Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
November 30, 2017 12:56 PM

Museums and the Web 2002, Selected Papers from an international conference

Edited by David Bearman and Jennifer Trant.

Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.

Cyberspace in Our Space

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant,
Archives & Museum Informatics, USA

Since the Museums and the Web Conference began in 1997, it has examined the confluence between museums, as social institutions with a certain historical tradition and mission, and the "Web", a set of rapidly evolving technologies that combined image, text and multimedia hyperlinking with Internet addressing. Already it is clear that these forces affect each other. Museums have not gone "on" the Web simply to recreate themselves in cyberspace or to become merged with other virtual information stores. Instead, they are beginning to appropriate the technologies of the Web. Museum professionals have engaged the Web as a venue for the exploration of issues they face daily, and increasingly they have found in the Web tools that are of use within the museum. The Web is a becoming part of our physical space just as the museum is re-creating itself in cyberspace; the dialogue between the two is reshaping our sense of museums and museology.

This volume of papers presented at the Museums and the Web 2002 Conference explores the many faces of museums on the Web and the new face of the Web in the museum. The authors probe the many roles of the museum as a social institution, as a series of programs executed in physical space and time, as a collection of objects and knowledge, or as a node in the Web.

Insofar as it proves possible in the coming decades to deploy emerging Web standards to enable museum-like mediation between objects and experience, interpretations of meaning and sources of knowledge, museums will be significant players in the semantic Web. But as the papers in this volume demonstrate, the path to interoperability will first require syntactic agreements and adherence to structural standards for metadata harvesting declarations. These foundations for interoperability are the precondition for broadly available toolsets and newly developing conventions of interaction. The access such standards enable—for the handicapped, for scholars, for the general public and for two-way communication between creators and participants—is being explored. But the underlying assumptions that Web standards will in fact support semantic interoperability and that museums will achieve a mature respect for standards have yet to be proven. Both assumptions are at this point tenuous: museums have been more willing to "adapt" standards than to "adopt" them, and efforts to create structures for universal meaning, or even methods to find generalizable meaning in local perspectives, have so far proven elusive.

Whether knowledge of our heritage is ultimately integrated into a "world wide" Web of knowledge, or not, museums have embraced the Web and are mastering the management methods, pedagogical techniques, and assessment strategies needed to support effective institutional programming. Leading museums have introduced structures, technologies and business relations from the world of commercial organizations into museum "content management", and have professionalized their Web operations. Where home-grown programs once reigned, professionally planned, inter-institutional, technologically sophisticated Web-based programs raise a challenge. Most importantly, a rigor in evaluation rarely seen in the assessment of non-technologically mediated museum programming is being introduced, and indeed, expected, in Web programs. Improved methodologies for evaluation in the initial planning, pre-testing and post-implementation phases are being implemented regularly. Museum management is coming to expect an explanation of the relative effectiveness of different means of interpretation. In a relatively short time, Web-based feedback mechanisms have helped museums fine-tune the instruments of their communication using sophisticated evaluation tools.

Museums' successes derive increasingly from integration of the Web into the museum. Not only is this affecting work processes such as content management, education and evaluation; but on-site exhibitions and interpretation are also beginning to benefit from the Web-based delivery of context for objects on exhibition. The Web as a potential threat to the on-site, physical, real world museum is confronted, by moving the virtual exhibition—located somewhere else, in cyberspace, and most often approached from somewhere other than the museum homepage—closer to the physical space; in-gallery interactives have begun to bridge the gap between the virtual exhibition—a separate venue requiring distinctive content, and competing for funds and staff energy– and ongoing museum exhibition programming, with all the strengths of the museum's identity and physical presence. Web-driven handhelds married to wireless communications facilitate interpenetration of the virtual and the real. This marriage of physical and conceptual space is inspiring experiments, especially by university-based researchers, and generating a new social and intellectual construct: mixed reality. While it is too early to know how people will ultimately integrate mixed reality into their everyday life, museums and academic researchers working with museums are modeling the options.

Museums have adopted the Web in as many different ways as any other social institutions in our society. Already there are some signs that the museum as an institution may be significantly changed by the encounter. Just as commerce is not fundamentally affected by B2B applications (which make commercial transactions more effective) but might be fundamentally altered by reverting to on-demand custom fabrication (as with Dell Computers) or the social exchange of free information (as with Amazon), so also museums could be fundamentally altered if other types of institutions usurp their role as custodians and gatekeepers of art, impinge on their position as collectors and interpreters culture, or offer methods that make possible the aggregation of information from many sources. Or the Web could provide tools for museums to reconnect with their communities, reasserting their relevance by empowering their visitors, virtual and physical.

The Edge of the Web

This year, the edge of the Web is a wedge that penetrates museum galleries; wireless computing and handheld devices have moved the Web from cyberspace into museum space. The first section of the Museums and the Web 2002 Proceedings reports on several projects exploring the potential for innovative interpretation of museum objects and ideas, delivering networked digital objects to people using handheld devices in wireless networked spaces and watching as those people communicate with each other, with the "smart space" around them and with linked knowledge sources.

