Museums and the Web 97, Selected Papers
Edited by David Bearman and Jennifer Trant.
Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 1997.
Museums and the Web: a conference, a community, and a challenge
Jennifer Trant and David Bearman
Archives & Museum Informatics, Canada
In March of 1997 approximately 400 people, from all sectors of the museum profession and many corners of the world gathered in Los Angeles for the first Museums and the Web Conference. Three full days of sessions explored topics as divergent as “Standards for Museum Data into the Future” and “The Concept of the Museum in a World of Internetworking”. Speakers probed the nature of the networked audience in “Users: Interface and Design Issues” and “Getting and Keeping Audience Attention”, or explored the changing nature of museum in “Accessing Museum Collections over the Web” and “Visions of Culture in Digital Communities”. New opportunities for learning, teaching and scholarship were the topic of “Museums, Schools and the Web,” and “The Immense Potential of Museum Web Sites for Research”. These new visions were supported by sessions that focused on the enabling technologies, including “Managing Mature Web Sites” and “Architectures for On-line Museums of the Future.” Together, over fifty speakers offered their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that museums face as they adopt the World Wide Web as a prime means of communication with their audiences.
The conference also offered an opportunity for networking of a more personal kind. Conference attendees discovered that there is a Museums and the Web community. Thanks to events such as the MUSEUM-L reception at the Williamson Art Gallery, the conference provided an opportunity to match faces to character strings, for those who had known each other only as email addresses. As the success of the Birds of a Feather Breakfasts showed, museum webmasters were excited by the opportunity to discuss their initiatives and activities with others. Too often, museum web sites are created and maintained by individuals working in isolation. Beginning to build personal networks ensures that while we work together, we can plan for our sites to interoperate as well.
This volume presents a selection of the papers that were presented at the Museums and the Web Conference. However, it is the nature of a conference on networked information that not all of the presentations translate well into print, and some are best left in network-space. Much of Lin Hsin Hsin’s irreverent and amusing presentation of her “Ultimate Art Museum” <www.lhham.com.sg> is revealed at in the design of the site itself.; museums have a lot to learn both about how to engage audiences and about audience perception of cultural institutions.
For many, the visual highlights of the meeting were the three-dimensional representations of museum specimens shown by the Digital Darwins project, and described in the paper by Charles Calvo of Mississippi State University. However, Junji Matsusaki of NHK Japan, also showed some exceptional HDTV images, including a fly through of Tokyo that are not described in this volume. Both of these speakers challenged our perception of quality in digital reproduction, and illustrated the power of digital images to communicate the context essential for understanding artifacts and environments. While the Web has done much to facilitate the dissemination of collections information, this in itself is not enough. If our web sites are to be more than a collection of cultural flash cards, we have to enable the use of information as well as provide access to it. This theme is explored in the paper by Kevin Donovan, who calls for an end to our focus on content, and a new focus on context, history and meaning.
Also difficult to model in print is the interaction that the Web enables, whether this is the sense of community fostered by the LA Culturenet<www.lacn.org>, or the interaction between museums and educators in the Bellingham, Washington School District, described by Jamieson McKenzie <wwwfms.bham.wednet.edu/lobby.htm>. Our sense of the tools necessary to assist this interaction was challenged by the touch-screen interface of KiddyFace described by Slavko Milekic.
In his presentation at the closing plenary, Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario and Information Technology Liaison for the Association of Art Museum Directors presented a preview of the Art Museum Network. Providing a way for museums to share information among themselves, and provide information consistently to a world-wide audience, the AMN will feature such areas as ExCalendar, an integrated calendar of exhibition activities.
Museums still have much to learn about the potential for using the Web. Move beyond institutional presentation of static page, to enable uses of museum information that are more than just browsing and looking. Truly lively Web sites will reflect an understanding of what people do with museum data. Our next generation of web sites need to include create spaces that support activities such as comparison and analysis, and that provide means to integrate information provided by many institutions into packages defined by museum visitors. We also need to ensure that the communication enabled by the network is not one way. Museums can capitalize on the potential of the Web by using it as a means to discover how to become more relevant.