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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

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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Museums and WWW-based art education 

Slavko Milekic, Hampshire College
Cynthia Moreno, The JB Speed Art Museum
Amy Kazee, The JB Speed Art Museum 


The introduction of user friendly graphics-based Internet browsers can be viewed as the single most important interface design feature that made the new medium accessible to the general public. We are still in the midst of the explosion of personal, commercial, and educational uses of the World Wide Web. However, in spite of the rapid adoption of the new medium (with the number of users approaching 100 million worldwide) it is becoming increasingly evident that, as with any new medium, we know little of its specificities and most effective uses. In this paper the characteristics typical of this new medium and the implications they have for interface design will be outlined. For this purpose the role that museums may play in WWW-based education will be used as an example. 

Some characteristics of the digital medium 

It is very hard to define the digital medium using solely the vocabulary of technology. From the technical side one can say that the information in this medium is represented and stored in digital form. However, this would make any music compact disc an example of a digital medium, which I do not consider it to be. It is also dangerous to equate this medium with computers because of the firmly embedded traditional notion of the computer as a tool. (4). Thus, my definition of this medium will be a complex one including not only its technological characteristics but also its social and psychological properties. 

The digital medium has a number of attributes that significantly influence the quality and the nature of the interactions it can support. I will present a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of some of the more representative ones and briefly describe their properties and relevance: 

  • endless storage; 
  • easy access; 
  • easy copying, reproduction, modification; 
  • easy searching, classification, reclassification; 
  • anonymity, pseudonymity; 
  • intimacy; 
  • new social/collaborative space; 
  • history log; 
  • cumulative knowledge accrual;
Endless storage. Consisting of millions of interconnected computers, the World Wide Web can be also viewed as an infinite storage space. Having in mind that most of the large museums worldwide exhibit as little as 5% of their collection, this characteristic is of immediate relevance to museums. However, endless storage does not imply immediate usefulness or access. 

Easy access. The digital medium is, relatively speaking, easy to access. Although there are currently huge differences in the Internet access capabilities between developed and developing countries, the investment necessary for modest access capabilities is relatively small. 

Easy copying, reproduction, modification. Digital storage allows for effortless reproduction without degradation of the digital 'original'. In fact, in the digital environment information is only rarely transported -- it is rather copied from one carrier to another until it reaches its destination in the same form it originated from. Digital information can be easily 'cloned' to produce any number of (electronically) indistinguishable 'originals'. Reduction of the analog information to discrete units allows easy and effortless mixing of the information that originated from different real-world or digital sources (3). Thus super-imposing, over- and under-laying, collage building and combining of pixels is trivially easy. Modification of digital representations can also occur in a more direct fashion -- through the direct manipulation of the pixels belonging to a single source. Although this characteristic of the digital environment raises many questions in regard to copyright issues it is also one of the characteristics that may prove to be one of the most potent attributes of the new medium. 

Easy searching, classification, reclassification. Reducing analog information to the common denominator of pixel values makes it easier to classify and search for specific information. Currently, this potential is vastly underutilized due to the lack of adequate search engines -- in fact, most of the searches conducted today are based on classification schemes and 'tagging' of electronic entries. However, there are already examples of crude search engines that use the criteria of pattern similarities within digital representations enabling one to, for example, find all of the images in a virtual repository containing leaf-like structures or human faces. Retrieved entities can be as easily reclassified and the classification stored for future uses and fast recovery. The implications of this are manifold. The user is not anymore constrained by the historical circumstances that led to the establishment of certain collections, or by predetermined choices but can make an original choice which will be governed by his/her personal history and interest (2). 

Anonymity, pseudonymity. In digital environments identity depends on one's wish to create one. This characteristic of the medium has numerous implications and a profound influence on personal experience during digital interactions (8). Most often anonymity is transformed into pseudonymity, where one creates a new digital identity which can be specified by a simple descriptive name or with elaborate textual or pictorial details (avatar). Although in many domains of digital interactions anonymity is fiercely fought against (for example, in the domain of email or commercial exchanges) it has unexpectedly positive aspects and uses in educational contexts. Some educators have already discovered the beneficial uses of anonymity in collaborative learning activities -- where an individual feels protected and freer to express one's views, and where comments and criticism are always addressing the content rather than the author. 

Intimacy. The sense of intimacy in the digital medium comes partially from one's anonymity and also from the strong sense of control one has in this environment. In a matter of seconds one can choose and switch between widely different contexts, make a decision to participate or just to observe, to contribute or to download, to broadcast messages to thousands of individuals or just a select few... This sense of intimacy and control one has over digital representations of works of art can play an important role in establishing a relationship with a work of art, a necessary element of art appreciation. 

