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Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3 – Page 3

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Virtual audiences

Heritage institutions cannot remain aloof from changing tastes and behaviours regarding information access and still hope to capture audiences among future generations. Television and computers have a more prominent place than do museums in the public quest for either recreation or education, and this is likely to become more pronounced as those two technologies converge and as future generations acquire – much more easily than we – the skills and habits associated with computer use and network navigation.

A few scattered statistics will paint an impressionistic, but telling, picture:

  • There are believed to be about 60,000 IMM kiosks for public information already installed in the U.S. alone, with numerous projects underway to provide commercial or government services by such means. During the first month of operation of the Info/California project, for example, there was twice as much usage as anticipated.
  • The number of PCs sold with CD-ROM drives installed doubles each year; that CD-ROMs are close to the mass marketing stage is reflected in the fact that major chains such as Walmart, K-Mart, and Toys ‘R Us now retail titles or are seriously considering it.
  • It is predicted that 16 million households will have modem-equipped PCs by the end of 1994.
  • Current estimations of the number of Internet users around the world vary between 20 to 30 million. During the week of July 9-16 there were 167,513 accesses through just one of the many Gopher gateways (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

It is already clear from studies of the use of IMM programs in museums that today’s audience is receptive to this technology of interpretation and that it can increase visitors’ understanding of exhibits. There has been unexpectedly high demand to download the digital image files the Smithsonian’s Office of Photographic Services is making available via Internet and commercial networks.As the population of media-literate citizens grows, expectations will rise for public institutions to provide information to where the consumers are located. Although the profiles of the markets for electronic information still contain many unknowns, it seems clear that opportunities exist for electronic outreach services and can be expected to increase substantially, perhaps dramatically, over the next decade.

The most immediately identifiable target audience for electronic information is the educational sector, not least because younger audiences are the most receptive to such products and services. Schoolchildren are now being exposed to computer use as early as Grade 1. And there are schools around North America, including in Ottawa, that have high-end graphics workstations like Sun and other Unix-based machines.

Universities have long been big investors in computer and telecommunications technologies, and have a voracious thirst for information; they will be leading users of tomorrow’s high-performance networks. Although many older North American museums began their existence at universities, they have drifted away from them in the past half century. Now they have a new opportunity to re-establish, electronically, their inter-relationship.

Flat school budgets, rather than inhibiting purchase of computers, seems to be encouraging resort to such technology in the quest for economies, such as shared classes and teaching resources through distance education programs. A 1991 study counted 69 satellite-based education networks and 16,000 reported downlink sites in the North American educational system. Wide-ranging and creative classroom uses for Internet have been found by teachers. And schools are benefitting from government- and industry-sponsored test projects, intended both to pilot innovative information access systems, and to cultivate a market for the future. To give some examples from Canada:

  • OCRInet is an experiment which includes on-demand access to videotapes of classes, via fibre-optic network.
  • SchoolNet involves over 600 schools across the country (the number to double before the pilot project concludes), provided with phone modem access to Internet resources such as library catalogues, Bulletin Board Systems, electronic newspapers, and expert adult advisors around the world. At present there are about 2,400 accesses daily.
  • School-LINK, just underway, will involve 604 schools in Toronto, Ottawa, London, and Woodstock linked by cable modem (much faster retrieval than phone modems) to the Internet as well as to a CD-ROM jukebox with reference tools such as encyclopedias.

Evidently schools represent an audience which museums, given their fundamentally educational mission, can seek to address immediately with electronic outreach products and services.

A market much vaster, but nebulous and difficult to target, is the home consumer. Very few heritage institutions have the means to get into television production on an ongoing basis. The FreeNet phenomenon presents one alternative opportunity. Twenty cities, most in North America, have FreeNets in operation and there are over 50 other FreeNet organizing committees active. Since most incorporate public access terminals in libraries, even people not owning PCs can take advantage of the information services, which typically include contributions by local educational, recreational, and arts and heritage organizations. The original FreeNet (Cleveland) now serves 36,000 registered users and handles over 11,000 accesses a day. FreeNet popularity is shown by the fact that after Ottawa’s FreeNet became operational, local sales of modems increased by 800%. Although text-only, this is a way for museums to disseminate information widely in the local community – although FreeNets can also be reached across Internet – and relatively cheaply. At the very least FreeNets will play a role in increasing computer literacy amongst the general public and, by stimulating public interest in online information, help ensure that it does not become the preserve of an elite.

While Internet and its various components have a wide reach, we must not ignore that they can also serve to target specific interest groups or communities. Museums have already noted, with concern, that although North America’s population is becoming ethnically more heterogeneous, this change is not noticeable in the museum-visiting audience. It is hard to provide specifically for a multiplicity of diverse interests within exhibitions, given limitations of space and money. The Information Superhighway offers the prospect both of narrowcasting to particular interest groups, and of reaching out to elements within the population who do not traditionally visit museums.

