustn’t lose sight of that which we cannot completely grasp, and we must strive to maintain the mystery of the museum experience.

In this selection of papers from the conference, authors from ten of the more than thirty-five countries represented at the meeting present a taste of the research on what is rapidly becoming a world-wide phenomenon. The creativity reflected in these papers, and in the more than 120 other presentations made at the conference (and documented on the enclosed CD-rom) demonstrate again that Museums and the Web offer a fruitful conjunction of content and a need to interpret and communicate, with a technology that thrives on rich resources and making connections possible.

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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.