Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

info @ archimuse.com

www.archimuse.comArchives and Museum Informatics Home Page

published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Virtual Visits to Virtual Museums

Jonathan P. Bowen
The University of Reading, Department of Computer Science
Whiteknights, PO Box 225, Reading, Berks RG6 6AY, England.
Email: J.P.Bowen@reading.ac.uk
URL: http://www.cs.reading.ac.uk/people/jpb/

Jim Bennett
Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University
Old Ashmolean Building, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ, England
Email: jim.bennett@History-of-Science.oxford.ac.uk
URL: http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/

James Johnson
The Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD, England
Email: jamj@nhm.ac.uk
URL: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/


Traditionally museum visitors have had to physically go to a museum to experience what it has to offer. However, many museums can now be accessed directly from anywhere in the world via an Internet connection. Of course the facilities on offer on-line are different and not of the same quality as the real museum itself. However access to some resources such as the museum store and records could potentially be better than those available at the actual museum. This article explores how museums have been using the Internet for access to their collections, and how they could use it in the future, especially from the virtual visitor's point of view. Two case studies of a large and small museum which have embraced the technology seriously are included.

Mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth.

-- Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)


Access to museums can be difficult for some people because of the expense of travel. The Internet computer "network of networks" provides a low-cost and instantaneous means of transmitting museums information to people over great distances using the extremely popular World Wide Web (WWW, or Web for short) global hypermedia system (Berners-Lee, 1996). However, a significant difficulty with the Internet is finding information of interest (Johnson, 1997). Automated "search engines" can provide search facilities using keywords, but this can be a somewhat hit and miss affair in practice, requiring significant selection skill on the part of the user. On-line directories, maintained by experts, are one way that information in a particular domain, such as museums, can be presented in a well thought out manner.

In this article we consider the ways the museums can interact with their visitors using the Internet. Issues with respect to the type of visitor and the rapidly changing technical facilities available are discussed. The experiences of two museums, one of national status and one of small but ambitious stature, are included. Finally a view of possible developments in the future is posited.


Museums are traditionally information providers, drawing on and interpreting their collections for their visitors. Schools, the general public, tourists, scholars, etc., all potential museum visitors, are information gatherers. Traditionally these gatherers have visited the information providers such as museums. Now, with the advent of the Internet, it is increasingly possible for the providers to reach out and give the gatherers experiences while still located in their home (Kraut, 1996), work place, school, local library, etc.

To quote from an on-line article on Virtual Museums by Jason Argoski (1995):

The new [on-line] users are looking for both information and amusement. And these, of course, are the very attributes that all good museums share.

Museums are well-placed to provide real content that is appealing to network users.

What is the Network?

The Internet computer network is a new medium which now exists alongside other more traditional communication media (McLuhan, 1964) such as mail, newspapers, radio, telephone, television, etc. Anyone involved in communicating information can benefit from its use, including museums. The network provides a number of facilities which can aid in the virtual museum visitor experience:

  • Electronic mail (or "email" for brevity) allows visitors to send queries to museum curators and other staff. These can be answered in a timely manner far more easily than traditional postal mail. Email messages are normally more informal than letters and replies can include sections of the original message annotated with answers. Like letters, and unlike telephone or personal calls, email can be answered at a time convenient for the curator. Sending an email can be a much less intimating experience for the sender than contacting a professional by letter or phone. It is often significantly cheaper, especially for international communication. Thus interaction between museum staff and the public is likely to increase, which may become a more important role for many in the museum profession.

  • Newsgroups and mailing lists allow discussion between a group of people, potentially geographically distributed throughout the world. Newsgroups are divided into thousands of specialized topics These discussion groups may be "moderated" by a moderator who checks messages for suitability before they are distributed, or "unmoderated", in which case messages are sent out immediately. Moderated groups are generally of higher quality because human intervention provides an editing process.

    Museums could use suitable newsgroups to publicize their activities. So far they have not taken advantage of this very cheap avenue of information dissemination to any great extent, perhaps due to lack of appreciation of the possibilities offered to interact with potential visitors.

    A museum may wish to set up its own electronic mailing list for distributing announcements of events and developments to interested potential visitors (both virtual and physical), in a similar but possibly much more informal and responsive way to postal mailing lists (e.g., for "friends" of the museum). A larger museum could have further lists for more specialized discussion. The expense is far less and turnaround much faster than traditional communication means such as mail.

  • The World Wide Web is perhaps the most widely known aspect of the Internet, and the two are sometimes confused. The Web is a distributed but linked information system. The concept of globally hyperlinked information has been established for some time (Bush, 1945), but the required infrastructure has only burgeoned recently.

