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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Memory and Territory: New Forms of Virtuality for the Museum

Elisa Giaccardi, Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Italy



The use of the term virtual is commonly associated with the idea of an extension of reality. Similarly, the expression virtual museum is usually adopted to mean a process of duplication of a physical museum and its objects, enabled by information technologies. Therefore, virtual museum has become a useful synonym for multimedia products or Web sites capable of providing new and fresh experiences of a specific museum and its heritage. However, in order to understand and explore further opportunities, profound reflection is necessary. We need to question and investigate the contemporary role of the museum, and then challenge this by producing innovative visions, solutions, and technological experimentation. In what ways do new technologies enhance the collective and relational nature of the museum? What cultural role and significance can physical artifacts assume in the digital age? Can a virtual museum promote the social dimension of a new, digital creativity linked to actual cultural artifacts? This paper aims to respond to these questions and to identify new forms of virtuality for the museum, focusing on the ideas of territory, local community, and collective memory. The presentation of some exemplary projects will contribute both to the evolution of the idea of virtual museum and to the use of information technologies.

Keywords: virtual museum, virtual/physical, territory, local community, collective memory, relational museum, complexity


All museums are virtual, independent of information technologies. Museums extract each object from an environment which, at the site of origin, is deemed to hold some significance. The object is then transferred to a new site, the museum, in which the relationships with its original environment and time are recreated. In this sense museums are virtual, since they collect pieces that work as a switch to ‘something else'. They already represent, somehow, a meta-place (Luca dal Pozzolo, personal communication).

Cultural objects, i.e. the objects placed and transformed within a museum, should also be considered as virtual. They present the ambiguity of a tangible physical existence as a museum piece, but they are subject to change according to the different perspectives from which they can be interpreted and presented (Benedetti, 2002). They are "iridescent", and should be considered as "representing a complex and multifaceted reality in which physical, cultural and virtual reality interact and may acquire different functions and different degrees of importance" (Benedetti, 2002, p. 56).

Nowadays, by means of information technologies, we can empower the interaction between these dimensions and attribute to them different functions and degrees of importance according to the reality that we need to represent. However, many people believe that we can finally manage, thanks to information technologies, to have museums that are fully virtual, with no further need for physical objects.

The first applications of the concept of virtuality in the museum were based on this approach. These forms of virtuality do not question the contemporary nature of the museum, but simply enhance the virtual component that is inherent in it. In this way they contribute to the development of new forms of learning and knowledge construction, but fail to provide new ways to present objects that have previously been unimaginable. Instead, the imaginative capability of the designer should be directed at the creation of new technology which activates emotional mechanisms; new methods of producing meaning that were not possible before modern information technologies; new ways actualizing ‘cultural objects' capable of triggering new relationships and engendering new knowledge.

As Eisenbeis (1999) points out, this is not only an opportunity, but also a need. We are increasingly stimulated by information and communication technologies, and we are witnessing an accelerating process of cultural change in which the transformation of the structure and function of museums will need design approaches and concepts capable of integrating effectively their material and immaterial components.

Virtual Museum:  What Is It?

The term virtual is commonly associated with the idea of an extension of reality. Similarly, the expression virtual museum is usually adopted to mean a process of duplication of physical museum and its objects, enabled by information technologies. Therefore, virtual museum has become a useful synonym for multimedia products or Web sites capable of providing new and fresh experiences of a specific museum and its heritage.

Duplication and extension of reality

One of the most common opportunities offered by information technologies is provided by the possibility of reproducing our cultural artifacts digitally. In addition to the exploitation of the associative capabilities of hypertext and to the visual potential of multimedia languages, this allows any kind of information to become readily available and easily consulted.

The visual and interactive features of information technologies have massively contributed to the growth of knowledge and to new processes of learning based on more immediate and intuitive forms of knowledge construction.

Recombination and personalization

Moreover, thanks to telematics, the opportunities for interactive access to real museum objects have dramatically increased, opening new paths to the elaboration of knowledge. Maximizing all the images and the information available through the Web means transforming the museum into a kind of mobile encyclopedia (Bertuglia et al., 1999). Rather than taking the obligatory path the visitor is compelled to follow in a real museum, remote visitors to a virtual museum are free to look for, combine and re-contextualize the information they need according to their interests.


