Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Broadening Access to Native American Collections via the Internet

Maurita Holland and Kari Smith, University of Michigan, USA


Web-based applications promise unusual possibilities for multimedia communication to people around the world. Each day we learn of improvements in connectivity, telecommunications and technical capacity that extend the Web's features and provide new possibilities for sharing and collaborating, and for teaching and learning.

It's little wonder, then, that museums, cultural heritage centers and other public institutions are considering how to incorporate this powerful communications and educational tool. For example, museum curators and educators ponder how Web technology will increase the number of visitors accessing their collections and services, help learners and researchers locate specific materials, and provide users information and access regardless of time and place. New technologies can also have a destabilizing effect, causing a shift of paradigm or offering unexpected opportunities. In the Web environment, museums now have a global. Exhibits need not have a fixed viewing time because Web-based exhibits are accessible at all hours and for many years, and parts of the collection too numerous or large to be incorporated in museums' physical space may be brought together by Web technology. Objects that stand outside the museum walls such as buildings, equipment or historic monuments, or which stand no more, may be selected and organized into exhibits. The very definition of the museum may even be challenged.

As museums experiment with technology by testing and developing new ways to reach their audience and define their collections, potential museum goers and public institution attendees are also gaining facility with the technology. For example, the Web gives every person in the world the opportunity not only to consume what is put there but also to produce and add to it. Personal Web-sites abound, many connected with family genealogy and individual interests and photos. The Web facilitates Lee Vygotsky's (Vygotsky, 1978) model for connecting exhibit and visitor through personal response and shared experience. The Web also promotes the participation model set forth by Eugene Matusov and Barbara Rogoff (Matusov, 1995). This model demonstrates that the visitor-learner can become the educator or the storyteller, the missing link in identifying use or provenance, and a valued member of a museum community. Most importantly, the visitor-learner can become a collaborator!

  We can also observe another theme: a growing popular interest in saving the material that documents individual and societal activity. Because communication technology permits global sharing, people are able to preserve the record of human activity. New fields such as organizational archeology, information architecture, and digital librarianship also strive to document people and organizations and the activity and artifacts they create. New institutions and archives form to address the deeply felt need to document the perspective of a particular tradition or heritage. Materials deposited at physical sites are at once more accessible and less accessible to nearby visitors because of their contextual fragmentation as each community struggles to physically maintain some small amount of material evidence.

So we see several forces coming together:

  1. museum interest in experimentation,

  2. individual interest in the preservation and understanding of culture,

  3. growth of Internet-facilitated communication and sharing, and

  4. public interest in documenting society and its change.
From these observations about technology, museums and cultural institutions, and individual behavior and activity, we have developed a model for collecting, storing, accessing, and interpreting cultural heritage. We call this model the digital collective.

Defining a Digital Collective

In selecting the term "digital collective" we have weighed the words carefully. "Digital" is chosen because it is the form of all objects and materials in such a collection. In fact, the Web is integral to the work of the collective. Since the Web is based upon distributed input in digital form, it permits both production and consumption of information; it makes possible a model for organizing and sharing images, sound files, and other materials from a number of different sources. However, the Web need not be the only distribution point for the digital collective. The digital collective with its multiple input sources and single collection is not bounded by specific location or particular time; rather, its materials may be viewed and manipulated in a number of formats and technologies including CD-ROM, virtual 'CAVE', or holography and may be stored or transmitted without regard to file size or time.

As to the matter of a "collective," the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, defines collective as "formed by collection of individual persons or things; constituting a collection; gathered into one; taken as a whole, aggregate, collected". We propose an organizational structure that draws in contributions from individuals and collectors and encourages comment and connections amongst viewers. The Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) project report (Besser and Yamashita, 1998) concluded that museums alone cannot generate a core collection that will support the wide variety of art and architecture images needed in University and K-12 learning environments. Clearly, collective effort is required. We have avoided terming the collective a virtual museum because to many, the virtual museum implies that there is a 'real' museum. Some would argue that we cannot have a museum if we do not have a physical space. Place seems inherent to the International Council of Museums' definition: "A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public which conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment. " Although this definition might be interpreted as having no fixed physical location, it is also the case that neither the 'non-profit making' nor the 'permanent institution' seems necessary to a digital environment. Furthermore, the ICOM definition places the responsibility for delivering its product and service on that institution. Interaction with users or viewers as possible contributors to the very 'stuff' or experience of the museum is foreclosed in this definition.

