7.2 Museums on the Internet

–        The virtual presence of museums may involve a variety of forms, differing in their technology immersion but similar in their appeal to (potential) visitors. Some options for the digital museum are outlined below.

–        Online museum, electronic museum, cybermuseum or Web museum: they only exist in virtual space and have no tangible collection. They disseminate either digital copies of works or works that were conceived in a digital medium (for example, works of graphic art or visualisations.) Some of these collections are the products of one individual (not an institution or association like most traditional collections are), and/or may be contributed to by individuals who can upload their own creations or photos of their objects. (In traditional museums, only a few selected collectors can display their possessions on special occasions.)

–        Digital museum: the internet-based version of a collection that exists in the real world.Digital images of some of its possessions are generally available on CD and DVD, as well as the website of the institution.

–        Hypermuseum: this shows works that only exist in the virtual space. Some of them were created in one digital medium (like photography and film), others use a variety of different media formats (like the multimedia works using still and moving image, sound and text.) These museums disseminate net art: collective creations of artists living in different parts of a country or the world, and communicating through collaborative, internet-based ICT applications.

–        Museums in virtual reality: collections situated in digital microworlds like Second Life. They may be “copies” of real institutions or original, digital spaces – in any case, they create an environment for presenting art, just like their counterparts housed in classical or hypermodern buildings.

Digital picture of a museum staircase with large paintings on the walls.

7.48. picture: A museum in Second Life that tries to replicate the spatial atmosphere of a real world institution: Virtual Museum Dresden. It gives an impressive overview of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Gallery of Paintings – Old Masters), one of the world’s most renowned art collections of painting and sculpture from the 15th to the 18th century. In May 2007, this collection became the first virtual museum in Second Life, modelled on its archetype in real life true to scale.

Exhibition space represented on a museum home page with arrows on each side for manipulating the image.

7.49. picture: Page from the  digital site of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington D. C., USA. See the Panorama images of the museum collections here.

Characteristics of the digital museum:

Duplication and extension of reality, recombination and personalization, and interconnection are elementary applications of the concept of virtuality to the museum, since they simply enhance the virtual component that is inherent in the nature of museums, rather than empowering the interaction among their different dimensions (physical, cultural and virtual). In summary, they can be described as follows: (a) the opportunity of extending reality through the duplication of the museum objects, i.e. new forms of accessibility and new ways of communication; (b) the opportunity of maximizing and recombining information by following personal paths, i.e. new forms of knowledge construction and personalization; (c) the opportunity of interconnecting contents over the Internet, and consequently museum objects themselves, i.e. new spaces for display and collection. (Giaccardi, 2004)

Museum home page with small images as icons for parts of the collection.

One of the major centres for educational multimedia development is the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT). Euromuse.net is an important European professional community for the development and evaluation of exhibition multimedia. DigiCULT is an international portal that disseminates news about projects in ICT and museum learning.[28] The American National Institute of Standards and Technology of Virtual Museums organises conferences and issues publications about digital (and partly virtual) museography (the theory of museum development). This association organises the most important annual conference of this field, Museums and the Web[29].  Upcoming conferences may be accessed through its Conference page.

An online virtual exhibition can have substantial scientific value. For example, the French Ministry of Culture disclosed a very important archaeological discovery, the cave paintings in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc from the Palaeolithic period, using a virtual museum application and thus presented the attraction, which otherwise was not yet accessible for visitors.[30] Virtual museums are accessible at anytime for anyone who knows the web address or finds it while browsing the internet. This technology helps us realise the dream of André Malraux, who described his imaginary museum but could not show it. (Malraux, 1960)[31].  Some of the benefits of a virtual museum for the visitor and the museum staff are described below:

–        It supports the safeguarding of fragile objects that cannot be exhibited for a long time or not at all. Although taking a digital picture or scanning also involves some risks, through digitization, they can be shared without further damage.

–         It extends our vision: its magnifying option makes the barely visible details of a work of art (or an insect, a machine, etc.) observable. In many digital museum environments, we can also turn an object around virtually and view its interior or marks on its base.

