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The Digital Museum – Page 1


George MacDonald
Executive Director
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Stephen Alsford
Special Projects Officer
Canadian Museum of Civilization

This paper subsequently appeared, under the title “Toward the Meta-Museum” in Katherine Jones-Garmil (ed.), The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms, Washington: American Association of Museums, 1997. An earlier version was presented by one of the authors at the conference “Digital Knowledge: Canada’s Future”, Toronto, February 6, 1996.

It’s possible to trace, in the professional literature and conferences of the museum community, a slow but steady growth in awareness both of digital technologies and of the fact that museums can’t remain aloof from technological trends if they wish to attract 21st century audiences. Tomorrow’s museum visitors will be people for whom computers and multimedia have already played a prominent part in their lives – through schooling, recreation, and work experiences. With public funding sources diminishing in Canada (and many other countries), museums are becoming more reliant than ever on the support and interest of their visiting publics. The opportunities of digital technologies for dissemination of knowledge on a scale never before possible, and the pressures to conform to audience expectations, will be key factors in transforming museums. That transformation won’t mean that we lose what museums are, and have to offer, today as physical sites conveying knowledge of heritage through the medium of material objects. It means that we will construct another dimension to the museum world – a digital dimension.

For the most part, museums’ involvement with new technologies has been cautious. They have tended to be followers, not leaders. Perhaps this is because they naturally think more in terms of the past, than of the future. We saw in the ’80s a few museums experiment with videodisc, initially for collections management purposes and later for public access and/or retail. Now that digital imaging technologies are with us, it’s still only a relatively few museums that have adopted it for similar purposes.

In most of these cases, small-scale, one-off, pilot projects were involved, rarely followed up by anything with broader or longer-term goals.

The number of institutions doing anything on a wider scale is even more select. Since the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) is among that select few, we will briefly review its particular situation. The initiative to design and construct a new building for the museum, and to rethink every aspect of how we were pursuing our mandate to disseminate knowledge, coincided with the rise of the personal computer and appearance of digital telecommunications. Consequently, the new vision for our institution had the concept of electronic outreach as one of its key ambitions, and this has since been embodied in our first Strategic Plan (1993) which requires CMC “To share and communicate its knowledge to a degree unprecedented in museums”. The new building incorporates a sophisticated network including digital switching and fibre-optic cabling. This combination of vision and intelligent-building infrastructure helped us attract strategic alliances with Digital Equipment of Canada and Kodak Canada, which brought to the institution specialized high-tech expertise it was lacking.

The alliance with Kodak began with the project to create a digital image archive, based on our photographic archive and new photography of the artifact collections. Once complete, the project will leave us with about 300,000 images, a third of which will be new photography of artifacts. We have experimented with making accessible to staff a subset of the images, through our in-house network, and are now embarking on a project to make several thousand accessible via our World Wide Web site, as an interim step towards an online image-server which will make a much larger selection accessible. The Photo CD archive has also enabled us to test both the multimedia production process and the market for multimedia products, by publishing CD-ROMs and Portfolio CDs; we have twelve products (released or in process) in our catalogue at present. In addition, we have made arrangements for distribution of some of the digital images through Corel’s Professional Photos CD-ROM series and through Corbis; again our hope is to use these arrangements to get a sense of where market interests lie.

The alliance with Digital Equipment of Canada has given us access to their network management skills and to some of their more powerful hardware, has led us into a World Wide Web project, and in September 1996 resulted in the opening, inside the museum, of one of six of New Media Centres that Digital is establishing around the world. This centre serves not only the museum but multimedia developers generally, and even the general public, by providing a showcase for new technologies, the ability to test-drive those technologies, and multimedia R&D facilities.1

Even a large museum like CMC is not well enough resourced – compared to for-profit organizations – to pursue the vision of the digital museum at the pace we would wish. Most Canadian museums are struggling, when it comes to finding money to invest in computers, or the skills and labour necessary for digitization, prototyping and product development. Each museum will have to find the level at which it can participate in the Information Superhighway.

For a while the Information Superhighway was the darling of the media. Right now, however, the soup du jour is the Web, anticipated precursor of the Superhighway. Over the last three years museums have begun to jump on this bandwagon – for many it has been a way of getting their feet wet, at relatively low cost and risk. At CMC we appreciated the value of gaining experience in the new medium as quickly as possible, and had a site up in late ’94.

At that point there were a couple of dozen museums with Web sites. By February 1995 about 70 museums had Web sites; this had grown to around 130 by May. By the beginning of this 1996 the number was over 200, and during that year it increased exponentially (this does not include those museums represented only by minor entries in some online tourism guide). Although American museums remains by far the best represented, the Canadian count has increased significantly – again, 1996 was the key year – and is now around the 130 mark; all of Canada’s national museums and most of its provincial museums now have an online presence.

The swift rise in popularity of the World Wide Web has led many to predict that a mass audience will be online by the end of this decade, although recent statistics show that the growth in the Web’s population is slowing – a further major jump awaits the spread of plug-and-play TV/PC combos with fast Internet access via cable. Those museums that have had time to acclimatize to the environment, have captured an audience share, and are prepared to continue investing in the technological developments that are driving the Web, should find themselves well-positioned when the mass audience arrives.

