October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Enhancing the Role of Cultural Heritage Institutions through New Media: Transformational Agendas and Projects

David Bearman, Archives & Museum Informatics, and Kati Geber, Services Canada, Canada


Museums are responding to the challenges of adapting to an ever-changing environment in order to remain relevant to their visitors, communities, and stakeholders. New and emerging technology opportunities can support practices to adapt to this new environment. This paper presents a framework for transformation and a range of innovation scenarios offered by enabling technologies. The paper addresses opportunities based on technologies that are expected to be widely used within the next decade. It explores obstacles lying in the way of greater access to global cultural heritage and how these can be overcome. This paper is designed to be useful to decision-makers at memory institutions responsible for planning their direction in a rapidly changing technological environment and to serve as basis for discussion of business transformations with their staff.

Keywords: technology, transformation, museums, business, audiences, networks


Social institutions evolve over time. In order to remain relevant and to fit into the experiences and needs of the societies that support them, they change their focus and introduce different elements in their programming. The forces that encourage change are diverse, ranging from demographic and social changes in education or leisure activities to political pressures. In recent years, museums and other cultural heritage institutions have experienced new expectations applied to public institutions including increased accountability, shifting aesthetic tastes and novel technology opportunities. Successful institutions have responded to these and other subtle changes in their societal environment in ways that enable them to better attract visitors, funds, collections and staff.

More specifically, informatics has enabled cultural heritage institutions to significantly change their methods of communicating internally and to the public over the past several decades. As reported at ICHIM since 1991, computer-based interactive programs could deliver more varied and exciting information on the museum floor than traditional mechanical interactives or static signage. For a few years, it was imagined that cultural titles developed for museum displays, and recorded on Videodiscs and CD-ROM’s would find a consumer market. But with the arrival of the World Wide Web and the massive increase in Internet access for the public, museums began to integrate the Internet into their public programs. Today, a museum without a collections database and a Web presence is not considered professional, though not all institutions are using online access equally well.

Museum managers aim to make use of information technologies to achieve their goals when it can be demonstrated that these work. They want to be in a position to anticipate new developments when planning for new buildings, future budgets, hiring staff, or seeking funding. They are actively looking for ways to assess the best current technologies for specific institutional purposes and to anticipate future opportunities. Fortunately, they are assisted in this by some national and international organizations that are systematically exploring what has been done and what might be possible, and are suggesting ways that various new technologies could help some museums to achieve their objectives. The multidisciplinary nature of these organizations is of great importance, in that it demands to an increased scope to the research effort.

One such assessment and forecasting effort was undertaken by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) in 2006. CHIN launched its Research and Business Intelligence (RBI) Unit in 2003. One of the main tasks of RBI was to study both the potential changes that museums might want to make and how to support institutional change in the best way. One thrust, reported here, was to examine technology opportunities. The aim of this effort was twofold. First, it was important to reveal trends that might be helpful to museum managers thinking about the future. Secondly, to suggest the kinds of technological futures that will be experienced by people within the coming decade in a way that museum staff will be able to understand and use to shape new programs.

I. Business Transformation

In 2003-4, CHIN organized a series of research events lead by Steve Dietz (http://www.yproductions.com) designed to help define the future of the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC). These concluded that:

… the future of the virtual museum is increasingly that of a platform–for its audiences and its institutional clients. While authoritativeness will remain a critical differentiating factor for the Virtual Museum of Canada, the key to sustainability in every area investigated, from audiences to interfaces to content to infrastructure, is creating the tools and platforms that will allow others–both individuals and institutions–to create the compelling experiences that will ultimately make the VMC successful at the scale of its ambitions. http://www.chin.gc.ca/English/Members/Next_Generation)

The next generation of virtual museums was envisioned as a composite of three metaphors: an information seeking space, a social gathering space and a new artefact, embodying social processes and projects. Here, the authors claimed, “instead of people thinking of their identities as fixed, they’re thinking of them as fluid. It begins to be a cultural value” (Bateson 2003).

CHIN, following Buckminster Fuller (http://www.worldtrans.org/whole/bucky.html), believed that if the new construct enabled new processes or new projects that obtained the same results with less effort, someone would be bound to invent them or introduce them. They recognized the interdependence and connections between the scientific and technological innovation on one side, and the cognitive, interpersonal and cultural facets of the Internet component of an organization and “ephemeralization"(for details check Wikipedia) - doing more with less – aspects, on the other.

How to achieve more outcomes with less and smaller amounts of materials and effort constitute the object of the discussion on business transformation. CHIN’s intent was to analyze selected drivers of business transformation to identify specific opportunities for appropriate business transforming processes and to locate selected cases to illustrate these opportunities.

