Conference Papers

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

Eleanor E. Fink
Getty Information Institute

Sharing Cultural Entitlements in the Digital Age:
Are we Building a Garden of Eden or a Patch of Weeds?

I am delighted and honored to be invited to speak about how communications technology such as the Web can help us preserve our cultural heritage and enhance the world's access to it. We are, after all, witnessing the convergence of technologies that bring together text, still and moving images, and sound via networks, and that allow people around the globe to connect with each other in real time. History has presented few comparable opportunities for cultural institutions to shape their own destiny. At the current pace of change and opportunity, what might the future bring? What might a conference on Museums and the Web focus on, for example, in the year 2005? Here is one scenario.

By 2005 successful models for integrating our cultural heritage have emerged. These models have led to virtual exhibitions and classrooms, and to enormous virtual databases that unify information from databases around the globe. Think what such developments have meant for our cultural entitlements -- the cumulative evidence of our cultural heritage scattered around the world in museums, libraries, universities, and cultural centers. The images and text of these untold numbers of art objects, artifacts and literary works convey the passion and genius of their creators. When properly understood, they are signposts that help us understand ourselves and the global community in which we live.

In 2005, professors and students, curators and schoolchildren, you and I are able to search the online universe seamlessly as if the images and text about culture were available in one vast library of information. We can enter a query by artist's name, subject, or title of a work and retrieve images and related information no matter where the digital data reside -- in essence, our search erases the boundaries of time and place. Overcoming these barriers has enabled new and broader audiences to access cultural resources and construct their own stories for purposes of research, education, and enjoyment.

Think of the research implications, the experience of new discoveries, the enigmas that might be solved. For example, in 1997 there was still tremendous mystery surrounding the early inhabitants of Easter Island. If you have ever visited Easter Island, as I did some years ago by spending 10 days at sea, you would quickly recognize why it is considered one of the loneliest places in the world. The settlers of this isolated island set about one of the most remarkable engineering projects of ancient times. They did not build fortresses and castles, or dams and wharves. They made gigantic stone figures in man's likeness. They dragged these monoliths in great numbers across country and set them up erect on huge stone terraces all over the island. What was the meaning of these statues, and how did their creators manage this engineering feat? Who were these ancient people?

Our chief hope of understanding the early Easter Islanders is the deciphering of their unique hieroglyphic script, inscribed on wooden boards called "rongo-rongo tablets." Documentary evidence informed us that in 1864 there were hundreds of rongo-rongo tablets in existence, yet a mere four years later, when the Bishop of Tahiti set out to systematically collect and decipher the tablets, he could only recover five of them. As sailing ships traversing the South Pacific stopped at Easter Island over the centuries, these tablets were scattered to the four winds. By 1997, only twenty-one tablets had been traced to museums and private collections around the world. But how could you have even learned which museums had them, and whether any offered their Easter Island materials in digital form? Would you have known to search under "Rapa Nui," "Ile de Pque," and "Osterinsel," as well as "Easter Island"? And how would you easily locate evidence of similar cultures to help unravel the mystery of these ancient people?

By 2005, a number of crucial developments have allowed us to overcome these physical and intellectual obstacles to integrating the world's cultural heritage resources.

First, those of us in the cultural sector have come to realize that communications technology provided a collaborative medium -- a network of networks allowing us to join our cultural information with that of other institutions, on a variety of scales from local to international. Therefore, we have made our collection information -- text and images -- available on the Web. Furthermore, we have recognized that communications technology allows us to overcome barriers of time and place to an extent that no other medium has ever allowed. Understanding these aspects of communications technology has let us integrate our cultural heritage resources far more substantially than merely creating disparate institutional Web sites or 5000 bookmarks.

Second, we have realized the value of information architecture in the effective integration of cultural heritage resources. By information architecture I mean the science of organizing information, based on the patterns inherent in data. It makes possible structures or maps of information that allow people to find their personal paths to knowledge. By 2005, research into information architecture has identified metadata that could help establish deeper and more intelligent links across the digital resources available on the Web, and agreement has been reached on metadata standards for cultural heritage information. This has enabled us both to ask new types of questions, and to innovate in the ways we answered old ones.