New social/collaborative space. The digital medium opens up new possibilities for social and collaborative interactions. These possibilities were first realized (but are only rudimentarily explored) by the corporate sector. This led to the development of a new kind of software -- now known under the name of "groupware". Collaborative action provides a new dimension to the experience of works of art. For example, it allows witnessing and possible collaboration during the actual creation of the work of art. The technique was explored to some extent in the area of literary creations -- John Updike writing the final chapter of his latest novel using the input of the thousands of interested individuals spread all over the globe (1)

History log. Although one can make the claim that information stored in any medium preserves the past in some way, this is incomparable to the ease and precision with which history can be logged in the digital medium. This is the natural outcome of the fact that the information in this medium is the interaction which makes logging of it a necessary part of the environment. Currently, log files are mostly used for technical purposes: to establish how many individuals visited a site, which files were downloaded most frequently, etc. However, the possibility for digital preservation of past events, for example, of reactions that different individuals had while being exposed to a specific phenomenon carries a huge and as yet untapped pedagogical potential. (examples: follow my footsteps through the virtual gallery.... write a single word that comes to your mind when contemplating a work of art and see how many hundreds? thousands? had the same association...). 

Cumulative knowledge accrual. The accumulation of logged information and the ease with which this information can be filtered, searched and classified at a later date is the basis for cumulative knowledge gain. Some examples of creation of 'knowledge spaces' (7) already exist in the academic world and provide good examples of further directions one may exploit in the world of the arts. 


Although it is evident that the new medium can have an enormous influence on educational practices it is still vastly underutilized. This state of affairs is the result of at least two distinguishable types of problems: a) problems related to technology associated with the new medium, and b) problems which arise from misunderstanding and misuse of the new medium. 

Technology related problems 

Since the new medium is intimately linked with the rapidly changing field of micro-electronics (where new standards are introduced in less-than-year intervals) one would expect that the majority of problems are linked to technology itself. However, this is misleading. Although there are many legitimate technical problems associated with the use of computers in general, in most educational contexts the problems that are perceived as technological in nature are actually problems of interface design. This misperception is especially dangerous because it also offers the illusion of a possible solution through technological advances. Many Web-based curricula that did not fulfill the expectations of their creators are still waiting for more powerful computers, faster Internet connection, real-time streamlined video, etc. 

The major technology-related problem seems to be not in the domain of hardware but rather in the discrepancy which exists between the technical knowledge of educators and their students. The need for investment into technology-related professional development of educators was even recognized and articulated on the policy-making level in the US (5)

Problems related to the misconceptions about the new medium  

Misconceptions about the new medium arise most often because of the tendency to treat the digital medium as a slightly different form of existing media. The disastrous effects of such practice can be best seen by looking at the relationship between the print and the digital medium. The idea of an 'electronic book' was born very soon after the introduction of computers into everyday life. It seemed easy and tempting (and besides that, it saves the trees) to make printed information available in electronic form. First attempts copied even the constraints of the original medium -- electronic pages were sequentially numbered and the reader was supposed to read them in order. The ease of information manipulation and navigation in the digital medium soon led to the addition of new features specific to the new medium to electronic books. Most important of them was the introduction of hyperlinks which allowed non-sequential navigation through electronic texts. The first experiments with hypertext were disastrous. Instead of making the transfer of knowledge easier, they made it harder. Hyperlinks allowed the user to jump ahead to the topic of interest but often without enough background information (which would have been supplied in sequential browsing) to understand the text. Several jumps back and forth and the reader was hopelessly lost. We know now that converting printed text into hypertext does not consist only of converting the print into electronic form. In order to be useful hypertexts have to follow their own rules for optimal interaction -- from screen-sized text chunks to the redundant background information provided for hyperlinks and several modes of navigation. Similar misconceptions exist in the domain of art education where most often the creation resembles a digital, hyperlinked art catalogue. 

There are no easy remedies for the above problems. It is obvious that we need more experiments in order to find optimal ways of using the new medium. 

Implications for interface design 

What follows is a number of suggestions for pedagogical uses of the digital medium. These suggestions are exploiting the profiled characteristics of the medium in the context of current technological limitations. However, before dealing with specific solutions, it is necessary to mention the most general principles of interface design, often forgotten for the sake of other competing design interests: 

  • any procedure and interaction in the digital medium should be easier or faster to execute than the same one using traditional means, or 
  • the benefits of any interaction in the digital medium should be substantially greater as compared to the same interaction using traditional means, or 
  • the best solution: less investment, greater benefits; 
These simple principles can be applied to almost any stage of interface design -- from visual look and feel, to navigational strategies, to the general site organization. Examples include substituting two mouse clicks for one in drop menu choices (often one click for selection, the other one to 'go'), providing alternative navigational routes and shortcuts, or the overview of the whole site structure. The benefits are often psychological and social: being 'invisible' in a room full of people (online 'chat' rooms), having time to compose one's response (email), or to explore at one's own pace (virtual exhibits). However, these benefits are often overlooked in favor of more technical ones (like using cryptic commands for faster file access), which for the average user have no perceived value. The best possible solution is the combination of the two above-mentioned solutions -- greater reward with comparatively less investment. A traditional example would be the ease with which one can 'cut and paste' in a word processor. The general interface suggestion for the design of Web-based art education sites is to minimize the dependence on technology during pedagogical activities. Since the major technical difficulty for the most users connected to the Internet (including the majority of schools) is the narrow-bandwidth and undependable telephone connection this could be achieved in the following ways: 
  • by off-line browsing of pre-loaded content; 
  • creation of hybrid pre-loaded and interactive sites; 
  • using redundant and interchangeable storage and transportation media; 
  • modularized content; 
Although off-line browsing seems to be defeating the point of the Internet connection, in reality the number of really 'interactive' sites is very small. Most often the sites are updated on a weekly or monthly basis. Currently there is a number of programs, popularly known as 'spiders' that can be scheduled to automatically download whole WWW sites onto the local hard-drive at scheduled intervals. Subsequent visits to the same site download only the information that was added or changed since the last visit and are executed very quickly. In spite of the abundance of these programs, they are rarely used. 

