Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Kevin Donovan

The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation

New Media Applications
Intermuse, a division of Willoughby Associates, Limited
Northwestern University Research Park, Evanston, IL

The World Wide Web has cast a powerful spell on museums and museum professionals as a medium for reaching new audiences and fulfilling their educational missions. The stunning response to this conference supports this statement, as does the fact that museums are making significant new rounds of investment in automation.

That museums are making this investment is all the more surprising given the unsatisfactory rates of return (ROI) that the past twenty years of pouring money and staff into museum automation projects has yielded with the exception of gains in two areas: office automation and audit responsibility of collections. Twenty plus years into the task, we have better looking documents and spreadsheets and more accurate lists.

A key justification cited for investing in WWW technologies is on-line Public Access, i.e., using this extraordinary new distribution medium to reach out beyond the confines of the physical building to deliver the riches of the institution to school children, scholars and the monolithically described "general public". This ambition is motivated, as in most things cultural heritage institutions do, by the best of intentions. However, I would like to spend my time today describing what I see as three issues that subvert the best of intentions when it comes to providing substantive educational experiences on-line. These three issues are:

  1. current notions about on-line Public Access;
  2. the content we have available and the way we organize it;
  3. the information sources used to feed on-line Public Access.

I will close by proposing a new metaphor for organizing on-line content that I believe is more likely to meet public needs, and a museum information system model that can support this new metaphor.

Access Is Not Enough

Let me begin by discussing the term Public Access, a widely used term I find infuriatingly vague and meaningless. Why do I tilt at this windmill? Because I dislike what I believe the term implies and what in turn passes for meeting the needs of the public. Allow me to share an anecdote with you. A formative experience in my militancy about the educational mission of museums occurred when a director I worked for complained about mounting community pressure to make the museum more accessible and community oriented. His defensive retort to the community's pressure, said straight-faced, was "The doors are always open." The pointed implication of this statement was that, to him, providing physical access to objects was the sum total of what museums are required to do to meet their educational mission.

Now not many museums display such egregiously pompous and effete attitudes. However, there is a sense in the community that our audiences should value us more than they do, and that what we do to collect, preserve and display our cultural and scientific heritage is so significant that its value should be self-evident. (Vendors succumb to this type of thinking too at times, but our clients, bless their hearts, disabuse us of this delusion.) But as any paleontologist who has walked into a gallery of Trecento Italian paintings can tell you, or any art historian who has been confronted with a display case filled with geological samples knows, objects do not give up the richness of their history, context, and meaning easily. Museums need to wrap layers of interpretation around the bare fact of an object before the public can begin to grasp its significance. The same holds true for the information we offer on-line to our publics.

So what is my complaint about on-line Public Access? A look at the definition of the word access is illustrates my concern. A definition of access from the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary is: "permission, liberty, or ability to enter, approach, communicate with, or pass to and from." The problem with the term Public Access is that the word access does not imply any responsibility on the part of the museum providing access to deliver any benefit to the person given access (or to use the wording of the definition, given "permission to approach"). The problem with the term Public Access is that it contains no value statement. We let them in -- the door is always open -- but in and of itself access to much of our on-line sources is of little value because museums add so little value to the data they provide.

In comparison to a naked object record, the much derided practice of museums turning their brochure information into Web pages is surprisingly useful.

The nominal utility to the broader public of information without added value is better illustrated if we step briefly away from the cultural heritage sector. Let's say you want to invest in a stock mutual fund. Do you want to find a Web site that gives historical perspective on the performance of different funds, advice on how to start investing, and information that helps you evaluate your investing options, or do you want a Web site that provides today's stock quotes from the New York Stock Exchange? Clearly you want the former. The latter, the stock quotes, do not have much value added to them. You may find them useful later on, when you are a more sophisticated investor, but they are worthless to you now. Object data with no value added is of use only to those who have sufficient knowledge to interpret and analyze it. To posit that such information is somehow providing intellectual access to the rich cultural and natural history represented by works of art, artifacts and specimens is untenable. This is true only if our "public" is confined to those who have endured the catechism of an academic discipline.