Third, realizing the Web's collaborative opportunities, international consortia have formed within the cultural sector to provide vocabularies and tools to help navigate the online universe more effectively. These consortia have enabled cultural institutions to link their names, terms and concepts. They have provided training in the methods needed to place the terms in thesaural formats and to map name forms so that cultural resources have become enriched cultural knowledge bases. Far beyond the tools available in 1997 such as AltaVista and Infoseek, in 2005 we can use these cultural knowledge bases as filters to locate resources, overcoming linguistic differences, spelling variations, and vernacular preferences.

Fourth, intellectual property rights issues have been largely resolved. By 2005, encryption standards have eased the concerns of museum directors that their works will be misappropriated in digital form. Rights clearance boards, site licensing, and perhaps even micro-payments have given us all cost-effective access to vast collections of museum images.

Fifth, universal guidelines and practices have emerged for gathering, digitizing, storing, and distributing images and textual information. Technical standards allow images to be distributed via networks at better quality and higher speeds.

At the Museums and the Web conference in 2005 we find ourselves examining models and discussing how we can integrate our cultural heritage more fully. We're addressing the sociological changes brought about through community networks, which have become catalysts for expressing the creativity of cities, regions, and nations. They have become gateways to creating and experiencing art and culture. They provide a voice for cultural groups, empowering small arts organizations as well as large, from the street artist to the grandest museum.

By 2005, the community network I envision has opened up classrooms to curricula based on cultural resources that enhance the creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills essential to the modern workforce.

In a multicultural community, such a network can open the way to learning about the world's many cultures and traditions. And it can illuminate the community's own heritage as expressed in its public buildings, monuments and neighborhoods. It can enable virtual exhibitions of the arts, design, literature, and science built around community themes.

Not only would this multi-institutional community network open resources to the people, it would encourage people to communicate with each other, enhancing the human dimension of the cultural community. People have in fact been weaned away from broadcast television because they find it much more interesting to communicate directly with and learn from people pursuing similar self-education goals.

In short, such a network could become nothing less than a new domain of the human spirit -- a territory of cultural discovery and innovation.

But let's be realistic. None of this will happen unless we seize the moment and make it happen. Technology is not the chief barrier to this vision; the Internet is, after all, a functioning network of networks. Even money, in this era of dwindling resources, is not the primary barrier.

Rather, the main obstacle to this vision is our reluctance to take risks, to overcome our lack of resources by identifying strategic partners and developing collaborations that can move us forward toward our mutual goals. Achieving our vision will require cultural organizations to become willing to collaborate and form new partnerships. Working alone, we can produce a lot of impoverished weed patches that, given the competition from the business and entertainment sectors, no one will want to visit. Working together, we can create a magnificent garden with something for everyone.

Over the next few days you will be presenting and sharing ideas and innovations about ways in which we can more effectively harness the Web for the benefit of our culture: past, present, and future. The future I've been describing in the year 2005 does not have to remain a dream. In fact, during this conference you will experience and hear about some of the efforts currently underway to make that vision a reality. Among them are the

All of these projects are moving us toward the vision of a global virtual database. The Distributed Database Initiative of the Getty Information Institute, in partnership with The Research Libraries Group, is pioneering ways for consortia to enrich and maintain lexicons that will help us search the on-line universe, and to navigate that virtual database.

For the moment, however, let me end with another scenario from our conference in the year 2005.

Gathering to celebrate eight years of collaboration, the participants in the Museums and the Web conference look back at the achievements they accomplished by working together. The rich array of cultural networks, innovative curricula, and on- line exhibitions demonstrated at the conference leads us to recognize how successfully we have capitalized on the unique opportunity to shape our own digital future that we recognized at the inaugural Museums and the Web conference in 1997.

We are the architects of the future; we can make this happen. The future begins now.

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Last modified: April 15, 1997
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