This revolution in accessibility enables the interconnection and horizontal recombination of all the contents; i.e. the museum objects themselves. Thus, the museum becomes a non-place where one can find things that cannot be found in a real museum, and it does not look like any other real museum or real place. It becomes possible, therefore, in a virtual museum to rebuild collections scattered around the world, organize exhibitions that last forever, produce restorations and reconstructions, and have access to specialized information. The virtual museum becomes a system of interconnections (De Kerckhove), a new meta-place, allowing visitors to identify and locate resources over the Internet.

First forms of virtuality for the museum

Duplication and extension of reality, recombination and personalization, and interconnection are elementary applications of the concept of virtuality to the museum, since they simply enhance the virtual component that is inherent in the nature of museums, rather than empowering the interaction among their different dimensions (physical, cultural and virtual). In summary, they can be described as follows: (a) the opportunity of extending reality through the duplication of the museum objects, i.e. new forms of accessibility and new ways of communication; (b) the opportunity of maximizing and recombining information by following personal paths, i.e. new forms of knowledge construction and personalization; (c) the opportunity of interconnecting contents over the Internet, and consequently museum objects themselves, i.e. new spaces for display and collection.

Towards An Evolution of the Idea of Virtual Museum

The opportunities the museum is given by information technologies require questioning and investigation of the contemporary role of the museum, and then a challenge to this role through the production of innovative visions, solutions, and technological experimentation. We need to understand the current educational role of the museum in the present day, and show how the museum can strengthen today the roots of the community it belongs to. Paraphrasing Bertuglia (1999), how can conservation and production, information and creativity, representation and real-life coexist in a virtual museum? What society and community do they refer to? I would add: what is the role of technology? What new approaches to the design of a virtual museum can be developed?

In order to understand and explore further opportunities for the virtual museum, understanding of technology must be transformed and a new perspective sought out. We must understand not only what we can do with information technologies, but most of all what we want to do with them.

The Modernist model

As Hooper-Greehill (2000) points out, museums are Illuministic creatures, and Illuminist thought aimed at a model of knowledge reliable at any time and any place. The Modernist museum, conceptually inherited from private collections, had to be encyclopaedic and work as a sort of universal archive. The interconnected form of virtual museum that has been previously described can be considered the evolution of this model, in its global form. The Modernist museum's model for knowledge transmission saw communication as a linear process, transferring the information from an authoritative source to an uninformed receiver. This communication model is at the same time jeopardized and strengthened by information technologies. However, a few have tried to redesign the role of the museum, leaving this model behind.

The discovery of the audience

Following constructivist theories on learning and a communication model that gives due status to the role of the public's interpretation, new professional museum roles have been created, and different audiences have been recognized. The voice of the people has been heard, and this has led to multiple and differentiated narratives from the museum, replacing the earlier Modernist meta-narrative. Besides those applications supporting more interactive and personalized learning processes, the discovery of the audience and the relational approaches this discovery has produced (Bodo, 2000) have influenced the virtual dimension of the museum.

New complexities

I would suggest some possible paths, using a couple of examples, for the evolution of the concept of virtual museum and the development of a relational form of virtuality. My proposal is not aimed at developing a new communicative competence towards the audience, as most of the current relational approaches to museum management seem to do (Luca dal Pozzolo, personal communication). The complexity of a museum, made of relationships that are outside and inside the museum itself (e.g. in the community and the territory to which the community belongs), creates an environment that can be exploited not only to improve communication, acting in synergy with the context, but also to make the reality of the museum structurally open and dynamic.

The role of technology and the way of design

Information technologies enable innovation in the way the museum creates relationships in both the communicative and the epistemological elements. Hence, we must consider not only how information technologies can be used, but also how they can allow us to rethink the museum. These technologies do more than translate for the museum; they must also contribute to its making. That is to say, they must help us to invent new models of museum, and support new design methods. The most interesting question both for designers and decision-makers should be: how can I design a museum today by means of information technologies?