A. Drivers of Change

It is commonly accepted that business transformation is driven by both external and internal factors. Externally, institutions face social changes such as population redistribution, new means of communication and access to information, as well as expanding education, health, or literacy. For many institutions today, the environment has become a key transformation driver as societal pressures cause them to consider the consumption, ecological footprint, energy use, or travel implications of their programming. Economic interdependence is highlighted in the attention we now must pay to global trade, migration, and outsourcing, while politically, institutions are increasingly considering issues such as ethical investments, terrorism, and surveillance that might not have figured at all in their business planning a decade ago. Internally, transformations may be driven by increasing expectations, authority being eroded, management structures and styles that are not responding to needs, or new capabilities being required to achieve goals in a shifting external environment.

A quick survey of firms and service providers demonstrates that the “change business” is striving today; it is a natural response to the uncertainty surrounding us, where

… there is growing dissonance between the dynamic and uncertain world that we have created for ourselves and our instinctive preferred postures toward that world. We lack a shared story of our times. Instead, we live with many critical but disconnected storylines (globalization, war, materialism, fundamentalism, dotcom bubbles, terrorism, decline of multilateralism, economic growth, rise of China, agony of Africa, climate change, and so on) that are incoherent at best and hazy, flickering, and out of focus at worst. (Eamonn 2006)

One of the biggest drivers of business transformation is the impact of technology changes on individuals and on institutions as a whole. Helping individuals and organizations to cope with change and the growing complexity constitutes itself a new skill or profession today. The increased complexity and the acceleration and the permeation of new technologies generate uncertainty (http://www.worldchanging.com). When uncertainties multiply, when information and new technology overload show their effects causing knowledge to fragment, the resulting climate is passivity and anxiety. The expertise gathered in the past loses much of its validity and the vision for the future is blurred.

B. A Framework for Managing Change

A possible framework for understanding and directing change is one describing opposites as complementarities. By tying oppositional tendencies together, the framework becomes a tool to manage transformation and complexity. Such a dialectical framework, coupled with technology scenarios, may lead to the acceptance of transformation and the anticipation of opportunities for organizations, in the coming years. CHIN researched the business transformation literature before and during the above mentioned scenario exercise, in its effort to provide a framework for organizational transformation. Concepts that were identified there, and considered useful for managing change in cultural institutions included dynamic stability, reference and authority, the “world is flat” vs. the “world is spiky”, dynamic strategic advantage, standardization and exceptions, dynamic specialization or learning and “looking backward - looking forward”.

Dynamic stability

Dynamic stability unifies the concept of taking advantage of opportunities for innovation with the need to remain steadfast in our unalterable core values. The architecture of such framework focuses on flexibility and trust, unifying what needs to change and what needs to remain stable. Technologies are considered the force that helps organizations continually preserve their core values and beliefs while re-conceptualizing their environments of learning, discovery and transaction.

The core is the essential and enduring tenets of an organization, a small set of timeless guiding principles that define the character of an organization and transcend individual leaders, the glue that holds an organization over time. (Holbrook 2005)

If cultural institutions are to succeed in taking advantage of new technologies, it is crucial to correctly identify what needs to remain stable –their essence – and what can change, because it is a means of achieving that goal.

Reference and Authority

Reference and authority are often seen in opposition to social networking, collaborative environments and user centric virtual communitiesenabled by Web 2.0 tools. But reference is an important tool for orientation, both in space and time, and like authority it is an element of stability that needs to be reconciled with the democratization of creativity. As Professor Terry Fisher has observed, the amateurism/reference dichotomy may become one of the key business tensions in the coming years (Fisher T, 2006). This echoes research by Francis Heylighen (2003) on the constitution and evolution of interactive collaborative organizations. Heylighen proposes a scenario linking interaction with coordination and control, trying to understand how initially independent or competing agents can form a cooperative system, through the evolution of "mediators”. Thus, mediation can be viewed as a new way of considering reference, and bridging the apparent gap between authority and democratized contribution. This is particularly important when considering the transformation of memory organizations, functioning in a multicultural world where the “mediation” role has been and could evolve to an even more significant niche for them.

The “World Is Flat” And The World Is” Spiky”

ThomasFriedman(2005) suggests that the world is "flat" in the sense that the competitive business playing fields are leveling. Friedman describes situations where organizations and individuals worldwide become part of large global supply chains through outsourcing. He describes how these changes were made possible through new technologies creating a global platform for collaboration. He lists ten “flatteners” and describes three convergence phases leveling the world.

On the other hand, Richard Florida (creativeclass.com) argues that the landscape is not at all flat.

On the contrary, our world is amazingly "spiky". In terms of both sheer economic horsepower and cutting-edge innovation, surprisingly few regions truly matter in today's global economy. What's more, the tallest peaks- the cities and regions that drive the world economy - are growing ever higher, while the valleys mostly languish.

A unifying framework could entertain the possibility that the world is both flat and spiky, just as light in quantum mechanics is both wave and particle, thereby assisting us to position our institutions both with respect to global integration and in the context of dramatic disparities of opportunity.

