April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Creating Museum Content and Community in Second Life

Robert J. Rothfarb and Paul Doherty, Exploratorium, USA


Brick-and-mortar interactive science centers offer fun and educational experiences for visitors of every age. But in a virtual world, many of the constraints of the real world can be overcome, offering experiences that transcend reality. Exploratorium staff members have created just such a space in the massively multi-user, three-dimensional world of Second Life. In the virtual museum called the 'Splo, we’ve been experimenting with the social, contextual, and educational possibilities of a world in which people can fly through the solar system, scan their own bodies, and change gravity so they can bounce off walls.  In mixed-reality events which combine live media programs with the virtual world, visitors can watch a solar eclipse while sitting next to someone on the other side of the earth. What does this mean for other museums interested in creating their own virtual environments? In this paper, we share our own experiences, and offer some thoughts and recommendations.

Keywords: multi-user 3D virtual worlds, augmented reality, social Internet, collaboration, community, Web 2.0, interactive exhibits, Second Life


At the Exploratorium – a museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco  – a team of media creators and educators has been experimenting with developing content and public events in Second Life, a massively multi-user, three-dimensional virtual world and rapidly growing on-line community. We’ve created a virtual museum in Second Life called the 'Splo (secondlife://Midnight City/176/58/26), and filled it with over 100 exhibits and exhibitions. Some of these are new to the Web, and many would be difficult to make in a real-world museum. But by creating and testing these exhibits with virtual-world visitors, and by experimenting with a series of informal science-education events, we’ve learned some important lessons we’d like to share with other museum professionals about creating content and community in Second Life.

In this paper, we’ll give examples of the exhibits we’ve built in the 'Splo and describe the in-world experience of presenting live events. We’ll also discuss an important underlying theme that affects every museum exhibit and exhibition in Second Life: the inherent social interaction of participants. Sharing experiences with other people makes visits more memorable and more fun. Not only can avatars (representations of virtual world participants) visit museums in Second Life with friends who may come from half-way around the world, but also the physical and social dynamics of telepresence, and the ability to control the world and objects in it, provide unique learning situations for them.

What can a museum do in a virtual world that would be difficult to do in the real world?

You can do things with a visitor that would be impossible to do in real life.

In the real-world Exploratorium, there’s an exhibit called Vanna. At that exhibit, visitors walk up to an upside-down photo, mounted on a wall, of television personality Vanna White. At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the image – except that it’s upside-down. When the visitor rotates the photo so it’s right-side-up, though, they’re startled by the grotesque sight of a very unfamiliar (and unattractive) Vanna. The image has been manipulated: Vanna’s eyes and mouth have been cut out and placed upside-down in the otherwise right-side-up face, something nobody notices when the image is upside-down. The exhibit shows how people analyze images in pieces, looking at the eyes and mouth independently of the face.

Figure 1

Fig 1: When the viewer is rotated, the distorted image of avatar Patio Plasma becomes obvious.

In our virtual museum in Second Life, we’ve made two copies of this exhibit and done some experimenting. In one copy, the viewer rotates the photograph, as in the real-world museum. In the other copy, we move the visitor instead! The visitor sits in a chair to view an upside-down image of Patio Plasma, the Exploratorium’s avatar scientist. The chair then rotates the visitor while the upside-down photo remains stationary on the wall. As visitors turn, they see the image of Patio right-side-up from their own point of view. Just like Vanna, Patio’s eyes have been turned upside-down, creating a rather unnerving right-side-up portrait.

When we see people interact with these exhibits in the 'Splo, we wait a bit and then introduce ourselves and ask them about their experiences. Every visitor reports having had a more memorable experience when they were rotated rather than when the photograph was rotated.

In a virtual museum, we highly recommend making the visiting avatar a part of the exhibit at every opportunity. 

You Can Change A Visitor’s Visual And Positional Frames Of Reference.

Consider walking into a real-world room that has a chair attached to the ceiling and a chandelier rising straight up from the center of the floor. A visitor to this odd room might have some problems figuring out how to sit in that upside-down, ceiling-mounted chair. But in the 'Splo, it’s no problem. Fly up and sit in the chair and your avatar flips upside-down. The view flips upside-down as well. Suddenly, the room is right-side-up with the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. But what are the consequences of having these kinds of ‘abilities’?