–        Curators can assemble objects that would never be seen side by side, thus generating valuable learning experiences.

–        We can provide a vast amount of supplementary information directly attached to the label of a work of art digitally exhibited. For example, we can link films about the natural habitat of an animal, lecture notes about a much-disputed master, further collections of digital images related to the work just shown that visitors may access if they want to, and easily return to the virtual museum site after the detour.

There are many topics of general interest that cannot be exhibited in any other manner than virtually. An example: the German Foundation for Bacteriology maintains a virtual museum site in co-operation with the Society for Applied Microbiology. This well-constructed digital space, which also houses a collection of documentary films (for example, about epidemics), serves as a portal for reliable scientific information about bacteriology research.

Concepts like freedom or revolution are not easy to represent through an exhibition. (Although, as we could see at the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, Poland, pictured above, it is not an impossible task.) The virtual museum of the Chinese Cultural Revolution intends to represent a concept and a series of events related to it through still and moving images, plus interpretive as well as documentary texts. The site invites us to evaluate events as well as remember the loss of human life and cultural treasures.

Virtual technology may enhance real life experiences. The three-dimensional representation of the cathedral of Amiens, France, and its zoomable gallery” where works of art can be seen from close-up, provide a perspective that visitors to the huge architectural monument would never experience.

Images of a gothic cathedral, from multiple viewpoints.

7.51. picture: Virtual reality technology used for the documentation of a work of art: 3D representation of the Amiens cathedral.

“The Secret Niche On The Internet” is the title of a virtual tour of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Besides showing the historic building in great detail, it also provides a big collection of related images and documents. Video films, animations and photo collections may be viewed more peacefully sitting at one’s own computer than standing (in line) at an information kiosk in the museum. The application also contains very effective multimedia features: objects in the room of Anne Frank tell their stories through the voices of actors.

Museums are also present in Second Life, Visuland and other virtual worlds. In the first decade of our century, such applications were very popular (and so were these sites), and many important collections found it necessary to be present in these much frequented digital environments. Functionalities provided in virtual worlds (like the ability to fly and thus see the roof or the frescoes on the ceiling of a building) provided new possibilities for visitor experience.

Digital image of a white walled, cylinder shaped building.

7.52. picture: The virtual version of the Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA in Second Life

Digital image of a museum display.

7.53. picture: In Second Life, everyone can produce his or her imaginary museum.

High, vaulted interior of a chapel with frescoes on the walls and ceiling.

7.54. picture:  In Second Life, avatars (digital personifications of users) can fly and access the frescoes on the ceiling, The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, from close-up.

The Louvre Virtual Tour provides visitors with panoramic images of 21 halls of the museum. Four exhibition sites are featured in three-dimensional (3D) version. It also has a “Let’s see the painting from close up!” option with 12 works of art shown in great detail. Visitors can virtually walk through the hall and get close to an image in a way they certainly cannot at the real exhibition. To meet public demand, the Louvre has also produced the “Da Vinci Code” virtual tour.[32]

Digital publications of museums

Digital technology offers intelligent approaches for granting different rights of access to content stored in databases, and these have become increasingly important means of knowledge distribution. In the European Union the most important international project for the collection and distribution of cultural heritage is europeana, a project that will open its vast database to the public as a freely accessible resource in 2014. The aim of this project is to identify and digitize, document and share objects of artistic and/or historic value that the European cultural community should be aware of. Alone from Hungary, about 150,000 items will be included in this repository. Images of objects will not be printable in books; high resolution copies will remain in the possession of the museums that store them. The blog of europeana has several interesting pages that may be used as examples for museum blog development:

–        Behind the scenes: new results, events and plans of the europeana project.

–        Content: descriptions of the works of art in the database.

–        Europeana 1914-1918: blog entries about the collection documenting World War I., a truly all-European experience.

–        Feature story: an important event in connection with the database that has relevance for the calendar day. 

