Article: Museums and the Wild Child That is Changing Everything

Museums and the Wild Child that is Changing Everything: The Web

By Pam Dixon


The Web isn’t a whole lot different than a precocious four-year-old child. The Web is growing exponentially, it is notoriously impatient, it has its own rather strong personality, and it has terrific potential.

Guiding this child of technology involves the most delicate of parenting skills. For museums, the crucial issues involved are building online museum communities, forming strategic partnerships for information, technology, and cost sharing, and laying the best possible groundwork for a very plugged-in future.

Setting the Cyber Stage

Peter Clemente, Vice President of Cyber Dialogue, a leading Internet research firm that focuses on end user demographics, says that the big deal about the Web is the way mass communities use it for information. “There are 53 million adult online users and another 15 million kids using the Internet almost every day,” Clemente says.

According to Clemente, those millions of users cluster on the Web in highly identifiable patterns, patterns which Fortune 500 types of corporations have already been quick to capitalize on. “When you start having communities of 10 million or more people, that is significant,” says Clemente — too significant to ignore.

Clemente cites Web portals — areas which collect and organize masses of online information and create a user environment, like GeoCities — as important examples of online communities. “Essentially you have groups of individuals that are fairly upscale in education and income, with no time to do anything with either.” Clemente says that the whole concept of Web portals is to take advantage of the communities and to be the all and all in information delivery.

Online Community Building for Museums

Museums, too, have felt the impact of the Web on their community, both at an individual and a group level.

Katherine Jones-Garmil, Assistant Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University , says that the Web is the most accepted technology to hit museums in the last decade. “It’s the one technology a museum director or administrator can look at and immediately see how it will help.” The big flag of Web acceptance today is the presence of a Web page.

One of the most important things museums can do, though, goes way beyond putting up a home page. Consortial, community-building strategies are more in line with the nature of cybercitizens, says Clemente. “What organizations should be doing is taking advantage of the affluent and educated community of online users, establishing stronger relationships, and providing information that users can’t get anywhere else.”

Museums and Web Content: a Good Marriage

Naturally, museums with their stores of materials are in a unique position to provide unparalleled depth of content. After museum collections are documented digitally, Web technology allows museums tremendous freedom to display digital documentation of collections. The technology also gives museums the real opportunity to extend the lifetime, reach and even nature of an exhibit by placing images of the exhibit on the Web.

Museums can use the Web as a cost-effective means of presenting a full range of in-depth educational materials to a broad public. Jim Angus, Information Technology Specialist for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County , says the Web has helped them administer education programs. “A lot of our site is geared toward teachers and students. Technology greatly reduces the cost,” he says. “We don’t have to send out paper, and we can update and change information quickly and without reprinting.”

Diane Zorich, an expert museum and technology consultant, sums it up simply but well: “The Web is the delivery system of choice.”

Community Building: Ideas and Examples

Although museums are clearly embracing the Web at an individual level, it takes sophistication to approach the Web with an informed strategy, one that is based in the twin realities of virtual community behavior and good museum practice.

Maxwell H. Anderson, Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art , is one of those rare people who understands both museum culture and the nature of the Web. “The single most compelling question is how museums can collaborate,” says Anderson.

Although Anderson admits that building Web sites is still the primary Web work museums are currently accomplishing, he has a community vision that is catching on. “AMICO and the exhibition calendar we built — that’s the new territory we can stake out,” says Anderson, whose plan is to create search tools and deep research on the Web. The whole idea is to create online museum communities in such a way as to have critical online mass. That way, when Web users think of deep content, they automatically think of museums as a prime resource.

Museum administrators are quickly seeing the power of working together in cyberspace. Anderson, along with other museum professionals, are beginning to gather as consortiums to share costs, hash out differences, and share technology information and infrastructure.


The Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO) , is one such museum consortium. It is a group of 23 founding museums which contribute digital documentation of their collections to a single database . That database , samples of which can be seen at the AMICO site, is maintained by AMICO and is meant for educational use. AMICO members are collaborating to build bigger, better databases, to build critical mass, and to work out the enormous difficulties of standardization and use of copyrighted materials in a networked environment.


Another important collaborative project with broad implications is the Visual Information Access (VIA) project at Harvard . Garmil-Jones says that it now makes sense to work centrally. The analogy she uses to explain the project is that of a visual online card catalog that reveals museums’ holdings.