In the 'Splo, we have a trampoline mounted on a wall in an exhibit called 90 Degrees From Normal. At this virtual exhibit, visitors can jump on the trampoline and do tricks. While they’re jumping, their view of the rest of the museum is sideways. Interestingly, many visitors have reported a sense of real-world disorientation after making these sideways jumps. Some even report dizziness and stomach discomfort. This effect, known as simulation sickness (, has been studied in the motion simulator field and is not well understood. Since you don’t know how each participant will react, it’s an important design consideration for virtual worlds where a participant will move rapidly or have their orientation rapidly changed. It’s amazing that viewing an illusion through the eyes of an avatar in a virtual world can change how we feel in the real world.

Changing frames of reference is important to physicists when they analyze the universe. In future Second Life experiments, we plan to use this ability to allow people to ‘experience’ relativistic effects.

You Can Change The Scales Of Objects.

Unlike experimentation in the real world, it’s easy to change the scale of natural phenomena in the virtual world. Consider an exhibit we built in the 'Splo that was designed to help visitors understand eclipses. It was simply a scale model of the earth/moon system. We made a 1-meter-diameter model of the earth and hung it in space. (It’s so much easier to hang a model in a virtual world!) At this scale, we hung the moon model – a sphere ¼-meter in diameter – 30 meters (nearly 100 feet!) away from the earth model.

This turns out to be a powerful model when an avatar takes the long walk from the earth to the moon. Visitors to the exhibit – including real-world astronomers – have noted that they’d had no true appreciation for the scale of the earth to the moon before encountering this experience. The resulting level of understanding is better than what can be obtained from any real-world textbook, photograph, or 2D illustration on a Web page.

Figure 2

Fig 2: An avatar interacts with a scale model of an earth/moon system – a companion exhibit developed for the Exploratorium’s total solar eclipse Webcast.

In the virtual world, well-made objects and scenery with good levels of geometric detail and high-resolution texture maps (images wrapped on 3D objects) provide important information to the participant and add to the virtual experience. Collaborator Aimee Weber created a realistic model of the sun by using two different texture layers, both with rendered solar surface patterns. The outer layer, mostly transparent, is animated and rotates over an inner opaque layer. But even a virtual world cannot accommodate the sun at this scale. It would be a sphere 100 meters in diameter placed 12,000 meters away. This is an impossible scale to achieve in most 3D simulations, including virtual worlds like Second Life.

Besides affording access to the really big, a virtual world can also offer access to the very small: change scale in the other direction and avatars can visit the atomic world. The Science Library in Second Life, for example (Science Center: secondlife://Info Island II/97/206/24), contains a model of both a carbon nanotube and a molecule of buckminsterfullerene that an avatar can fly into. These models give a great sense of the placement of carbon atoms in three-dimensional space.

An avatar inspired by his visit to the 'Splo built a model of the Brownian motion phenomenon, which describes the random motion of particles. Four cubes that in the real world would be just a few nanometers across tumble and spin inside a transparent cube 10 meters on a side. With a touch of a button, small red atoms appear, striking the cubes and giving them their random motion. This illustrates, in three dimensions, the behavior of small particles undergoing the Brownian motion effect, first mathematically formulated by Einstein in his miraculous year of 1905. When we saw this exhibit, we immediately suggested that avatars be allowed to ride the cubes, taking advantage of what we’ve previously learned about the virtual-visitor scale-of-reference experience. The view from a particle undergoing Brownian motion and rotation in three dimensions is an amazing wild ride!

Figure 3

Fig 3: Atoms (shown red) collide with cubes, causing random motion in this exhibit,
developed by a Second Life resident.

You Can Create Hyper-Linked Information On Exhibits And Easily Give Copies To Visitors

Museums in the real world often struggle with issues of presenting interpretive text and images that accompany exhibits. If you offer all the information one interested visitor could want, then you might drive another visitor away. We’ve found that in a virtual museum, different techniques for presenting exhibit graphics can offer solutions to this problem. For example, you can create rich textures adjacent to or on exhibit objects that contain visual or textual information, or you can attach notecard objects. 

