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Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3

Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3

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George MacDonald, Executive Director, Canadian Museum of Civilization
and Stephen Alsford, Special Projects Officer, Canadian Museum of Civilization

Paper delivered to the American Association of State and Local History 54th Annual Meeting, Omaha, September 1994

The New Millenialism

As they approach the threshold of the third millenium, North American institutions responsible for interpreting history to the public face a crisis of sorts. The society they exist to serve is being subtly transformed as computer-based technology permeates western culture, altering the means and modes by which people experience, explore, and interact with the world beyond their immediate environment. The merger of multimedia computing and wideband telecommunications, whose consummation can be expected at the very beginning of the next millenium (only a few years away), will give tremendous impetus to the growing trend in acquiring experiences through electronic representations, or simulations, of reality. For the most part, heritage institutions lag behind these developments, seemingly bewildered and uncertain how to react. This crisis must be converted into a challenge, calling for a positive response. As President Kennedy once pointed out, the word “crisis”, when rendered in Chinese, comprises two characters: one meaning “danger”, the other “opportunity”.

The pivotal role that wide bandwidth networks will play in our future is reflected in that they have become a battleground of democracy. Governments, R&D organizations, the commercial sector, and public interest groups are all vying to influence the character of America’s NREN, Canada’s CANARIE, or the equivalents in other countries. Will they be restricted or open access?Authoritarian or libertarian? Will they entrench the new social distinction between the information-rich and the information-ghettoized? Will they be reserved for use of the establishment, or remain (as the Internet has become) a haven for counter-culture?

McLuhan observed (in 1957) that “As our culture becomes more technological, technology becomes more cultural.” With the rapid growth in the number of citizens plying existing networks, we are seeing new social behaviours – some the cyberpathological behaviours of information junkies – and new terminology sets:

  • The Information Age is spawning the Information Superhighway, or Infobahn (to prefer a less cumbersome term), or Information Superhypeway as its critics would have it.
  • The ‘inhabitants’ of the infocosm include phreakers, hackers, lurkers, netsurfers, and mouse potatoes.
  • Concerns over literacy are rivalled by those over ‘mediacy’.
  • There is talk of redefining the basics of education – instead of the 3Rs, the 4Cs (computer literacy, critical thinking, cooperative problem-solving, and communication skills) pertinent to a telecommunications-mediated learning environment.
  • Museums that used to be preoccupied with their audiences’ leisure activity now are thinking more in terms of ‘interactivity’.
  • Perhaps the most telling sign of changing times, from the perspective of a museum professional, is that once the term ‘Muse’ used to conjure up associations with the arts; today those with network savvy know it instead as an acronym for Multi-User Simulated Environment.

Over the networks presently in place, crude though the technology is in some respects, from desktop PCs or kiosks in public places, a citizen can shop for a wide variety of items, place orders and pay bills, conduct banking or other business transactions, send and receive mail or chat almost in real-time with others around the world, play a game of golf or chess against human opponents, subscribe to electronic magazines, take out books from electronic libraries or even access video libraries, participate in community meetings or professional conferences, find out about “what’s on” in the local area or at intended travel destinations. And much more. The networks have collapsed geographical boundaries, bringing people of like interests but dispersed locations together into “virtual communities”.

Most museums, however, have been slow to appreciate the opportunities this increased use of computers and growth in networking offer for making heritage information more readily accessible to wider audiences. It is ironical that, although documentors and interpreters of change, most museums are having difficulty keeping pace with the ways their audiences, or potential audiences, are changing.


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