–        europeana: interviews and interesting facts about the project staff.

–        Ministers on europeana: high-ranking officials discuss the importance of this pan-European project.

–        Musings: authors of the blog share impressions about their life and new ideas.

–        Technical issues:development of database technology and ideas about the use of the resources from information technology experts.

–        Competition: quizzes and quests about important events in the life of the European Union.

Problems concerning the development of digital museum archives and other forms of databases:

–        Good data management software is hard to find and very expensive to order;

–        Data stored are not used extensively. There are few instances of regular utilisation for education, tourism, heritage campaigns etc.;

–        Maintenance and further development of existing databases is an unresolved (financial and human resource) issue for most museums;

–        Few IT specialists possess the knowledge and skills necessary for developing a useful museum application as their training prepares them for industrial and commercial software development;

–        Collection of metadata is badly managed in most countries. There are some parallel developments, while whole areas that should be included in (inter)national repositories remain undocumented;

–        Database software applications are not always compatible with each other; therefore, it is difficult to exchange metadata among institutions even in the same country;

–        Data records are labelled and tagged differently; thus it is often impossible to create even national networks of museum collection data.

An excellent example of a digital publication about treasures kept in museums is the Natural Europe Project, which also documents and shares information about natural attractions and world heritage sites. Participating museums of natural history and science centres connected their image databases with each other and with the europeana repository. Mundaneum is also an important resource for learning in museums as well as research, because it stores digital publications issues by museums (many of which are difficult to retrieve from elsewhere) and research papers related to collections, complete with moving images and animations that could not be published in traditional, paper-based journals.

One of the largest image and text database for art history is stored at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Research Institute. In the beautiful group of buildings designed to suit the requirements of nature-friendly, energy-saving architecture, the collection, storage and distribution of information about the objects are equally important. The Archives of the J. Paul Getty Foundation offers one of the world’s largest collections of journals and publications about art history and criticism relating to works of the last and present centuries.

Modern building with flower pots and solar cells in its courtyard.

7.55. picture: The J. Paul Getty Museum and Institute of Art, Los Angeles, USA. 2013. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Child looking at the huge digital image of a page from an illuminated manuscript.

7.56. picture: An exhibition specially designed for children. The multimedia application, a giant touch screen, introduces children to the world of illuminated, medieval Arabic manuscripts. J. Paul Getty Institute of Art, Los Angeles. 2013. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Museums were among the first institutions appearing on the web, but their pioneering efforts were coupled with the wish to show the traditional image of a distinguished, scholarly institution. During the last decade, home pages changed dramatically and by now, they have become knowledge portals, multimedia art showcases and educational facilities, not only advertisements of current events.  Most museums should have the following home pagemenu points:

–        Access and opening times

–        Services for visitors (accessibility, guided tours, digital guides, downloadable maps and flyers, etc.)

–        Description of the collection

–        Information, downloadable images and text about permanent and temporary exhibitions

–        Events accompanying temporary exhibitions

–        Regular educational events and activities

–        Invitation to become a Friend of the Museum, a sponsor or a volunteer.

Virtual museums

Some home pages have additional services that facilitate the preparation for a visit. Before, we mentioned virtual museum tours, now we only list a few additional examples of the virtual extension of museums integrated in their home page. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a very informative sub-portal about its exhibitions, with panorama images showing many of the halls. At present, 34 exhibitions of the Smithsonian can be accessed in digital format on the web. On the map of the (digitized) museum, an icon shows if we can have a more detailed image of the object on our screen. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, has created an animated, interactive sub-portal on aeronautics for its home page to commemorate its 50th jubilee. Here, a robot offers to be our guide through the digital exhibition. More and more museum databases are furnished with intelligent search functions that remember our past activity and offer information that might be of interest to us. An example can be used on the home page of the Italian Computer Science Museum.

An excellent educational portal that museums may wish to integrate in their virtual museum site – since it may support science and technology museums in particular – is the dissemination of knowledge about science being developed by the Open Science Resources (OSR) project. Museologists and explainers are part of the project team. Their objectives and accomplishments are outlined below.

