COMMERCIAL CONSIDERATIONS IN PUTTING MUSEUMS ONLINE
Canadian Museum of Civilization
More and more museums are jumping on the Web bandwagon. But will they be able to last the course? A successful, long-term online presence requires collaboration with industry partners, and finding ways to finance the educational services through commercial initiatives.
(Paper presented at the Canadian National Internet Show, Toronto, March 29, 1996)
Museums, like many other organizations, are slowly waking up to how the Internet can help them reach larger audiences, create more widespread awareness of their sites as tourist destinations, and distribute their products in ways that few had the resources to attempt in the past. A growing number of museums are jumping on the bandwagon and putting up Web sites. They are coming to appreciate its potential for education, for promotion, and for earning new revenues — revenues on which they are becoming more reliant in the present economic environment, as government cuts back on agency budgets and as sponsorship funding is harder to come by.
At first glance, the Web seems a relatively inexpensive way of achieving these goals. A modest monthly payment can obtain server space from a commercial service provider. Creation of Web pages can be undertaken by some enthusiastic staffer with a little computer literacy, or maybe a volunteer or a student – maybe they’ll even have their own PC and scanner to digitize images. Then, hey presto!, your museum has its own Web site.
But now what? Your modest site, with text extracted from old brochures and a few pretty pictures, is one of hundreds of thousands on the Web. It may attract curious surfers for a couple of minutes each; but then they’ve surfed on to fresher waters, and your site falls behind in the backwash and is forgotten.
The Web sits still for nobody. It is an increasingly competitive environment, and to have a site that can attract frequent return visitors, can build and hold a loyal clientele, it has to have either lots of sizzle or lots of steak. Preferably both. Now we’re talking something more than a modest investment. We’re talking a fast connection to the ‘Net — maybe even your own server; we’re talking planned development; we’re talking multiple personnel working on the Web site — some full-time, some part-time; we’re talking specialized skills such as design, programming, communication, in addition to the content experts; we’re talking the ability — in terms both of training and of hardware/software acquisition — to keep up with latest advances and to find museum applications for them.
What we’re talking is an ongoing commitment of resources to electronic outreach. This either means redirecting funds that museums were previously applying to other operations. Or it means finding ways to generate revenues directly and quickly through the Web project, ideally at least with a payback within the same fiscal year. That is not easy; most museums will have to redirect funds from their present budgets for several years before they hit the break-even point.
The main target of my presentation today will be to consider ways in which museums may be able to make Web projects financially viable, whether it is by spreading out some of the costs through partnerships, or by recouping costs through commercial applications. In doing so, I will talk about what my own institution, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is doing.
I will also spend a little time outlining my vision for the virtual museum. And I want to make some observations about the Web audience. But, to begin, I should just review the extent of museum activity on the Web.
Museums and the Web
There has been a slow but steady growth in awareness, on the part of museums, both of digital technologies and of the fact that they can’t remain aloof from technological trends if they wish to attract 21st century audiences. Tomorrow’s museum visitors will be people for whom computers and multimedia have already played a prominent part in their lives — through schooling, recreation, and work experiences. With public funding sources diminishing in Canada, museums are becoming more reliant than ever on the support and interest of their visiting publics. The opportunities of digital technologies for dissemination of knowledge on a scale never before possible, and the pressures to conform to audience expectations, will be key factors in transforming museums. That transformation won’t mean that we lose what museums are, and have to offer, today as physical sites conveying knowledge of heritage through the medium of unique, original objects. It means that we will construct another dimension to the museum world — a digital dimension.
For the most part, museums’ involvement with new technologies has always been cautious. They have tended to be followers, not leaders. Perhaps this is because they naturally think more in terms of the past, than of the future. We saw in the ’80s a few museums experiment with videodisc, initially for collections management purposes and later for public access and/or retail. Now that digital imaging technologies are with us, it’s still only a relatively few museums that have adopted it for similar purposes. In most of these cases, small-scale, one-off, pilot projects were involved, rarely followed up by anything with broader or longer-term goals.