So I believe providing access alone is, at its heart, a cribbed objective without higher aspirations-- an effort leaning back on its heels rather than leaning in to the task -- and does not prescribe any value to the access. In short, I believe the term Public Access sets the bar too low. So I keep proposing terms like on-line Public Education, on-line Public Learning, on-line Public Programming, or a phrase like on-line Public Broadcasting in an attempt to leverage the exemplary efforts of PBS. These alternative terms imply a worthwhile outcome for the investment made; that the end-user will learn or be entertained rather than simply given access.

How It Is Done Now: Leading With the Object

If one looks at how on-line Public Access is typically manifested on museum Web sites -- particularly by art museums although less so with history and science museums -- you find two common approaches:

  1. static HTML pages
  2. search interfaces linked to databases

The static HTML approach usually employs traditional museum organizing metaphors based on the object. The standard navigational path is to move from the museum as a whole to the gallery or collection, then to a thumbnail representation of the object with cursory label copy, then finally to a larger image of the object. The site is often heavy on text up front and light on interactivity and hyperlinks, despite interactivity being integral to a WWW environment. In format and substance museum Web sites resemble object labels and didactic text panels. This approach reproduces the physical museum presentation method: object-centric, jargon-filled, and segregated into galleries and wings, all of which are unnecessary limitations within the grammar of the World Wide Web.

The search interface approach employs the frightful blank search field method of providing access to data. This method reproduces the most inscrutable characteristics of database technology, a technology so daunting that even within museums only those deliberate souls whose jobs depend on it, collections managers and registrars, will use it. Nevertheless, a frequent ambition of institutions developing a Web presence or considering on-line Public Access is to "put the collection on-line." Most institutions have some sort of database management system of collections information, and it seems natural to plug the database into the Internet for all to see. However, I will submit that apart from graduate students, scholars and aficionados, this information is both a.) of little interest to the broader public and b.) difficult to locate without a firm understanding of the information in the database.

To take the first point (i.e., who cares?) let me simply ask, in the greater scheme of things, who is interested in the kind of terse, fielded data found in a typical collections management database? If the question is, Do you have? you will get an answer...if you ask the question just right. But is this the question your broader audience is asking? If you quantify the audience that finds searching your database valuable, does that number justify the effort and expense of mounting thousands or tens of thousands of records and images on-line?

As for the second point, I can hardly imagine a more insider concept of Public Access than plopping someone in front of a blank field and inviting them to, "search." Search for what? Search engines are powerful in the hands of those already armed with sufficient information to make them work. If you know enough about prints to look for Felix Buhot, fine, but if do not know George Bellows from Saul Bellows, or chiaroscuro from caricature, a search engine is of little use. Why didn't your query return results? Did your query miss producing a substantive response by a millimeter or by a mile? It is a frustrating mystery.

Some herald assisted searching mechanisms like the Getty's impressive a.k.a interface, CHIN's on-line authorities, or the straightforward pick lists provided on the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Web site, but since the information at the end of even the successful search has so little added value, I consider this just a better way to get to the wrong place. In many respects the older hierarchical structures of the early Web and Gopher sites, that parsed vast amounts of information into what the CIMI folks affectionately refer to as "chunks", are preferable to search engines because there is a sense of navigating through the information, knowing where you started and where you are, and gaining contextual clues along the way to your ultimate destination.

Consider The Source:

Collections management systems are good at making lists, but they were never designed to provide the kind of on-line Public Learning that I am championing. Likewise, the textual information that comprises static HTML pages is drawn from all sorts of existing printed materials: brochures, exhibit labels, catalogues, accession cards, etc. Much of this information is object-centric as well because it was produced to accompany the physical experience of the objects on display. Small wonder that the information drawn from these sources is list-like, object-centric and insufficient to the task of creating compelling on-line experiences. Brochures and collections databases are what is available, not necessarily what is appropriate.