In keeping with this approach are two cases presented below, where the Web is used not as an exclusive and self-sufficient technological domain, but as "primarily a form of thought and practice based on the concept of weaving" (Ueno, 1996). These cases draw attention to the ways information technologies can enhance the collective and relational nature of the museum as well as to the cultural role and significance that physical artifacts can assume in the digital age. They can be described as local museums, aimed at collecting, preserving, and activating the material and immaterial resources of the territory, local community, and collective memory to which they refer. As local museums, they can link to living cultural artifacts forms of digital creativity, in a way an art museum could not (unless in relationship to new modes of artistic creation).

Case #1: The MUVI project

The Virtual Museum of the Collective Memory of Lombardia Region (MUVI) is an Italian project that uses both the Web and the radio (http://www.url.it/muvi/). By promoting storytelling and personal accounts, MUVI collects images and voices, and translates the local community into a kind of living database. The act of collective storytelling forms the origins of the museum, whilst new technologies are used to actualize it. MUVI utilizes the material and emotional resources of the community as well as the digital and interactive properties of new media, integrated with the "warm" communication features of radio.

The MUVI project aims at exploiting the narrative potential of multimedia language, integrating different means of communication. According to the authors of the project, there are three types of multimedia communication. The first has to do with the hypertext structure, as it is for the CD-ROM. The second joins digital and paper support. The third, explored by the designers of MUVI, is less common. It springs from the second, and adds to it a factor of great importance: the participation of the users of the communication to the construction of the communication itself.

The local community as living heritage

MUVI uses both the Web and the radio, together. Through the lever of personal memory and storytelling, it collects images and stories related to historical events and the everyday life of Lombardia people, and transform the local community in a kind of active heritage. Access to this material is provided via a database on the Web, designed with particular care to support those unfamiliar with such technology. Since MUVI is a museum for a large cross-audience, it is particularly important that both the database and the Web site can be explored without letting the emotional factor be crushed by technical factors.

database search interface

Fig. 1. The database interface of the MUVI Web site, http://www.url.it/muvi/

The affective dimension of photographic image

On the Web, photographic pictures are the main visual tool used to preserve the territorial memory of the community. This decision stems from understanding that photography has been the most efficient instrument, for more than a century, to pin down the memory of facts and lives. Personal archives are very rich, and belong to the hundred thousand families that currently live, or have lived in the past, in the territory of Lombardia. The project aims at saving this treasure by digitalization, and making the resources visible and accessible: photos, old postcards, posters, book covers, details from a page of a local paper. The photographic material collected could not be exhibited in a real museum. Thousands of images, often very small, are useless if put in showcases or on vertical panels in a real building. Moreover, the graphic structure of the site and the way to visit it are perfect to make the private and affective dimension of photography emerge, even though pictures are displayed in an album which is publicly shared and constantly growing.

photographs of world war II

Fig. 2. An exhibition on the Second World War on the MUVI Web site

The Roles of radio and storytelling

The radio is an essential part of the project. It stimulates in the people the will to take part in the construction of collective memory. Radio Popolare in Milan is a station that has always maintained a very close and warm (as McLuhan would say) relationship with a broad audience, and works as one of the main partners of the project. It broadcasts periodic programs to pick up contributions from those who, having sent in their pictures, want to tell the story behind them, and from those who, having seen the pictures on the Web, want to add further details and tell, in turn, their stories.

phone call transcription and photograph

Fig. 3. Transcription of a phone call to Radio Popolare in Milan

With radio, memory becomes tangible not through images, but voices. As the authors of the project argue, the loop produced by the integration between the Web and the radio enhances territorial and cultural identities, and at the same time contributes to developing the idea that it is possible to live together despite such differences. It is a process that invites people to learn about others, to exchange values, to share the pleasure of telling their own stories, and to listen to those of others. In MUVI the safekeeping of a collective memory begins with the sharing of a personal memory that interweaves family memories, news, and history.

photo of a family group

photo of tanks in the snow

Figs. 4-5. Pictures from the MUVI database

Social synergies and organizational support

The MUVI project also creates forms of collaboration between young digitally expert people and elderly persons who are attracted by the possibility of publishing their memories on the screen of a computer. As images are evocative of memories for any member of the family, this happens naturally, but if in the family there is no computer expert, MUVI provides a network of scanners and volunteers that users can access to fill the technological gap.