Dynamic Strategic Advantage

John Hagel (http://www.johnhagel.com) and John Seely Brown (http://www.johnseelybrown.com), forsee that the sustainable edge (Hagel, Brown, 2005b) oradvantage will come not from using technology to cut cost, but from improved methods methods. Of course, "edge" has multiple meanings. It can refer to the edge of the organization, the edge of a business processes, geographic edges in terms of emerging economies, demographic edges in terms of younger generations coming in with different mindsets, social and political edges in terms of war, immigration, etc. - a whole set of edges that create the opportunity for accelerating and adapting to change. Hagel identifies two key forces to sustain advantage and accelerate innovation: dynamic specialization and productive friction that dramatically reshape the organizational landscape and show what institutions must do to harness these forces and create opportunities for themselves.

While traditionally strategic advantage was based on geographic distance or core competencies, which were typically defined as static, increasingly the only sustainable edge has to do with the capacity to accelerate capability building. Companies must be able to build distinctive capabilities more rapidly than anyone else. What we focus on are management techniques that are emerging to help build that kind of dynamic strategic advantage. (Hagel, Brown 2005a)

Standardization and Serving Exceptions

In the industrial revolution, success was built on automation and standardization of the core operating processes of the business. A consequence of designing for mass production was that significant resources had to be dedicated to solve exceptions (or they were simply ignored). A transformative potential of technology today, is to help organizations to address the exceptions. One approach involves the application of social software tools to address this challenge of exception handling. With millions of potential experts online, finding the right experts, connecting them, and giving them the tools necessary to address the exception, can serve any user’s special needs. The standardized functionality creates a record of the exception-handling so that data can be responsibly managed and patterns can emerge.

Dynamic specialization or learning

In a framework where institutions are open to collaborative forms, the community entity becomes an important player during the creation phases of processes and projects. Dynamic specialization constitutes a tool for a community to adapt and produce in a world where futures cannot be determined statically. There are some prerequisites for dynamic specialization. One of them is interest. Without interest, organizations are not going to be able to adapt. Another is tolerance for uncertainty. How would institutions cope with something they have never been involved with (such as folksonomy)? Do management and/or staff become angry, rigid or passive, or can they handle change? Today, institutions must host visitors from every corner of the earth. To do that well, they have to be willing to learn.

The community is the medium where common and globalized interests are identified and specialties are recognized. This process represents the foundation for a trust-based relationship. In a trusted environment products can be developed jointly. A collaborative production community model is dependent on learning, adaptability, listening, and responsiveness.

If we as a society adopt values related to change and adaptability, listening and responsiveness, we're going to need to look for the constants that underlie them. Listening and learning carry with them a respect for other people - my conviction that you may tell me something worth knowing. That applies to the Parisian or the Laotian who moves into the building next door, the Sufi or the Seventh-day Adventist down the street, or a grandchild in kindergarten. If I see myself as a lifelong learner, I need to be able to listen respectfully to all of the above. (Bateson 2005)

Looking backward and looking forward

An approach to successfully imagining and implementing change is illustrated in the Long bets Website and the Metaverse Roadmap. The Long Bets Web site is an enjoyable on-line space dedicated to the interpretation of change and the improvement of long-term thinking. Competitive predictions of interest to society are submitted by those involved in looking forward. Communities and discussion forums analyze, learn from the bets and their eventual outcomes (http://www.longbets.org) or The Metaverse Roadmap (MVR), both designed as open, collaborative environments for inventing futures. The MVR, for example, explores multiple pathways to the future (metaverseroadmap.org). Metaverse is leading towards an array of emerging 3D Web enhancements and visual extensions to the participatory Web technologies, content accessible by multiple non-browser applications, the leveraging of artificial intelligence technologies and the Semantic Web. It includes aspects of the physical world objects, actors, interfaces, and networks that construct and interact with virtual environments. The Metaverse is the convergence of virtually-enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space. It is a fusion of both, while allowing users to experience it as either. What is interesting is that MVR’s approach is that any assumption is analyzed both by looking backward and looking forward. This approach is echoing a growing tendency today to reconsider past and present experience and face of current flow of information by creating visualization tools or using networks as multidirectional filters or aggregators.

II. Technology Futures

In 2006, David Bearman with the Museum Studies Department at the University of Toronto conducted a research project for CHIN’s Research and Business Intelligence Unit, headed, at that time, by Kati Geber, The Assignment was to plan and conduct a workshop relating to scenarios for cultural institutions in the rapidly evolving network environment. Bearman first asked outside experts to estimate when a variety of technological developments would take place. The workshop then explored 18 techno-social developments which were predicted to be widely available to Canadian adults and tourists in the next decade, half of them in the next five years. It was presumed both that the cumulative effect of Canadian adults and tourists regularly using these technologies in their daily lives would be felt by museums and that museums could exploit these technologies to further their own missions. Geber and her colleagues then hoped to explore how these new methods of interacting with people and things could be harnessed to serve the needs of museums’ clients.