“Introducing the latest discoveries is an ongoing challenge for teachers and students alike. Increasingly, scientists are being asked to talk about research with different non-scientific audiences. The OSR stimulates virtual science communication which encourages these two groups to exchange knowledge, experience and educational needs. The OSR Repository includes many images of exhibits and scientific instruments, animations, videos, lesson plans, student projects and educational pathways with guidelines for interactive museum visits. Toolbox equips researchers with everything they need to prepare lessons and share this material with others working in their field. One of the portal’s most innovative features is its social tagging system, which makes it possible for users to engage and share experiences with education and collection staff in participating science centres and museums. Social tagging also allows users to assert their own connections and associations between objects and phenomena to reflect personal perspectives and interests. In so doing, users re-discover previous activities they have performed, record salient characteristics of personal interest and support subsequent searches on the OSR portal.” (Online interview with Jennifer Palumbo, Ecsite Projects Coordinator in ESCITE Newsletter, 2012, )

Schematic representation of science instruments on a home page.

7.57. picture: Introductory page of the Open Science Resources (OSR) portal.

Reproduced below is a list of questions for virtual museum developers (and museum staff collaborating with them), which ought to be answered before launching a project.

“(...) the "historical" challenges for the creators of virtual museum can perhaps be best summed up as a series of questions:

–        Public or private: should a virtual museum be addressed to the home user or the museum goer or both? How does this affect the design?

–        What is the role of tactility? Can tele-tactility replace the physicality of touch?

–        Push buttons and peep holes: are these still valid interfaces? What else is needed?

–        How does one maintain user involvement without turning it into a goal in itself?

–        What role does creating "a total atmosphere" play? Are there any alternatives?

–        How does one make a distinction between a museum exhibit and an entertainment application?

–        Is there a need for distancing the user, at least sometimes? When and under what conditions? For what purpose?

–        Is there a limit to the "multisensory overload" in exhibition design? How many information channels can be added without causing confusion and miscommunication?

–        How should physical museum relate to virtual ones? Can a virtual museum be merely a replica of the physical one, or should it be something radically different? What?

–        Can all location-based exhibits be replaced by virtual ones? Is this a viable goal?

–        How important is user interaction? Wouldn't it be good to try to do without it, at least sometimes? What would be the consequences of non-interactive virtual museum design?

As an institution, the digital and "wired" virtual museum is still in the earliest stages of its development. As a consequence, the key questions to ask will certainly change, and new ones will be added to the list. Much will depend on the development rate and the spreading of higher speed Internet connectivity to everyday consumers. However, solving problems of routing and data-transfer is not everything. Our modes and routines of communicating and interfacing with multimedia databases are cultural, historical and ideological issues as well. Considering precedents from the non-digital eras – covering most of the history of mankind so far – should not be neglected. (Huhtamo, 2002, p. 14)

The virtual museum, as a genre, has never been more authentic than in the 21st century, the age of virtual encounters. A popular art form, networked art, an act of collective creation, may symbolise the new work and leisure space characterised by intensive online presence.[33] In cyberspace, museums can capture the attention of people who would normally not consider entering a museum, and also serve the goals of equal access to cultural treasures. Below, we summarize research challenges that will influence the future of virtual museums. 

–        Visitor-friendly virtual spaces: in order to be able to tailor the functionalities of a virtual museum to the needs of its future visitors, we have to see who these visitors will be: only under-thirty netizens,[34] or their parents and grandparents, too? Laypeople to be informed about the basics, or experts in search of in-depth information?

–        Museum mood: can we virtually recreate the feeling of sincere appreciation and humble astonishment that we experience at the sight of unique creations of nature and mankind?

–        Multisensory experiences: now that multimedia is the norm, and 3D applications are being used more and more frequently, what sort of sensation will have to be added next? Do we have to plan for virtual museums that offer tactile experiences? (Real institutions rarely do – but the inclusion of another sensory organ in the virtual experience may further justify its use!)