“This is a project for resource discovery,” she says. “There are six repositories that are contributing data from their collections. The data will be served from a central server in the office of information systems, which is part of Harvard University library.” The launch of VIA is set for January, 1999, and will be publicly available for searching from the Harvard University Libraries site.


Just as VIA is launching, the Museum Digital Library Collection (MDLC) is getting started. Jones-Garmil, who is also involved in the MDLC project, says that the MDLC project is operating on a business model that will return money to museums. “One of the primary goals is to be the licensing agency for museums to help create large digital libraries based on museum collections.” Like AMICO, MDLC is actively working through issues of copyright and standardizing data for widespread Web use.


The Exhibition Calendar, or exCalendar, is another consortial project that brings together, in one database, thousands of exhibition calendars from museums worldwide. The exCalendar aims to be the official source for museum exhibit information. “Ex Calendar will become a useful asset for the tourist industry,” says Anderson. Currently, the testbed site for exCalendar is already up and working smoothly. The complete calendar is set to launch soon.

Reality Checks

Despite how important it is for museums to be involved in the community building process, it’s an outright fantasy to suppose that all museums have made the online transition. Many museums, in fact, are just now thinking about creating their first Web pages.


“What you see on the Web now is really a skewed picture, because the majority of museums in the United States aren’t there and probably won’t be for a while,” says Zorich. “So many museums are not computerized in any way, shape, or form,” she says. Much of the problem is the sheer cost barrier of getting on the Web with some degree of a digitized collection and a good-looking Web page.

That is where group projects like AMICO enter in, as do corporate partnerships to help museums fund a leap to the Web. If museums can form the right connections, they can significantly defray the cost of getting access to the very latest technologies.

Kevin Teixeira, Manager of Special Projects in Arts and Technology at Intel, is working closely with the Whitney Museum of American Art to create a massive exhibit of 1,400 pieces called “The American Century.” Teixeira says Intel’s help comes in helping the museum with hardware, and with the art of information design on the Web.

“With The American Century Project, we are using information design with a big enough canvas that we can really push the envelope of what it means to design for the Web.” Teixeira cites the newly created 3-D virtual visit of the installation piece, “V-yramid” by legendary video artist Nam June Paik as an example of what a corporate-museum pairing can do.

“Without 3-D technology on the Web, people would have to visit the installation in person. With interconnected computers approaching a billion users, it makes sense to provide access to that community as well as the people who can come to New York for an in-person visit.”

Learning Curve

The Web comes with a wicked learning curve. Thanks to the wide-open nature of the Web, museums, like others, don’t have the luxury of making their mistakes in private. On the Web, everyone does their learning in front of the public eye.

Museums usually settle into a predictable continuum of learning curve growth that lasts about five years from beginning to end. “Museums typically start by putting a few images up,” says Zorich. “It’s a public relations site to start. After they get going and develop the expertise in-house, they become more sophisticated and they put more things up, like some sort of facsimile exhibit. Then they start thinking about how they can deliver information to various audiences, and then they start thinking about education.”

At the beginning of the spectrum, museums typically have the same template. But by the end of the growth curve, each museum has developed a unique flavor. “Those who go through the progression end up with uniquely derived content and sites,” Zorich says.

Examples of Mature Web Sites

Two good example of mature, end-continuum museum Web sites are those of the Walker Museum of Art site and the L.A. Culture Net’s “Faces of L.A.” project.

Faces of L.A.

David Jensen, Manager of Culture Net Initiatives for the Getty Information Institute, was instrumental in the development in the Faces of L.A. Project.

Faces of L.A. is a highly collaborative, creative project which essentially provides an electronic portal to huge stores of artifacts and objects in Los Angeles’ most respected educational and artistic institutions. Naturally, the institutions involved needed to digitize their collections, after which the digitized items were placed in databases available to the public online. About two million items of images, sounds, and text are on the Faces of L.A. Web site.

The Faces project looks at museums and museum audiences in new ways. Jensen says that museums are in the process of reexamining their role in society, and that technology is helping to open new doors and ways of seeing for museums. “Technology is allowing people to bring their own voices to artifacts and collections in new ways. This has the potential of giving new readings and interpretations to artifacts and objects.”