Here’s how it works: When a visitor scrolls the mouse pointer over an exhibit, a roll-over event is triggered and the name of the exhibit is displayed. Clicking the object (or a mapped area on the object) triggers an event that offers the visitor a notecard. Text on the notecard might offer basic instructions about what “To Do and Notice” in the exhibit, or it can contain the name of the exhibit and a link back to it and to the museum location. It can either be read on-screen or saved to the visitor’s inventory of personal objects for review later. The visitor might also give a copy of the notecard to another avatar.

Notecards can be linked to other notecards or to Web pages, offering deeper levels of detail, further examples, and references (for basic notecards, though, we suggest keeping things brief). Both notecards and objects can also be scripted to offer the visitor an object or script. For example, you could give someone something related to the exhibit, a t-shirt or hat customized with museum or exhibit graphics, a talking book, almost anything. This flexibility in presenting multiple layers of exhibit information along with mementos or artifacts of exhibits is a compelling element of virtual world design in Second Life.

You Can Let Visitors Experience Dangerous Situations, Or Take Them To Remote Locations.

If you’d like to explore the inside of a nuclear reactor core in real life, you’d better study up on radiation safety. Avatars in Second Life, though, can have no fear flying around inside a three-dimensional model of a working nuclear reactor to see how it works and how it is controlled. We’ve met one resident who is a real-life nuclear scientist and is planning to build a reactor model in Second Life.

For those of us with childhood dreams of growing up to be an astronaut, the International Spaceflight Museum ( has created a planetarium experience in Second Life (Spaceport Alpha) in which visitors actually fly into space to observe scale models of the planets and their moons. For example, a visitor can walk on the surface of Mars to observe the Viking Spacecraft and see a panoramic view constructed of real images of the Martian surface.

On March 29, 2006, the Exploratorium created a science education program as part of our live Webcast coverage of a total solar eclipse from Side, Turkey (Total Solar Eclipse: Live from Turkey, Created in collaboration with NASA’s Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum, telescopic views of the rare sun-moon-earth alignment were broadcast with scientific commentary via satellite, television, and Internet streaming to hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide. In addition to these presentations, we also offered an all-night live program at our museum location in San Francisco. We wanted to extend this public programming into Second Life by sharing the live remote event with residents there (Rothfarb, R. J., Doherty, P., Higdon, R., and A. Weber, 2006). This practice of bringing real-world elements such as Webcast video into a virtual world is called augmented reality ( It offers a unique way to extend aspects of a museum’s physical place and practice into a shared context across geographic boundaries.

A Year in the (Second) Life – Day 88:

There’s a lot of excitement building about the Total Solar Eclipse live Webcast event about to happen…and anxiety!

Collaborator avatar Aimee Weber has built a replica of the real second-century Roman amphitheater in Side, Turkey, where the Exploratorium’s Live@ Exploratorium Webcasting crew will broadcast the solar eclipse and host the event with commentary. Exploratorium Web developer avatar Pepto Majestic is managing details of video streaming into Second Life (SL). Our first event in SL is proving to be challenging to pull off, including the timing of getting access to the sims we’ll be using, final details of venue and exhibit builds, and configuration and testing of the streaming video server and network. Wanting to make sure we don’t turn anybody away, despite the middle-of-the-night timing, we’ve replicated the amphitheater and viewing screen for the Webcast video in three sims.

Volunteers from the Midnight City group are here as well as Exploratorium staff, SL friends, some Lindens, and other visitors. To ensure that VIPs could participate, we originally planned to restrict access to the primary sim to a closed group, but attempts to solicit RSVPs didn’t result in a large-enough list of participants to warrant doing that. It’s easier to leave it accessible, so we’re going with open entry.

Managing three environments is interesting. You have to think about how people will find the right place to locate themselves to experience the event and view the program, and how they can be made to feel welcomed by other avatars. Mental note for next time: Create wayfinding signage – arrows and intra-sim teleports are good.

We’ve placed collaborators on the project as hosts in each of the sims to be able to greet people, answer questions about event timing, help with any streaming-video playback problems people might have, and provide basic crowd control. We stay in touch with each other via IM to report on any problems or live event issues. Even across the different sims, we feel connected and are easily able to communicate with each other about what’s going on.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Avatars viewing the total solar eclipse streamed live into Second Life
on March 29, 2006. Image by SL resident Franz Charming.