    The Web consists of "servers" (computers acting as information providers) and "clients" running "browsers" programs for end-users (gatherers). A major reason for the Web's popularity is the very easy and natural point and click interface for navigation around the available information.

    Increasingly, multimedia using graphics, sound, video, etc., as well as text is possible. A recent survey (Reynolds, 1997; summarized in Futers, 1997) indicates that 87% of people visiting museum Web sites expect images. A major limiting factor is the speed of access, but this is likely to increase in the future (although not as fast as many would like).

Why use the Network?

It is worth considering the reasons why a museum might wish to use the Internet. A number of these are enumerated here, some of which are generally applicable to many organizations, and some of which are more specific to the museum sector in particular:

  • Maintaining a presence on the Internet provides the potential for instant worldwide publicity. Information such as tourist information, opening hours, press releases, etc., may be included. At the most basic level the information may be considered as "brochure-ware", containing much the same material that may be found in a glossy leaflet describing and advertising the facilities offered by the museum.

  • Fast and convenient communication with colleagues, the public, etc., is possible using electronic mail. This depends on building up a critical mass of visitors with suitable email access.

  • An important facility for museums is the possibility of virtual exhibitions, perhaps mirroring actual exhibitions in the galleries, both temporary and permanent, but also allowing access to material not otherwise generally available (e.g., objects in store, normally by far of the majority of a serious museum's collection, or those too fragile or sensitive for display). A recent survey has discovered that around three quarters of virtual visitors expect to find virtual exhibitions at museum Web sites (Futers, 1997; Reynolds, 1997).

  • The network may be seen as an alternative, cheap, and complementary form of information provision. In just the same way that recorded music on CDs encourages rather than discourages attendance at live music concerts, virtual exhibitions are likely to act as a draw for those who are local enough and can afford to see the real thing.

  • Remote access avoids the expense of travel, especially for international access. Availability of on-line material is not affected significantly by distance, apart from speed of downloading. Potential visitors who may not be able to appreciate a museum's collection in any other way can be given a chance to do so; and of course they may be encouraged to visit the museum at a later date if the opportunity arises.

  • On-line information gives relatively easy disabled access compared to installing the required physical facilities in an actual museum. Thus those who may never have a chance to visit a museum can be afforded some degree of experience by the museum.

  • An important development for the future will be increasing availability of on-line databases for remote scholarly research of collections (Mannoni, 1997). The possibility of searching across a wide range of information distributed around the world is now physically possible. If existing museum catalogues can be digitized, research which previous took months or years could take orders of magnitude less time to undertake.

In any case, it is very important for a museum to think carefully about why it wants or needs a virtual Web site, and what potential benefits this could bring (Strimpel, 1995; Fernström & Bannon, 1997; Worden, 1997).

Virtual Museum Sites

Sites containing museum information may be set up for a variety of reasons and can give very different virtual experiences for on-line visitors. The following are a few examples of why museum Web sites have been established and what can be expected as a result:

  • Enthusiasts, perhaps with no formal contact with a museum, sometimes set up information, often very worthwhile in nature. This is especially likely for specialist museums concerning popular hobbies (e.g., railway museums) or in areas where important museums exist without good information available.

    The problem here is that the information can date relatively quickly, perhaps because the individual loses interest, moves from the institution where the information is provided (often a university), or whatever. However, this may not be immediately obvious to the average virtual visitor, who could easily be misled.

  • Information may be provided as part of some tourist resource. The information is normally perfunctory in nature, but can act as useful "brochure-ware" for potential visitors to museums, including opening times, entrance fees, directions to the museum, etc. Provided the content is kept up to date, this can be a useful source of information on museums for visitors.

  • Local government is in a good position to provide information on local museums in a particular area. For example, in the UK, most local councils provide some sort of on-line information, indexed from the central government Web server under http://www.open.gov.uk/. Some (but not yet many) now provide good museum information, again normally in the form of brochure-ware.

  • In some countries, the central government is itself directly instrumental in providing and promoting on-line museum-related information. For example, in France the Ministry of Culture has an extensive Web site (Mannoni, 1996, see under http://www.culture.fr/), and provides some significant databases which are accessible on-line around the world (Mannoni, 1997).

  • Some regional museums services are setting up museum-related sites which often list the museums in their area. This normally only consists of basic information, but at least the providers are in a position to maintain the information, and hopefully develop it further in the future, perhaps in collaboration with the museums concerned. The North of England Museums Service is developing such a site, which may be helpful for tourists to the region, local schools, etc.

