Copyright 1997 by Jamie McKenzie
and Archives & Museum Informatics
Creating a partnership between any two institutions can present unexpected challenges and issues. This may be especially true when the partnership is meant to explore new terrain that is potentially threatening to either or both of those institutions. Teachers and museum professionals can be reasonably concerned about the nature of learning during the next century as new technologies make access to information far less dependent upon place.
As families and individuals can now purchase the equivalent of Information ATMs, we may see a vast change in the way people enjoy art and history and all kinds of other types of experiences.
The partnership must address all of these issues in a forthright manner or else the project may be undermined by anxieties lurking below the surface . . .
While many museum professionals are nervous that virtual museums will reduce visits to the physical museum building, their public school counterparts may be concerned that various proponents of the new technologies have announced the end of schools as we know them.
School's Out by Lewis J. Perelman makes the case for an end to schooling as we have known it. ISBN: 0380717484 - Published by Avon, October 1, 1993
We see proposals for CyberSchools . . . schools which would meet in Cyberspace. http://www.cyberschool2000.com/index.html
There are many new proposals for charter schools, schools of choice and increased home schooling. As just one example: On the Way to School--Every Citizen's Guide to School Reform.
"This site cuts through the rhetoric on school choice, vouchers, and public schooling by bringing together historical evidence and modern research." http://www.plutarch.com/index.html, 1619 bytes, 29Aug96
Home Schooling is also on the rise . . .
Reading, and writing, and 'rithmetic without leaving home ...
In the museum world, debate has surged on museum-related listservs as critics have predicted calamity and proponents have forecast optimistic futures with virtual and real visits rising in tandem.
In 1994, one message thread on MUSEUM-L, "All originals are copies," inspired dozens of passionate exchanges.
MUSEUM-L list information. (http://www.comlab.ox.ac.uk/archive/other/museums/museum-l.html) Note: The address for LISTSERV is now firstname.lastname@example.org.
While there is not as of yet much data to cast light upon this debate, there is broad agreement that such data is desirable. At the same time, the impact of virtual museums upon real museum attendance is probably more a matter of design and ingenuity than the mere fact that a virtual museum exists.
Clever and dynamic interaction between the physical and virtual offerings ought to stir people from the home monitors so they can stand directly in front of Van Gogh's Starry Night. (http://www.moma.org/paintsculpt/pages/vangogh.starry.html)
Some people might be so inspired by their virtual visit that they would pay the airfare from San Francisco to New York to stand in the Museum of Modern Art itself.
Critics are quick to complain about the potential for copyright violations and the likely theft of great images.
Proponents propose scanning images at no more resolution than that which computer monitors can handle. Many suggest adding watermarks. These two steps make it very unlikely that there will be any real commercial reproduction.
But then, the critics often counter . . .
Writing in Humanities ("Who owns history?" Vol. 16, 01-01-1995, pp 6), Sheldon Hackney interviews historian William Styron and Cary Carson. Styron is the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice. Carson is vice president for research of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
They discuss the dangers of entertainment companies like Disney who propose "history museums" on the site of battle grounds in ways which seem like what Styron calls "synthetic history."
Because many school and museum professionals fear that virtual museums represent a similar threat to academic integrity and standards, it is essential that all such efforts address standards and hold efforts to rigorous quality control.
Humanities and Arts on the Information Highways: A Profile (Summer 1994) - (http://far.mit.edu/diig/Related/arts.txt) proposed just such a set of standards.
In a related matter, the question of reproduction quality is often raised, especially by those who have spent a life time working with the finest of true images. Because computer monitors can never do justice to great works of art, these individuals may argue against the dispensing of virtual images.
The whole challenge of building virtual museums can be daunting for either group. Resource issues fall into two groups:
Two online resources address the design issue directly:
For schools, the Oldies & Goodies - School Museum List and Site (http:fromnowon/museum/resources.html) provides many articles and links to helpful resources.
For museums, Building Onramps to the Information Superhighway: Designing, Implementing, and Using Local Museum Infrastructure (http://info.isoc.org/HMP/PAPER/085/archive/html950719/085c.htm) is a treasure of information developed by Paul M. Helfrich, Ph.D. a leader in virtual museum development for the Franklin Institute.
Quoting from the document:
This paper stems from my involvement, along with a group of very talented and dedicated individuals, in a project called The Science Learning Network (SLN). Begun in July of 1993 by the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, PA, and Unisys Corporation in Blue Bell, PA, this project is continuing for a three-year pilot program (1995-97) with $6 million in funding support from the National Science Foundation and Unisys Corporation.
The SLN consists of six science museums that have partnered with single K-8 schools:
- The Franklin Institute, The Levering School, Philadelphia School District, PA
- Museum of Science, Boston, MA, The Hosmer School, Watertown School District, MA
- Science Museum of Minnesota, The Museum Magnet School, St. Paul School District, MN
- Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, The Buckman School, Portland School District, OR
- The Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA, The Ross School, Marin County School District, CA
- Miami Museum of Science, Miami, FL, The Avocado School, Dade County School District, FL
The challenge of identifying adequate time, money and expertise, which can be a major obstacle to forward movement, requires energetic grant seeking and skillful marketing of the new concept across the various school and museum publics.
Helfrich's article mentioned above is loaded with suggestions. Building Onramps to the Information Superhighway: Designing, Implementing, and Using Local Museum Infrastructure (http://info.isoc.org/HMP/PAPER/085/archive/html950719/085c.htm)
And just what is our real work?
It seems that vast changes in the ways that schools and museums work with their clients are in the offing. Whenever such changes arrive, many people cling to the old definitions, the old paradigms and the old mindsets.
There are at least two responses to this issue . . .
First of all, we need to re-examine our missions and our roles in this society, whether we be schools or museums, asking how we might best serve our publics and our clients. The result of that re-examination may be a re-definition of our "real work."
Once we have clarified our "real work," we must set about rearranging our priorities and our resources to accomplish that work. In some cases we will identify or win new resources to fund new efforts. In other cases we will be forced to redesign our institutions.
If we listen to HotWired writer, Michael Schrage, we have a ways to go . . .
Hotwired's Packet (Week of 11/25/96) http://www.packet.com/packet/schrage/
What most of these institutions have done is 'repurposed' ... their collections or catalogs and posted them on essentially static Web pages.
This "aesthetic shovelware" reflects a failure of "traditional cultural institutions to treat the Web as it should be treated: as a unique artistic medium in itself.
In February of 1997, the Bellingham Schools and the Whatcom Museum of History and Art are moving forward with plans to build ambitious museums on the World Wide Web. Because these plans will require new sources of funding, the focus is upon grant writing and seeking.
The value of virtual museums has been recognized, but the full vision of what may be accomplished remains a vision.
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