Archives & Museum Informatics








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November 30, 2017 12:56 PM

Museums and the Web 2005, Selected Papers from an international conference

Edited by David Bearman and Jennifer Trant.

Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2005.


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

The revenge of the Web as a communication medium is its refusal to remain within the precinct of publication or the boundaries of broad/narrowcasting technology. Instead, the Web continues to assert its potential – some would say its essential – multi-faceted character. It has become a vehicle of dialogue and community: a virtual water cooler, agora, and campfire, a personal letter, diary and billboard, journal, book and archive. As a place of gossip, political action, storytelling and memory, the Web is still a place of collection and sharing, aggregating and broadcasting; content uploaded by many to one place. This has exciting potential for museums and other cultural institutions, and frees us all from the numbing editorial and commercial grip of the broadcast media. But we’ve just begun to see how communications can reshape programs and institutions. Web-based museum activities still show as much potential as good practice.

Content: Making it, Finding it, Disseminating it

Many expect to visit a museum Web site and interact with content authored by the museum. Users might be able to choose their path through a presentation, and search for and display only items of interest to them. They might even ask questions about or comment upon what they see, anticipating that their message would reach someone who could answer. But mostly, as in museum-gallery space the information flow is one way. Some museums have begun to take the next step. They are inviting their visitors to contribute new information, annotate museum-provided interpretation, and join groups of fellow visitors in discussing their findings. In taking these steps the museums are braving a “loss of authority” with their patrons. They are giving up their “unassailable voice” so evocatively described by Peter Walsh in 1997 Walsh (1997).

Often, museums take these steps precisely because they believe that their audience includes some with greater authority to speak for the collections; different voices are engaged in the interpretation alongside – or instead of – those of professional curators. Such is the case where the “visitor” is a member of a culture that created a museum object, or is the subject of museum interpretation. While the museums’ professional staff may have an academically informed (formed?) view, cultural communities themselves have valid and essential perspectives. Indigenous knowledge can only enhance interpretation. Papers by Magara, Vulpe and Sledge, Coldicutt and Streten and Greenhorn, all document projects in which everyday people, visiting museums over the Web, are contributing content that only they could offer and enhancing knowledge and experience for others. The Museo da Persoa (Museum of the Person) which first brought to Museums and the Web in 1999 (Worcman,1999), returns to MW2005 with “branches” in Canada, the USA, and Portugal to report on, and evangelize for, a cultural Web of personal life stories – a museum comprised solely of user contributions.

Theoretically, sites that enable the collection of user-generated content empower visitors and enhance knowledge and interpretation of collections. New tools are playing an important enabling role – supporting ways that individuals can become involved – from the Wiki Webs described by Herczeg and Hoffmann to the annotation environments documented by Kateli and Nevile. In the opening chapter of this book, Howard and Pratty describe a particular tool developed by the 24 Hour Museum staff in the United Kingdom; Storymaker™ specifically solicits and supports the creation of user generated content. By emphasizing its application in the context of local history, and experimenting with varied user models (unregistered and registered users, individual and group activities) in a loosely mediated, edited environment, they have achieved some early successes. This account of Storymaker™ as an encouragement to two-way communication is hopeful. The 24 Hour museum context, which combines syndicated news from local and national museums and cultural institutions demonstrates how a commitment to standards-based architectures can leverage data from many sources to tailor localized experiences.

Museum’s need to find ways to present user-contributed and collection-based data on their Web sites that are exciting and engaging; this is particularly challenging when the content alien to many visitors and distributed among systems. Finding, linking and aggregating – what seemed like first-generation Web issues – are still significant challenges. Appropriate interfaces, architectures to obtain and display knowledge resident on distributed systems, and metaphors that support the discovery and linking of content by those who do not know it is there are all part of the puzzle. The next three papers in the Content section discuss projects that redefined the process of searching and displaying search results in their respective systems and may have generalizable findings.

Natural sciences data have been particularly problematic for non-scientists or remote researchers. The data comes in large amounts, but with a paucity of detail: most often only scientific names and place of collection are recorded. But scientific names are notoriously difficult for outsiders to use. Localization again becomes the key: place of collection data provides an accessible access point. Wallis and her colleagues demonstrate the complex tools, agreement on metadata, and attention to interface design that underpin the public access catalog on the Australian Zoological Collections Fauna site. User can visualize huge amounts of data without sacrificing access to individual specimens. While the needs of professional scientists (for whom there is more data displayed) are not discussed, the fact that there are different features for different populations is an important aspect of the design. Map-based interfaces were the easiest metaphors to communicate the correlation of natural sciences data from numerous collections to the public user. By implementing these, this team was also able to contribute directly to the resolution some of the crucial issues in biology today: species distribution and taxonomic disputes.

