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.