  • A museum may itself decide to create a site for marketing, educational or other purposes. Often the impetus for such a site results from the efforts of an enthusiast within the museum rather than a directive from the management of the museum, although this is likely to change as understanding of the Internet percolates through to higher levels of management.

    A dedicated museum Web site obviously has the potential to provide the most comprehensive and dynamic information on the museum concerned. Only if the museum itself is directly involved in the production of a Web site is the virtual visitor likely to gain anything but the most superficial experience of the museum's resources, and even then much effort and expertise is required from the museum itself.

Commercial production of a Web site is expensive and often results in a site which may look impressive when accessed locally, but could be very slow for more remote access. It may well lack real content unless there has been a high degree of effective interaction with museum staff. In addition, maintenance of the Web site will be a significant and continuing expense if undertaken commercially. Unfortunately unmaintained sites tend to date quickly. For example, a current list of events at the museum, accurate opening times, admission prices, etc., are desirable. A major benefit of the Web is that updates can potentially be done very cheaply if a reasonable amount of technical expertise is gained by one or more of the museum's staff.

Bowen (1995, 1996, 1997a, 1997b) considers a number of museum sites and briefly discuss their potential interest to virtual visitors. The Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) also described in these papers and elsewhere (e.g., see Marshall, 1996) provide an extensive directory of on-line museums categorized by country. This was originated by Bowen in 1994 and was adopted by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in 1996. ICOM wishes to keep abreast of technology (Anderson, 1997) and the Internet provides an ideal way to bring the international professional museum closer together (Karp, 1997). Volunteers for around the world now maintain information for specific countries within VLmp. The directory provides a good starting point for any potential virtual visitor wishing to explore on-line museums (see under http://www.icom.org/vlmp/).

In this article two example museums are considered in more detail by personnel from the museums themselves. One example is a very large museum, in fact the first to have itself own Web server in the United Kingdom. The other is a much smaller museum in physical terms, but is one that has embraced the technology enthusiastically and effectively. On-line is it perfectly possible for a small museum to outshine a large museum, and also to do so at a fraction of the financial cost if suitably qualified enthusiastic volunteers with the right technological expertise and design flair are available.

Case Study 1: A large museum

The Natural History Museum in London first ventured onto the Web in January of 1994, and was the first UK national museum to have a WWW site (see under http://www.nhm.ac.uk/). At first, the Web pages were simply a link into the Museum's library database, but it was soon realised that they could be used to promote the Museum and advertise new exhibitions. New material was added and the site grew organically.

By the middle of 1995, it was decided that the Web site needed a complete overhaul. The overall design and layout of the pages was not of the high editorial and design standards that the Museum requires in it's printed literature. It was decided that the site should be given a "look and feel" consistent with the Museum's corporate identity, and a navigation system that would allow the visitor intuitive access to all the material.

The re-design of the site took around five man-months to complete, and the re-designed site went live in December of 1995. The launch received publicity in the Information Technology sections of the UK national daily papers, and several articles in the computer press. Almost immediately after the launch, the site experienced a rapid rise in usage, with the number of users increasing almost three-fold. This increase was not just a temporary peak, but has been maintained since then. Figure 1 shows the increase in usage of the site over one year from August 1995. The dotted line shows a 4% projection which illustrates an estimate of the average growth in number of users of the Web as a whole.

In 1996, the Museum Web site received about 20,000 visitors a month, approximately one sixth of the number of visitors the Museum receives through the door. Figure 2 shows that the majority of these visitors are from the UK or US. The demographics of visitors to the Museum's Web site is similar to that of the Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) suggesting that it is similar to the demographics of the Web as a whole. However, the NHM's Web site differs from VLmp's in that it has a much higher proportion of visitors from the UK (compare Figure 3). This suggests that although physical location has little influence on the accessibility of material on the Web, people still prefer to access material from the Web sites of organizations of which they are familiar due to their physical proximity.

The feedback form on the NHM's Web site has provided further information about visitors to the site. Educational establishments are well represented, with around one third of visitors from universities and about one fifth from schools and colleges. The museum receives feedback from teachers and educationalists using the Web site in the classroom, mainly in the US and Canada. There is little evidence that schools in the UK are using the Web in the classroom yet. Around one fifth of visitors to the Web site are business people, often browing the Web from work during their lunch break.

Overall the Museum's Web site has proved to be a valuable and very cost-effective means of communicating to a wide audience. We anticipate the significance of the Web to grow significantly for the Museum in the coming years, and it is likely to become a vital tool in the NHM's mission to maintain and develop its collections and to use them to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.