Innovative aspects of the project

The use of a warm media like radio, combined with the affective value of pictures, is the key to getting people actively involved in the construction of the museum. People's memories and storytelling are the actual cultural heritage which creates the museum and substantiates the project, as a sort of living database. Information technologies allow the actualization of such a museum, enabling the collection, preservation, and display of the images and stories that are its objects. In this way, integrating the communicative features of a mass medium (the radio) with a digital continuum (the Web), the MUVI project can trigger emotional and motivational mechanisms within the community and allow the museum to access both material and immaterial resources. The construction of the museum promotes spontaneous participation, and contributes to strengthen cultural identity and the sense of belonging to an identifiable territory. Moreover, through the activation of the social networks and generational synergies that support the construction of the museum, the project sustains and promotes the oral dimension of processes of learning and knowledge transmission within the community. In brief, the innovative aspects of this project can be summarized as the following: (a) the local community as the living heritage of a specific territory; (b) the audience as the main actor in the construction of the museum (i.e. in the production of cultural objects and meaning); (c) the convergence of the features of the Web with those of the radio, as a successful multimedia strategy.

Case #2: The Nibelungen Museum in Worms

The Nibelungen Museum at Worms (http://www.nibelungen-museum.de) digitizes and collects a heritage which exists in different formats, scattered all over the world. It can be considered a virtual museum even though it is physically located, because it makes visible something that is invisible: myth. Here the Web is used not as a technological domain, but provocatively as a relational form of thought and practice that can help designers to think of a new and more sophisticated virtuality.

The Nibelungen Museum at Worms brings together, digitally, what would be impossible to collect otherwise, i.e. all the images, pictures and works that the myth of the Nibelungs produced all over the world, now scattered in many different museums, archives and libraries. In order to make this dispersed heritage visible, the museum operates on an inverse process to that of the MUVI project, virtualizing the collective heritage of the myth in a physical site, rather than actualizing it in a digital continuum.

Virtual as museum object: representing the myth

At Worms the visitor meets not a multimedia installation which has been placed in a pre-existing museum, but a museum as a project, designed both in its real and virtual components. In fact, both the project and the building were created at the request of the town of Worms between 1997 and 2001 by A+H (Olivier Auber and Bernd Hoge).

In the Nibelungen Museum there are no collections, no rarities, no famous paintings or jewels. Nonetheless, there is a treasure. According to the legend of the Nibelungs, a long time ago a local hero threw the most famous treasure that the world had ever known into the river Rhine, next to the town of Worms. The most important piece of this treasure is a ring, known to be a never-ending source of gold, love and joy to whoever owns it, as long as it is not used for personal power. Many artists - like Wagner, for instance - drew inspiration from this theme, transforming it into a real epic, a kind of Odyssey of the North.

But what is myth? It is a total phenomenon. There are no external points of view that can describe it objectively (Auber & Hoge, 2001). How is it possible to talk about myth, then? And, to talk of this myth in particular? The Nibelungen Museum could not be a scientific museum. It is a sort of creation in itself, which allows the virtual materialization of the works inspired in the course of many centuries by the theme of the Nibelungs.

Connecting the collective memory

In the building, the tour is guided by the voice of a narrator, no other than the hypothetical author of the Nibelungenlied. The museum is divided into three parts, and the first two are oriented by the voice of the narrator. In the Tower of Sight the narrator explains, develops and criticizes the historical, literary and artistic connections that have built the myth of the Nibelungs. Through the architectural devices in the Tower, the visitor identifies the main chapters of the literary work or the different stages in the building of the myth. Then, in the Listening Tower, the narrator presents the works that can be listened to there.

The myth of the Nibelungs takes form in the images and pictures scattered all over the world in museums, archives and libraries. All these images - paintings, bas-reliefs, propaganda posters and stage pictures - convey part of the influence of the myth. In the museum there are only a small percentage of them, even though it houses thousands of images. Seeing these images one by one, all together, would take days. But thanks to the narrator, it is possible to catch the invisible movements that have brought them together through the centuries.

