Archives & Museum Informatics








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Museums and the Web 2000, Selected Papers

Pittsburgh: Archive & Museum Informatics, 2000

Introduction: The Year In Review – Reaching Audiences and Assessing Results

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant
Archives & Museum Informatics

This fourth volume in the series of Museums and the Web Conference Proceedings bodes well for the transformation of museum practice and the acceptance of the web as a main vehicle in the communications strategy of all cultural and heritage institutions. New applications of the web to museum have expanded our definition and understanding of that work, and changed how we relate its nature and significance to museum visitors. The methods and techniques we have at hand to bring museum content to the web are growing in sophistication.Finally we are almost at the point where we don’t have to build the tool in order to build the site. With this growing sophistication, comes an increased awareness on the organizational and management issues involved in deploying and maintaining a successful museum web site. Our creativity is challenged as we redefine organizational paradigms and tap new funding sources to ensure that our web content remains vibrant and relevant to our uses. And how much more we know about those users now! We’re changing the target of our skill in evaluation and assessment from the exhibition gallery and educational program to our online offerings, and the results show us, how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve got to go to meet expanding user expectations.

This print volume of the Museums and the Web 2000 conference proceedings is organized to reflect these topical divisions: Museum Applications, Techniques and Methods, Organization and Management and Evaluation. The accompanying CD-ROM follows the structure of the meeting, and includes full abstracts of all presentations as well as the texts of all the papers here (with color illustrations and live links) and many other papers that couldn’t be included in the print. Together the print and CD volume provide a unique snapshot of another year in the great progress of museums on the web.

Museums and Web Applications

In the past year, museums continued to explore the ways they have found to make their collections available in conjunction with the World Wide Web: as part of an on-site exhibition, as interactive multimedia, as new programming and experiences, and in conjunction with museum educational programs. The four papers in this first section of the Museums and the Web 2000 Conference Proceedings examine specific cases of museum applications of these approaches, each of which shows signs of maturing both by fitting into other museum activity better and meeting the audience in increasingly well defined genre’s of web interaction.

Scott Sayre’s report of the hugely successful on-site installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which employed interactive elements to document the restoration of a single work of art and to engage the museum visitors with the members of the museum staff involved in the restoration. The resulting exhibit was engaging to the on-site visitors and gave them a sense of deep understanding of the nature of museum work and involvement with the people behind an important local institution. Its web manifestation succeeds almost as well at creating a sense of place and belonging. We can hardly fail to be impressed with this demonstration of how a technology that has often been depicted as alienating and superficial both cements interpersonal relations and a sense of local pride, and can engage individuals for long hours in great depth.

A huge national museum devoted to what many would regard as a somewhat arcane subject has difficulty making itself relevant to those who are not primarily interested in its focus. Sarah Ashton and Sophia Robertson demonstrate how two very deep applications can make the content of a rich museum resource relevant to users with many different experiences and interests. In the process, they document the challenges facing museum staff as they seek to continue to extend meaningful access to their collections. The nature and extent of the on-going activity required to expand content, provide new views and means of access to it, develop better tools for end users and manage the continued expansion of a website, begin to define just how much of a program commitment is made when a museum takes its collections online.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich have found ways to enhance the power and reach of traditional museum programming by introducing interactive media and online access. But new kinds of museum programming are not the only web-inspired activities that create fundamentally new requirements and demand new practices from museums. The University of Illinois researchers (Bennett, Sandore, Grunden & Miller) have explored some of the implications of bringing primary resources from museums into use in elementary school teaching. Few museum professionals would identify the importance of metadata concerning curricular requirements and learning objectives as a sine qua non of usable museum content (few would even know for sure what metadata was, or could correctly identify its role in enabling use). This concrete study of how museum educational programming could change as the audience for the museum experience is reached over the web rather than by telephone from across town documents just how much even familiar looking museum applications will be transformed at they meet the demands of remote online audiences.