During the event, Pepto and Aimee teleport between the three sims to visit those gathered, answer questions, make sure everything is working correctly, and check for sim lag or instability. Everything goes well, though some people report video problems with embedded streaming video. We aren’t sure if it’s their Quicktime configuration (which the SL client uses to render video), a firewall problem, or communication between some clients and the streaming server.

In one of the sims, a quick-thinking Midnight City group member rezzes a cube with an external link to one of the Exploratorium’s main Webcast URLs and places it on the ground in front of the screen. This URL, served via a content-delivery network, bypasses the dedicated streaming server, sending the video feed into SL. Those who have problems with in-world video can simply click on the cube to launch an external media player…et voila!

This solution allows everybody to view the Webcast program and is a great demonstration of the benefit of allowing build/script rights for a group when configuring a sim. Remember, viewers can be active participants. Other than an incident with a griefer (a resident deliberately causing problems and being disruptive) who is running scripts that impair the movement and functioning of avatars, everyone is well-behaved. The griefer is ejected and banned.

Figure 5

Fig 5: The dramatic totality of a solar eclipse, viewed by avatars in a recreated second-century Roman amphitheater. Image by Second Life resident Torley Linden.

The drama of the eclipse is captivating, and the excitement of the scientists, educators, crew, and the  crowds in Side, Turkey, is contagious to the 65 residents gathered across the three sims to view the Web cast. A wave of oohs and aaahs echoes in group chat with each “contact” point of the eclipse, and the unique solar flare phenomena that are captured via the different telescopic views creates a buzz of discussion and questions. Several residents say they feel as if they’re experiencing the eclipse first-hand.  Almost everybody stays for the entire one-hour program.

In the real Roman amphitheater in Turkey, Exploratorium scientist Paul Doherty thanks SL residents who collaborated on the event in SL and also the audiences watching there, helping to make a further connection between remote and virtual participants. The augmented reality of seeing the live solar event, the transmission of the live program from Side, Turkey (across the world for most of the participants in SL), along with the in-world interaction, makes the event a unique learning experience. 

Note to self: This is a cool way to watch a Web cast on-line.

What Can You Do In A Virtual World That’s Hard To Do On The Web?

In Second Life, visitors experience a two-dimensional display of three-dimensional information. They may travel with a group of co-explorers who can discuss what they are observing in real time, and they can also make and change the virtual world. There are ‘movies,’ called machinima, which allow the visitor to see changes in time in the world, but there can also be three-dimensional movies in the form of animated objects, as 3D objects pop in and out of existence under the control of a script.

You Can Allow The User To Move Through A Fully Interactive 3D View

To create effects that approach this capability outside of virtual worlds, pre-rendered 3D views of a space or an object can be shown on Web pages and navigated smoothly via applications developed in client-side applications like Flash or Java. Viewpoint and views are limited, though, to those scenes you create up-front. Transferring multi-positional views over the Internet is limited, and not very practical. Furthermore, these types of systems are closed, in the sense that they are not typically extendable by the user.

Real-time rendered views that provide infinite variability in viewpoint and navigation are more powerful and flexible and provide important visual and perceptual cues through movement transitions. A scene that is recreated entirely on the user’s computer leaves the client-server communication pipeline for transfer of object and texture data, position information, and other critical network communications. Avatars walk around (and even fly around) in three dimensions…with each other. This allows avatars to move behind or above an object. The changed point of view is very important in real life to help people understand what they are seeing. For example, in the 3D virtual world of the 'Splo (as in the real-world Exploratorium), we have an object known as an Impossible Triangle. If you sit in a chair and look at this object from one point of view, it looks like a triangle made in three dimensions from wooden beams with square cross-sections. And yet, if you move a bit to the right or left and take a closer look, you can see that it’s impossible for the beams to be joined together as they appear to be joined. Only moving around the scene in 3D can show the true nature of this illusion.

Figure 6

Fig 6: An object’s connected shape is seen when the avatar sits in a chair at a specific distance and orientation from the Impossible Triangle exhibit at the 'Splo.

You Can Let Users Control Their Own Points Of View

Second Life gives each virtual user a camera to use to zoom in for a close-up view of an object, and to zoom out to get an overview of a scene and see how an object fits into the big picture.

