The Virtual Museum
What kind of experience will museums be able to offer its virtual visitors?
The Web presents some wonderful opportunities for museums:
- Opportunities to overcome the confines of space that enable museums to present only a limited number of exhibits, or show only a small sample of their collections, at any one time.
- Opportunities to overcome the geographical or logistical obstacles that hinder people from visiting the physical sites of museums. One of my staff recently told me how a relative, whose illness confined her to the house, was delighted to at last be able to experience the Canadian Museum of Civilization, thanks to its Web site.
- Opportunities to forge more direct links with educational curricula by making museums a resource that students can visit from their classrooms. And
- Opportunities to present subject-matter, and integrate diverse media, in new and interactive ways that enhance the learning process.
I suspect that the digital museum will adopt metaphors that 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.
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. Perhaps it will be those developments that finally 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. We are already beginning to see come online virtual museums in which the armchair visitor can: travel through simulated galleries; observe (at a distance or close up), circle around, and manipulate objects in 3-D. Soon they will have immediate access to catalogue data, or audiovisual materials showing the objects in context of use. The Canadian Museum of Civilization is experimenting with the presentation of VR gallery tours, for release via its Web site later this year.
From the commercial perspective the question is whether the metaphor can be extended to payment of admission fees to virtual museums? I believe that the public will be willing to pay, just as they are now to visit real museums, if they can be shown the value of the knowledge content accessible through virtual museums. Parents of schoolchildren are a particularly susceptible audience. While federal and provincial government plans will equip every school in Canada (some 16,000) with hardware and online services with the next two to three years, parents are being rapidly convinced that their kids need every advantage they can give them to develop useful skills for the future job market. Many parents already feel that leisure time spent on computers is more useful to their kids than hours spent passively watching TV.
Looking a little further into the future, it is not difficult to imagine an extension of the metaphor, linking the concept of museum with that of hypermedia environment, in which 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. My museum worked on a pilot project with the National Research Council in using the latter’s laser-scan 3-D imaging technology to demonstrate museum applications – enhancing an exhibit of tiny palaeolithic figurines with large 3-D images of the carvings that visitors could rotate. Such projects 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 figure, such as Sir John A. Macdonald; visitors would 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 my 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, our 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 live interpreters impersonate historical figures in reconstructed historical settings in open air or indoor museums. This is an expensive operation for most museums, whereas “simulated” first-person interactive programs could be co-produced by museums and media developers.
The attempt to reconstitute simulated communities in open air museums will find its sequel, in the digital world, by efforts to electronically simulate past cultures: bringing together in virtual space the formerly fragmented and geographically dispersed evidence of those cultures, not only in digital form, but also in “personalized” formats. 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, I 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 sets itself the goal “to provide students with the opportunity to have vicarious first-person experiences with distant, forgotten, or lost ways of life”, and has chosen 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.