Robert Semper from the Exploratorium and Mirjana Spasojevic of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories introduce the state of the art in the "electronic guidebook", a metaphor and a physical, portable device that uses a wireless Web-based network to "extend the museum experience". As these devices are becoming smaller, more affordable and more capable, museums will soon be able to count on them to facilitate delivery of complex information to visitors. What is not yet clear—and is the subject of this and other research—is what kind of information should be delivered, to whom and at what time. We still have much to learn about how this can be done in a way that attracts attention to the artefact or idea we are communicating, and enables communication among visitors rather than inhibits it. There have been several attempts to implement full-blown hand-held guides within galleries (including those at SFMOMA reported by Peter Samis at the ichim 2001 meeting in Milan, Italy); Semper and Spasojevic step back to examine requirements for success in a systematic fashion, considering infrastructure, interface and content development. Two problems are identified in this research: 1) the potential for interference with the social experience of visiting, as the device gets in the way of communication between visitors, and 2) actual physical interference, as holding the device impairs visitors' ability to interact with the exhibit.

At PARC, a group of researchers specifically addressed the social issues identified by Semper and Spasojevic, exploring the relative advantages and disadvantages for social interaction of different methods of delivering audio in a gallery tour environment, including one where visitors shared similar aural experiences. Their conclusions point both to new strategies for technological mediation and to the need for further studies of computer-human interface options and effects. At the University of Glasgow, Galani and Chalmers conducted a systematic analysis of the social context of the museum visit, exploring how it can be affected by technology. They studied ways in which different visitors to an exhibit actually interact together once they are there, with each other, the gallery, the Web and the virtual environment. Their results similarly point to technologies that could substantially overcome the barriers to social interaction in a Web-facilitated visit, and could possibly integrate Web and physical visits.

The second barrier is physical. In her exploration of the past and potential of the "Museum Wearable", Flavia Sparacino of the MIT Media Lab examines ways in which wearable computers could augment the gallery environment, enhance visitors' experiences, and in the future even enable visitors to use their hands freely.


While museums may have been conceived as independent sources of interpreted knowledge, the Web has pointed out the weaknesses of this isolation for the construction of complex understanding. It takes little advantage of the inter-relationships between and among disparately located museum objects. Together museums' collective knowledge can only be identified, navigated, explored, and integrated if its structure is explicitly declared. Interoperable knowledge models could drive tools to enable access across barriers of differing abilities, disciplinary perspectives, and documentation traditions. But the levels of standardization that museums will need to adopt, minimally to move data successfully from place to place (without carrying much meaning), to say nothing of the inherent complexity of the project of moving information created in one intellectual perspective into meaning in another context, are daunting. There is much scope for research in this area, and the papers in the "Foundations" section touch on significant areas of standards definition and application, in metadata harvesting, data modeling, the semantic web, accessibility, and annotation. The metadata harvesting experiments conducted by the multi-departmental research team at the University of Illinois begin to peel back the layers of standards infrastructure required to easily integrate information from disparate technical environments, media formats, and disciplinary perspectives, and to deliver it to users with different capabilities, knowledge and tools. In the "Illinois Open Archives Initiative Metadata Harvesting Experience", supporting the OAI server and harvesting technology per se is not even seen as a fundamental barrier most museums couldn't overcome. Attention is focused on the next level of the problem—that of standardizing the content of metadata, which is shown to be quite difficult even when a very simple common denominator, the Dublin Core, is all that is attempted.

Jane Hunter tries to bridge a much more complex set of metadata models for knowledge representation in mapping the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model (CRM) designed to describe museum data to MPEG-7 designed to describe multimedia, in order to describe multimedia museum content. Hunter uses the Resource Description Framework (RDF) in order to express the enhancements needed to the CIDOC Model to incorporate critical MPEG-7 concepts. Andy Dingley and Paul Shabajee pursue the theme of content integration as they envision how today's authoring tools, including XML and RDF, can be used to construct the "semantic Web" envisioned by the W3C. Using the ARKive project as their test-bed, they are prototyping the interoperable knowledge environment of the future. Liddy Nevile and Charles McCathieNevile take the dialog a step further as they introduce a series of W3C standards designed not simply to enable users of the Web to move across data sources, but also to enable access in different modalities and with different enhanced interfaces for users with disabilities.

An alternative approach to building a semantic network is explored by the team at the University of Bristol in their examination of the use of annotation to enable the collaborative indexing of a common data store according to the perspectives of various communities of interest. Using a relatively low technology approach in place of automated tools and highly sophisticated mechanisms for translating between schemas, they propose a cooperative, social means to bridge intellectual perspectives and enable cross-disciplinary access.