In 1997 the museum put on a "Virtual Endeavour" temporary exhibition using state-of-the-art virtual reality technology to present Captain Cook's ship the Endeavour. A survey was undertaken to evaluate visitors' experiences of the exhibition. This indicated that the major draw for younger visitors was the ability for free movement around the ship, whereas for older visitors, the content of the exhibition was most important.

This type of exhibit is currently only possible for visitors actually visiting the museum because it requires computer hardware costing around fifty times that available in most homes, and would need an extremely fast connection if delivered remotely over a network. However given the rapid exponential advances in the speed of computer technology, we can expect this type of virtual exhibition to be possible on the Internet in years to come. Meanwhile, an on-line exhibit using today's generally available technology is accessible from: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/VRendeavour/

The main Natural History Museums Web site is available at: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/

Case Study 2: A small museum

A few words are needed to introduce the relevant characteristics of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It is a small museum, with a total staff of under eight full-time-equivalent posts, including warding and cleaning staff. We have an outstanding collection of early scientific instruments, housed a building of the first importance for museum history - the original home of the Ashmolean Museum, built for that purpose in 1683. As part of the University of Oxford, we are an academic museum, involved in teaching and expected to carry on research as well as acting as a research resource for the history of science community. Our displays reflect these academic interests and, in particular, our special exhibitions have historical themes relevant to current concerns in the history of science.

Despite the academic setting, we see ourselves as enthusiastically a public museum and we want to communicate more effectively with our visitors. We are keen to have more visitors and to offer them a more involving and rewarding experience, and we seem to be having some success in this respect. Visitor numbers have more than doubled over the last couple of years.

Since all of this is relevant to understanding our Web site, perhaps an important point must be that a site should be individual and serve the particular set of needs of the museum concerned. If it is to be valued by staff and visitors, it needs to grow up in the museum, and to represent what those involved care about. It is doubtful whether it could be introduced successfully without a great deal of thought and consultation. While you can gather ideas from other sites, it would not be wise to do too much copying. The ingredients must come from the museum and the museum must set the agenda.

We were one of the first academic museums to offer substantial material via the Web, and it might be wondered why we bothered. We had plenty of other things to do and, in any case, there were certain risks involved. In academic circles in Britain the Web was - and to some extent still is - associated with superficiality and triviality, and not without justification, since much of the material on offer is disappointing. We had to endure a fair amount of disdainful snorting and scepticism.

It is easier to explain how this affected our approach to building a site than to explain why we bothered in the first place. But new staff with experience of networks elsewhere introduced an enthusiasm for linking the Museum to the extending university network and for maximizing its usefulness. We then approached Web applications for our newly installed local Ethernet network in an experimental frame of mind. It was the coming thing and we wanted to be there - an unworthy motive admittedly, but a human one. We could see advantages for accessibility and publicity, and we relished the opportunity to challenge our somewhat staid and austere image by being fairly early with something new, unexpected and unproved.

How did we get started? There we had the unfair advantage of being part of a university. This gave us access to the support and advice of a computing service, and meant that we were connected to a local network and through this to the Joint Academic Network, JANET. It also meant that there were mainframe computers on which we could lobby for space. We deliberately did not build up gradually. Visiting sites "under construction" is always a dispiriting experience: so many links take you to apologies and appeals for indulgence. We felt that, such was the scepticism in our world, that we had to offer something worthwhile from the word go, so we launched only when we were satisfied that this was the case.

We found that getting started was not so difficult as might be thought. We do not have an IT officer and there is no-one on the staff with a qualification in computer science. It was useful that the university runs relevant training courses and we did manage to find someone who, though not formally qualified, was particularly enthusiastic and talented, and to find some funds to employ him part-time. By giving him day to day responsibility for maintaining the site and for designing its various features, he was able to develop his knowledge and skill. It is due to this member of staff, Giles Hudson, that the site maintains a high standard of presentation. The relative ease mentioned earlier relates to the situation when we began; there are potential difficulties when dealing with prospects for the future.

Like most people in museum work, "our world" was a world of objects, and it is from this obvious truth that much of the scepticism we met derived. It was not a world where the real could be replaced by the virtual. Of course no-one involved with museums on the Web imagines that it could, but there is a fear in some quarters that this might be a creeping displacement of traditional museum virtues, rather than an adjunct to them. We had to demonstrate that there was something worthwhile here even for object-based scholarship.