–        Activating our visitors: users of microworlds and edutainment applications are no passive consumers of information. They require high quality interaction – but do they have enough knowledge and experiences to get engaged with museum related virtual applications? If not: how can virtual exhibition spaces promote their education?

–        Entertainment and education: what are the good proportions? Which is the major function of the virtual museum, and how to integrate the two? We have mentioned “Disney-fication” as a major threat for all museums going online. Using current ICT products and usability studies of existing virtual spaces, producing valuable edutainment solutions which are suitable for projecting the identity of museums is a challenge, not a mission impossible.

–        Cognitive overload: how much information can we take in without fatigue or boredom? How can we avoid a chaotic flow of images and words and structure them into digestible units of information? Virtual museums have to be designed the same way as school curricula are.

–        How can we integrate the real world museum and its virtual alter ego? Should they be radically different (the same way as their medium of existence is), or similar, so that the one should naturally blend with the other? Most museums choose the second option.

–        Are there virtual-only functionalities? A lot has been said about the impossibility of replacing the real experience with the virtual – but are there experiences that cannot be offered any other way than virtually? We have repeatedly referred to examples when works of art were shown in more detail than the eye can behold, or for a much longer time than possible in a museum space. Another example: polyaesthetic experiences – connecting visual arts with music and theatre – are available for a limited time to a small number of people at the events of a real world museum, but may be available for all in its virtual counterpart.

Virtual museums offering interconnected sound and image collections may provide an information-saturated, rich knowledge space. The Virtual Museum Canadaportal offers such an interdisciplinary exhibition, based on the photo collection of the McCord Museum in Montreal, entitled Urban Life Through Two Lenses. The exhibition includes 34 pairs of images, in which one of photo pairs was taken 150 years after the other. While looking at the same spots in the city shown in two very different historic settings, we hear the sound of the contemporary environment, like boots tapping on the cobblestone pavement or an automobile engine just starting.

Virtual museums are growing in number – but can every potential visitor make good use of them? Through computer generated environments that combine various forms of augmented reality, museums (and many other educational institutions) have started to develop immersive environments for presenting their collections. This type of immersive learning has a valuable role in motivating and empowering students to learn about art, history and even about culturally relevant objects that are no longer in use. However, navigation in cyberspace may make some individuals disoriented and frustrated due to difficulties of finding a sub-page or returning to a site seen before. Research indicates that to navigate successfully, users should rely on spatial navigation skills. They must plan their movements using a spatial frame of reference. Virtual museums, therefore, are places where spatial ability has an impact on performance. According to a study that investigates the interaction of spatial abilities with two-dimensional and virtual tour applications, we need considerable skills in order to manipulate in virtual space. The study compares the extent to which spatial abilities facilitate users’ navigation and engagement with the museums and finds that users can be successfully coached and supported if their abilities fail them when finding their way through virtual space. (Katz and Halpern, 2013)



[28] The main homepage of DigiCULT: http://www.digicult.info/pages/index.phpthe . The English language version of its Italian twin portal: http://www.digicult.it/en/, and another related site from Canada, that collects museum project results: (http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Digital_Collections/museums.html).

[29] The portal with congress proceedings and other publications of the association is called Archives and Museum Informatics. Its Research Forum is an excellent resource for developers and museum staff who commission digital applications.

[30] Virtual museum of cave paintings from the Palaeolithic period, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, France.

[31] The Imaginary Museum by André Malraux (1960) inspired several authors to discuss virtual museums. Here is an interesting essay on the subject: From Malraux's Imaginary Museum to the Virtual Museum, by Antonio Battro, 1999.

[32] This tour shows some of the venues of the crime story and thriller by Dan Brown, „The da Vinci Code”.

[33] See examples of networked art on the page for winning entries of the Internet of Things 2012 competition.

[34] Netizen or member of the Net generation: terms used for under-thirty, frequent internet users.