A. Process and Methodology

The CHIN Business Transformation Project team proposed the names of technology experts to be invited to make forecasts, and the names of museum experts to consider their implications. Bearman drafted descriptions of twenty-five technology developments to ask the experts about.

The technologies selected were culled from among hundreds of innovations mentioned in the Pew Internet Futures surveys and other sites for futures forecasting, based on several criteria:

  • only information technologies were chosen
  • only technologies that exist already in some form were chosen. It was felt that having entirely imagined technologies in the list would cause the target audience, which is relatively skeptical and conservative with respect to technology change, to lose faith in the forecasts. In practice, it was found that being able to give examples of each technology, if only in laboratory settings, was in fact very important to the museum participants. Technologies already experimented with in museums were seen as more credible yet.
  • hardware, software, communications and interface developments that were thought to have potential to importantly transform social relations of adult Canadians and tourists were chosen.

A randomized list of 25 possible technology developments, drafted by Bearman, was sent to each of the experts identified by CHIN RBI Unit. We heard, sometimes in great detail and with additional insights, from Ben Schneiderman (University of Maryland), Dave Weinberger (Harvard University), Stephen Downes (Canadian National Research Council), Clifford Lynch (Coalition for Networked Information) and John Tolva (IBM). After reviewing the expert views, Bearman decided that several nuances should be introduced in any future attempt to obtain such an expert assessment and in the summation of their views as presented to workshop participants:

a specific audience and level of penetration should be identified in each statement. The initial wording of the scenarios did not make it clear whether the experts were being asked when some, most, or all, Canadians would have had an experience, or simply when some could be expected to be acquainted; if the statement were each reworded to say “25% of Canadian adults and tourists” would either have used the technology or have encountered it directly, it is thought the experts would likely have moved the timeframe up even further and come nearer to agreement between themselves.

  • lead-in statements, often written to provide a context for the “story”, turned out to be misleading rather than helpful for the experts, because they tended, in a colloquial sort of way, to introduce specific implementations that might not happen, rather than asking about any implementation that might. Sometimes technologies that could be realized in a number of ways were described as occurring in one way (implanted vs. worn devices was the most egregious example), thereby skewing the experts opinions
  • some discrete technologies were bundled in the scenarios in a way that was confusing; for example, haptic and olfactory interfaces were put in one category in the initial forecast question even though they are hugely different. Consequently, the question elicited widely differing views from the experts. For example, haptic interfaces which will come sooner must be separated from olfactory interfaces that require quite complex local output devices or direct to brain communications, but both were incorporated in one statement initially.

Based on these findings, the scenarios were progressively reworked from the time that the experts viewed them, which had the effect of qualifying the value of comparisons between the views of the experts and those of subsequent audiences reviewing the scenarios. However, since all the refinements we made were ones that should have reduced the time to implementation, we were able to use the experts’ views of the versions of the scenarios they saw as an outside or late date of widespread use. In this context, our finding that non-experts predicted latter dates for the likely penetration to 25% of Canadian adults and tourists of scenarios already re-worded to exclude some major delaying factors, is even more significant since the experts dates were based on 50-100% penetration and scenarios were expressed with additional delaying factors.

In November 2006, Bearman held a public meeting at the Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, to report on the project and engage an audience of students and educators familiar with information technologies in a test of the instruments he had developed for the museum professionals’ workshop. In the process, he elicited their individual and collective predictions about when these developments might occur. Analysis of 24 returns from that session (with one outlier excluded from averaging) revealed a much wider range of predicted dates of widespread acceptance from this audience than from the technology experts; guesses for the same scenario ranged from 2-30 years on numerous occasions while the technology experts predicted the majority of the developments being widespread in less than six years, the informed non-futurologists in this audience estimated only two occurring within five years and seven (just over a quarter) as occurring within six. This suggests that we are likely to find one reason generalists don't plan for technological changes is that they expect the changes will not occur within their typical 3-6 year planning window. Overcoming the (convenient) assumption that change will always occur just outside the planning window may prove to be one of the bigger challenges cultural leaders trying to introduce change into their organizations will face.

Subsequently, three museum studies faculty members, one PhD and one MA student in museum studies, and a Human-Computer interface researcher in the heritage sector joined three members of the staff of Toronto area museums, two museum consultants and two CHIN staff members in a day-long workshop. After introductions, they reviewed and discussed each technology development and estimated when they thought it might occur. Then, as a group, they reached consensus, placing it on a timeline with respect to the others so as to be able to easily envision what they thought would be happening at the same time. They then reviewed the predictions made by the technical experts. Interestingly, in this case, the expert’s predictions were not widely different from the collective wisdom of the group.