This was one reason why, from the beginning, the star attraction was the presentation of a virtual version of the then current special exhibition, "The Measurers: a Flemish Image of Mathematics in the Sixteenth Century". This was meant to be a serious contribution to the history of science, with a fairly challenging narrative, detailed catalogue entries and very large images. It was important to prove to our traditional audience that worthwhile material could be offered on the Web. The success of this virtual exhibition has led to a policy decision to offer virtual editions of each of our special exhibitions. These are available in the gallery alongside the real exhibition and also worldwide over the Internet. They contain much more information than can be presented through the traditional resources of an exhibition - labels, graphics, and so on - and, since the images are offered at different resolutions, it is often possible to see more detail on the computer screen than in the showcase. In addition, the exhibitions are available via the Internet from anywhere at any time.

Further, we do not remove the virtual exhibitions when the real ones are dismantled, so they stack up into a library of exhibitions. It has been very helpful that we design our exhibition catalogues on computers in house, as much of this work contributes to making the virtual exhibitions. At present they are available from distant computers via the Internet and also via a public computer located in the museum. It has been very rewarding for the curators that all the work involved in organizing an exhibition is not lost when it is dismounted. The main benefit, of course, is accessibility for the public and, despite the fears of some traditionalists, there is evidence of virtual visitors being stimulated to come along in person, as well as of history of science courses in other universities making use of our material on the Web.

If the virtual editions of special exhibitions represent our major effort, we also offer other things on the site. There is information about the museum, of course, about the graduate course taught in the museum, and about publications and postcards. Our newsletters are published electronically as well as in print. There is a small image library, a response form for comments and suggestions, and a collection of links to other sites concerned with the history of scientific instruments. In addition, we sometimes add virtual exhibitions that have no counterpart in the galleries. One, for example, is of early photographic images that we could not display for any length of time. Space is made available for our students to mount their own virtual exhibitions based on material in the collections, and the first of these is now on-line.

What difficulties have we experienced? Where we have included large images - some in "The Measurers" exhibition are as large as 2 or 3 MBytes - downloading can be very slow, and well-nigh impossible for users not connected to the high-speed UK university Wide Area Network SuperJANET. We have modified this in later exhibitions. A more serious difficulty is keeping pace with technical and design developments. Sites tend to be judged by appearances and it will become increasingly difficult for a small organization not to look dated, but that is a familiar problem in more traditional museum media. For the future, we look forward to improving accessibility to object documentation, and to developing shared resources with museums in the same field. One such initiative was successful in obtaining a grant from the European Commission, and our existing commitment to accessibility via the Web was a factor in the success of our bid.

In summary, we have found developing a Web site (location: http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/) really worth doing, with increased accessibility as the chief virtue. The library of special exhibitions is probably our best and most valuable feature. It is vital for the museum curators to be as involved as possible, so that the site really reflects the interests and priorities of the museum. We are continuing to update the Web site as the technology develops (Sphæra, 1997).

Some Advice

Producing a Web site can be difficult for museums. The first question should be "Why do we want or need a Web site?". Answers will vary for different museums, but it is very important to consider the experience from the point of view of the virtual visitor and what they might wish to gain from using the museum Web site, rather than just considering what the museum has to offer. Here are some points to consider when creating a museum Web site:

  • Find an expert in the technology. For a large museum this may be a professional company, which could cost a significant amount of money, or it could be an enthusiastic volunteer for a smaller museum.

  • Use university contacts if possible. Museums normally have both educational and commercial roles. It is worth exploiting academic contacts since all universities already have good network access and experience which it may be possible to exploit. For example, computer science students may be very willing to undertake Web-based projects in conjunction with a museum, at no financial cost to the museum.

  • Do not try to re-create the "traditional" museum experience. The Web is a different medium with its own strengths and weaknesses which should be exploited to enhance the virtual visitor experience. Vast amounts of information such as museum catalogue databases can be made available on-line at relatively little cost since computer disk storage is cheap.

  • Design Web pages with care. There are many technicalities and tricks of the trade which may be used to dramatically improve the apparent downloading speed of Web pages. Graphical images should be used sparingly for fast access, especially on pages used to traverse a Web site.

    Any multimedia content requiring significant downloading time should be at the "leaves" of the hierarchy of Web pages within a Web site. The average time spent by a Web user on most pages is only a few seconds since much time is spent following links from page to page in order to arrive at a page where the content may be of actual interest to the visitor. This process should be made as painless and as fast as possible to ensure the visitor is not discouraged.

    Obvious and consistent navigation aids should be included on all pages within a Web site to allow a visitor to move easily within the site. For example, in a physical museum it may be difficult to find the entrance hall from some galleries, but in a virtual museum all locations should include a hyperlink directly back to the "home page" for the museum.