While superficially worlds apart, a similar problem is presented in the paper by Johnson, Mitroff and Samis on finding multimedia at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The immediate issue was how to renovate a Web site that had evolved to conceal its most interesting content in historically explicable – but well-hidden – places. Metadata augmentation, metaphors that users understand, strategies to bridge technologies, and tool building were all required; different functions and data were also provided for different user groups. Different search methods emerged for on-line and on-site, because in the users’ perspectives “searching” in these two settings are two fundamentally different activities.

Beginning with the CIDOC CRM ontology and a commitment to architecting a generalizable solution, the SCULPTEUR project team faced a problem not unlike that of SFMOMA: retrieving multimedia content, including 3-D models. In a SCULPTEUR search, the relations between facets in the CIDOC model are explicitly included to enable fine-grained differentiation in searching (such as separating particular roles – a person as artists vs. collector) and so that search results can be displayed graphically. Alternatively, a graphical feature, such as the shape of an object can be input and a matching algorithm will find other objects the same shape. This project also developed its own user interface to take advantage of the kinds of queries it defined. The biggest challenge here may be foundational – the system integrates data that has been encoded in the CIDOC CRM – but little real museum data has been re-presented that way. The SCULPTEUR user interfaces sit in strong contrast to those developed by SFMOMA, and used in the Pachyderm project.

Those discouraged by proliferating solutions to searching or the overheads of re-representing museum data, can take some heart in the American Museum of Natural History Science Bulletins. This publishing model obtains content from inside and outside the museum and combines it with tools for dynamic distribution. Users get updates without having to initiate a “search”. Science Bulletins pushes very deep content – largely video, interactive multimedia and data visualization – to end users with known interests, bringing us back, full circle, to the 24 Hour Museum RSS-based dissemination strategy. The question of ‘push’ vs. ‘pull’ may only be answered in context.

The core ideas in these projects, combined, yield mechanisms for harvesting user-contributed content, republishing it in localized or even personalized packages, presenting it with map-based, shape-based, or metadata-based searching, and displaying it in flexible ways that maximize navigability into rich multimedia content. We just have to figure out how to put the pieces together.

Learning and Experiencing

Supporting “learning” is a core objective for most museum Web sites – and for in-house exhibits and off-line experiences. But it is an elusive goal that cannot be achieved in the Web site or exhibit; it only happens in the mind of the visitor. When we focus on learning (which is a function of the recipient) rather than on teaching, interpretation or exhibition (things the museum itself does), we are confronted with the reality that learners are individuals in specific settings and concrete situations, who encounter the museum for their own purposes. Enabling them to learn requires that we know something of their motivations. Ross Parry and Nadia Arbach analyze the “locale” of the learner in three senses – geo-cultural location, physical place and social/mental situation. As they note, this is a new challenge: we did not need to ask where users were previously as they must have been in the museum. The implication that some Web users may be people who never could – and are likely never to – visit the museum in person are profound. Meeting the challenges of presenting knowledge that enables learning in a global, culturally diverse audience, of facilitating its use it in a shopping mall, at home, in a school or in an offices, and of supporting users with different mindsets and experiences, requires more conscious sensitivity to place than has been asked of museums in the past.

Perhaps nowhere is this sensitivity to the learner more evident than in the fine-tuning of user requirements for Pachyderm by a team brought together to validate and extend the in-house multimedia authoring tools developed by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and to be released as a usable public domain museum product. Smith, Howes, Shapiro and Witchey report on their process to elaborate user requirements; by envisioning personae and scenarios, they defined a number of use cases to test the creation side of the tool; more traditional user testing was done of the presentation templates (end user interface) with visitors to an exhibit at the Met. Extracting requirements and synthesizing them led to the formulation of design templates that organize information for different users and different purposes. (Two additional papers in the Proceedings report on other aspects of the New Media Consortium’s work with Pachyderm.)

With a single community of users, a defined subject and one type of primary source material in their focus, Copeland, Shah et al. explore how school students can be given the tools they need to understand artifacts and documents. Primary sources do not “say” how they are relevant; the user has to discover that. Nor do they “point” to aspects that might be important to understand or “explain” how to unlock the information they contain. By developing tools that students could use with any primary sources, the Think Design team supports direct interaction. When these tools were evaluated in a classroom, the results were challenging for the teacher, reflecting the distance between teaching and learning. It took some adjustment in pedagogy to enable the best use of the new tools, and a shift in assessment to establish where learning happened. This document-based learning approach stands in contrast to much traditional teaching and exhibition, where the story is told, by the museum (and perhaps others). As David Shaller’s papers explore (at this and past MW conferences) there are many ways of learning, some more appropriate to the direct engagement with artifacts than others.