For a while the Information Superhighway was the darling of the media. Right now, however, the soup du jour is the Web, anticipated precursor of the Superhighway. Over the last two years museums have begun to get their feet wet, at relatively low cost and risk. At the Museum of Civilization we appreciated the value of gaining experience in the new medium as quickly as possible, and had a site up in late ’94. It has now expanded to encompass about 2,000 screens worth of information, which is very large, as museum Web sites go, and is being accessed about 1900 times a day. But for us it’s only the beginning. As a repository of millions of artifacts, hundreds of thousands of historical photos, thousands of hours of archival video and audio recordings, and hundreds of our own text publications – all of it information about Canadian heritage that we are mandated to make accessible to the public – we have the raw resources to create a knowledge-base of value to scholars, students, hobbyists, special communities and the general public.
At the point when my museum launched its Web site there were barely a couple of dozen museums with any kind of Web presence. Just over a year ago about 70 museums had Web sites; this had grown to around 130 by May ’95. Last February, although there is no single comprehensive directory online, the Museums Online Resource Review had just over 170 bona fide museums listed, and (by consulting other sources) it looks as though the actual figure is somewhat over 200. The Magellan directory on the Web has 532 items accessible from a keyword search on “museum”, but many of these are not really museums. Although there seem to be only 16 or 17 Canadian museums online, I’ve got a feeling that will increase significantly in 1996. January, for example, saw the National Gallery, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario launch Web sites, and the Royal Tyrrell Museum (which had earlier pulled the plug on its Web site) came back online with a revamped site.
The Web audience
There have been a number of surveys of the Internet or Web audience, including the periodic surveys by the Georgia Institute of Technology, the HERMES Project consumer survey, and the CommerceNet/Nielsen demographics study. Comparing the findings from these, which sometimes agree and sometimes conflict, I think we can conclude that there are some 25 to 30 million regular users of the World Wide Web, with the 60-70% predominance of Americans in that audience slowly shrinking. Canada has the second largest user population; going on for 3 million of its citizens have Web access.
The character of the Web audience is also undergoing a transformation. Today it seems that one-third of Web users are female and the ratio is quickly moving towards the ratio in the general population. This is in part due to the growing number of students and educators in the Web audience.
On the other hand, the median age of the audience is fairly stable, around the mid-30s, and lower than the general population, while the average income is higher than that of the general population. No surprises there.
The number of hours people are spending on the Web is growing and, although casual surfing remains the principal activity, entertainment- or education- focused uses are growth areas. By contrast, online shopping remains very low down the activity list. This has caused some business consultants – who appear to think that commercial purposes are the be-all and end-all of the Internet! — to predict an imminent end for the Web. Their speeches have been reported in the media under headlines such as: “Internet commerce deemed dead” and “World Wide Web called house of cards”.
Rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated. They derive from tunnel-vision and short-term perspectives. Once the field trials for the Secure Electronic Transactions project are completed, we can expect to see a revival of user confidence in the Web as a shopping vehicle. Sure, consumer activity will only build slowly. And, sure, there will inevitably be a shakeout among online businesses as it becomes clearer what types of products people are prepared to buy online. There’s no profit in providing consumers with online ordering and payment systems for products that don’t interest them. But those who stick it out and have the right products, good marketing, and pay attention to customer relations, will make enough money to warrant a Web presence. Technology itself is not the magic wand for conjuring up a buck online. A viable business strategy is what’s needed.
We can expect a mass audience, with a profile closer to general demographics, to come online within a couple of years. Those museums that have had time to acclimatize to the environment and capture an audience share, should find themselves well-positioned. At present we lack information about the particular subset of Web users who are visiting museums’ home pages, but the general surveys of Web users indicate that the profile is similar to that of the traditional museum-visiting audience. Similar in terms of educational levels, income, and interests in a mixture of entertainment and education. Dissimilar in that they tend not to operate in family groups, and their computers are their window on the world (whereas for traditional museum-goers, visiting is partly a social experience). And I might add that, although the median age of users is in the mid-30s, prominent in the Internet audience is the ‘teens and early 20s generation, which is a generation missing from the museum-visiting audience. This is an audience we hope to cultivate, through our Internet service, which should stimulate their interest in visiting the physical site of the Museum.
As the audience grows and the demographics are better understood, museums will be able to develop more narrowly focused, niche services, targeted at particular groups. Whereas today Web users are disinclined to pay for access to individual sites that are only of casual interest to them, it will become possible to deliver targeted services for special audiences on a subscription or pay-per-use basis. And certainly this approach is inevitable, if museums are to continue to invest in online services. In essence, those services will move closer to the narrowcasting paradigm of Pay-TV specialty channels.