  • Keep your WWW pages up to date. Continuously updating a Web site with new virtual exhibitions, and the latest information on activities, opening times, etc., at the real museum will encourage re-visits.

    Museum personnel must be actively involved in the Web site content for its long-term success. One feature lacking in most current museum Web sites, although highly popular and encouraged at academic university sites, is the inclusion of a "home page" for each member of staff, with interests, individual contact details such as an email address, a photograph, publications, links to further personal pages or interests, etc. This adds a personal touch totally lacking in most commercial Web sites. Given that museums engage in commercial and educational activities, more informal and dynamic areas in a museum's Web sites should be encouraged, as well as the formal more controlled parts. Such facilities will encourage interaction with virtual visitors.

  • Avoid making high-quality graphical images available unless you are happy for them to be reused by others. Such images are slow-loading and should never be included in navigation pages within a Web site. In addition, copyright issues may need to be addressed. It is worthwhile including a copyright notice where appropriate, but on-line copyright is an evolving area. Virtual visitors expect images (Reynolds, 1997), so low and medium resolution images (which do not print very well, but are adequate for screen viewing) should certainly be included.

  • Use the Internet for publicity, not for direct income generation (yet), although attempts are being made in this area (Rees, 1997). Unless you are a very large museum you are unlikely to make any significant direct income from a Web site. There is some hearsay evidence that virtual access increases actual visits to museums. In any case, a museum that intends to embrace the Internet seriously should build up a virtual museum community of both the public (potential actual visitors) and also professional contacts (McKenzie, 1997).

    Reynolds (1997) has found that the second most popular reason for visiting a museum Web site (after pursuing a personal interest) is to learn about a museum not in the virtual visitor's locality. This certainly raises awareness of the museum and could well influence a visit if the person is ever in the physical locality of the museum in the future. This would bear further investigation to see exactly how large the effects are in practice. Whatever the influence exerted, it is likely to increase exponentially because of the expansion in use of the Internet itself.

    Once a Web site is installed, it is important to ensure it is registered with the major "search engines" (e.g., AltaVista: http://altavista.digital.com/) and Web directories (e.g., Yahoo: http://www.yahoo.com/ and for museums VLmp: http://www.icom.org/vlmp/) to allow potential visitors to find it. Reciprocal links are also worthwhile with related sites such as similar museums or non-museum sites covering the same subject area. Most visitors to on-line museum arrive via a link from another site, although many also arrive by chance such is the serendipity of traversing the Internet (Reynolds, 1997). Much smaller numbers hear of Web sites through more traditional means of publicity.

  • Sponsorship or support may be possible through one of the large computer companies, but this is probably only realistic on any significant scale for museums of national or international standing.

Perhaps most important in the design of a Web site for a museum is the "home page" or location at which most virtual visitors first arrive. This sets the scene and tone for the rest of the site and has a similar role to the front entrance hall of a real museum. It should be very obvious for different classes of visitor where they may wish to proceed. Pointers for tourists, children, teachers, researchers, alternative languages, etc., should be prominently located. The information presented, which may be originally derived from the same or similar content, should then be tailored for that class of visitor, and different aspects should be emphasised as appropriate.

For example tourists may wish to know how to find the physical museum and where it is located, including the postal address, information often lacking or well hidden in many existing museum Web sites. Children may want to access on-line interactives in virtual exhibitions. Teachers could be interested in education packs, both on-line and in paper form. UK teachers would probably like to know how the museum could help with aspects of the national curriculum. Researchers may well wish to access the museum's database catalogue if it is available, or to contact a suitable member of staff via email.

Other classes of visitor may also be relevant for different types of museum (e.g., hobbyists). Currently the most common reason for visiting a museum Web site is to explore a personal interest (Reynolds, 1997). A survey could well help with ascertaining the most useful types of information presentation and a museum could put more effort into more popular parts of their virtual site. Most Web servers can record the number of "hits" per page automatically, and this information could be very useful in determining how the Web site is being used. On-line forms for feedback (similar to more tradition visitor books) are also worthwhile.

More surveys complementing that of Reynolds (1997) are needed to gain further insight into the demographics of on-line museum visitors. Ideally a survey of interviews with such visitors would add to the information already obtained via Web site log files and through on-line interactive questionnaire forms.

The Future of Networks

Predicting the future of technology is always a hard and error-prone activity where there can be many different points of view (Wieners & Pescovitz, 1996). Here we consider some general trends with regard to the Internet over the next few years.