The users can look through the camera at eye level or move the camera view away from their avatars' positions. They can also rotate and tilt the view. These are powerful tools that are analogous to moving and seeing in the real world, and while they may be difficult to get used to, they provide an individualized experience in the virtual space. Allowing users to move their viewpoints and change their gaze means they can take in a large volume of visual information and stimuli, and be given detailed spaces to explore. Similar navigation is found in many computer games, so controlling the interface will feel familiar to many people.

You Can Give Users Access To “Virtual Reality Rooms” And “Holodecks”

Using Quicktime VR and similar technologies, it is possible to view panoramic virtual-reality displays on the Web. Visitors can see the view all around them, as if they were standing in middle of the Grand Canyon, or in the experiment chamber at a research accelerator at CERN. These experiences work well in Second Life and are easier and more economical to create than on the Web. Users accustomed to point-of-view navigation in Second Life may find navigation easier in a Second Life VR room than in a Web browser-based panoramic VR movie.

In a Second Life holodeck, complete three-dimensional spaces can be created inside a room at the touch of a button. User-controlled scripts can generate and move objects. Imagine standing in Volta’s eighteenth-century electrochemistry laboratory, walking around and picking up glassware, or in Leonardo Da Vinci’s fifteenth-century workshop, playing with a model of his ornithopter! In Second Life, you can simulate otherwise impossible experiences.

You Can Allow Users To Create Persistent, Dynamic Content

There is a joy in creating things, even in virtual worlds. In Second Life, users can easily make customized 3D objects that become part of the world and are immediately usable by other participants. For example, one of the real-world Exploratorium’s signature events takes place on March 14 of each year, starting at 1:59 p.m. That date and time (3.14159) is not only Einstein’s birthday (March 14), but also the first six digits of the never-ending number pi (which describes the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter). We take advantage of the happy coincidence to celebrate “Pi Day” with pie – from apple pie to pizza pie.

At the 'Splo, one of the exhibits we’ve created for Pi Day invites participants to use the object-creation tools in Second Life to create a drinking glass 10 centimeters in diameter with a height equal to its circumference. We ask them to do this purely by looking at the glass, and as they adjust its height, to guess when the glass’s height equals its circumference. Whey they’re done, participants carry their glass to a display shelf and place it alongside glasses made by other visitors. Also on the shelf is the glass that shows the correct answer. Almost everyone makes a glass that is far too short! (Note that by pressing a “more” button, the tools in Second Life allow object-builders to precisely specify the height of a glass in centimeters. In the spirit of the exhibit, however, we’ve asked them not to use these advanced tools.)

Figure 7

Fig 7: User-created water glass for Pi Day at the 'Splo.

A creative benefit of this type of exhibit is that visitors can choose how to decorate their glasses. Second Life allows people to import photographs as textures into the world, and then to map these textures on to objects. Museum visitors can thus become museum exhibit creators. (Of course, some oversight is required if the museum is to remain in a “PG” region of the world, since visitors may create glasses with inappropriate images for the community.)

You Can Offer The User The Opportunity To Collaborate With People From Around The World

Second Life is a social experience. Even though participants are each probably sitting alone at their computers, they experience the virtual world in the company of friends. As we observe visitors to the 'Splo, we see that many come alone, but after checking out the place, they return with friends to share what they’ve found. It’s great to listen in as they say to each other, “Hey, look at this!” “Try this!” or “Watch me!” The amazing thing about Second Life is that these people can share their experiences even if they are each at their computers on the opposite sides of the earth. Virtual meetings, object/environment building jamming sessions, exhibit design and feedback, games, treasure hunts, music, and filmmaking are common activities that offer great possibilities for collaboration among visitors and between visitors and museum staff. A museum experience is richer when you can share it.

A Year in the (Second) Life – Day 232:

Real life (RL) Patio Plasma and Pepto Majestic attend SLCC’06, the second annual Second Life Community Convention. This gathering of human avatars is the SL community’s RL confab, offering a chance to socialize with people whose avatars we’ve come to know. An education workshop at the event draws around fifty people, many of whom present projects and lead discussions about their work in SL and how it impacts their educational institutions. Patio and Pepto present a poster and paper about how they’ve created SL science exhibits and informal learning events, including the eclipse Webcast (Doherty, P., Rothfarb, R., and D. Barker, 2006). We meet new friends and old and begin to establish working relationships with other educators, museum partners, and talented residents who are interested in supporting the Exploratorium’s work in SL, and also in collaborating with us on content design and builds.