At present information about the particular subset of Web users who are visiting museums’ home pages is scarce, but the general demographics of Web users indicates that their profile is similar to that of the traditional museum-visiting audience, in terms of income and education. For the Virtual Museum section of its Web site, launched in the summer of 1996, CMC required access via registration and log-in, in order to obtain demographic information about its users. Analysis of information supplied by the first 2,643 registrants (of which 1,773 data sets were considered reliable enough for analysis) does indeed suggest a broad similarity of profile with Web users as a whole:2

  • 2/3 were males, median age in mid-30s, the majority with a university-level education;
  • the most common occupations were professional, student/educator, and engineer/technician;
  • anglophones predominate, with the largest group from the U.S. and the second largest from Canada.

As the audience grows and the demographics are better understood, museums will be able to develop more narrowly focused, niche services, targeted at particular groups. Whereas today Web users are disinclined to pay for access to individual sites that are only of casual interest to them, 3 it will become possible to deliver targeted services for special audiences on a subscription or pay-per-use basis. This approach is almost inevitable, if museums are to continue to justify investment in online services. In essence, those services will move closer to the narrowcasting paradigm of Pay-TV specialty channels.

What will the digital museum be like? It presents some wonderful opportunities:

  • overcoming the confines of space that enable museums to display only a limited number of exhibits, and a small sample of their collections, at any one time;
  • overcoming the geographical or logistical obstacles that hinder people from visiting the physical sites of museums;
  • forging more direct links with educational curricula by making museums a resource that students can visit from their classrooms; and
  • presenting subject-matter, and integrating diverse media, in new and interactive ways to enhance the learning process.

The Digital Museum – Page 2


It is surely likely that the digital museum will adopt metaphors which make it look much like the real-world museum. Museum exhibits and the hypermedia environment of the Web already have characteristics in common. Each uses diverse media forms to communicate messages: texts, still images, audiovisual. Each is structured to facilitate exploration of knowledge domains. Each tends to have layered information, with main themes branching into sub-themes. And yet each offers visitors the chance to wander almost randomly, on associative principles that reflect highly personalized interests.The Virtual Museum section of CMC’s Web site employs metaphors associated with real-world museums: Websurfers arrive in a lobby, where they can go to the Information Desk and find out “What’s On” currently, or can take the elevator to the various floors of the Virtual Museum, each containing galleries or other facilities.

Technological trends on the horizon – virtual reality and 3-D imagery – will only encourage the moulding of digital museums into close simulations of their real-world counterparts. Such developments may help trigger a mass museum movement online. Once, that is, the Internet infrastructure is upgraded, virtual reality moves beyond state-of-the-art workstations to affordable off-the-shelf technology, and intelligent agent software is available to make for easy navigation around extensive multimedia databases. It is easy to envisage a virtual museum in which the armchair visitor can: travel through simulated galleries; observe, circle around, and manipulate objects; and have immediate access to catalogue data, or audiovisual materials showing the objects in context of use. Quicktime VR already provides a simple means for 360-degree navigable environments to be presented via the World Wide Web; it is possible to work one’s way through museum galleries and to select artifacts from display cases and rotate them.

Furthermore, it is not difficult to imagine a further extension of this metaphor, in which the intelligent agent software has a front-end interface that takes human form: guide, interpreter, or curator. A recent initiative at the Jorvik Viking Centre involves laser scanning of 1000-year-old human skulls, followed by 3-D computer modelling, in order to reconstruct real Viking faces, which have been used to create some 30 lifelike mannequins for the Centre’s exhibits. CMC worked on a pilot project with Canada’s National Research Council, which has developed a digital 3-D laser scanner system, to demonstrate museum applications – enhancing an exhibit of tiny paleolithic figurines with large 3-D images of the carvings that visitors could rotate. This collaboration is now moving on to a larger project, which will supply us with an archive of three-dimensional artifact images.

Projects such as these not only show the museum-specific applications of digital technologies, they also suggest the possibility that the digital museum’s virtual guide might be some historical scholar or curator. For instance, a visit through the virtual version of CMC’s Pacific Coast Native villagescape might be guided by Marius Barbeau, whose own important writings on totem poles would be the source of the information programmed into the tour guide. Or, wandering through virtual CMC’s Canada Hall, a visitor might encounter simulations of particular historical figures and be able to converse with them and gain some insight into their perspectives and values.

This detailed reconstruction of a human persona has not yet been attempted, to our knowledge, but it is surely the direction that development of intelligent agent software will take. A humanizing or, if you prefer, anthropomorphizing, approach. After all, humanity’s vision of the ultimate robot is one that so well mimics the human form and personality as to be difficult to distinguish from the “real thing”. And one of the major thrusts in museology in the 70’s and 80’s was to have interpreters impersonate historical figures in reconstructed historical settings in open air or indoor museums.