PGP (Pretty Good Practice)

After less than a decade, it is evident that museum new media practice for the Web has introduced new rigor throughout the process of managing content, delivering learning experiences and evaluating results. Indeed, we now have "pretty good practice"—if not "best practice" (something we will probably never achieve and might not recognize if we did). Like pretty good privacy, it's the best we've got.

Two papers in this section address the need that museums, and other organizations with lots of data, have to manage their "assets" using sophisticated tools that make possible the maintenance of lively, timely, and rapidly changing Web sites. The methods introduced by the Getty, to integrate data from its museum and many research centers, and by the Duyfken project, to bring content from numerous sources together on an hourly basis, are indicative of the types of content management practices that are becoming necessary everywhere. The purpose, of course, is to create sites that have the depth to be attractive and the range of digital objects to appeal to a variety of different visitors—what is referred to elsewhere in this volume as having "a low threshold and a high ceiling" (Nevile and McCathieNevile). Pretty good practice at this point is to develop programs that bring educators in the classroom and in the museum together to develop strategies for enabling and improving use. In "Pyramid Power", Scott Sayre and Kris Wetterlund report methods of teacher training used to introduce teachers to museum resources and explore how they can make good use of them. The power of their model comes in the `train the trainer' cascade. In their exploration of issues surrounding the integration of digital primary resources in the classroom, Bennett and Trofanenko describe a collaboration among teachers and a number of cultural heritage organizations.

In the end, the question is whether the investments we are making, in teaching tools and in rich museum Web sites, really pay off. Darren Peacock proposes a framework and suggests quantitative measures from Web log data to assess user satisfaction with the Web site of the National Museum of Australia. A group of commercial designers and museum educators turn to "Comparing User Preferences and Visit Length of Educational Web Sites" in a qualitative study that bridges learning theory and interactive media development. And a group of Italian academic software engineers apply their design-based metrics to the assessment of some well-known museum sites with results that are informative for anyone planning an evaluation or designing a site.


As the edge of the Web insinuates itself into museum space, university researchers are developing new tools and techniques to wrap cultural content in digital context and present it in an engaging and intuitive manner. The results challenge the boundary between the virtual and the real, and ask us to consider how we might best engage with culture, digitally.

Physician and experimental psychologist Slavko Milekic is defining a new domain—Tangiality—that bridges Reality and Virtuality. Here museum data and museum visitors may soon come together through haptic interfaces. At the University of Aizu, researchers are exploring the use of tools and metaphors developed for games to make visualizations of historical simulated environments for museum interpretation. And at UCLA, in the Hypermedia Studio of the School of Theater, Film and Television, installation artists are constructing environments where performers, in real and virtual spaces, interact with audiences that are vital participants. In each of these mixed reality environments, real people, digital input and data interact in an environment, respond, and adapt. They suggest that the interpenetrated world of mixed-reality is, increasingly, the world that museum programming and the use of the Web will exploit.

Repositioning the Museum

So, will this change the museum? Has it changed the museum? Communications and media theory predict that the introduction of new media could fundamentally alter the museum message. Indeed, after a relatively few years in the life of a fairly conservative type of institution, it is becoming apparent that the Web can affect the fundamental nature of museums. The Web is not just a brochure to advertise the museum (as it was in the first couple of years), or an alternative venue in cyberspace in which to implement museum programs (as it has been for the past couple of years). The final section of this book offers tantalizing hints about the impact the Web may have on the nature of the museum as a social institution, its mission and purpose. If, as Pia Vigh suggests vis à vis net art in "Hacking Culture", the medium is the message and the message can only be conveyed in a new social context beyond the museum, then the Web will have proved a serious challenge to museums. But if, as Roy Hawkey suggests, the medium makes possible the communication of a message that had been subjugated to a minor position in traditional museums where it failed to fit into the medium of exhibition display, then the Web could liberate the museum to realize science education in a way that was previously constrained. Or perhaps, as in the culturally sensitive exploration of potentialities of Web interactions with museum missions elaborated by Goodnow and Natland, the museum can realize a new mission by grappling with precisely this complex interaction between what a museum represents as an institution and what museology might enable.

And remember . . .

This volume is entitled Selected Papers from Museums and the Web 2002. We are delighted that it reflects the rich discourse that characterizes the conference and this community, but as the choice of which conference papers to print becomes ever more difficult, we remind readers that four times as many papers from the conference are included on the CD-ROM that accompanies this book. And even the CD does not fully represent the meeting. To appreciate the entire range of creative discussion that accompanies this annual encounter between the Museum and the Web, it would be necessary not just to review all the papers, but also to experience the 14 pre-conference workshops, 50 demonstrations, 35 exhibits and 15 mini-workshops, as well as the performances, Crit Rooms and Usability lab - interactive events—which are not documented on-line or on the CD. Ultimately, a conference is a social event: the experience cannot be fully represented in any publication. Nevertheless, we hope this volume stimulates more research and experimentation, and yet more publication about Museums and the Web.

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant
Archives & Museum Informatics

View the Table of Contents

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.