Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Museums and the Internet: Eight Years of Canadian Experience – Page 2

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Museums – and particularly history and ethnology museums – are inherently multimedia institutions. In attempting to convey to people an understanding of their heritage, museums should focus on their medium-of-specialization: historical objects. But they also use other communication media: historical illustrations and photos, sound recordings, film, environmental reconstructions, demonstrations, hands-on activities, costumed interpreters, and so on. These tools help to contextualize the artifacts, so that people can better appreciate the social role and significance of the objects and what they reveal about the past. Digital technologies make it possible to integrate visual and textual information and then broadly disseminate this to computer users, many of whom will be unlikely to visit the physical museum during their lifetimes. In this sense, we can look on new technology as an opportunity to extend our reach to new audiences, and to those who visit infrequently.

Will these virtual exhibitions supplant physical exhibitions? Our museum has over eighty virtual exhibitions on its Web site, and we receive very positive public reactions, but I do not see the Web replacing the “real thing.” Public feedback on our Web site indicates that an online presence draws attention to our physical installation and stimulates a desire to visit. The virtual exhibitions promote an appreciation of the rich knowledge resources that museums hold in trust. This information resource is made accessible for students and researchers wherever they may reside. But these positive aspects of the Web cannot disguise the fact that Internet technology is far from the point where it can create more than a pale imitation of the exhibition experience. It may never be that the emotional response to an encounter with the “real thing” can be evoked by a digital substitute. In most cases, the quality of a virtual exhibition seen on a video screen has not reached that of a glossy printed catalogue, which itself is only a reflection of the physical exhibition. Nor will it be easy to create an online version of the complex social interactions that take place during a family visit to a museum. I think we will find that Web sites tend to stimulate rather than replace museum visiting and, in particular, they can provide pre-visit information and orientation to help people prepare for a visit and get more out of it.

Does the use of flashy technology compromise museums by thrusting them into the arena of theme parks? Probably not. There are important differences that distinguish museums from theme parks, provided that the former are motivated primarily by educational goals, and the latter by commercial ones. This distinction will influence strategic decisions, including the ways interpretive technologies are used. The presentations and experiences museums offer are based on authentic historical objects and scholarly expertise. The two challenges for museums here are, first, to retain their authenticity and not be seduced into the use of technology for its own sake; and, second, to ensure the public remains aware of what differentiates a museum from other tourist attractions. These can be very real challenges as we compete for time and entrance fees from a public conditioned by television, commercial movies, and video games.

In terms of the relationship between museums and media, I want to stress that museums are inherently multimedia institutions, not just in their exhibitions, but also in what they collect. Heritage resides in physical objects or historic structures, and also in intangibles – processes, ideas, words, actions – which are often communicated through audiovisual media. The CMCC has an extensive collection of such media – about 27,000 hours of audio and 8,000 hours of video – some dating back to the sound recordings made by field researchers in the early years of the twentieth century. One of our current challenges is to digitize these collections, storing the digital files, and making them easily accessible electronically. Thanks to streaming media formats, it is becoming more practicable to make audio and video accessible over the Internet. The CMCC Web site has made heavy use of this in one recent virtual exhibition on the subject of the musical traditions of different ethnic groups. We have also experimented with a live Webcast of an exhibition opening in which there were both speeches and cultural performances.

We should take a moment to look at the relationship between museums and journalistic media. There is value in a Web presence to provide the press and broadcasters with news and background information that can help promote the museum. The CMCC Web site has brought the museum to the attention of people not previously aware of it. We have also found that, as a ready-made and widely accessible source of information, the Web site has also attracted the attention of media researchers writing for magazines or preparing television documentaries.

It is essential not to visualize the Web within a single paradigm, such as it only being a carrier of virtual exhibitions. It is really a multi-purpose tool that can support many diverse operations of a museum. The Web is, in some ways, a multimedium. For example, we should consider how the Web might assist the merchandising of products, specifically as a vehicle that may eventually revolutionize the promotion, sale and distribution of certain types of museum products. Of course this will depend on an increase in consumer confidence in online shopping and other commercial transactions (such as banking). Such confidence is again appearing, despite the recent “dot com meltdown.”

There are three levels at which the Web can be used by museums in relation to merchandising:

  1. One is simply to promote their unique products, such as reproductions and publications, even if those products can only be purchased offline; the Web is a cheap advertising tool. At present, more people use the Web for window-shopping than for purchasing, but it is clear that information found online can influence many offline purchasing decisions.
  2. The second level is one of online retailing, by which I mean conducting an online transaction followed by offline product distribution. This can be an expensive museum initiative since the public demand for user-friendly purchasing procedures, efficient response time, and security of personal and financial information makes it advisable to have a well-designed, well-programmed, and properly staffed online shop. The issue here becomes whether it is cost-effective for individual museums to sell online, or whether to join online retailing consortia.
  3. The third level is where a product is both sold and distributed online. This is now widely done with software, already in digital form. We can expect to see digital information increasingly sold through online transactions, whether through a subscription or a micro-transaction model. Public willingness to pay for Web-based information is in proportion to its quality and relevance. Technologically, the challenge is to allow browsing through information products (as one would do in a bookstore), without giving away the information. Just as the MP3 phenomenon, in which pop music fans can download individual songs from the Internet instead of buying entire CDs, is threatening to overturn retail music sales, museums that publish may have to think outside the box, looking at different units of distribution in the digital age: chapters instead of books, individual images instead of exhibition catalogues.

Many museums have photo archives – some broad, some specialized – to document artifacts, or to show historical events. Such photos have been sought in the past for scholarly publications, magazine articles, etc. The change brought by the Web is that, by making the existence of these images more widely known, it is increasing the number of use requests. Photo researchers now use the Web as their first line of attack. The opportunity for museums to earn greater revenues from this source is evident. The challenge is to find the resources for photography, digitize the photographs, document the images, and make databases of those images and documentation accessible online. This is very demanding even for major museums such as my own institution. During the 1980s the CMCC was one of the pioneers in putting thousands of artifact images onto videodiscs. In the 1990s it switched to the purely digital medium of Photo CD. Between 1994 and 2000 about $2.5 million were invested in digitizing images and documenting them. We now have a collection of over 300,000 digital images. Our focus is to continue to add digitized records to our database and to develop the mechanisms for making these Internet-accessible.


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