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Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3

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Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3 – Page 1


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.

Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3 – Page 2

Dress rehearsal for the Infobahn

Nonetheless, a sizable body of heritage information is already available via publicly-accessible networks, and the private sector – telcos, cable providers, software houses, media conglomerates – are competitively pouring money into development of the interactive multimedia (IMM) infrastructure, in hopes of staking their claim to a share of tomorrow’s market. With this level of investment, technological barriers are crumbling. The crucial issue is not so much the capabilities of technology as the availability of technology in homes. But we are now seeing experimental housing developments in which new homes come computer-equipped and pre-wired to access the numerous information, transactional, communications, educational and entertainment services now available via network.

The convergence of telecommunications and multimedia computing will have a profound effect on how people learn, and how they participate in society. With the explosion in computerization over the last decade, a wide range of textual information resources – from raw data to knowledge products – are produced in machine-readable form as a matter of course; and a not insignificant segment of the historical record has been converted into the same form. Ambitious efforts such as Project Gutenberg, the Library of Congress’ American Memory project and its Internet presence as MARVEL (Machine-Assisted Realization of the Virtual Electronic Library), and plans for the new Bibliothèque de France to digitize 200,000 texts within the decade, are indicators of the likelihood of how the digitized record of human heritage will increase in the near future.

The phenomenal growth in Internet use, by an increasingly broad spectrum of the population, evidences the interest in accessing information electronically. The Internet can be considered a dress rehearsal for the Infobahn of the next century. By the time this paper is read there will be about 6,000 Gopher repositories of information (mostly textual). A newer approach to Internet use – the World Wide Web – offers hyperlinked access to information more multimedia in character, incorporating photos and graphics, and even brief sound and video extracts; the growth rate in use of the Web is quadruple that of the Gopher system. Another reflection of public preferences is that while traditional print newspapers and magazines are failing to maintain a subscription base among young, high-income adults, that same segment of the population is attracted to online newspapers and magazines; the Electronic Newstand Inc. service, for instance, has 30,000 accesses per day to the 80 or so magazines it makes available.

An historical researcher with Internet access has at his or her fingertips a variety of resources:

  • Discussion groups on some 200 different subjects of potential interest, of which about 40 are specifically for historians and range from specialized matters such as the Einstein papers to broader themes like African-American research.
  • Catalogues of most of the important libraries around the world, as well as bibliographies on various topics, and finding-aids or holdings indexes of some archives.
  • Full text of numerous journals, books, conference papers, and historical documents.
  • Reports or databases of major governmental or quasi-governmental organizations (ICOMOS, for instance) and of universities.
  • Historical photographs, maps, and artwork.
  • Census information and other demographic statistics.

Even the institutionally unaffiliated amateur with an interest in heritage can, through community-based FreeNets, access much the same resources. The Victoria FreeNet, for instance, includes information from the British Columbia Archives and Records Service, the Greater Victoria Public Library and some local libraries elsewhere in the region, the Royal British Columbia Museum, the B.C. Museums Association and its library, and the collection catalogue of the U’Mista Cultural Centre, as well as providing a tie-in to the Internet mainstream.

Museum presence on the Internet is still slight compared to, say, libraries, which have more of a history of automation, networking, and communal collaboration to improve public access. A number of museums offer textual information through Gopher servers or FreeNets – mostly descriptions of exhibits, events, and services, but also a few searchable collections catalogues, and a couple of directories of museums (one covering British Columbia, another Croatia). The Smithsonian’s offerings include an experiment in making a selection of images of artifacts from various of its museums downloadable, for non-commercial use.

However, given the inherently multimedia character of museums, the growth area in serving up information over the ‘Net is the World Wide Web, accessed by Mosaic. The Exploratorium, the Singapore Art Museum, Le WebLouvre (77,000 visits during the first four months after opening), the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Memphis University, Britain’s Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the Library of Congress, are instances of Web sites presenting electronic exhibits or tours combining images, texts, and sometimes relevant sounds.

Le WebLouvre, an award-winning Web site not actually affiliated with the Louvre, presents not only exhibits but also an historical tour of Paris. During its first year of opening it received over 400,000 visitors. The Dallas Museum of Art gopher averages 9,000 accesses a month. If nothing else, an Internet presence offers museums an interesting way of boosting their “attendance” figures!

These examples point the way towards the virtual museum. Despite all this, there are no museum-related journals online (except Museums New York, targeted at visitors rather than the professional community) and only one Internet discussion group on museums, although the need is now being felt for more, and more focused, groups.

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

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.

Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3 – Page 4

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.”

Towards the Virtual Museum: crisis and change for millenium 3 – Page 5


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