Every Sunday morning at 11 a.m. SLT (Second Life Time), Patio meets with several dozen other avatars at the International Spaceflight Museum (ISM) to hear a presentation on the latest discoveries in space exploration. The presenter is often Troy McLuhan, a resident active in the ISM who understands well how to present information in SL. He types short notes in chat, shows great slides and movies, and then creates three-dimensional models on and above the stage. Often, a NASA engineer is in the audience and can add firsthand stories to the presentation. Sometimes, since Patio is a planetary physicist, she can also answer questions. Other times, she might help by sending answers so the presenter can offer the information to others there.

Day 254:

In one memorable lecture on the Apollo project lunar missions, Troy McLuhan lands a full-sized, three-dimensional Lunar Excursion Module on the stage.  While he is lecturing, the audience is also asking questions in chat and adding comments. Audience members also talk privately via IM, so as not to interrupt the presentation. For many, these parallel discussions make the experience of attending the presentation more exciting. Someone else answers Patio’s question so she doesn’t have to interrupt the lecturer. For the lunar mission lecture, the audience is full of people who are passionate about the lunar landing. People from all over the earth create avatars who sit together and share their passion for learning.

Why Should Museums Use Multi-User Virtual Worlds Like Second Life?

Given that the practice of using 3D visualization, animation, and in some cases single-user virtual worlds is accepted and established for exhibit development and research by museums, why should museums consider publishing and maintaining multi-user virtual spaces? It’s certainly ‘safer’ not to. Multi-user means you have to think about real-time interpersonal communication which, for the Web, has mainly been the realm of chat, videoconferencing, and games. Even if you don’t create multi-user games or game-like content, you might not have experience thinking about Internet content and exhibit design in the context of how multiple visitors experience the same content together. Many feel a need to create a more social Internet and widen the on-line exhibit aesthetic to include more of this element.

For educational and museum communities, a social Internet can allow you to stay in touch with community members and casual audiences and design and present content that’s relevant for and interesting to them in a personal way. Multi-user 3D virtual worlds allow ‘face to face’ interaction between Internet users in spaces that are representational, abstract, or completely imaginary. Visitors are not just bringing usernames; they’re residents who can express an identity and demonstrate their interest in your museum’s ideas, creations, and challenges. That persistence of identity and level of expressiveness through character design, chat, and gesture allows both museum staff and participants to make important social connections that, for many, are not as easily made or maintained on the 2D Web.

What about protecting your organization’s identity? In a world where you can be anybody or anything, how can you guarantee the authenticity of the museum organization’s representation or the accuracy and editorial integrity of the content and experiences you create there? These are important questions which will ultimately be addressed by a combination of user, role, and rights management functions in the Second Life software platform (many such functions exist today), institutional experience interacting in the community, and practices for representing organizations and content published in Second Life and virtual worlds beyond.

A Year in the (Second) Life – Day 312:

It’s November 8, 2006. The Exploratorium streams a Web cast of a rare planetary transit of Mercury into Second Life ( In a transit, the planet Mercury is seen to move across the face of the sun as viewed from earth. We stream the transit video live from telescopes at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) at Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Arizona, into the presentation center at the International Spaceflight Museum (ISM). There, avatars from around the world gather to watch the transit video shown on the movie screens in SL and on the Exploratorium’s Web site. However, the avatars in SL have an advantage over people just viewing the transit on the Web: Exploratorium scientist avatar Patio Plasma is standing on stage answering questions from the audience as the transit progresses. The questions come from avatars of people with a wide range of backgrounds, from high school students to professional astronomers.

Figure 8

Fig 8: Avatar scientist Patio Plasma shows a planetary orbit model as avatars at the International Spaceflight Museum gather to watch live telescope video of a transit of Mercury across the sun.

The virtual world allows scientist Patio to interact with people from all over the world, and to create a three-dimensional model of the orbit of the planet Mercury hanging over the stage. Avatars fly up and examine the orbiting planet. Having a three-dimensional exhibit of the orbit of Mercury helps show why transits are rare. Thus, the capabilities of SL make the presentation easy to create in three-dimensional detail.  (SL resident Amulius Lioncourt, a physicist and expert builder, created the Planet Orbit Plotter.) In addition, audience members send IMs to each other during the presentation and chat about what they’re seeing. The Exploratorium streams the entire five-hour transit into SL with voice commentary by scientist Ron Hipschman. During the final three hours, questions from the audience are answered by Patio.