Computer networking is still in its infancy, perhaps as developed as personal computers were a decade ago. Different countries are also proceeding at vastly different rates too. Over half the activity on the Internet occurs in a single country, namely the USA. Interestingly, when normalized against population, Singapore lead the world in use of the Virtual Library museums pages (Bowen, 1997b). This is a small country that has decided to embrace networking seriously and has the resources to do it. The country's physically compact size means this has been relatively easy to achieve in a very short space of time. Other countries are also expanding in their network usage at astonishing rates. Brazil's use of VLmp expanded 22-fold between 1995 and 1996, outstripping all other countries in growth rate (Bowen, 1997b). Figure 4 shows the expansion in total virtual visitors using the VLmp resource up to the end of 1997.

For the network to succeed, the technology must be as easy to use and ubiquitous as well-established equipment such as the television and telephone is today. A reasonably cheap "black box" that plugs into the wall and works first time is required. WebTV is an attempt at this. Many information provision sectors such as broadcasters, newspapers, libraries, etc., are converging as the underlying technology converts to digital form ( Negroponte, 1995). Future black boxes may handle many digital media such as satellite and cable TV, video phone Internet, etc., in a seamless manner.

A reduction and harmonization in the cost of communication will occur. However for the moment, communication costs in some countries are an order of magnitude more than those in the US. Telephone lines currently limit the speed of communication significantly. Even ISDN, although digital at least, will only be a stopgap measure in the long run. Cable TV speed of access allowing full screen moving image presentation will be required. A future novel means of fast connection, the infrastructure for which is already widely installed, may be via the electricity supply.

In the US local phone connections are often free, unlike most of the rest of the world. This has significantly boosted the use of the Internet in the US since communication costs are fixed for 24 hour access. In the future, costs may well be for volume (and content quality) of data transmitted rather than for the time connected.

Faster access will become increasingly available using fibre optic connections and high-speed network protocols such as ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) or gigabit Ethernet (a hundred times the speed of much local area network technology). Network transfer of audio, video, virtual reality and interaction will then be feasible at low cost, assuming that computer hardware speed and capacity continue to develop at current exponential rates.

There will be increased access from different sectors. As well as universities which have traditional had excellent wide area network communications, broadcasters, companies, homes, hospitals, libraries, local/national government, museums, newspapers, publishers, schools, shops, tourist offices, etc., are all increasingly providing information for and gaining access to the Internet.

On-line charging will become established, providing a mechanism for possible income generation, such as shopping. Micro-charging may allow a small amount to be charged automatically for each page accessed.

Security allows the protection of sensitive information. This can be effected using passwords, by the location of the client host accessing the information, etc. Encryption of the data transmitted on the network is possible to help ensure data such as credit card number or money transfer details is only available for authorized access. Efficient and trusted security mechanisms will be essential for the expansion of network use in many areas, especially where financial transactions are concerned.

The On-line Future for Museums

The world wide web enables you to visit sites around the globe. Stroll through virtual museums, listen to music, or catch up with the latest news ...

-- Cable Internet leaflet, Telewest Communications, Bristol, UK (1997)

The cheap and simple availability of network access is essential for the majority of information gatherers who may be potential virtual museum visitors. Schools are still in the process of gaining on-line access and are likely to be voracious users of on-line museum material. Tourists, especially from more technologically advanced countries such as the US, will increasingly wish to check museums facilities before their trip. Currently major potential on-line museum visitors are typically either enthusiasts of the technology or have convenient educational/business access.

Virtual visits before and after actual visits are likely, e.g., for school parties. On-line questionnaires could be helpful for feedback on the actual museum visit as well as the virtual experience.

The majority of museums are still not on-line, especially among smaller museums. As an interim measure, it may be easier for some museums to provide on-line information en masse, e.g., through a regional museums service or local government administration. Increasingly on-line information will be provided directly from museums, as the technology become ubiquitous, reliable, cheap and easier to maintain. Virtual multimedia exhibitions, including interactive exhibits will become the norm for museum Web sites.

Direct income generation will become realistic when cheap and secure charging is available. Most museums will provide on-line shopping facilities, perhaps in alliance with other museums or commercial partner organizations.

Comprehensive on-line directories of all museums throughout the world will be available. This is already the case in some countries, such as the service provided by the Netherlands tourist board.

Scholarly research based on museum objects will become vastly faster with parallel searching of museum collection databases using standard protocols such as Z39.50. Most preparation will be possible remotely. If it is necessary to see a object physically, this can be located and prepared for viewing before the actual visit, saving time spent at the museum.

