Building a Virtual Museum

Copyright 1997 by Jamie McKenzie
and Archives & Museum Informatics

This paper will be presented at the
Museums & The Web Conference
Sponsored by the Getty Information Institute
March 16-19, 1997
Los Angeles, California


Virtual museums provide an excellent opportunity for museums to partner with schools. The Bellingham (WA) public schools, a leader in the development of school Web sites, recognized the potential of a partnership with the Whatcom County Museum of History and Art as early as the Fall of 1995. This article describes how that partnership led to the development of a virtual museum devoted to local history at the turn of the 19th Century and will eventually foster the growth of much more ambitious joint projects. What strategies are needed to cultivate such relationships? How might museum educators best take advantage of the opportunities in their own communities?

1. The Virtual Museum Defined

Virtual museums live on the World Wide Web . . . the Internet.

The door to the virtual museum is electronic. You drive up for a visit on the Information Highway, but you need no car. A computer and an Internet account serve as your entrance ticket and transportation combined.

A virtual museum is an organized 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.

For the purpose of this article, we will divide electronic museums into two main categories:

  • Learning Museums - Web sites which offer substantial online learning resources which invite many repeat visits and enable substantial investigations and exploration.
  • Marketing Museums - Web sites which are mainly intended as marketing vehicles and communication media to increase the number of visitors to the original physical museum by making more people aware of museum's collections and special events. Such sites may also have museum shop sales as a major goal.
  • This article will focus upon Learning Museums as promising ways for museums to partner with schools for the sake of expanding the reach of the museum into the community in support of continuing education. The word "community" takes on a global meaning as a regional museum such as the Whatcom Museum of History and Art can extend its collection into the farthest corners of its large county and then beyond those corners into the rest of Washington, Canada, the United States and far distant Pacific Rim countries like Singapore and Japan.

    Examples of Outstanding Learning Museums

    A learning museum has the following characteristics:

    In order to understand how some Learning Museums have set about meeting these demanding standards, visit some of the following models, many of which were favorably reviewed in the January/February, 1997 issue of Museum News in "Perfect Site," pages 34-40. Do any of these museums meet all six criteria?

  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Detroit Institute of the Arts
  • The Exploratorium
  • Franklin Institute
  • Minnesota Institute of the Arts
  • Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Museum of Science, Boston
  • Mystic Seaport
  • Paleontology (California Museum of)
  • The Thinker - Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
  • United States Holocaust Museum
  • Why Schools?
    Students as Curators of Virtual Museums

    Why would a school want to participate in creating Learning Museums?

    And why would a school want a partnership with a museum to build such virtual museums?

  • Learning Museums promote active, student-centered learning along with real world problem-solving.

    This is an opportunity for students to do real research.

    Much of the material housed in a virtual museum may be generated and produced by students who conduct research on the topic within their own community and the global community, engaging in an electronic treasure hunt to find great information and electronic artifacts. Because students are actually building meaning as they add to the museum collection, this is, in many respects, a wonderful workshop for constructivist learning.

    Museum professionals and educators are well aware of the many challenges which follow the acquisition of artifacts - challenges which make for extremely useful learning by students:

    • How do we arrange and display the artifacts?
    • How do we interpret the artifacts?
    • How do we honor standards of accuracy and sound scholarship?
    • How do we allow for different kinds of visits and visitors?

  • Learning Museums put students in roles which prepare them for the workplace.

    Development of a museum requires working committees and assignments which parallel the problem-solving required in the adult world.

  • Learning Museums help to preserve local history and local treasures.

    The attics of elders are often filled with trunks and photo albums that all too often end up in landfills upon their passing away. The diaries, old letters, and other relics that might help middle school students understand American life at the turn of the century or during the Civil War are frequently discarded and destroyed.

    Virtual museums offer an opportunity for communities to preserve and display much of this material, while providing an opportunity for students to work on local history projects that involve collection and archiving. Instead of forcing students to learn by reading four-inch thick textbooks, a national network of such local history museums might provide students (and adults) across the nation with a rich banquet table full of primary source materials.

  • Learning Museums are Global

    Besides the locally collected information resources, the virtual museum will also point the visitor to the best related resources that can be found on the Internet. A visitor to a Pacific Rim museum, for example, may open a page listing dozens of sites providing weather, tourist guides, economic data, and political news. Click on one of these and the visitor is on a magic carpet ride to a different file server housed, perhaps, in Korea or New York or Boise.

    The beauty of a virtual museum is its capacity to connect the visitor with valuable information across the entire globe.

    Students and staff, once equipped with HTML programming skills (not much harder than HyperCard), can simply cut and paste the addresses of great sites from the WWW pages created by others. These will then appear as hypertext links on museum pages.

  • Learning Museums are Dynamic, Multidisciplinary, and Multisensory

    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.

    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." Virtual museums have great advantages over textbooks - bringing vitality, color and motion to student exploration.

    In the past, schooling has been too divorced from real life. The study of life through textbooks and teacher lectures was all too often a case of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Few students mistook the lessons as approaching the "real thing."

    Virtual museums offer a different kind of learning - one which is fresh and vibrant.

  • Advantages of Partnership for Schools
    • Expertise

      As schools first begin to put together museums on the World Wide Web they will rapidly recognize how much they need to learn about the work of museums. The partnership helps teachers and students learn about the complicated work which goes on behind the scenes.

      Just what contribution is made by each of the following museum staff members and which roles need to be duplicated to create a Learning Museum?

      • Curator
      • Researcher
      • Collection Manager
      • Exhibition Designer
      • Exhibition Fabricator
      • Educator
      • Public Relations
      • Fund Raiser
      • Editor
      • Graphic Designer
      • Photographer

      Students need to learn about the thoughtful display and interpretation of artifacts. How do they select and then organize the material? What is the role of words alongside images? How do museum people create exhibits around themes and issues? How can the work of museum people inform the museum building of students?

      Without the support and guidance of museum professionals, there is some danger that the museums constructed on the Web will be awkwardly amateurish and (even worse) may misrepresent facts and history, contributing to ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding rather than the reverse.

      The challenge of communicating accurately and sensitively about historical events is immense for the adult museum professionals such as those who created the controversial Hiroshima exhibit for the Smithsonian and those who have encountered serious anger from Native American groups which have protested the display of tribal treasures.

      School people have much to learn from their museum partners about the job of sharing treasures with the world.

    • Resources

      Schools can often find many excellent sources of material for virtual museums locally, but for particular topics such as local history, the museum may be the main holder of copyright. In those cases, it may be very difficult to proceed with a virtual museum unless the copyright holder agrees to share those rights by permitting some scanning of photographs and documents or photographing of objects.

      Most museums can display only a portion of the artifacts and treasures which have been collected or bequeathed. Large portions of the collection may never meet the public eye.

      As part of the charge of museums is the preservation of treasures, the prospect of broadcasting images on a global network can be a threatening thought at first, but thorough exploration and review of those issues can lead to some satisfying strategies which preserve and share at the same time.

  • Why Would Museums Partner?
    Art, Science and Natural History Museums
    Living Museums

    Why would museums want to build Learning Museums on the Web instead of relying upon and limiting themselves to Marketing Museums ?

    And why would museums elect to create partnerships with schools?

    Building the Partnership:

    Go to Part Two of this Article

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