Scaling of audiences is also an important issue. How can you provide for a large number of avatars in your space in the world? Can it scale to the level of simultaneous visitors your Web site can accommodate? The Second Life platform has been available since 2003, and while rapid growth and feature enhancements constantly improve stability and content security, Linden Labs has not yet engineered the platform to scale to hundreds or thousands of avatars in a sim, the containing environments for different regions of the world. You can replicate content across multiple sims, however, and use ticketing and group management functions to provide access to specific areas. Since you can use any external servers you control to bring streaming and on-demand audio and video into Second Life, you can provide for scaling of these components using common techniques such as high-connection-count media servers, load balancing, and content delivery or edge networks.

Another powerful aspect of multi-user virtual worlds like Second Life is that you can watch residents interact with your content in real time. You can prototype exhibits and spaces and get important feedback about use patterns and design effectiveness.  Audiences in virtual worlds are typically interested in being asked questions, and often welcome invitations to participate. Planned public programs can add an important dimension to your virtual museum and increase the level of contact you have with the community. While overall, virtual-world member audiences are not on the same scale as large Web sites, the time individuals spend with in-world content can be significant, and there is a benefit from the immediacy of learning how residents use and interact with content.

Advantages Of Getting Your Museum In Second Life

…And Some Disadvantages

A Year in the (Second) Life – Day 340:

Pepto and Patio join other SciLands group members on a tour of Aimee Weber’s latest learning space project in SL, the build-out of island Meteroa (secondlife://Meteroa/177/161/27) for the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory (NOAA/ESRL). Some of us get more tour details and anecdotes from NOAA/ESRL host Hackshaven Harford via Skype chat as we sample the interactive exhibits and marvel at the awesome builds. The Real Time Weather Map, which uses METAR data, and the Tsunami exhibit are favorites.

What to Build?

There are now many Fortune 500 companies as well as universities with presences in Second Life who are putting their messages out there, establishing their brands and identities, and learning to engage residents with their products and ideas. For museums in Second Life, there is a unique set of challenges to being present in this rapidly evolving virtual world. As in the Web environment, you can choose to have a minimal presence that simply helps advertise your real-life museum, or you can build out larger exhibits and spaces to enable deeper levels of engagement with residents. In this tiered view (from simple to complex), you can see possible ways to build a physical presence in Second Life:

Time-based external media, such as video and radio (and other audio programs), can also be brought into SL, presented on owned or leased land, made available to other locations, and be streamed live or available on-demand.

Taking models of interaction as much from the exhibit floor as from 2D Web-based design, virtual worlds like Second Life also offer real-time social models, so it’s easy to bring Web casts, lectures, films, and other types of public programming into virtual visitors’ experience. Physical space designers and architects can help you think through ways to lay out a museum’s virtual-world spaces. Platform experts and other experienced SL residents can provide invaluable technical and usability insight into designing structures, places, and scripts. Land owners can give you the lay of the land regarding groups, access and object modification rights, and logistics for events.

Once you start to establish a presence in SL, you’ll find fairly quickly that ongoing interaction with other residents – including other museums and educators – is important to staying in touch with the community and keeping your content and programming relevant. Since the SL environment is inherently a social place, you can take advantage of guilds or associations and communities of interest that have already organized, or you can start your own. Read newspapers and blogs like “New World Notes” ( Participate in community Web sites like Second Life Forums (, SLuniverse (, and SimTeach ( Go to real-life gatherings of enthusiasts, such as Second Life Community Conventions.

For a colorful and insightful history of the Internet’s first wave of virtual worlds, read Bruce Damer’s book, Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. While most of the worlds Damer writes about have come and gone, many features of Second Life are based on similar features in predecessor worlds. Damer’s stories of the social interactions in early avatar cyberspaces, and the discussion on questions and concepts of world building, can give you a valuable perspective on Second Life and other virtual worlds today.

So After You Build A Virtual Museum, What Then?

