Research and Collections

Research and Collections

The Digital Museum

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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.

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