Native American Cultural Heritage

We illustrate the digital collective model using Native American cultures for three reasons: our familiarity with some of these cultures and their materials, the very decentralized state of these materials, and the considerable barriers to their access. This prototype tests the concept. In a robust, working system, we understand that Native Americans will, and must, determine what materials are appropriate for sharing within and beyond tribal boundaries.

Native American materials are widely distributed in private collections and public museums, in Native controlled or reservation museums and cultural centers, and in non-Native facilities; the level of collection, preservation, description, access and interpretation varies as much as the venues themselves. For example, museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC and New York, NY), the Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ), Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center (Mashantucket, CT), Woodland Cultural Center (Brantford, Ont.) and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (Santa Fe, NM) provide careful descriptive control, appropriate presentation, and physical security for the materials in their collections. Yet many Native American artifacts, documents, sound recordings, still and moving images are not publicly accessible due to lack of intellectual access, exhibit space, conservation needs and the like. Also, because many Native Americans rarely leave their tribal homes, few have the opportunity to view their own tribal heritage when it is located in multiple museums far away. Small repositories located closer to Native Americans are widely distributed around the United States; local museums or collections are located on reservations, sometimes in stores, often in churches, rarely in dedicated facilities with trained curators. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) funded by the W.K.Kellogg Foundation is supporting an initiative that provides a log structure to 31 tribal colleges in twelve U.S. states. They will act as centers that celebrate native culture and provide homes for repatriated tribal materials and artifacts (Culture 101, 1998). They will also be used for classes and provide a gallery and shop for local artists. However, many of the colleges are hard pressed to obtain or maintain collections and provide for their appropriate care and access. While they are rich in cultural content, they lack archival and curatorial expertise.

Mary Larson (1998) stresses that an advantage to having a central repository for cultural heritage materials is that it allows them to be contextualized. In the digital collective, materials can be described and given context by their creators and donors as well as other people who have specific expertise. Digitizing allows some materials such as moving images and sound recordings to be kept and used in their original forms. As Larson states, "When you turn an oral performance into a written document you lose inflection, emotion, nuance, and contextualizing background sounds…For cultures which still treasure oral tradition, the internet allows a return to that format, but in a media that enables the audience to be larger than it might have been traditionally."

Native American educational systems and tribal governments are interested in forging collaborative efforts in developing computing networks and information systems. Our work with Native Americans on information technology-based initiatives involving cultural heritage (University of Michigan, 1999) shows a pattern of widely dispersed oral and artifact materials in personal collections and in public and private institutions. It reveals a grass-roots interest amongst teachers, school children, and community members for accumulating and sharing digital surrogates of their heritage materials. It also confirms that artisans and elders frequently have knowledge that is undocumented and integral to understanding the materials.

Digital Collective Model Overview

The collective will be directed and shaped by a curator and an archivist with networked access to the collective's server and technical support. The curator and archivist will be involved in the formation of the database and the fields used for describing materials in the collective. They will also be responsible for soliciting materials and applying appropriate collection guidelines for accepting content. The curator will be responsible for registration of artifacts, creating exhibits and displays, and designing educational programming and products. The archivist will be responsible for maintaining the electronic records and digital surrogates, as well as the organization and management of the archival materials.

The Collective's property is made up of digital surrogates of cultural heritage artifacts and materials donated by individuals and institutions. Physical items donated will be digitally recorded or captured and then returned to the owner; digital objects may be donated directly. Donors will also donate their copyright permissions to the collective for use with products and educational activities. When necessary and appropriate, access restrictions may be placed on materials in the collective. Curators will coordinate selection and calls for material donations. As a general policy, the collective will not store physical materials; however, in practice, some visual and sound materials for which no digital standard exists may be stored temporarily. The collective will provide information about physical storage locations if provided at the time of donation. (See Figure 1.)