The Virtual Museum
What kind of experience will museums be able to offer its virtual visitors?
The Web presents some wonderful opportunities for museums:
- Opportunities to overcome the confines of space that enable museums to present only a limited number of exhibits, or show only a small sample of their collections, at any one time.
- Opportunities to overcome the geographical or logistical obstacles that hinder people from visiting the physical sites of museums. One of my staff recently told me how a relative, whose illness confined her to the house, was delighted to at last be able to experience the Canadian Museum of Civilization, thanks to its Web site.
- Opportunities to forge more direct links with educational curricula by making museums a resource that students can visit from their classrooms. And
- Opportunities to present subject-matter, and integrate diverse media, in new and interactive ways that enhance the learning process.
I suspect that the digital museum will adopt metaphors that 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.
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. Perhaps it will be those developments that finally 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. We are already beginning to see come online virtual museums in which the armchair visitor can: travel through simulated galleries; observe (at a distance or close up), circle around, and manipulate objects in 3-D. Soon they will have immediate access to catalogue data, or audiovisual materials showing the objects in context of use. The Canadian Museum of Civilization is experimenting with the presentation of VR gallery tours, for release via its Web site later this year.
From the commercial perspective the question is whether the metaphor can be extended to payment of admission fees to virtual museums? I believe that the public will be willing to pay, just as they are now to visit real museums, if they can be shown the value of the knowledge content accessible through virtual museums. Parents of schoolchildren are a particularly susceptible audience. While federal and provincial government plans will equip every school in Canada (some 16,000) with hardware and online services with the next two to three years, parents are being rapidly convinced that their kids need every advantage they can give them to develop useful skills for the future job market. Many parents already feel that leisure time spent on computers is more useful to their kids than hours spent passively watching TV.
Looking a little further into the future, it is not difficult to imagine an extension of the metaphor, linking the concept of museum with that of hypermedia environment, in which 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. My museum worked on a pilot project with the National Research Council in using the latter’s laser-scan 3-D imaging technology to demonstrate museum applications – enhancing an exhibit of tiny palaeolithic figurines with large 3-D images of the carvings that visitors could rotate. Such projects 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 figure, such as Sir John A. Macdonald; visitors would 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 my 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, our 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 live interpreters impersonate historical figures in reconstructed historical settings in open air or indoor museums. This is an expensive operation for most museums, whereas “simulated” first-person interactive programs could be co-produced by museums and media developers.
The attempt to reconstitute simulated communities in open air museums will find its sequel, in the digital world, by efforts to electronically simulate past cultures: bringing together in virtual space the formerly fragmented and geographically dispersed evidence of those cultures, not only in digital form, but also in “personalized” formats. 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, I 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 sets itself the goal “to provide students with the opportunity to have vicarious first-person experiences with distant, forgotten, or lost ways of life”, and has chosen 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.
Partnering with the high-tech sector
But let’s come back to earth now. To achieve this vision of the virtual museum will not be easy for museums, which are relatively modestly funded institutions and for the most part lack an entrepreneurial spirit, unless they can share or recover the costs.
Partnerships are one way to share the risk and workload in the type of ambitious project I have outlined. Although museums sometimes see themselves as competing with each other, they have some sense of community, and some history of working together to solve common problems. But, as institutions in the non-profit sector, they have had less experience and greater reluctance to develop partnerships with for-profit organizations, fearing that their high-culture image will be tainted by contact with commerce or industry. For the most part the two worlds have collided only when museums have sought corporate sponsorship; but there has always been the concern that the involvement of corporate sponsors not extend beyond signing the cheque. This is hardly partnering.
Partnering involves harnessing together in a united effort the different but complementary core competencies of each partner, so that the combined forces can achieve mutually-defined and mutually-beneficial goals that would be prohibitively expensive for any individual partner to achieve alone. Electronic dissemination of knowledge products is an area which clearly requires partnerships of diverse organizations. On the one hand, you have institutions such as museums and archives which are storehouses of cultural knowledge, but to whom the domain of new technology which, if not an enigma, is one in which none have the ability or the budget to keep up-to-date. On the other hand, you have the network specialists, the software developers and so on, who have the tools and expertise for delivering digital knowledge products, but no control over knowledge content resources.