Indigenous communities are one instance. It is perhaps ironical that aboriginal cultures in North America, almost obliterated by European colonialism, now have tools produced by the adversarial civilization which offer the chance to preserve and revitalize their heritage.

Where Native communities were previously relatively isolated from each other, and from the mainstream of society, computer and telecommunications technologies are enabling them to link up, exchange ideas and information, and build a sense of virtual community overlaying traditional definitions of rootedness. As of April 1994 there were 24 list-servers on Internet whose main focus is the indigenous peoples of the Americas – covering subjects such as pre-Columbian history, indigenous census data, Indian languages, oral traditions – and over 90 Bulletin Board Systems operated by, or oriented towards, indigenous groups. The newly operational IndianNet is the first Native-owned computer network to provide information nationwide for use by Native Americans.It is both a clearinghouse for pertinent information originating from other institutions and a resource to which Native groups can contribute self-generated information. An initiative to create something similar in Canada has recently been taken. The Native Indian Policy Center, also Internet-accessible, is essentially an electronic think-tank for the best Native minds in the country to explore policy issues concerning Native peoples in the U.S.; proceedings, reports, and policy papers are put online to support the policy development activities of Indian organizations. And groups such as the Sioux and the Oneida people of New York State, for example, have established sites on the World Wide Web where they present heritage-related information (e.g. on native languages), and their views on issues such as economic sovereignty and cultural rebirth.

As money generated from commercial operations or land claim settlements is invested into community education (among other things), computer technology is becoming more common in Native communities, serving to teach their languages and to preserve their history and cultural traditions. The intent is to ensure that Native peoples are not peripheralized again, in the Information Age, but can participate in it as equal partners with non-Native society. Their presence on the Internet, as well as through planned national satellite networks for Native-content radio and video distribution, will also help bring their perspectives into the cultural mainstream.

Much of the original evidence of traditional Native cultures has been preserved only in museums. By making that information accessible electronically, museums could help fuel the cultural renaissance underway. The National Museum of the American Indian sees that provision of electronic information will be a major component of its services to Native communities across the country. So too does the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC), presently involved in a cultural reconstitution project with the Tsimshian Tribal Council and the Museum of Northern British Columbia; CMC has provided images (on videodisc) and catalogue records on the Tsimshian artifacts in its collection, to be supplemented by genealogical research by the TTC to link artifacts to family history. From this foundation, language materials, audiovisual and historical photography records, oral history and other information sources could be used to reconstruct the Tsimshian cultural jigsaw, digitally, as a legacy for future generations.

Pertinent to cultural reconstitution is genealogical research, which provides another good instance of how a community defined by shared interests, but geographically dispersed, can be united electronically. The community is large – as any archival institution can attest! – and the amount of information compiled is doubtless staggering, but much is privately-held. However, for well over a decade genealogists have had at their disposal software for recording data and compiling it into lineage trees. The 1993 directory of the Genealogical Computing journal listed 111 software packages for that purpose, most affordably under $100.

The influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this field cannot be underestimated; it has been said that Salt Lake City is to genealogy what Hollywood is to movies. It compiles a massive genealogical database which in 1992 contained 187 million names – 18% from North America, the rest largely from Europe. In automating this database it also produced a software package for public purchase (at an intentionally low price) which shrewdly allows users not only to compile their family histories, but also to submit the data for addition into the Mormon database.

Being spread internationally and having no campus on which to congregate and exchange knowledge, genealogists have carved out a niche on the Internet – an electronic forum. They have their own newsgroup (Soc.Roots) and discussion list (ROOTS-L). At these sites they can retrieve genealogical shareware or text files containing all sorts of information (e.g. directories of Jewish genealogical societies or Scottish clan societies, data on specific individuals or families), share the results of their research, and tap into the knowledge of the community – perhaps even turning up distant relatives in the process – by posting questions. Individuals of particular ethnic backgrounds can make contact with their fellows, as instanced by an announcement of a new journal to gather genealogical information on Russian emigrés and their descendants, and by an invitation to those of Polish descent to join the Polish Genealogical Society (Chicago); in both cases the aim being in part to create or augment a genealogical database.

Research towards the development of ethnically-based genealogies is being undertaken by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and the Beth Hatefutsoth museum in Tel Aviv (which also requests each Jewish visitor to log in and register with their master lineage), and is being considered by the National Museum of Scotland and the National Museum of the American Indian. Scattered by migration, ethnic and language groups are beginning to redefine themselves as distributed rather than cohesive identities, thanks in part to telecommunications links.

Along comparable lines, one author has argued the feasibility of amalgamating the findings of genealogists and local historians to reconstruct census returns for the American colonies in 1751. The Internet and its successors will fuel such research by increased access to public records in electronic form: census, courthouse, newspaper files, military, land-holding, etc. The emerging Information Superhighway will enable the dissemination of private holdings of family history research on a scale that may permit the reconstitution of mega-genealogies.


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