The electronic files will be organized and maintained in a database and described with appropriate metadata by a professional registrar or archivist; the metadata will include the terminology of the community or persons who donated the material. Products will be created from the materials in the collective. These products may be in forms such as a website, CD-ROM, or a digital exhibit within a traditional gallery space; they will be available for purchase.

In the following sections, we describe the mechanisms for gathering, structuring and presenting materials in the digital collective.

Gathering Content for the Collective

As mentioned earlier, content will be provided by users and institutions. This is not new to museums and archives. Many archives have relied on donations to form their collections. Museums, too, are the beneficiaries of gifts and donations of works of art and other materials. As noted in the MESL project report, it is common practice for faculty in university art and art history departments to contribute or create slides of materials that are not in their slide library standard Museum image sets. This user-donated content occurs locally and repeatedly at multiple institutions.

Donors primarily provide objects and provenance information to a museum, however curators decide how to catalog, describe, display, store, and conserve the objects. Yet donors could be involved at more levels. In the digital collective, we envision users contributing by adding digital objects, descriptions and comments, building exhibits, and designing and offering educational programs.

Examples of museums and archives that explicitly solicit descriptive information may be found on many Websites. (See Notes) Some of these are attempts to identify objects of importance; others are primarily a device to engage interest in the archives or museum holdings. Through wide access, it is also possible to tacitly solicit content for the digital collective. Users will at times be experts in adding to the record of particular items. For example, an elder may share a recollection of a particular day and time when an object was created or used; a child may add a sketch of a plant from which a native dye is made or of a sheep shorn for wool-making. Often, they will provide valuable information and stories about the objects that go far beyond the curators' knowledge. This material, reviewed by a curator, may become part of the collective core, searchable and shared. This is a way to draw people to the web site as well as engage them in their ownership of the collection.

Some institutions are already considering digital surrogates as a way to enable access to privately held materials. For example, Alicia Haber (1997), director of the Uruguayan El Pais' Virtual Museum of Art writes, "One of its essential objectives is to bring together in a virtual space works found in artists' studios and private collections, and which rarely reaches museums, exhibition halls or galleries." The problem associated with dispersed cultural materials is overcome by using an electronic virtual environment. "Visitors have access to paintings, sculptures, drawings and installations that have not been exhibited for many years, are only shown sporadically, or often are totally unknown." Since many Native American materials have barriers to their access, digitizing and adding them to the collective will make them available as part of a larger Native American cultural heritage. Among its many practical advantages, this will address numerous gaps in 'official' written histories and textbooks and provide a repository of research materials not accessible or available in the physical world.

Structuring Content for the Collective

The highest priorities for the digital collective project are accessibility and compliance with emerging standards for databases and networked. The underlying data structure and form of the collective database will consist of several elements, adapted from the Library of Congress National Digital Library Program documents (Fleischhauser, 1996). These are:
  • Descriptive metadata - the data set that describes the items and supports searching and browsing with natural and controlled vocabulary

  • Digital objects - includes moving pictures, still images, 3-D renderings of objects, oral histories as both sound recordings and transcripts, documents, and comments about, or additions to, materials already in the collective. They contain the administrative and structural metadata or are associated in a logical way.

  • Interface framework - a set of illustrated HTML text files that serve as the collection home pages
We are prototyping this now based on existing projects and standards for image and cultural heritage databases.