Jennifer Trant’s report on the Art Museum Image Consortium, as an instance of a digital library of primary resources in the humanities, examines such transformative requirements systematically. What kinds of entities can make digital library resources in the future and how will they build and sustain the sense of community required to construct vast collections over many years? How can they select content when virtually everything in the world needs to be digitized? What documentation is necessary and what knowledge representations adequate for a useful resource? How can the technologies be chosen to interoperate and last without being prohibitive to participants? And what intellectual property protection and administration is required? Finally, how can a sustainable economic model be implemented, which can support these programs over decades? By looking in depth at the choices and decisions made by the Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO), Trant exposes how the answers to each of these fundamental questions are specific to the digital library resource, and in what ways they are generic to the world of digital library resources.

Techniques and Methods

Constructing the museum experience in the Web age, involves mastering numerous new tools, techniques, methods, approaches and perspectives which are themselves evolving rapidly. The Museums and the Web conference is one of numerous venues where these ‘tricks of the trade’ are exchanged. The papers in this sections report on a few of the many exchanges of tacit knowledge within an evolving new media profession.

This set of papers takes up two interrelated sets of questions: First, can the web make possible new and satisfying ways of studying the world’s distributed artistic heritage? What methods can enable us to examine works of art in depth? Can we afford to create and distribute the image resolution required? Will techniques such as digital watermarking support the legal and economic security required?

And secondly, what methods will enable us to construct meaning from complex virtual social spaces and representations of virtual objects? How can we tell a non-linear story? How can we move through time and space both without getting lost and frustrated? Can we learn lessons of value in the real world from virtual objects?

Jim Spadaccini, describes how new techniques can lead to altogether new programming opportunities. Without broadband telecommunications, the types of museum sponsored events Spadaccini and colleagues at the Exploratorium have engendered would not have occurred. Webcasting and delivering streaming media at the users request, both extend the kind of programming which museums can initiate and make the museum and active participant in real-time documentation of natural, political and artistic events.

One of the exciting challenges of pioneering solutions in a digital realm, is that it involves overcoming an interrelated set of technical, economic, social, legal and philosophical hurdles. Michael Douma and Michael Henchman, explore a series of multimedia techniques for examining works of art. The metaphors which give their tools names are intended to make the function of each software tool immediately understandable – the spyglass, the zoom, floating descriptions, image rollovers, pop-up images, virtual reality scenes. In each case the authors explore how the physical world realization of this tool compares with the realization in a virtual presentation and the advantages of the latter. It is clear that such methods have considerable promise and, with widespread web-based access to rich images, could significantly democratize the ability to study art.

Maria Daniels addresses whether such widespread rich imagery is deliverable. The underlying philosophical and economic issues intertwine – such rich images were transformative, could they be integrated? Protecting ownership was critical, as was adding value through standardization of the knowledge representations. Longevity of data is tied in some ways to standards, and in others to automated processes which were essential also to make rich data capture economically affordable. In this paper the apparently simple task of rendering some coins in high resolution is laid bare as the deservedly considered and experimental project that it still is – something which will help inform future digital library projects.

Torsten Bissel and his colleagues at the German National Research Center for Information Technology have looked in detail at the claims made by vendors of digital watermarking technologies. Digital watermarking companies make claims that on the surface make it seem very attractive to label digital intellectual property in this way in order to be able to trace or prove misuse later. Sorting out the specific types of benefits being promised by different technologies and then evaluating their efficacy, is not something that can easily be done by individual consumers. Therefore studies such as this by large national technology laboratories play a critical role in promoting an understanding of their utility. While it is unfortunate that the current state of these technologies do not support the claims being made for them, and that those seeking technological means of protecting intellectual property may have to rely on encryption and access control, or social controls and legal contracts, it is important to have the facts.

If we have the ability to deliver lots of multimedia digital objects (and to a large extent, of course, we already do), how will users of these virtual representations be enabled to do things that they cannot easily do in the “real’ world?

David Greenfield explores the potential of non-linear narratives. Grounding his exploration in “Grandfather’s Virtual Kitchen’, a space where stories are told from the perspectives of all those present, he suggests the power that can be released by a visitor being able to ‘see the world’, ‘hear the story’, from multiple perspectives. One of the crucial issues here is how to provide the necessary contextual clues so that the audience does not become lost and can participate actively in changing points of view.