Creation of hybrid sites (in terms of information storage and management) resolves the problems of narrow bandwidth while preserving interactivity and 'live' presence. On these sites the high-bandwidth information is downloaded in advance so that the live Internet connection can be used for interactive activities. Unlike the previous solution the creation of such sites depends for the most part on the information provider. 

Another solution to narrow bandwidth and shortage of local storage space is to provide larger data-base type parts of the Web site (like image collections) on removable storage media (CD ROMs, ZIP disks). All of the above mentioned solutions depend on and are most efficient if the content is modularized. 

The last, and potentially the most beneficial interface design suggestion is: 

  • whenever possible exploit the specific characteristics of the new medium for the creation of new pedagogical paradigms; 
This, somewhat cryptic directive is also the hardest to implement. In simple words it can be restated as: use the new medium's potential to the full extent. However, it is often hard to predict which design features and interactions are most compatible with the new medium. This knowledge often comes from hindsight. For example, during an experimental college course that used Web-based tools to support collaborative teaching and learning, the students were asked to submit their papers anonymously (6). The papers were posted on the class Web site so that other students could comment on them (the comments were also anonymous and were appended to the original paper). What struck the instructors was the visible increase in the quality of student writing. In retrospect, it is easy to explain - the students were not writing any more for the instructor but for 'the world'. Protected by their anonymity they could more freely express themselves. Anonymity of papers also allowed the commentators to focus on the content and not the author and again, under the protective shield of anonymity, openly express their opinions. Other positive effects of such a simple Web-based interaction design are surprising and also include: 
  • benefits of exposure of individual students to the work of others (which is not usual in traditional coursework); 
  • instructor's insight not only into the students ability to create, but also in their ability into critically appraise the work of others; 
  • creation of a database of high quality student papers to serve as future resources and 'standard setters'. 
Again, in retrospect, it is easy to see that this procedure tapped into the several of the mentioned characteristics of the digital medium: anonymity, intimacy, collaborative social space and cumulative knowledge accrual. One can easily imagine similar techniques used in the field of art education 


The intimate connection of the digital medium with technology leads to the perception that the existing problems of using this medium in education will be solved through technological advances. It has been suggested that the existing technological problems can be bypassed by adequate design of interaction protocols. The major problems of Web-based (art) education are not technological but psychological in nature. They arise mostly from the attempt to transplant the existing interaction models into the new medium. These models are not only ill-suited for pedagogical purposes but also prevent exploiting the unique characteristics of the digital medium and using them as a basis for the development of the alternative and more efficient educational paradigms. 

Note 1. See, for example, the description of WebBuddy, WebWhacker and WebDown programs which can be downloaded as trial or shareware versions from a variety of software repositories on the Web. 


(1) Amazon.com, The Largest Bookstore on Earth, on-line http://www.amazon.com 

(2) Getty Information Institute, The (1997) Digital Experience: Art Collector, on-line: http://www.getty.edu/digital/inthe/index.html 

(3) Levy, P. (1996) The Art of Cyberspace, in Druckrey, T. (ed.) Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, 366-367, Aperture Foundation, NY 

(4) Perrone, C., Repenning, A., Spencer, S., Ambach, J. (1997) Computers in the Classroom: Moving from Tool to Medium, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Vol. 2, No. 3 (on-line:

(5) President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, Panel on Educational Technology (1997), Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengtyhen K-12 Education in the United States, in in Educational Technology Review, 26-27, No 8, 1997 (full report on-line: http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/OSTP/NSTC/PCAST/k-12ed.html

(6) Prince, G., Milekic, S., Nikolic, V., Tus, O., Fetherstone, B. (1997) Conflict Resolution and Historical Analysis: An Experiment in Collaborative Teaching/Learning, on-line: http://hamp.hampshire.edu/~AWAKE/ConRes 

(7) Suthers, D.D., Erdosne Toth, E., Weiner, A. (1997) An Integrated Approach to Implementing Collaborative Inquiry in the Classroom, Computer Supported Collaborative Learning '97, Dec. 10-14, Toronto (on-line: http://advlearn.lrdc.pitt.edu/advlearn/papers/CSCL97.html

(8) Turkle, S. (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Simon & Schuster 

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