The Walker Art Center

The Walker Art Center has created an online site that is evolved in the way it displays images and exhibitions. More important, the site exploits the communicative powers of the Web. One area of the site, Shock of the View, encourages the broad public to become involved in online conversations about selected pieces of art that are curated online.

Karen Moss, Consultant to the Walker Art Center and the Former Director of Education and Community Programs for the Walker, says that the space has become one of the first national online discussion areas about the opinions and interfaces between art, technology, and new media. “Shock of the View receives the second highest amount of online traffic next to our home page. The response has been overwhelming,” Moss says. “It shows people really want to talk about this.”

The Walker and the Faces of L.A. Web sites benefited from the confluence of talent and long, hard work. But they and other leading edge organizations are the ones who are literally creating the statistical data on the fly for other museums who are following in their footsteps.

Research on Museums and the Web

Although Internet research firms have been able to uncover that it’s important to work on a community level and to provide deep research to those communities, there is scant museum-focused research about the correlation between museums and Web sites.

In light of the lack of hard data, John H. Falk, Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, advocates taking some time to plan ahead and think things through before engaging in technology for technology’s sake.

“One of the things that clearly needs to happen is that in use of the Web we need to step way back and think about how all of information resources fit within peoples lives,” says Falk. “We need to try and provide resources and information that fulfills peoples’ needs and serve that.”

John Chadwick, Web administrator for New Mexico’s Office of Cultural Affairs, is one of the very few people who has conducted a formal statistical study of museums and the Web. His research looked at how museum visitors respond to museum Web sites.

“Among other things, I discovered that 30 percent of museum Web site visitors were groups,” said Chadwick, who was surprised by his findings. “If my study is any indication, then some of the behaviors museum professionals are seeing in museums are being mirrored on the museum Web site.”

Dakin Hart, Assistant to the Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), says their museum Web site, called The Thinker, attracts about 1,500 unique visitors each day. That is a very healthy level of online visitation. Hart, who has a careful and thorough Web statistics philosophy, has compiled extensive Web site statistics from all of those visits.

So far, since The Thinker’s launch in 1996, Hart has seen virtual visits correlate directly to museum visitation. “What we find is that the large peaks and valleys of Web visits are driven by programming at the museum,” he says.

Hart’s research reveals similar demographic patterns as Chadwick’s. “Many teachers in the region tell us that they use the Web site to preview an exhibition. They like to pre-teach the students before an actual museum visit,” he says.

Chadwick says that his work is just a scratch on the surface. Fortunately, museum administrators can look forward to more research in this area from the Institute for Learning Innovation and from the slowly growing body of Web information from museums. Meanwhile, museum administrators will be forced to move forward into uncharted territory.

One museum which just moved into that territory was the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Anne Farrell, Development Director for the museum, says the museum took about a year to develop their site, which launched in 1998. “It’s an extensive site,” says Farrell. “It has many different avenues, pages, and elements. It took a while to refine, and there was a lot of data to get in there. We thought and talked about it for a long time because as a contemporary museum, we wanted to be cutting edge and wanted to be visually very exceptional.”

Because Farrell and her staff took time in development, they were able to skip past some of the early phases of the Web-museum-continuum, but freely admit they are still evolving their site.

Visions for the Future

As museums all along the Web growth curve continuum struggle to create compelling Web sites that extend the museum in dynamic ways, people like Peter Clemente are getting ready for the next thing. “We are getting prepared for the next wave of evolution on the Net,” he says.

One important avenue of evolution is the growth of online consortiums and communities. But there is still room for individual museums to lay the groundwork for their Web future.

Harry S. Parker, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has his own vision of the networked future, a future in which the Web allows unprecedented communication for museums. “We have 7,000 subscribers who think enough of The Thinker site to register for a monthly e-mailed newsletter. That’s hopeful,” he says. “Perhaps a generation from now, a million people will see themselves as subscribers to the service.”

For museums, especially small, one to two person-run organizations, thinking in terms of millions would have been ludicrous as recent as ten years ago. But now, the thought is very much in line with the way virtual museum reality may well unfold. Kevin Teixeira says, “The Web gives real life meaning to the statement that art knows no boundaries.”

In the long history of civilizations, as with individual people, much depends on the childhood. It would seem that the building of a virtual civilization, the Web, will be no different.

Copyright Pam Dixon

PUBLICATION: COMMISSION FROM CALIFORNIA ARTS COUNCIL. Published in conjunction with Governor’s Conference on the Arts