I talked earlier about museum involvement with new technology for delivering information to the public being largely on the basis of one-off projects. The number of institutions doing anything on a wider scale is rather select, in part because it requires a longer-term relationship between museums and the high-tech industry. My own institution is one of the few cases in Canada of a museum that has established partnerships — or, as we prefer to call them, strategic alliances — with elements from that industry. So I should take a few minutes to review its particular situation.
The initiation in the early ’80s of the project to design and construct a new building to house the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and to rethink every aspect of how we were pursuing our mandate to disseminate knowledge, coincided with the rise of the personal computer and appearance of digital telecommunications. Consequently, the new vision for our institution had the concept of electronic outreach as one of its key ambitions, and this has since been embodied in our Strategic Plan. The new building incorporates a sophisticated network including digital switching and fibre-optic cabling.
Having the infrastructure was not itself sufficient, however. We needed also a pool of digitized information that would be the foundation for creating multimedia products, and we needed informatics expertise to help us operate and upgrade the infrastructure and to provide us with advice on future directions, based on up-to-date knowledge of technology developments.
The Museum’s combination of strategic vision and intelligent-building infrastructure helped us address these needs by attracting Digital Equipment of Canada and Kodak Canada into strategic alliances. These have brought into the institution the high-tech expertise and state-of-the-art equipment we were lacking, and could not afford to maintain purely with in-house resources. For our industry partners, the alliance has provided access to knowledge content materials which they lacked, and to an advanced networking environment. For them the Museum is a test-bed allowing them to develop and refine some of their technologies, and a demonstration base wherein they can develop specific products, combining their hardware and software and our knowledge content, in order to market their services more widely. In addition, being associated with a national museum that has a world-class reputation provides its industry partners with the right type of exposure – a certain credibility, or if you like respectability, in terms of them marketing their services to the cultural sector.
So the arrangement goes beyond merely provision of services in return for fees; it is an R&D situation which benefits our industry partners as much as it benefits the Museum. We couldn’t have undertaken such R&D from our own resources. The partnerships make it possible to share burdens, risks and profits.
The alliance with Kodak began with the project to create a digital image-base. After two years of operation, we have achieved the interim targets set at the beginning of the project. Over 200,000 items have been digitized onto Photo CD, which includes existing photographs from our archives and new photography of 40,000 artifacts. By the end of the third year we anticipate having a quarter million digital images to fuel efforts at creating marketable multimedia products. In addition we have 400,000 analogue catalogue images on optical disks that could be converted to digital format on demand.
This digital image-base has already been tapped into for a number of CD projects, as well as for material to build our Web site. We have published several CD-ROMs and Portfolio CDs, with others currently in production, on themes such as Maya civilization, totem poles, war art from the Second World War, philately, and the culture of the indigenous group known as the Tsimshian. Another project, Arctic Journeys, is a partnership project involving an Inuit Cooperative and five other federal agencies, as well as a private sector developer.
In addition we have made arrangements with both Corel and Corbis to distribute a selection from our image-base. Corel has already issued several CD-ROMs featuring toys, furniture, glassware, and tools from the Museum’s collections, and several more CDs in this series are forthcoming. Corbis is currently making its selection of what it will distribute through its online publishing house. These arrangements will help us get a feel for where market interests lie, as a prelude to our own in-house production of archival-type CDs.
We also have a pilot project underway to make accessible to staff a subset of the images, through our in-house network, as a prelude to public access by network. For our partner, Kodak, this is a useful test of the software they are developing for that purpose. And the Museum is a partner in the CIMI Consortium (the acronym stands for Computer Interchange of Museum Information) to test out SGML and Z39.50 in the delivery of text-and-image catalogues over the ‘Net.
The partnership with Digital Equipment of Canada is even more central to our “virtual museum” plans than is our relationship with Kodak. We are now into the second half of a signed 5-year alliance. In addition to giving the Museum access to Digital’s network management skills and to some of their powerful hardware, as well as to the technical skills to operate the nerve-centre of our installed LAN, it was this alliance that led us into our World Wide Web project, as well as several other test projects involving the Internet. A team of Digital managers and engineers is stationed full-time at the Museum, and inhabits not only the network centre but a suite of offices in the building.
