Museums and the Web
There has been a slow but steady growth in awareness, on the part of museums, both of digital technologies and of the fact that they 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, 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 unique, original 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 always 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.
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 two years museums have begun to get their feet wet, at relatively low cost and risk. At the Museum of Civilization we appreciated the value of gaining experience in the new medium as quickly as possible, and had a site up in late ’94. It has now expanded to encompass about 2,000 screens worth of information, which is very large, as museum Web sites go, and is being accessed about 1900 times a day. But for us it’s only the beginning. As a repository of millions of artifacts, hundreds of thousands of historical photos, thousands of hours of archival video and audio recordings, and hundreds of our own text publications – all of it information about Canadian heritage that we are mandated to make accessible to the public – we have the raw resources to create a knowledge-base of value to scholars, students, hobbyists, special communities and the general public.
At the point when my museum launched its Web site there were barely a couple of dozen museums with any kind of Web presence. Just over a year ago about 70 museums had Web sites; this had grown to around 130 by May ’95. Last February, although there is no single comprehensive directory online, the Museums Online Resource Review had just over 170 bona fide museums listed, and (by consulting other sources) it looks as though the actual figure is somewhat over 200. The Magellan directory on the Web has 532 items accessible from a keyword search on “museum”, but many of these are not really museums. Although there seem to be only 16 or 17 Canadian museums online, I’ve got a feeling that will increase significantly in 1996. January, for example, saw the National Gallery, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario launch Web sites, and the Royal Tyrrell Museum (which had earlier pulled the plug on its Web site) came back online with a revamped site.