In this workshop, the museum professionals tried to imagine the impacts on museums of having the technologies predicted to be widespread within 5-6 years available to them and their constituencies. This proved extremely difficult for them. They could see many barriers from the past (documentation won’t support it), present (lack funding and staff to initiate it) and future (why would we want to do it?), but they had trouble imagining actual uses for the new technologies. Ultimately the museum professionals and educators decided it would be better to react to “vignettes” describing possible future implementations, rather than try to invent them on their own. They particularly felt that vignettes accompanied by real-world examples of actual uses of the technologies in museums, where that had already been done experimentally, would help them. These vignettes, which it is believed could help other institutions in their planning processes, create “stories” about new social/technical realities that are applied in concrete settings and are therefore easier for museum staff to relate to than the general technological predictions.

B. Findings

1. Characteristics of the changing Internet and the cultural content environment

Independent of technological changes, museums and other cultural repositories exist in a changing social context, with evolving expectations of what they do, what is expected of them, and how other institutions in the society behave. In addition, changes in technology can effect the expectations of users, and their experiences with other institutions.

Some of the major forces impacting on museums in Canada (though certainly not exclusively in Canada), independent of technology include:

Increased Expectations of Social Responsibility

Museums are being asked to serve under-served segments of the broader society, persons with disabilities, the young, and new immigrants to the country as are many other public and educational institutions. The challenges include both being able to attract and accommodate these users and being able to communicate with them successfully.

New Attitudes Towards ‘Ownership’ and ‘Stewardship’ of Collections

Museums are facing increasing challenges about the legitimacy of the ways their collections were obtained. Realization that war, deceit, and theft from other civilizations has so often been the cause of treasures falling into the hands of their collectors, museums are being asked to repatriate artifacts to native communities and to countries, from which thy were “collected”.

Expansion of Cultural Tourism

There has been a massive increase worldwide in the numbers of people who can engage in tourism, and the desire to travel and see other cultures will grow even more as China, India and other once very poor countries have larger wealthy and middle classes.

Demands for Generating Income

Cultural institutions are receiving lesser shares of their support from their traditional single patron – whether that is government, a foundation or private donors, and are expected to earn more of their operating costs. Pressures to increase income generate pressure to get their “brand” better known and recognized.

Breakdown of Cultural Authority

Museum patrons are not seeking authoritative ‘documentation’ from the museum; instead they value fun and personal relevance. Interpretation that ‘tells a story’ to individuals “where they are” has replaced masses of facts as the content to provide to on-line and on-site visitors.

Less Shared Cultural Context

Museums cannot count on their visitors sharing much common cultural understanding, both because they come from around the world (especially online) and because even with one country, there is less shared cultural heritage than before. Situating objects in context is crucial in conveying proper understanding.

Without any formal process for technology forecasting or business planning, museums staffs imagined that new technologies could assist museums in meeting these and other societal expectations. They suggested, for example, that:

  • It can be easier to reach the young, new immigrants and the disabled online using different software.
  • Virtual repatriation and community-based social tagging and annotation are helpful elements in programs designed to alleviate tensions between the museums and the communities from which their artifacts came.
  • Broadband enables rich forms of online tourism and wireless broadband can enrich physical tourism and interpretation in many ways.
  • A universe of potential attendees at museum programs and buyers of museum services are on-line worldwide, and properly architected museum knowledge bases can be sources of endless recombinations of valued information, providing many new sources of potential revenues to cultural institutions.
  • Not only can interactive multimedia and digital signage make museum visits fun, interactive and personal, but location-aware services can bring people museum content where they are, in the wider world, and enrich their lives with museum knowledge, without requiring them to come into the museum’s space.

2. Implications of the next generation Internet for museums and heritage organizations

However, just imagining applications off the top of our heads is not a sound method of planning for institutional investments. According to the experts whose opinions we solicited, adult Canadians and tourists to Canada should, within 6 years, be living in a significantly different communications environment than the one we know today. Instead of going on-line, they will be on-line. “The biggest shift over the next ten years will be one of attitude, as our mindset of “going online" is replaced by one of "being online” http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/222/internet-future.html (Michael Pinto M, 2005).

They will be carrying or wearing devices that send and receive information including still and motion images, GPS location signals, voice communications and data. They will be used to having things in their environment sense and respond to them and to having objects near and far explain themselves. They will move through a world in which the real and the virtual interpenetrate, so that they can view real things with digital overlays, have virtual experiences in their living rooms, and bring friends and family from a distance into virtual proximity to share experiences. And they will be accustomed to making things happen at a distance, and to being informed of things that are happening at a distance, which will include material things transforming themselves in response to changes in their environments or instructions from afar. In order to understand this future, we need first to fully accept that the “Internet” (not today’s, but the one we’ll know then) will be wireless, be ubiquitous, be always on, not require special interfaces, and be fully integrated into our social lives. We found, not surprisingly, that museum professionals found this a difficult world to imagine, much less to plan for. But it can be broken down into some elements that might help heritage organizations in their planning:

  1. Objects (museum artifacts, buildings, public spaces, cell phones, etc.) can be communicating information carriers. This means we can give things knowledge that they can convey to our (physical and remote) visitors and that our visitors carry information they can convey to us.
  2. People (visitors, staff, passers-by) will be in communication at all times that they wish with the museum, with each other, and with the objects we imbue with knowledge. This means that we can communicate with people whether they “come” to us or not, and that they in turn can bring to our institutions a “social surround” of their friends and family whom we will not see.
  3. Spaces (mountains, street corners, gallery locations) will be aware of who is near them, and even in some cases looking at them, and can convey to those people information from many sources that is germane to that space. This means the collection of the museum can be delivered where it was created or its creator lived, where it was used, or taken or sold or dumped, where it was acquired, collected, exhibited or stored, or anywhere else with which it might be associated and that this information can be provided to people when they are there themselves, and wondering about that place.
  4. Memory (ours, the “museum’s”, object’s and space’s, other people’s, that of the “culture”) will be able to recall what we said about things, experiences, events we have encountered. This means that we can enable people to interact with us, objects, places, each other, and to retain the content of their interactions in order to enhance their own return experience or that of others. Memory will be cumulative, collective and cultural
  5. Action will not be restricted to people, or be confined to taking place where they are. We will be able to act at a distance and things (robots, materials, and human devices including buildings) will be able to act on their own. Many objects will be only virtual (acting as software agents), some will be able to change their properties based on programmable materials, and others will have components that receive information and act on it.

3. Elements of the libraries, archives and museums that can benefit from integrated strategies and partnerships

The world envisioned by our experts as nearly at hand will happen not because the technologies exist (they exist already and in many cases have for a considerable time), but rather because applications that people want cause them to become widespread. For example, RFID tagging was given a substantial boost by WalMart’s 2005 decision to require its suppliers to provide RFID as an enhancement to bar-codes, but even before that many people had implanted RFID chips in their pets to identify them if they were lost. The effect of Walmart’s decision, in a very few years, is likely to be that most consumer objects are individually and collectively identifiable and trackable, though not necessarily using RFID. Museums or libraries could not have caused this to occur and would not have been able to command the market to cause the cost per unit to drop to pennies, but when it occurs, they can use the technology to track objects in the way WalMart does, but also to imbue museum objects with interpretation, to provide history and context as a value added property of commercial mass produced objects. These uses will not be that different from how the producers or retailers give the object extra value by including cooking or washing instructions, or in the context of always on broadband services, make an object communicate its URL where a range of value added services are then provided.

It is crucial to planning that professionals understand that what is changing is the availability to museums, libraries, archives and other agencies of culture of a set of new infrastructures that assume smart objects, smart places, smart materials and socially connected users. Rather than thinking about how each of the independent technology predictions could impact, we need to consider how people will behave when various capabilities are widespread, and behaviors based on them are routine. To use a different example, our cars, including those we rent on holidays (which in some cities already are enabled in this way), will be equipped with both location-aware devices and access to voice and data networks. We will expect to have them tell us the best routes, update us on traffic conditions, guide us to destinations, including cultural sites and restaurants, and give us information about where we are, including historical context. Since the same infrastructure can inform us when we are walking about or on a train, we’ll expect it there as well. Services that narrow-cast location-based information will be supported by government (the town, the police), paid for by advertisers (the restaurant, the theatre), and sponsored (historic markers). Libraries, archives and museums won’t have to participate, but if they do these capabilities could contribute to the realization of their missions, and if they don’t risk falling off people’s mental maps.

The first requirement in planning for this future is to conceptualize where, when, and how museum programming would be experienced.

a) Where? A third venue

Traditionally, cultural repositories were encountered in their buildings; we went to the library, archives or museum to receive its services. Since the advent of the World Wide Web in 1993/4, cultural institutions have been effectively forced to open a second venue, on-line. Some are still resisting providing much programming there, but it is clear that those who do receive tremendously more attention and that the more places on-line they can be found and the more way sthey can be experienced on-line, the greater their advantage. In the next decade, cultural repositories will open a third venue interpenetrating the world at large. Their knowledge and their programs will be delivered through things “out there” to people “out there”. Technically, the things and the people are “on-line” but they are not “going to the museum Web site” but rather having the museum and its programs reach them through the things they are interacting with in the real world.

b) When? Not just anytime, but always

The experience of a cultural institution traditionally or on the Web has been through a “visit”. This meant that the visitor or user made a conscious decision to encounter the institution. In the future, these encounters will happen anytime. Technically, they will be happening all the time, but users are free to “tune” their receivers to get or not get the information and programming provided by the repository. The museum programming becomes a potentiality, actualized by a user encountering it when they are receptive.

c) How? Information seeking people

Cultural repositories were created to allow people to seek information. Substantial effort in the institution and at CHIN has been invested in making the information (creating metadata and interpretation), making it available (cataloguing, description, exhibits), and providing help in accessing it (reference services, docents, lectures). In the future, much information will seek its users – based on where they are, based on their reported/expressed prior interests, based on what they are doing in the real world (and even in virtual worlds). This paradigm shift places the burden for proactivity in information-seeking on the cultural institution rather than on its clients. It means they will need to stay on top of technologies for linking information objects to each other and identifying the users who might benefit from having them.