A similar challenge is confronted by Francesca Alonzo, Franca Garzotto and Sara Valenti as the develop means to enable virtual visitors to move in time and in space through 3D representations of the city of Milan. Standing on a known street, how can a visitor change centuries. What needs to be done to remain oriented when the street on which we stood today ‘becomes’ a field or forest two hundred years ago? Developing the techniques and genre clues that will be required to communicate accurately what has occurred when we are engaged in 3D temporal navigation of virtual spaces is the kind of challenge that our literate society encountered in inventing the genre of movies, radio plays and printed text – new media require new orienting mechanisms.

When such orienting mechanisms are in place, we can use “virtual objects in real education” as Glen Hoptman and his colleagues at Lightbeam Studios, in conjunction with the web educators at, propose. Grounding an approach to education in the superficially hostile experiential philosophy of American educator John Dewey, they begin to explore what will be required to give virtual experiences the authority of “Thisness’ which Dewey claimed was the foundation of progressive education.

Organizational Issues

If the first half of this book shows us what can be done by museums on the web and examines some promising approaches, the second half is firmly set in the practical questions regarding how to do it and whether it works. The papers in this section are case studies in the organization and funding of the museum web effort. The players are governments, private enterprise, museums and academia. All sorts of combinations are being explored from collaborations between commercial and not-for-profit organizations to make money with cultural heritage to national and international efforts undertaken with public funding for the public good. Variants involve sponsorship by industry and academia, volunteer led projects and outsourcing. While no single recommended practice emerges from these case studies, the testify together to the need for museums to be open to a huge variety of inter-institutional relationships in seeking to realize their own mission and objectives. It should go without saying that this requires continued vigilance since institutions with which museums “partner” in these endeavors do not have quite the same interests as the museum.

Kevin Sumption examines the concept of ‘meta-center’ usually called gateways or portals for museums. He focuses particularly on those funded by national governments, such as AMOL (Australia), CHIN (Canada) or the 24 Hour Museum (UK) to promote a sense of national identity, inter-working between institutions in the cultural sector, and other public policy objectives. In a tentative examination of their real and potential benefits, Sumption identifies some future directions they might take. He doesn’t ask whether such publicly funded meta-centers are likely to succeed in the age of e-commerce or whether museums have a particular interest in the success of one or another sort of gateway. Over the next few years, as different models for encouraging museum participation in different kinds of portals mature, these questions, and relative assessments of the success of different portals in bringing traffic to the museum, will come to the fore.

One kind of museum meta-center which is going to be an increasingly important feature of the museums and the web landscape is the museum shopping center. Chris Tellis and Rebecca Reynolds Moore explore the rationale and business plans behind one such collaborative and report on some of its early successes. They raise general issues about the kinds of business partnerships which museums should consider and how to decide about the organization of incidental business activities in museums (whether the café or the store). And they begin to examine the potential of retail e-commerce as an organizing principle for content delivery which stands in contrast to the commerce free government sponsored meta-centers discussed by Sumption, or academic gateways or such business to business commerce as tourism industry driven museum web applications.

It is important to recognize that government, and private industry, also have other agendas which museum web applications can help achieve. In Nora Hockin’s report on ‘Canada’s Digital Collections’, we are given an inside view of how youth employment functions of a national government can be creatively managed to generate online content from museums. Often such apparently unrelated governmental programs can provide substantially greater financial support than direct cultural funding; in this case the ancillary benefits of creating a skilled workforce with experience in cultural documentation could also be substantial.

Guiliano Gaia takes a similar perspective in exploring the other agenda’s of potential private funding for museum endeavors. In several case studies and some abstract analysis of web sponsorship opportunities, Gaia demonstrates that the museum can be a desirable association for private enterprise and visa versa. The association of the Museum of Science with Martin Mystère, an Italian comic book character, is an excellent example of the value to museums of some types of corporate associations and is especially welcome as this is under-appreciated by most museum staff.