The attempt to reconstitute communities in open air museums will find its sequel, in the digital world, by efforts to reconstitute past cultures: bringing together in virtual space the formerly fragmented and geographically dispersed evidence of those cultures, in digital form. Colonialist and migratory trends over the last two centuries have resulted in the fragmentation and even annihilation of many of the world’s cultures – a process from which museums have been among the beneficiaries. The digital museum offers the opportunity to redress that situation somewhat, if museums are prepared to take on the role of cultural dynamos. Through a resynthesis of the fragments it should be possible to give a better appreciation than books or static exhibits can of the vitality of past cultures. This is one of the reasons why indigenous groups have become so interested in the Internet and how it might help them regain access to cultural information that has been dispersed into other hands.

As one example of pointers in this direction, we might mention Project Buhen, a collaboration between virtual reality developers, the computer industry, and the educators and curators of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This consortium set itself the goal “to provide students with the opportunity to have vicarious first-person experiences with distant, forgotten, or lost ways of life”, and chose as its demonstration project the computerized reconstruction of various settings from Ancient Egypt (notably the Fortress of Buhen), using photographic and archaeological data; the Fortress can be toured in virtual space, with a computer-generated Egyptian scribe as the guide. Its developers envisage that, as VR technologies mature, “virtual travelers may be able to access interactive visual or text databases and even visit other virtual sites all from within the experience of the original location.” 4 This could of course include not just historical sites, but also museums around the world.

For the present, however, there are many barriers museums must surmount if they are to operate successfully in a digital world. There is not space here to address challenges such as the need to convert or upgrade in-house skills, to resolve issues surrounding standards and copyright, and the importance of assuring progress through revenue returns from new initiatives involving expensive technologies.

However, we should say something about the competitive challenge to the museum community in a digital world. The digital environment presents a relatively level playing-field, in which museums no longer have the same almost monopolistic roles of stewards and interpreters of heritage. The World Wide Web, with its hundreds of thousands of home pages issuing from all sorts of institutions, interest groups, communities, schools, and private individuals, is a democratized environment in which anyone with a relatively small amount of disposable income can create digital “exhibits” reflecting their own perspectives on culture and heritage. In fact, it is not easy to distinguish on the Web a bona fide museum’s site from a purely digital museum created by an individual or a school class – as the case of public confusion between the WebLouvre (now renamed the WebMuseum) and the real Louvre demonstrated. Assuming this democratic character is not bureaucratized or commercialized out of existence, we can expect that virtual exhibits or virtual museums will be created by others than just bona fide museums. In fact, that is already well underway: dozens of examples of virtual exhibits or virtual museums may be found in the metadata Web sites listing museum resources on the Internet. Most of these are initiatives by non-museums. On the other hand, CMC itself has created two virtual museums – the latest, recently launched, being the Virtual Museum of New France, an international collaborative effort.

Although they face this new competition, bona fide museums need not go the way of the dodo. They still possess incredible resources, in terms of the material evidence of the past and the expertise necessary to make that evidence understandable to the public. Their future role, however, may be based more on coordination than intellectual authority or monopoly. The true vision of a virtual museum extends beyond the digitization of the resources of any individual museum, into a collaborative situation involving the recombination of the resources of multiple institutions, as well as those of private citizens – how many important objects of heritage are in the hands of private collectors, for example?

No museum has in its keeping the sum total of human knowledge. Each holds pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. CMC’s Web site has about 7,000 screens worth of information at present, and we have only scratched the surface of what we hope to present in time, based just on our own information resources. Other parts of the heritage puzzle are held by libraries, archives, historic sites, scholarly societies, families, and so on. Heritage resides everywhere. The digital environment presents the prospect of bringing that all back together, in virtual space, to create a new entity: the “mega-museum”, or “meta-museum”.

Over the past decade or so, human history museums have come to recognize that it is not enough to present display cases full of artifacts, each in isolation from its historical setting or use; that recontextualizing these objects gives them greater meaning.

Digitization offers the best prospect we have for recontextualizing on a grand scale. The task of reconstructing our past, digitally, is a truly vast one. It will not happen overnight, nor within the span of a single generation. But once museums accept that the future will be one in which people are much more inclined to acquire knowledge and experiences through computer mediation, we can expect see many more institutions diverting money and effort into digitization of their information resources. And gradually we will see the emergence of the digital mega-museum.

The Digital Museum – Page 3



  1. The centre’s mission is “to offer innovative, interactive new media technologies and services in the areas of multimedia, Internet services and electronic commerce. It is designed to facilitate the creation, archiving, and distribution of content for the Information Highway; to forge new partnerships for the development and distribution of interactive new media applications and services; to work with universities and the academic sector for market research; and to create a new media showcase and a window on the Information Highway for businesses and the general public.” 
  2. However, this initial analysis covered those who registered during the summer, thus likely underrepresenting the student population, who are believed to be an important part of the clientele of CMC’s Web site. 
  3. Repeated surveys, notably those by the GVU Center at Georgia Institute of Technology (, have shown opposition to user fees additional to those for general Internet access, but this attitude may change as more quality information is available online and its value becomes more generally perceived. 
  4. Information on the Buhen VR can be found on the World Wide Web at