The second requirement, which flows from the implications of the changes in where, when and how users interact with museums, is that cultural institutions and the agencies that support them must participate in the infrastructures for commerce and for governance that others will create.

This demands that they become aware of the relevant technological developments, understand the drivers, and seek out the interests that will develop applications that will make them widespread. To enable cultural content to reach out to people anytime and anywhere in the real world, museums, libraries and archives need to feel confident that their content will be desired, especially if it contains context that can situate it with respect to where people who encounter it are and what tasks they are engaged in. They need to experiment with making that content open to a wide range of services developed and controlled by others through whom museum information can freely flow.

for 25+% penetration

cyber-travel; constant social group surround

6 - 8 yrs
Voice/gesture interface

permanent accompaniment

4 - 6 yrs
robotic assistants; programmable materials

massively virtual collaboration

2 - 4 yrs
location-aware systems





always on broadband wireless

2 - 4 yrs
Interactive immediate surrounding

wearably integrated information device; geo-sensitive receivers; 3D video communication

4 - 6 yrs
RFID enabled action; operations at a distance

natural language translation agents

6 – 8 yrs
Action by bio recognition

Table 1: Technologies of the Near Future, as predicted in October 2006

III. Reflection on Opportunities

The challenge for organizations facing the kinds of technology and societal changes forecast in the previous section of this paper is to harness them in the concrete business environment they face. It is hoped that some guidance is provided by the framework suggested in the first section on Business Transformation. To illustrate this process and its outcomes, we imagine a simplified situation in which cost is not a constraining factor.

We hypothesize that the Mercury City Museum (an encyclopedic institution with art, history and science collections) has received a promise from Fastnet, the local telecommunication firm, to underwrite the full costs of technology dependent programs developed by the museum over the next decade, if it comes forward with a plan for exciting applications based on the predictions of experts who have considered likely technology developments that the museum might be able to exploit in the future.

The museum staff should first clarify the core values of the institution and the practices that could be open to change. At our hypothetical museum in Mercury City, two predominant and core institutional goals were identified as the following: a) offering museum programs that give context to museum collections and b) fostering a community that is engaged with and supports the traditional tripartite mission of the museum to collect, preserve and interpret.

The challenges identified by staff that current methods are not completely adequate to address were:

  1. to provide different levels of interpretation suitable to visitors of different ages and experiences, including locals and tourists
  2. to make the museum more accessible and present to the community at all times
  3. to give current and future citizens of Mercury city a stake in the museum and sense of personal ownership of its collections
  4. to make the museum a destination that Mercury City citizens go to as a preferred setting for entertainment, education and exploration of the world.

Working within the framework established here, staff set itself the task of trying to envision ways in which core values and goals could be realized, using new methods enabled by the projected future technologies. At the same time, they felt that involvement of their publics and democratic contribution of content needed to be supported while preserving reference and authority. – for example, how to better locate the museums collections in space and time, to give concrete experience of context to those who otherwise might not understand the objects, and at the same time encourage each visitor to provide his or her own response and recontextualization. Further, Mercury City museum staff wanted to be able to compete with museums worldwide and provide an experience that could be undertaken by potential visitors worldwide. Part of the challenge would be to supply meaningful experiences to the exceptions, that is, every individual, rather than manufacture an experience for all. Finally, they sought to create a growing and extensible experience that changed as those who contributed to it became increasingly engaged. Recognizing that the institution was already respected in the community and that many years of expertise had made it what it was today (even if it was not fully realizing its potential), the staff promised themselves to look backwards as they planned for the future to be sure that the new approaches they developed built upon what had come before in a fruitful way.

Our hypothetical museum staff invented six technologically enabled scenarios that they hoped could contribute to the reinvention of business at Mercury City Museum, to be introduced sequentially over the next five years. Beyond the catchy names, they represent significant challenges to the existing ways of doing business and introducing them will substantially transform business practices at the museum. Museum staff first described the outcome of each from the perspective of their customers, and then noted briefly the implications for the museum processes.


Within the museum itself, we would like to label objects with smart tags so that they can tell their stories to visitors via RF, cell narrowcasting or wireless Internet, all received by visitors who are wearing fashion accessories or carrying a unified information device (including cell phone, pds, camera, gps etc.).

Putting existing data into devices that can transmit information to visitors in this way in itself is a minor change in practices. But if we consider that these tags could contain many different stories about the same objects and that some of these stories might be contributed by the visitors themselves, the curatorial control dimensions of the change are substantial.