Museums have traditionally been good at organizing work which can be done by volunteers. The extension of this practice to web museums can be fairly direct or surprisingly different. In the case study by Kristine Hoff of the development of a web site for a small Danish art museum, the traditional approach of employing real volunteers from the local community is used; the value of this paper lies in the detail in which it addresses the necessary steps. The paper by Paul Marty and Michael Twidale on data quality feedback suggests a more radical use of the web as a vehicle for “virtual volunteers” to help the museum in a way that is most difficult to organize with in-house staff alone. Based on the simple principle that many pairs of eyes are better than one, Marty and Twidale first imagine the potential audience of remote visitors as the ideal quality control staff and then explore the tools that can harness the potential input of thousands of editors. The result is a new social mechanism and a potentially new organizational asset.


Do Museum web sites, Museums on the Web, and Museums and Web Commerce work? And what is meant by “working”? Over the last few years we’ve witnessed a consistent increase in the number of evaluations of museum web activity. Broadly speaking these are efforts to find out who uses web sites, what they are doing, whether the sites work for them and why. The questions being brought to these evaluations range from highly objective measurements of numbers of interactions to highly subjective assessments of appeal. The methodologies for successful studies are still being developed. Even when definite conclusions can be reached, they often tell us only about a single site or a particular moment in the history of the web.

When we have a better idea of who is using the museum web site, we can begin to ask how they are using it. Joan Nordbotten’s fascinating and somewhat disturbing report shows us that we cannot assume that visitors to our sites see what we expect them to see and leave with the message we intend to convey. Indeed, in most web architectures most visitors “enter by the side door”, look quickly and furtively only at what attracted them, and leave immediately without necessarily even discovering where they were. While there are technical means of preventing visitors from coming to the museum site to look for a single item on a single page (pointed to be a search engine), it is not clear that museums want to prevent this very high proportion of their “visitors”. On the other hand it is very clear that knowing how most visitors come and what they do when they arrive is crucial to the design of sites that will meet the museums objectives.

What makes visits satisfying? As the previous study documented, the user must minimally be able to use the site. But a site can be minimally usable an yet unsatisfying. Yvonne Cleary explores the role of subjective issues in the usability of a web site from a critically important perspective – that of the culture of the visitor. If the web is to be an international medium, what do we need to do to ensure that visitors from different cultures will have a positive experience at our sites? Using the Louvre Museum web site, a heavily visited site that attracts users from around the world and presents itself to these users with their up-front choice of language, Cleary asks how well the site works for Spanish, Japanese, French and Irish visitors. Her findings of extreme variance in satisfaction based on subjective cultural features will not surprise any students of anthropology, but they can be very helpful in the design of the next generation multilingual interfaces – communication is not necessarily or even primarily about words.

Indeed, using the web, and benefiting from museum web sites, is a learned skill. Evan Dickerson and Susi Peacock explore how the web is used, self-referentially, in a university course on the economics and technology of the culture industry itself. Online museum culture becomes the subject of online coursework at Richmond, the American University in London. Evaluating the course and evaluating the museum experience of using the web, interact.

Interaction, between and among virtual museum vistitors, and with virtual museum objects is the desired end in the exceptionally rich and complex environment at the Milan Science Museum. Thimoty Barbieri and Paolo Paolini report most encouragingly from the bleeding edge of web technology on the actual visits to the virtual reality Leonardo exhibit which they first reported as an experimental implementation at MW99. While the technical requirements for visiting the site kept the numbers of visitors relatively low, and some of those who came were unable to experience the site at all, the those who had a satisfactory visit to the virtual site, alone or with others (the site being a collaborative workspace in which visitors could potentially interact with each other) stayed for an almost incredible average of 53.5 minutes.

One implication is that evaluation needs to be done on an on-going basis and that every web program should have evaluative elements in its plan. The article by Semper, Wanner, Jackson and Bazly best exemplifies such a long-term evaluation plan and reports on how each evaluation cycle can be used not just to test current hypotheses but to improve methodologies, refine questions, and identify issues for future evaluations. The Science Learning Network, for which this study was conducted, recognizes that museums are in a very longterm process in making uses of the Web and that establishing baselines, creating assessment mechanisms, and developing analytic tools are necessary steps we can take today. Their preliminary answers to the fundamental question – “who’s out there’ will be relevant to any other museum.

View the Table of Contents for Museums and the Web 2000, Selected Papers

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Informatics: The interdisciplinary study of information content, representation, technology, and applications,
and the methods and strategies by which information is used in organizations, networks, cultures, and societies.