These images are stored and arranged in a sort of myth-machine in the Tower of Sight, opened by the narrator in the Listening Tower, and finally floated into an underground space, which is the third part of the Museum, the Treasure. Here they gradually resurface from an idealized "bottom of the world", appearing as bubbles of memory. Like the movements that disturb dreams, the navigation tools of this installation can interfere with the movements of the images, affecting from time to time their journey towards the surface. In the Treasure, voices, sounds and music are as important as the images. Myth is the result of the meeting between the uniqueness of observation and action, and therefore like collective memory is always evolving. In the installation images, voices, sounds and music are all created in real time by means of generative software purposefully conceived for the project, and they follow the visitor's explorations and urges.

Supporting myth through generative technologies

The Treasure Room is the third and final stage of the museum. It is a cylindrical underground room, nine metres in diameter, with an almost 360 degree screen that surrounds the viewers. Visitors can see the town of Worms from below, its monuments and buildings, as if the ground were transparent. This underground space is the imaginary space of myth where images, sound and music are ceaselessly generated in real time and take shape. Here the music and the voices of a vocal quartet are evanescent and interactive, with no beginning and no end. It is the viewers' movement in space, their interest in an object, that generates and combines them on the basis of their position on the interface. In this generative context, it is the relationship of the visitors to the room that allows each of them to build a personal path, one that reflects a personal sense of time, memory and listening.

Innovative aspects of the project

The Nibelungen Museum at Worms supports the mechanisms that have created and produced the myth through the centuries, and it regenerates them again and again. It gives form to a kind of subconscious that symbolizes the ‘time wall', and in which the world finds its place. The images, digitally collected in the museum, emerge as different and continuous representations of the myth in the course of time (pictures, paintings, films, operas…), attracted and repulsed by the three central elements of myth (the ring, the magic word and the sword), that in the space of the installation represent the navigation tools of the visitors. Connecting the visible and the invisible, the town space and the poetic space of myth, modern times and mythical eternity, the Nibelungen Museum at Worms explores a new form of virtuality based on technology-enhanced processes of mythopoiesis.


flying through the treasure room

flying through the treasure room

grouping documents in the treasure room

alternate realities in the treasure room

documents in the treasure room

flying through the treasure room

Fig. 6. Still images of the virtual reality in the Treasure Room of Nibelungen Museum at Worms.

In brief, the innovative aspects of this project can be summarized as the following: (a) the myth as museum object; (b) the collection as a mere representation; and (c) fruition as creation by means of technologies for the generation of virtual environments in real time.


Enhancing the collective and relational nature of the museum, information technologies can attribute to physical artifacts a new cultural role and significance, and promote the social dimension of a new digital creativity linked to actual cultural artifacts. The cases presented in this paper help us to respond to questions about the contemporary role of the museum, and to identify new forms of virtuality for the museum, producing innovative visions, solutions, and technological experimentations.

The need for a powerful framework for the understanding and developing of new cultural strategies in a networked society deals with a general re-conceptualization of our cultural institutions, our categories of the physical and virtual, and their creative relationships. Through the analysis of concrete design instances, significantly focused on the ideas of territory, local community, and collective memory, the paper examines the notion of virtual museum and promotes new creative strategies for its development, rather than re-proposing technological versions of a Modernist model of museum.

The insights produced by the projects presented in this paper can contribute to conceptualizing the design of interactive environments and devices as a methodology for cultural development. They promote the use of information technologies as tools to strengthen the tie between cultural resources and territory, and empower the active and constructive role of local communities, their mutual relationship with institutional stakeholders, and their link to cultural artifacts.


The author thanks Alessandro Milani (MUVI) and Olivier Auber (Nibelungen Museum) for their collaboration; Luca dal Pozzolo and Nicoletta Gazzeri (Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Turin), who contributed to the development of some of the ideas described in this paper with suggestions and references; and Andrea Symons for her improvements to the English text.


Auber, O. & B. Hoge  (2001), The book of the anonymous poet: guide of the Nibelungen Museum. Paris-Worms: A+H/Nibelungenmuseum.

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Bertuglia C.S., F. Bertuglia, & A. Magnaghi  (1999). Il museo tra reale e virtuale. Roma: Editori Riuniti.

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