So what am I proposing instead? I am proposing two changes that are directly related to one another:

  1. Moving the operative metaphor for organizing and displaying on-line Public Access away from list making to storytelling.
  2. Moving the museum information system paradigm away from just collections management systems to content management systems capable of dynamically delivering enriched, value-added content to Internet and intranet-based on-line Public Learning interfaces.

The Question Isn't What?, It's So What?

In museums, the primacy of the authentic object is paramount. In cyberspace, it's moot. The object is not available except in surrogate form, so why organize content in an object-centric manner? People do not care so much if you have a certain painting, artifact or specimen as they are fascinated by all the context, the history, associated with it. In other words, what people want to know is not the What as much as the Who, Where, When, How and Why. Object oriented information is at too fine a level of granularity to be of use to most end-users. On-line Public Learning applications would be better off serving higher level contextual information through which end-users could drill, at their option, to reach object specific information. Instead of leading with the object, lead with the story of the culture, historical context, important people and places, and their importance. Tell engaging stories with objects woven through them. Do so via entertaining, prescribed paths that both lead the user lightly by the hand and encourage curiosity, exploration and serendipity.

There are already museum sites that demonstrate these principles. Among my favorites are Monticello and Odyssey. Even the august National Gallery of Art Web site is showing sparks of imagination.

The Monticello ( html) Web site is exemplary for the light touch of its graphics, and hyperlinks that encourage serendipity while avoiding disorganization. But the most important thing about the site is the story-telling metaphors used to organize information. Instead of offering a database for obtaining terse artifact information about Jefferson's writing desk, the staff at Monticello has wrapped value-added contextual information around facts and figures in a crisply compelling narrative.

Odyssey is a joint-venture between the University of Rochester, Memorial Art Gallery ( family.htm) and Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University ( SEY/) that offers children an opportunity to learn about ancient cultures. While important for several reasons, I like it for its smartly written story-telling style. I found it similar to the popular series of children's educational books from Dorling Kindersley.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has recently unveiled a redesigned site that largely embraces the object-centric approaches described earlier (but done in the National Gallery's customary high style). Despite itself there are glimmers of imagination, especially in the experimental section on John Singleton Copley's painting, Watson and the Shark. What looks like the obligatory .gif thumbnail is animated to alternate between details of the painting and words like Boy, Danger!, Shark, Heroes, Suspense that hook the viewer into the emotional and dramatic subject of the painting. (How vulgar, how low-brow, how marvelously affective!) There is even a link to a section labeled "The Story." Unfortunately, this section is not nearly as deep as another link to a numbing formalist discussion of the painting accompanied by an image whose ALT tag reads "Compositional Structure Mapped." Oh well, you have to take the good with the pedantic.

It is important to emphasize that all of the textual, graphic and template components that make up these storytelling sites can now be committed to, indexed, managed and delivered by database tools. What looks and reads as a narrative to the end-user can, in fact, be composed of fielded and full-text information elements managed by a database. Building Web sites of any kind using static HTML, rather than dynamically assembled HTML generated from database sources, quickly becomes unwieldy to manage and difficult to keep current. Also, static HTML simply cannot scale upwards as Web sites grow in size and complexity. Dynamically generated Web content delivered from information stored in databases is increasingly the choice of Webmasters responsible for major content sites like the C|Net, The Wall Street Journal and Pathfinder. And SGML encoding standards described by the CIMI and EAD DTDs will create more handles in our enriched information that our object-relational database and indexing tools can use. This leads me to my final point.

Contribute Content To The Management System

You may well ask where all of the content elements that will make up engaging on-line Public Learning offerings will come from. My response is that museums generate much of this content all the time. They just are not saving and managing it.