A Museums and the Web conference has now been established, the first of which attracted over 400 delegates in 1997 ( Bearman & Trant, 1997). This is likely to act as a focus for those who wish to keep ahead in the development of improvements in the virtual museum visitor experience in the years ahead.

Naming on-line is an emotive issue and is open to change in the future ( Garber & Korzeniowski, 1997). Currently museums have no "top-level domain" name of their own, unlike companies (".com"), education establishments (".edu"), government (".gov"), organizations (".org"), etc. Domain names can also depend on the country involved (e.g., ".uk" for the United Kingdom). For some examples, see some of the "URLs" included in this article.

A given museum may be placed under any of these domains, depending on it inclination, or on its Web site provider. In the UK, academia (".ac.uk") and schools (".sch.uk") have their own sub-domains. In the future, museums could establish a worldwide domain name such as ".mus", perhaps under the auspices of ICOM, or sub-domains in individual countries (e.g., ".mus.uk" in the UK). However, this will depend on action by the museum community itself, either internationally or nationally.

A benefit to virtual visitors of a more uniform naming scheme for museums could be an improvement in the ability to find a particular museum on-line. A directory such as VLmp (Bowen, 1997a & 1997b) could be (semi-)automatically generated from such information, and become much more comprehensive and reliable as a result. This is an important issue that museums have yet to address satisfactorily. Exact developments in this area remain to be seen, but it is hoped that the museum community can organize such developments in the future.


At the 1997 UK Museums Association conference, Alex Morrison of Cognitive Applications posited the following provocative statement:

Object fetishism is on the way out. Museums will collect and display information, not artifacts.

Most museum professional would probably argue against this statement since collections of objects are one of the most important features that distinguish museums from other institutions such as libraries. However the worth of objects without their associated provenance is significantly diminished, and interpreting objects for the public is also an extremely important part of a museum's raison d'etre. Thus museums certainly do need to collect and display information, and the Web is a valuable tool in distributing this to a potentially much wider set of visitors than has previously been possible.

If used wisely and sensibly, the Internet is a effective way in which potential visitors can access up-to-date museum-related information conveniently. Maintaining timely information is a costly endeavor and finding the desired information can be difficult in the sea of data available on-line. Automated search using keyword access is effective if the term or terms used are reasonably unique and semantically unambiguous. However, specialized directories created by human expertise will always have the edge over automated means of searching if they are available. In the museum field, one such directory is the Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp). To access this directory on the World Wide Web, use the following Universal Resource Locator (URL):


Finally, remember that on-line services are complementary to tradition museum services; "virtual" museums will not replace real museums!


Thank you to all those who have helped develop the Virtual Library museums pages, especially Cary Karp of the International Council of Museums. The case studies are based on presentations given as part of a session at the 1996 Museums Association Conference, Harrogate, UK. An abridged version of the Museum of the History of Science case study appeared in the November 1997 issue of the Museums Journal (Bowen, Bennett & Morrison, 1997). A shorter revised version of this paper is also due to appear in a special issue of the journal Publics et Musées in September 1998. This extended paper is being presented at the MW'98 conference with the permission of the Publics et Musées journal.


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Figure 1: Growth in usage of the Natural History Museum's Web site


Figure 2: Accesses to the Natural History Museum's Web site by location (August 1996)


Figure 3: Accesses to the Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) by location (April 1996)


Figure 4: Number of virtual visitors to the Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) each month

Year: 1994 1995 1996 1997
Month 1 21,143 32,389 69,372 2 24,482 43,849 71,859 3 32,251 *40,817 71,842 4 29,458 40,909 67,838 5 25,436 49,926 61,848 6 23,298 43,408 59,749 7 20,534 46,287 60,665 8 3,459 19,562 48,457 58,534 9 8,749 21,204 50,878 68,955 10 12,575 20,804 62,127 87,751 11 14,997 26,087 63,571 85,043 12 17,284 29,463 61,520 79,756
Average: 11,413 24,477 48,678 70,268 Year: 57,064 293,722 584,138 843,213 Total: 57,064 350,786 934,924 1,778,137

* From March 1996 this has been collected using a graphical counter rather than "hits" to the main page in the log file since the resources is now mirrored at a number of sites around the world.

Formatted by: Jonathan Bowen
The University of Reading, Department of Computer Science
Whiteknights, PO Box 225,
Reading, Berks RG6 6AY, England.
Email: J.P.Bowen@reading.ac.uk
URL: http://www.cs.reading.ac.uk/people/jpb/

Last modified: February 28, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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