Presenting Content from the Collective

Researchers, educators, students, curators, artisans, and historians will search, view and organize the collective content as they desire through the Web interface. Multiple views will allow school children, for example, to enter the collective at an intellectual and experiential level appropriate to their age and other culturally-sensitive parameters. Teachers may draw together special exhibits for classroom use; researchers will make examinations and carry out scholarship that is difficult or impossible in the physical world. Personal paths through the materials may be stored for future reference. Users may also elect to receive notification of new additions in a specified area. Non-Web products derived from the collective, such as CD-ROMs and videos, will also be available for locations that do not have Internet access or where non-networked systems are more appropriate. Larson describes several such applications among Alaskan communities. Our School has recently completed such a project (Living, 1999), producing a CD-ROM documenting both a unique, traveling exhibit of Yup'ik masks created by the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City and a series of stories, videos and lessons that together capture the cultural heritage of this native people living along the west coast of Alaska. The CD-ROM also links to the Web to access additional information and materials.

The collective might also have exhibits or viewing rooms where materials from the collective would display in apparently physical form. Models might also be fabricated using tools that generate physical parts from digitized objects. The collective may host special exhibits, talking circles, open or closed conferences, repositories of lesson plans, and many events and activities as suggested by the communities who access the collective. The collective, because it is digital, will also take advantage of rapidly evolving technology for sharing and using information, frozen neither in time nor in place.


We are now building a prototype of the digital collective. Ongoing activity will be available at the digital collective Website, Although our initial prototype centers on materials from Native American culture, we are convinced that the digital collective model can be applied to a wide range of information sharing activities.
  • Historical societies may digitize, preserve and share oral histories and artifacts of ethnic groups, photo documentation of public buildings and local festivals, and written records of civic clubs and organizations.

  • Botanical gardens, nature preserves and observation groups will use a collective to share experiences, collect photos of flora and fauna, promote understanding of the environment, and work with K-12 institutions on science projects and hold digital science events.

  • State governments may encourage schools and local organizations to build collectives around the cultural heritage and the unique activities of the region, the natural features of a local area and other special assets; teachers and students would enrich the content and draw on the experiences of those living in another area.
Overall, the shared world of the digital collective's images, sounds and stories encourages exploration and supports community learning. By expanding horizons, the digital collective fosters multicultural perspectives and understanding.

The authors would like to acknowledge support for this work provided by a grant from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation.


Besser, Howard and Robert Yamashita. (1998). "The Cost of Digital Image Distribution: The Social and Economic Implications of the Production, Distribution, and Usage of Image Data." A report to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation A Study of the Economics of Network Access to Visual Information: The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project. Berkeley, Ca: University of California, School of Information Management and Systems. Accessed on February 8, 1999.

"Culture 101" (1998). American Indian Report, October, 28.

Fleischhauer, Carl. (1996). "Digital historical collections: types, elements, and construction. Accessed on February 11, 1999.

Haber, Alicia. (1997). Information: Welcome from the Director El Pais’ Virtual Museum of Art. Accessed on February 11, 1999.

Larson, Mary A. (1998). "Keeping our words as keepers of words," Paper presented at Society of American Archivists Annual Conference.

"The Living tradition of the Yup’ik mask," (1999). CD-ROM. Available from the University of Michigan School of Information, 300 West Hall, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1092.

Matusov, E. and Rogoff, B. (1995). "Evidence of development from people’s participation in communities of learners" in J.L. Falk and L.D. Dierking, Public institution for personal learning: establishing a research agenda. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.

Notes: The USC Interactive Art Museum ( at the Fisher Gallery has multiple ways of engaging visitors with their collections. They have an interesting example visitor donated information. The gallery has a web page dedicated to locating provenance information about a sculpture in their collection, Ernst Wenck's Trinkendes Mädchen. The South Carolina Library ( publishes and posts some mystery images in the "friends" society newsletter. "People enjoy the challenge and solve the mysteries. Solutions are published in the next issue and posted to the web site." Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound ( posts on their website a query regarding an unknown disc. Not only do they have images of the disc but also a sound clip to listen to the music on the disc. The Clements Library in Ann Arbor at University of Michigan ( posts images from their photographic collections that are unidentified.

University of Michigan School of Information. (1998, 1999). Cultural Heritage Presentation Institute. 1998, 1999, last updated October 18, 1998. and

Cultural Heritage Initiative for Cultural Outreach. (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999), last updated January 8, 1999.

Vygotsky, Lee. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.