Outside the museum, because we enhanced documentation about objects in our collections to add geographical coordinates for locations where they were created/found, used, collected and bought/sold, objects report themselves to people who are nearby these places by location-aware narrowcasting over the ubiquitous wireless broadband so that they can choose to explore related collections and programs of the museum further. Together with the local library, historical society and chamber of commerce, we will also use Digimarkers to identify places and buildings of historical interest for geo-sensitive car receivers.

Again, changing geographic terminology in our systems so that it includes coordinates, does not seem like much of a change, but depending on infrastructures created for commercial applications to deliver heritage is a considerable shift in organizational strategy, and contextualizing the collection by repatriating it to its context requires a revolution in attitude.


In Mercury City schools, we would like to enable teachers and students to display objects they have seen in the museum or online on maps, sensitive to timeframes they may be studying in class. As the students encounter Smartifacts in museums or on-line, or visit Digimarkers they find intriguing, they can “collect” them in their Cultural Passports a wireless receiver to iPod or CellPhone software developed for all students in the country to build a sense of national heritage.

In itself, enabling students to record what they learn in the museum or from the museum while in the community is an obvious and simple extension of storage technologies, but making the public into collectors, curators and commentators on culture involves a significant change in power.

Virtual SocioScapes

As a result of constant social group surround, friends and family of museum visitors can share their experiences, talk to them during their visit, exchange images and email messages. As students in Mercury City Schools study, they can engage both with other students throughout the world and with experts in the museum and elsewhere through massively virtual collaboration and add their own stories and images and share their visits with others. Class projects to interview longtime residents and extended family about the heritage of Canada and countries from which Canadian have immigrated, capture high quality video to contribute to a database linked to the museum and its collections.

While the museum has always invited contributions of collections and feedback (including in-gallery comment books), providing an infrastructure for contribution will challenge its authority. Though museums pride themselves on serving groups, especially multi-generational family groups, in informal ways they have never before had to compete for attention with those outside the museum in quite this way.


On a family holiday, families can explore heritage and natural environments. They are interacting with their immediate surroundings using voice interface, for example by interrogating, local plants or historical “markers” in their own native languages and receiving answers by natural language translation. Wearing their prescription glasses fitted with a standard project-a-screen feature, they can point toward various architectural elements of a nearby building, or geological features of a distant mountain, and view digital overlays of reality representing museum interpretation of those features. Their comments on what they see around them can be sent to the museum where it is automatically geo-indexed by their GPS location and oriented with respect to salient landmarks.

As heritage institutions that are not confined to repositories reach out into the world to provide a fourth dimension to our everyday reality, the museum competes with itself. As voice and gesture, multi-lingual interactions, and other interface enhancer s become more capable, the museum, like a utility, disappears into the fabric of reality.


Museum operations are considerably simplified by robotic assistants serving as museum guards and managing the storerooms, and by the ability of staff to monitor exhibition environments and visitor traffic, parking, and many building conditions and to operate on them at a distance. Some interventions by museum staff can be obviated altogether by employing programmable materials in shelving, floors, doorways, and in systems for lighting and HVAC. Secure operation of the entire facility is guaranteed by bio-recognition, as is delivery of special services to museum members who have accepted being bio-recognized by the palm print system at the entrance turnstile, routine to them already because of its widespread use in place of credit cards.

These and similar direct changes to day-to-day operations will be adopted without much difficulty or thought when the technologies on which they depend are used for the same or analogous purposes elsewhere in the society. Yet culturally, action at a distance may be the most profound of the changes introduced here because human physiology and physics have, until now, limited us to acting on that to which we are proximate.

Past and Future

The techno-social context in which cultural institutions will operate is changing much faster than professionals in these organizations appreciate. The transformations that are likely in the next decade are barely imaginable by most cultural workers today and are far more fundamental than those that were ushered in with the WorldWideWeb a decade ago. While the Web opened a new door on the museum and now attracts online many times the number of visitors that had been able to visit in person, the developments we expect in the next decade will transform museums more radically and extend their reach even further.

To prepare ourselves and our institutions to take advantage of new ways to achieve core mission ends, we need a vision of the future and an agreed set of ground rules for institutional change. The engagement of experts who can project possible futures along with the leadership of cultural institutions which can protect core values, can provide staff of our current institutions with the frameworks required to invent roadmaps through the possible futures. This paper presents such a technological and business transformation framework and exemplifies how a hypothetical institution might invent a future in which the museum is a gateway to the outside world and the outside world provides pinholes through which the museum collection is viewed. Many other programmatic responses to technology opportunities can be imagined and we hope the paper suggests to museum managers how they might encourage their staffs to explore them.


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Cite as:

Bearman, D., and K. Geber, Enhancing the Role of Cultural Heritage Institutions through New Media: Transformational Agendas and Projects , in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/bearman/bearman.html