Creating the Virtual Museum
In similar fashion, the collections of information in diverse forms held by heritage institutions can be seen as the dispersed physical pieces of a gigantic puzzle which, if converted into electronic format, could perhaps be put together to present us with new perspectives on human history. The ‘virtual museum’ then is much more than the electronic dimension of any given institution. It is where the knowledge resources of multiple institutions come together, seamlessly (as far as the knowledge seeker is concerned), in the virtual space of the Infobahn to make possible unprecedented explorations of heritage. What, then, are the challenges in achieving this vision?
The immediate challenge is for museums – reservoirs of vast and largely untapped amounts of knowledge about history – to convert their information resources to digital format. In the present absence of powerful networks that are multimedia-capable (Internet being very limited in that regard), there has been a tendency for institutions to focus on individual, stand-alone products, such as videodiscs or CD-ROMs, without attention to a longer-term strategy of building digital archives as the raw resource for ongoing product development or service provision. The technological lag in online provision of multimedia information is a temporary inconvenience. And multimedia standards relevant to museums, although an issue, are being addressed – notably by the Computer Interchange of Museum Information consortium – and will surely find resolution. The Getty Art History Information Program has just announced the formation of an “International Imaging Initiative” that aims to set digital standards in the arts and humanities. We should not sit back and wait for everything to fall into place, but rather take action to be prepared for the ribbon-cutting at the Infobahn on-ramp.
The multimedia industry is gearing up for that day. It has the money and technological expertise, but lacks subject content. Museums, libraries, archives, historical societies are the major holders of that unique cultural content, and must position themselves either to develop their own knowledge products or do it through an equal partnership with the multimedia industry. Failure may mean surrendering their role as interpreters of heritage. Those not ready to meet the demands that will come over the next few years will be bypassed, or may find themselves obliged to sell off their ‘birthright’ to companies pursuing electronic reproduction rights over museum collections. True, that licensing and copyright issues remain problematic, but this is not proving a major deterrent to commercial developers, and heritage institutions must likewise push on regardless, in anticipation of solution of the issues – something that has to be achieved at the international level.
The costs of digital conversion and multimedia product development are high. Heritage institutions need to be prepared to forge new alliances, both with one another and with industry, for mutual benefit: sharing costs and bringing together the diverse skills required. CMC, for example, has launched a million-dollar Digimuse Project, which links with strategic alliances with Digital Equipment Corporation and Kodak to help it achieve its electronic outreach goals. Other of its IMM projects involve collaboration with the National Film Board, the Bronfman Foundation, and other of Canada’s national museums. At the same time, it is important to initiate a revenue stream as quickly as possible, to help fund the sizable undertaking of digitizing information resources; ethical issues about freedom of information notwithstanding, we have no practical choice than to think in terms of saleable products and user-fees for online services. Priority-setting in what to digitize could be governed by a market-conscious approach, whereby those items of the collections for which demand or public interest is already evidenced – the low-hanging fruit – are first digitized for use in targeted knowledge products. This piecemeal building of a digital archive of course assumes that the various elements will all be in compatible formats to facilitate future re-use.
Part of the challenge is to become more market-responsive, more entrepreneurial, without losing sight of our educational mission. Unfortunately, at the moment the markets for IMM products and services are ill-defined, little tested, and under-developed. But these things, too, will pass. The electronic highway opens broad new horizons for marketing museums.
Internally, the big challenge is for our institutions to adjust to the demands and ramifications of electronic outreach on operations, and to come to terms with the fact that, for some time to come, we will be in the throes of continuous change. To build a staff of technoliterate knowledge workers, constant retraining will remain essential, until future generations emerge from the school system with the requisite skill-sets. Nor is it simply a question of technical skills. What is called for is new work habits, including greater receptivity to working in groups, whether intra- or inter-institutionally, in the ‘col-laboratory’ of a networked environment. Museums may find it useful, both in terms of content development and of staff re-orientation, to ‘practice’ for the future by becoming information providers on the Internet. There are good models for them to imitate and much online help, although even an Internet presence can be costly and involve difficult issues such as setting up ‘firewalls’ to ensure the security of internal data – the recent discovery that hackers have penetrated Pentagon computer systems being a cautionary note.
All this may seem out of reach for smaller institutions where many staff still do not have individual access to PCs. Computerization, however, is no longer a luxury; it is a priority. It is not merely that the networkable PC is the most important single tool in one’s office; it is the office. Apart from collections management driven applications, most museums have lacked understanding of how computers and networks can help them fulfill the vision, over a century and a half old, of widespread public access to knowledge of human heritage – access formerly restricted to direct experience of sites or original artifacts. Undertaking and maintaining a pro-active role as information providers at the level demanded by the Information Age is more than a challenge: it may prove a matter of institutional survival in the third millenium. This paper began with an observation from one of America’s visionary leaders, and will end with another: it was Eisenhower who cautioned, back in 1952, that “Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”