Partnering within the museum community
Even a large museum like my own 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. However, museums too can benefit from partnering among themselves. In fact, if they fail to do this, in the digital environment they may well lose their traditional turf to a new competitive threat.
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: analysis of the online directories I mentioned earlier shows that one major growth area is in virtual exhibits or virtual museums, which are mainly initiatives by individuals or school classes; 43 are listed in the Museums Online Resource Review.
Although they face this new competition, I am confident that bona fide museums will 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. My museum’s Web site only scratches 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.
But for that to become a reality, museums must find new ways of working together to build the jigsaw.