Since the point, in part, is to do something more than a 3D simulation of a real life or imagined place, taking your effort to the next level will most probably involve understanding how to give residents a reason to come to your space, or to come back if they’ve visited previously. Many of the techniques you might be using on your Web site to do this still apply. Keeping the space fresh with new content and programming is important. In-world and Web-site advertising and cooperative linking are good tools.

Keep in mind that the real-life people whose avatars you encounter are likely to have cell phone cameras, active YouTubeTM and MySpaceTM accounts, and DVRs, and are often avid gamers. Many of these residents will show up ready to be engaged by opportunities to create and tinker, or to tell stories. Designing exhibits and public programs that allow participants to build, share images and video, or make machinima (movies made entirely in virtual worlds, see can challenge these content makers in many ways.

Think about letting people be expressive within the level of appropriateness for your venue. Over time, tools will become more robust and be seamlessly integrated with the user interface, making it easier for residents to be expressive. Personal voice audio and video will likely re-emerge in virtual worlds like Second Life, offering different social dynamic and interaction possibilities. (For examples of this, see information about the virtual world software called Traveler at the DigitalSpace Traveler Web site, and NTT’s virtual world software called InterSpace, as discussed in Damer, 1998 – two prior virtual worlds with these capabilities). Finding ways to connect content and community elements that you create and make available to this type of participant is key to leveraging the unique qualities of the environment. 

In her essay “Post Virtual Reality: After the hype is over, what we have learned from VR,” (Laurel, 1993), Brenda Laurel writes:

In shared virtual worlds, structural elegance becomes much less about the progression of events and more about facilitating the emergence of patterns and relationships…Given a multisensory environment that is good enough, people engage in projective construction that is wildly elaborate and creative. And so this turns the problem on its head; rather than figuring out how to provide structure with pleasing emotional textures, the problem becomes one of creating an environment that evokes robust projective construction.

In this context, it’s important to consider that the power of virtual worlds like Second Life is in the transformative experiences residents can have for themselves by creating content and by shaping both their spaces and their identities physically and temporally.

A Year in the (Second) Life – Day 348:

On a random day, Patio visits the 'Splo, an activity she loves to do, and interacts with visitors. The 'Splo has many exhibits built by Patio, Aimee Weber, Demarco Spatula, Treat Luke, and other collaborators. YM, a Finnish neuroscientist working in Japan, visits the illusions exhibited in the 'Splo. YM loves illusions. In talking with her, Patio finds out that she wants to create a transparent human skull in SL that will allow people to see three-dimensional views of neural pathways as they process images over time to perceive illusions. It turns out that visiting the 'Splo has strengthened her desire to do this – and that’s the kind of thing we’ve all been hoping for.


The authors would like to acknowledge the Exploratorium for its support of their work in Second Life, the museum’s Live@ staff for their collaboration on events, Exploratorium editor Ruth Brown, Aimee Weber ( for her collaboration and support for the Exploratorium in Second Life and the 'Splo, and SL residents who contribute to the mission of the Exploratorium through the exhibits they create.


Augmented Reality.

Damer, Bruce (1998). Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. Peachpit Press.

Doherty, P., R. Rothfarb and D. Barker(2006). “Building an Interactive Science Museum in Second Life.” Proceedings of the Second Life Educator Workshop at the 2006 Second Life Community Convention, August 2006.

International Spaceflight Museum. and secondlife://Spaceport Alpha/48/78/24/

Laurel, Brenda (1993). Computers as Theater.  Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

NOAA/ESRL’s Second Life Education Island. secondlife://Meteroa/177/161/27

Rothfarb, R. J., P. Doherty, R. Higdon and A. Weber (2006). “Embedding Webcasts in virtual worlds to enhance user experiences”. In ACM SIGGRAPH 2006 Research Posters (Boston, Massachusetts, July 30-August 03, 2006). SIGGRAPH '06. ACM Press, New York, NY, 179.

Science Center in Second Life. secondlife://Info Island II/97/206/24

SimTeach: Information and Community for Educators using M.U.V.E.’s Multi-User Virtual Environments.

Simulation Sickness. last modified 02:20, 26 February 2007.

The 'Splo in Second Life, secondlife://Midnight City/176/58/26

Cite as:

Rothfarb, R. and P. Doherty, Creating Museum Content and Community in Second Life , in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note