They have recently been joined by additional Digital personnel, with particular expertise in multimedia production and network delivery of multimedia. This is associated with Digital’s project to establish a handful of advanced multimedia centres around the world. One has been open in New York for over a year. The Canadian Museum of Civilization was chosen by Digital to host its Canadian centre, in part because Digital saw it as a “neutral” site where other content-rich institutions — such as universities, government or other museums — would feel more at home doing business.
This New Media Centre is now open for business, although the official ribbon-cutting isn’t until later this year. The Centre has state-of-the-art hardware and software and incorporates R&D labs and a public testing and demonstration area. Not only is it convenient to the Museum to have this kind of facility immediately at hand, but the partnership arrangement provides us with a percentage of the profits that Digital will make from selling its creative, archival and distribution services through the New Media Centre. We anticipate that the revenues and the cost reductions from this arrangement will be worth about a quarter of a million dollars to us annually.
Partnering within the museum community
Even a large museum like my own is not well enough resourced — compared to for-profit organizations — to pursue the vision of the digital museum at the pace we would wish. Most Canadian museums are struggling, when it comes to finding money to invest in computers, or the skills and labour necessary for digitization, prototyping and product development. Each museum will have to find the level at which it can participate in the Information Superhighway. However, museums too can benefit from partnering among themselves. In fact, if they fail to do this, in the digital environment they may well lose their traditional turf to a new competitive threat.
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: analysis of the online directories I mentioned earlier shows that one major growth area is in virtual exhibits or virtual museums, which are mainly initiatives by individuals or school classes; 43 are listed in the Museums Online Resource Review.
Although they face this new competition, I am confident that bona fide museums will 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. My museum’s Web site only scratches 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.
But for that to become a reality, museums must find new ways of working together to build the jigsaw.
Of course there’s a cost to all this, and the only way to handle it will be for museums to adopt a more commercial perspective on the services and products they offer. Entrepreneurship is not something that comes easily to institutions that consider themselves non-profit, motivated by a desire for the public good. Although a growing number of institutions have reluctantly imposed admission fees in recent years, those fees tend to cover only a small percentage of an institution’s operating costs. Nor do conventional publishing programmes often operate at a profit.
But if they hope to maintain their level of service, and even their high principles of public access to heritage information, in this time of reductions in government funding levels, museums have to learn to go with the flow.
So how can museums make money to cover the costs of electronic outreach? No-one yet has any sure-fire answers, but museums have to be prepared to experiment, to test the waters, to find out what markets are out there and what they want. I’ve already spoken a little about our CD products. At this point I want to refocus on ways in which a Web site can be used to generate revenue.
For museums, one of the uses of a Web site is to promote the institution to potential visitors — both creating awareness and providing information that helps in planning visits. For a national museum, which targets not only national but international audiences, the Web provides a more cost-effective promotional tool than placing ads in newspapers or magazines around the world. So of course there’s revenue to be made indirectly, by reaching new audiences some of whom will decide, on the basis of what they see on the Web site, to visit the real thing. We have received public comments, through a feedback mechanism on our Web site, that confirms the site has stimulated interest in visiting. And we currently have underway a collaborative research project with the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and the Museum of New Mexico to examine the effects of the use of the Web in stimulating physical visits to museum sites.
A second commercial use for museum Web sites is to market museum products. At the lowest level this means advertising publications and souvenirs, and most museum Web sites are involved in this. But what people want from Web sites is service, and it is important to move beyond advertising to online ordering. My museum made this transition at the end of last year, and has seen business pick up as a result. I won’t say we’re getting a lot of orders, but we have had orders for multimedia products and for aboriginal art from the United States and Europe. And statistics show that the Cyberboutique section of our Web site is one of the more popular parts to visit. I’m convinced that it will, over the long term, provide us with a steady flow of revenue. Most probably the items that will retail best will be our CD products and unique cultural items — such as aboriginal art — that are difficult to obtain elsewhere. I anticipate making partnership arrangements with artists or artists’ collaboratives to market their work through our Cyberboutique, with of course a slice off the top for the Museum.
Connected to this use is the value of the Web as a tool to distribute electronic publications. Many museum publications are of interest to fairly small, and widely distributed audiences. It is difficult to publish economically based on small print runs, and then there is a cost incurred in warehousing multiple copies during the years it generally takes to sell out a print run. Publishing-on-demand is therefore a strategy from which museums can profit.