Even when people visit physical museums it is difficult to gauge what they take-away. Topalian reports that at the Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie in Paris, visitors can “take home” their experience as a personalized Web site constructed to reflect their visit. Viste+ enables the continued experience of the museum on-line; the visitor can also be sent additional information about features that showed interested them in-person, and receive a general newsletter. But linking on-line and on-site is a challenge; luring visitors to the post-visit Visite+ opportunity was difficult. The paper by Emmanuel Frécon and Gustav Taxen in the Proceedings certainly makes it evident that getting visitors to begin a dialogue with the museum is more challenging than might be imagined. Perhaps the museum visit is an experience isolated from everyday life, and visitors are happy to keep it separate.

Is this because what museum Web sites communicate is not designed to be directly relevant to everyday life? Larson and Sincero believe museums could put learning into action and change visitors’ behaviour. They suggest concrete activities that carry across into visitors’ “real worlds”. Evidence from work with the Smithsonian National Zoo Conservation Central site and other projects suggests that such activity-oriented learning can influence visitors after their museum visit. The “extended” experience is not so much on-going interaction with the museum as on-going involvement with the concepts that the museum experience conveyes.


At first the Web site was a billboard to draw people into the museum. Then it became a highway to explore, on which to make museum content and programming accessible remotely. Now on-site interactive programs and Web-delivered content augment each other, though each is different. The investment required to maintain multiple media venues is somewhat offset by good planning and content management that delivers some programming developed for on-site use over the Web (and vice versa). But the fact that these two modes have differently situated learners (Parry) and require different kinds of search mechanisms (Johnson) are challenges to reusable content and multi-modal interfaces. What happens when the display is only a few inches wide and the visitor, instead of being remote to the real object and grateful for any view of it at all, is present and can see perfectly well and experience the object first hand? Rather than seeking a surrogate experience, this Web visitor wants an enhanced experience in the presence of the real thing. Faced with the hardware, contextual and software limitations imposed by pocket size devices, Colazzo, Garzotto and Paolini find technical, social and intellectual practices that can mitigate the handicaps of the handheld device, and show it adds value in some contexts.

Matthew Nickerson describes an innovation that could contribute to the popularity of handheld interfaces to cultural content: replacing specialized devices with the ubiquitous cell phone. Of course it requires re-shaping content, but this is not as great an additional constraint as might at first be imagined, given the rate of convergence. And it opens up the opportunity for museums to reach those that otherwise would never rent an on-site handheld device. The infrastructure that cell phones represent is becoming more powerful on a daily basis; already it enables visitors to talk back, text back and send images. Integration with GPS and with the Web is well advanced, and users are extremely adept with it in situations where the technology is seen as useful. Arts and Schoonhoven describe an alternative implementation of this concept at the level of a town, or even a country, rather than the gallery.

But what would people get on their hand-held, just-in-time delivered tour? Javier Jaéns and his colleagues explore a number of algorithms that might make the delivery of richer content in relatively narrow bandwidths more effective, regardless of the receiving device. Extending the principle of optimizing processing by anticipating actions ahead of demand, they demonstrate some approaches to large data sets that could facilitate handheld delivery. All we need to do is predict what users will do next; the mathematics, borrowed from other domains, has long been proven, though the metaphors might challenge the museum ethos.

The knowledge of social behavior required to drive this type of mathematics might not be as far behind as we fear. Ron Wakkary and Dale Evernden locate important clues to it in their exploration of the museum as ecology. By thinking about the nature of the visit to the museum, and how people are engaged with it, from the perspective of a cultural and information system or ecology, they suggest how to observe the kinds of facts that Jaén needs to plug into a “plan ahead” model of information processing. The proof of both these tantalizing – but theoretical – papers is still to be delivered. Next year, perhaps, we’ll see if the cell phone can query museum data at breakneck speeds and retrieve the bits that are important to users whether they are standing in front of the object, are down the street and thinking of a visit, or are in a plane on their way to a country browsing possible cultural tourism venues.

Three Cubed

Arguably no other technology application for cultural heritage that has received such attention, been afforded such great expectations, or had such a disappointing return on its investment. We’ve been let down by the hyped anticipation and the flawed delivery. Where can we look to avoid known problems and to realize the potential of 3-D? We found it encouraging that three groups of designers and software architects had sufficient experience with the challenges of 3-D interface design to each reflect on what they learned from three or more cultural heritage 3-D/virtual reality projects.

