Building Virtual Museums

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A virtual museum defined . . .

A virtual museum is a collection of electronic artifacts and information resources - virtually anything which can be digitized. The collection may include paintings, drawings, photographs, diagrams, graphs, recordings, video segments, newspaper articles, transcripts of interviews, numerical databases and a host of other items which may be saved on the virtual museum's file server. It may also offer pointers to great resources around the world relevant to the museum's main focus.


Why in the World Wide Web?

Note: This article appeared in the January, 1997 issue of Technology & Learning and is copyrighted by Jamie McKenzie.

Given the capacity to launch a school Web site, the question logically becomes . . .

"Why bother? What's the point of this exercise?"

I. Four Primary Goals for a School Web Site

Web sites - properly constructed - are information systems. They efficiently structure content to provide visitors with knowledge and insight. They deliver "the goods."

Web sites may also serve as "interfaces" providing bridges and translations to connect users to other wordly experiences. Given the sometimes poorly organized resources available on the Web, a good school Web site helps people find educationally worthwhile information with a minimum of wasted time and wandering.

The best school and district Web sites perform the following four goals:


  1. They introduce visitors to the school - its mission, its character, its look, its offerings to children, its stance on new technologies and its overall spirit;
  2. They point to excellent information on the larger Web - identifying the best resources the Web has to offer an educational family, those most likely to support the curriculum and the kinds of investigations likely to be undertaken by staff and students alike;
  3. They offer an opportunity for the publishing of student works to both a local and a global audience - whether those works be art, music, or writing;
  4. They provide rich data locally collected on curriculum related topics (such as local history), whether these collections take the form of data warehouses, virtual museums or virtual libraries.
    Some school sites do all four of these, but most concentrate on providing quality for two or three of these elements. Those responsible for creating and then managing Web sites soon learn that ambitious designs require a vast investment in upkeep.

II. The Web Site as an Introduction to the School

Parents in some regions have actually started to "shop" for schools by visiting Web sites and comparing features. Many schools have seen the value of introducing their offerings to existing parents as well as prospective parents, outlining the school mission and the kinds of learning available while sharing more mundane but valuable items such as calendars, schedules and lunch menus. The more skillful have introduced forms and e-mail features which allow them to gather information and feedback from their parents.

An outstanding example of a school portraying itself to the outside world through a Web site is the Wiles Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida (

III. Web Site as Interface to Outside Resources

A good Web site may save staff and students from hours of wandering about from empty site to empty site by listing only those Internet locations offering developmentally appropriate, curriculum relevant content which is full of value. Someone who knows the curriculum performs the "scouting" required to identify these good sites and then create a series of pages which are well organized and carefully broken into categories that make sense to the primary clients of the site.

Bellingham provides pages at the district site which recommend Web resources directly related to the curriculum of each grade level and department. (

These lists are thoroughly annotated - meaning that the users may read a brief summary of what they might find before committing time to visiting. Other pages suggest resources of more general interest - Today's News, the Weather, Virtual Field Trips, Library Resources, Maps, Clip Art, Search Engines and Teaching Resources.

IV. Web Site as Publisher of Good Works

There are two main strategies for sharing student works.

One can offer collections in the form of a gallery or create electronic publications and "zines" which are multimedia descendants of the school newspaper or literary magazine.

One of the most impressive examples of a gallery approach can be found at Blackburn High School in Australia ( where visitors can find excellent student work created in a wide variety of media.

Midlink Magazine ( is an outstanding online publication produced by middle school students in North Carolina. This zine publishes work by students at the school of origin but also accepts submissions from around the world, many of which are related to an evolving list of themes and issues such as the Olympics.

V. Web Site as Data Resource

As many schools seek ways to engage students in real world problem solving, Web sites offer the vehicle to support such studies as they become warehouses, virtual museums or virtual libraries storing the raw data until students may visit to extract meaning and insight.

It used to be that many kinds of information (such as water quality data and local historical records) languished in folders and file cabinets. These might have proven a gold mine for student follow-up studies and investigations, but they rarely emerged into open view.

These data can now be stored and shared on the school Web site so that each new wave of students can add to the collection and can begin sharing and comparing data with other students and schools within the same region. One of the most ambitious examples of this kind of project is the Globe Project ( - describing itself as "Students and teachers from over 3000 schools in 39 countries are working with research scientists to learn more about our planet."

A related strategy is to create a virtual museum devoted to a curriculum topic such as immigration (Ellis Island ) or local history (Fairhaven Museum The students act as curators, collecting, digitizing, displaying and explaining electronic artifacts such as diaries, photographs, tools, maps, newspaper articles and other materials which might illuminate the subject at hand.

For a global listing of virtual museums created by schools visit Oldies and Goodies - The School Museum List and Site ( where you can also find resources to help learn how to build such museums.

Exploring Museums

Virtual museums provide an excellent model for schools to imitate while sharing curriculum resources through their Web sites. In order to consider the possibilities, visit some of the following . . .

HTML Resources

Student Centered Learning (HTML) Resources

Virtual Museums are the Future

Unlike most school research projects, virtual museums provide persistent, ongoing "change, activity, and progress" (American Heritage Dictionary definition of "dynamic"). The collection process is never-ending. Students may continue their work over several years, and even after they leave their elementary school to begin work at the virtual museum housed at the middle school, they can return for "electronic" visits and note the expanding collection. Multi-age classes may focus upon the same challenge for several years running without fear of repetition.

Students can actually see the "fruits" of their inquiry. They become "knowledge builders" rather than mere consumers. Museums are also fine vehicles for multidisciplinary studies, as the collection may include everything from music and art to science and politics and mathematics. The driving research question for the Asian Rim museum (Which culture would you pick if your family were to live abroad for a year and why?) naturally steers students to look at a broad range of factors which bridge the disciplines. Virtual museums offer multi-sensory opportunities appealing to a variety of learning styles and multiple intelligences. One can see a Picasso. One can see and hear Tori Amos perform "Cornflake Girl." While it is difficult to touch or taste, the same would be true of a conventional museum. Virtual museums have great advantages over textbooks - bringing vitality, color and motion to student exploration.

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