A third way of earning revenues from the Web will be to make the site, or parts of the site, accessible on a paid basis. This could be through a membership fee or on a pay-per-use basis. So long as the material offered on this basis has real entertainment or educational value (as opposed to purely promoting the museum), and is founded on knowledge resources unique to the institution, I believe that the public will be prepared to pay for access. At present, surveys of the Internet population indicate that about a third of users are opposed to paying for access to individual sites, whereas others will make that decision based on the perceived value of what is offered. I anticipate that we will see increasing migration to a paradigm in which certain information on the Web is free and certain will be accessible only through some kind of financial arrangement between user and provider.
Recently my museum used its Web site to experiment with an innovative project: an online auction. What made this innovative is that we weren’t selling items, but instead the rights to sponsor special artifacts which were highlighted in the auction. Although this pilot project was too far ahead of its time, and was not successful from the financial perspective (less than 2,000 visits during the 14 weeks of its operation), it was a very useful learning experience. We now believe that, within a year or two, once a wider audience is on the Web, it will be possible to use the Web for such auctions, perhaps mixing in sales of artworks or other up-scale products with sponsorship items. We also learned something about “price points” — finding we were too high. Our next foray will probably be a real auction online for donated Native art, to support the development of our First Peoples Gallery.
The online auction project, which went under the title “Sponsor a Treasure”, served a dual function. For those who didn’t want to participate in the auction per se, it still gave the opportunity to browse through a selection of just over a hundred artifacts from our collections. This is an example of integration of purposes which is, I believe, an area in which the Web can excel. Much of the educational content we have on our Web site – in terms of tours of exhibits — also serves a promotional function; it “sells” the notion of visiting the site itself.
The huge digital image-base we are creating using Photo CD provides an archive that not only serves in-house multimedia production. We are prepared to sell the one-time use of individual images to other producers or book publishers. We have already had a modest income from selling copies of photographs to publishers, but the difficulty has always been marketing our photo archive. The Web now presents us with a tool to do that more cost-effectively.
I envisage a cross-over relationship between networked and stand-alone information products. On one hand some of the educational units produced for the Web can eventually be packaged together for distribution on CD-ROM, which will prove cheaper than creating a sophisticated CD-ROM from scratch. On the other hand, we can create a “take-home” museum, in the form of a set of CD-ROMs with hundreds of images of objects from our collection, organized by theme; in fact, thousands, if the images are thumbnails. Selections from this material can be used to present units for Web presentation, which will add more value to the Web site, while at the same time serving to promote the CD products.
Another approach will be to include, on CD-ROMs that are basically image archives, software that allows for a direct link with the publisher’s Web site. Each image could be linked to supplementary information, such as text from the museum catalogue or A/V material that shows an artifact in the context of its use. Since the images of the artifacts are themselves a stable form of data, putting them onto CD-ROM makes sense. But the interpretive information may change, through revision or expansion, and is best provided through a medium susceptible to easy updating. There might even be different versions of the supplementary information, aimed at different publics. The interpretive information itself could be accessible only via payment. We see schools as a major market for collection packages on disk as well as online multimedia databases with educational site licences. This strategy is something which I would be delighted to discuss with anyone else in the audience who has an interest in it.
This kind of interlinking of products is liable to multiply the revenues that a museum can earn. Although individual products could be bought separately, once a purchaser has committed to one, he or she will likely decide to further the investment by purchasing the related products. That is, someone who decides to buy a disc of photos can be expected to be interested in purchasing access to the Web-based information that makes those photos more valuable, in information terms. And someone who has a membership to the Web site and can already access the text catalogue will want to buy the discs that give access to the image catalogue.
The digital environment is indeed a brave new world for museums. To capitalize on its opportunities requires museums to first appreciate that the audiences they serve are changing. Changing in the expectations they have of cultural institutions. Changing in the ways in which the are inclined to acquire knowledge and experiences, through computer mediation.
Museums have always had a product to offer: knowledge. They have been dedicated to providing that product mostly for free, as a social benefit. But knowledge is never free. There is always a cost to someone, and in the case of most Canadian museums it has been the tax-payer. This situation is now changing, and if museums wish to survive the changes, they will need to find new ways to fund the public services they provide. My institution is convinced that the commercial potential of new technologies such as the World Wide Web for packaging and distributing knowledge provides the key to a viable future for museums in the 21st century.