Johnson focuses on finding the specific tools that fit with particular programmatic objectives and matching the methods of making, storing and delivering 3-D objects to each of three quite different problems in cultural interpretation. He examines the knowledge representation model, the architecture of the program and the nature of the user and staff interfaces, as he explores the choices involved in crafting 3-D environments.

Tolva contrasts a number of quite different purposes for deploying 3-D, from virtual reconstructions to preservation of the originals. In the process of reconstruction, one can integrate dispersed parts of collections, or re-organize existing collections to display them in new ways. Looking in depth at IBM’s projects at the Hermitage, Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta, and the Eternal Egypt Project, Tolva examines the way in which content can be re-used, and repositioned within different contexts – e.g. in the original context of use, in the tomb in which it was found, in the museum in which it is now displayed. Content management systems and presentation technologies, including context delivery over PDA and cell phone, are deployed to deliver a range of different experiences with 3-D objects at their core. The Egyptian experience seems far out of reach, but Bogen (et al.) show how the creation of 3-D models is becoming more affordable, and offer another reconstruction scenario.

Like stereographs and holograms, the public loves 3-D representations. Di Blas, Gobbo and Paolini, however, ask whether ‘realistic’ 3-D representation contributes to learning? They suggest that it is more important to have meaningful interactions with other people through virtual presence, than to have realistic representations of cultural objects; the quality of the learning application rather than the quality of the 3-D rendering determines the value of virtual experiences as learning experiences. 3-D environments can be designed in which avatars representing potential students and teachers meet for learning purposes. This technology-based group suggests that 3-D is not a unique field but rather a part of a technical continuum of representation; its power comes not from its pseudo-realism but from the virtual experience of “being there”, reinforced by putting our avatars in the cultural learning space.

More Media and More Intermediation

As any technology matures, its uses seem less different from all that went before. New technologies establish relations with the existing landscape; these connections are necessary for survival. Tractor trailers may haul many goods, but if they did not connect to the rail and ocean terminals that preceded them they would play a minor role in the transportation system. Similarly, while the Web at first seemed in conflict with radio, television, print and other media, all have become interpenetrating. We expect to see print ads and hear radio announcements with URLs. Gaia, Boiano and Pasquali examine how our Web offerings could – and already do – use the cross-links with other media to become richer and more influential.

Taking the influence a step further, Tilly Blyth explores how developing one Web program – Making the Modern World ­– at the Science Museum in London is, in effect, “curating for broadband”. Curators are being asked to tell their stories in new ways, using rich new media content to interpret and contextualize objects from the collections. The curators are not simply storytellers; the Science Museum hopes to develop its broadband services so that people can contribute content and influence action. The Dana Center, discussed by Ellis, Patten and Evans in the Proceedings provides a physical and virtual venue for public engagement in issues of science. Curators are orchestrating the debate, posing the questions and seeding the discussion.

New media creation is posing numerous other challenges to curatorial practices. Papers by Cook, Parker and Graham explore a decade of artistic endeavors on the Web and the fruitful, if sometimes tense, interaction amongst artists and museums. Some would see the emergence of a distinct artistic practice as evidence of the distinctive nature of the Web.

In the final paper in this volume, Sara Diamond, Research Director of the Banff New Media Institute, reflects on the affordances of the Web and its ability to alter relationships and enable new voices. Her metaphors of collective creation and participant-driven practice are useful to all museums exploring ways to enable “blurring lines of creative control” in order to support the collaborative creation of thriving cultural spaces.


“Every Object Has A Story” and so does every user. Recognising this is key to the effective use of the many media museums have at hand. Pervasive multi-mediality requires not just content choices about what to present; we also must make contextual judgments about the fit between media and message. As we struggle to balance the personal and the general, the artefact and the experience, it is clear from the commitment shown in the institutions represented here that museums’ passive cultural content can provide active cultural context. Virtual museums succeed when they encourage meaning-making that is meaningful in real life.

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant
Toronto, April 6, 2005


All references by author’s names are to papers in this volume or the MW2005 Proceedings.

Walsh, P. (1997). “The Web and the Unassailable Voice.” Archives and Museum Informatics 11(2): 77-85. also available D. Bearman and J. Trant (eds.) Museums and the Web 1997: Proceedings, Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics. at

Karen Worcman, José Santos Matos and Rosali Henriques “Museum of the Person: a Brazilian Experience of Virtual Museum” in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 1999: Proceedings, Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics


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.