Museum create all kinds of what I like to call enriched content -- historical narratives, chronologies, biographical profiles, images, video, audio, graphics -- for use in exhibits, publications, marketing materials, and instructional curricula, etc., but little if any of this content finds its way into a management system. This is a major problem because, if you think about it, except for the cost of developing and maintaining collections, museums expend more time and effort creating content than anything else, but that huge investment in content creation is largely lost to the organization.

Consider for a moment the development of an exhibition and accompanying publication. Labels are written, texts are prepared, all sorts of graphic elements are created, transparencies shot and scanned, essays written, and on and on. At the end of the day -- after tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent -- where is all that content? Well, the curator has a copy of an essay stored on a diskette somewhere; the registrar has basic object information in the collections management database; the graphic designer has page layouts on a Syquest drive and graphics and scanned images stored in a separate database system; the educator has a hard drive full of audience-specific curriculum and interpretive materials. The exhibition is now gone, the accompanying publication is not being distributed due to lack of demand after the exhibition, and the content elements created are scattered throughout the organization. Enormous financial and human resources are invested in creating this content, but the result are "one-off", an unmanaged asset that is largely unavailable for reuse. Imagine the value of accumulating this content over several years and being able to repurpose it on-line.

In order for on-line Public Learning to be as rich, compelling and valuable as I envision, museum information systems need to evolve from collections management systems to content management systems. Content management systems will capture and manage all of the enriched content elements museums create, and then deliver them to Web-based interfaces in the public areas of the museum and on the Internet. The kind of systems I am describing will have all of the power and speed of relational databases along with the ability to accommodate other information such as the full range of multimedia sources as well as full text indexing of HTML, SGML, and word processing documents. Flexible HTML templates and scripts will format and parse data held by the content management system; a repository that grows in richness and depth of information over time because all of the content creators in the organization contribute intellectual capital to the system.

A change from collections management to content management will require changes to the internal structure of the underlying database as well. Instead of being object-centric and keyed to object numbers, the database structure must confer equal status to information about people, places and events, and allow relationships to be defined between who, what, where, when, why and how.

In order to capture information generated by content creators, content management systems must be distributed throughout the organization instead of sequestered in the collections area. Browser-based interfaces can be customized for each department within the museum in order to make contributing content efficient, while shielding the end-user from the complexities of the underlying database structure.

Once museum automation is moved out of the back office and implemented enterprise-wide, museums need to motivate those staff members who create enriched content -- curators, conservators, and a group whose voice is largely absent on museum Internet sites, educators -- to contribute to the content management system. In addition to their role as keepers, I also believe museums would be well served to think of themselves as publishers. This would emphasize the institutional value of creating content and managing this valuable intellectual asset, just like a Time-Warner, Simon and Schuster, or Disney does.

Creating deep reservoirs of enriched content is very labor intensive and cannot be achieved for entire collections. In terms of on-line Public Learning it is better to spend a finite amount of time developing rich story lines about a few subjects than a thin layer of data for every object. A strategy of producing "small bites" sets obtainable goals and assumes each subsequent "small bite" leads to a more valuable whole. Think of an on-line Public Learning story or program as an episode to which the museum adds new episodes over time to produce a library of stories and a source of versatile content that can be repurposed for different audiences.


Simply providing the public with access to data is insufficient to satisfy the goal of public education. To achieve on-line Public Learning as I have described it museums need to offer enriched, value-added content that supplements label copy and object records with well-told stories that captivate and enlighten. If it is more efficient to deliver browser-based on-line Public Learning via database-driven sources, museum information systems must evolve from object-centric collection management systems to context capable content management systems. These content management systems will require enterprise-wide, browser-based implementations so that content creators can contribute their content to the management system. By committing this value-added information to content management systems museums will be able to publish compelling on-line Public Learning programming via distribution systems like the Internet, and preserve the valuable intellectual assets of the institution.

Copyright Archives & Museum Informatics, 1997

Archives & Museum Informatics Museums and the Web Register Exhibit Sponsor Program

Last modified: February 28, 1997
This file can be found below

Send questions and comments to