Thursday, March 8, 2001
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street
Are digital technologies allowing museums to reinvent themselves?
This Forum will reflect on the ways in which museums are exploiting
new technologies to transform both internal practices and communication
with their varied audiences through marketing, access to collections,
exhibitions, and public programs. What are the risks of these
new ways of working? And what lies ahead for the digital museum?
Ben Davis is a strategic development director
in media and entertainment at Razorfish.com.
He joined Razorfish last year after serving as manager of electronic
publications and manager of communications for the J. Paul Getty
Trust. Davis' work in interactive media for museums includes
projects with the MIT Museum, the Musee de Orsay, the Getty
Center, the Getty Information Institute, and most recently with
the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art for Razorfish.
Kevin L. De Vorsey is systems analyst
and network administrator in the anthropology division of the
of Natural History where he oversees the digital imaging
program that has produced over 110,000 images of objects and
10,000 document scans. De Vorsey previously worked at the National
Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution and holds
a B.A. from the University of Georgia
Nina Gregorev is a database administrator
and software developer in the anthropology division of the American
Museum of Natural History where she is responsible for designing,
developing, programming and maintaining the Collections Management
Information System. Gregorev earned her master's in computer
science at the Moscow Institute of Economics and Statistics.
Lori Gross is director of the MIT-based
Museum Loan Network,
the first national collection-sharing program, established in
1995. Prior to joining the MLN, she worked in Madrid as director
for the 8th Congress of the International Confederation of Architectural
Museums. Gross also served as head of the museum services division
at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
Peter Walsh is chairman of the Massachusetts
Art Commission and consultant to Dartmouth College, The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Art
Museum Image Consortium. He has previously held senior positions
at the Harvard Museums of Natural History, the Harvard University
Art Museums, and the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley
College. Trained as an art historian at Oberlin College and
Harvard, he serves as chair of the Committee on Intellectual
Property of the College Art Association and speaks and writes
frequently on issues of museums, art, and the cultural implications
of new media.
text below is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]
said that museums and new technology are often thought
of as contradictions in terms - "the new versus the
old and dusty" - but, in fact, when museums were
first founded in the Age of Discovery to house, classify
and study all the objects flowing into western Europe
from around the world, they were the new technology. These
collections, Walsh said, served as the basis for great
advances in evolutionary biology, paleontology, geology
and anthropology. Noting that the American Museum of Natural
History has contributed to all of those fields, he introduced
the first speaker, Kevin De Vorsey of the anthropology
division in the AMNH.
pointed to three recent milestones in the 130-year history
of the American Museum
of Natural History (AMNH) that have fostered the
adaptation of new technologies in the anthropology
23 years ago, De Vorsey said, the decision was made
to create a computer record of the anthropology collection,
and the development of these simple databases provided
"more sophisticated access to the collection,"
though this access was still very limited.
1990 Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection
and Repatriation Act mandating that institutions receiving
federal funding provide a detailed inventory of any
Native American holdings to all recognized tribes in
be able to retrieve meaningful information from its
disparate collections and to provide that information
to native tribes not familiar with the scholarly terminology
used by the anthropology division was a major task.
true data management system was needed and implemented,
De Vorsey recalled, and "with all the intense work
of cleaning the data and complying with the law we came
up with a nice repository of information beyond the
he continued, about four years ago funding agencies
began to require museum projects that used public funds
be made available on the World Wide Web. "Happily,"
De Vorsey said, "we had a resource that was worthy
if this, and we began to develop our website."
Vorsey demonstrated several features of the anthropology
division's web pages including the Exhibition
History where a user can select from recent past
exhibits such as Body Art: Marks of Identity, can click
on Exhibited Artifacts, and then can click on any of
a number of objects from the exhibit to get such basic
information as country and culture of origin, time period,
actual size and owning institution.
www.AMNH.org's main interface from the anthropology
division's portion of the museum's website, De Vorsey
explained, "We in anthropology don't try to compete
with the museum as a whole or with the other departments.
Our website is a scholarly tool to enhance the research
capabilities of our collections. This is fundamentally
different from the work that goes on in, say, the education
department where the work is geared toward public programming
problem the anthropology division encountered in trying
to serve the research community was that the terminology
used to describe the museum's collections was in some
do meaningful queries," De Vorsey said, "you
almost have to be an anthropologist. To overcome this
we have been working on alternate ways to look at our
data and have developed a simplified search interface
based on a map. Most people at least know from where
they want to see things." He demonstrated this
feature on a password-protected part of the site reserved
for the research community.
Vorsey summed up by saying that the anthropology division
would continue to explore new technologies with an eye
toward allowing "unprecedented access to our collections."
next speaker Lori Gross of the Museum Loan Network has the enviable
job of dealing with one of the great embarrassments of many
American museums -- that is, their embarrassment of riches.
recounted a recent visit to the Museum
of Fine Arts in Boston to see an exhibit called Dangerous
Curves about the history of guitars. As she entered,
she said, she was given an MP3 player that allowed her
to stand in front of any guitar in the exhibit and hear
it being played.
need to understand that the technology was not cutting
edge," Gross pointed out, "but for a major art
museum to employ it in a major exhibit is a huge step"
toward incorporating digital technology into the museum
said that predictions made five years ago that digital
replicas of objects would make visiting museums obsolete
have proven false, and that museum crowds are growing
along with web access to museum collections.
demonstrate the application of digital technologies to
the museum world, Gross showed the website for the Museum
Loan Network, a national museum collection-sharing
program that is administered through the MIT
Office of the Arts and is funded by the John S. and
James L. Knight Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
showed eight virtual
exhibitions, online versions of real exhibits that
MLN helped to create. These virtual exhibitions, relying
on software developed at MIT, allow users to explore the
physical space of the exhibits, and to examine objects
from all angles, as if in three-dimensional space. Gross
also showed a section of the MLN site called Match
of the Month in which so-called curatorial ambassadors
select objects that are related in some compelling way
in order to demonstrate some of the creative uses of the
technologies were especially enabling, Gross said, for
curators and directors of exhibitions looking for connections
and relationships among objects housed in various museums
around the country. She demonstrated the password-protected
Directory portion of the site that permits curatorial
staff to search for objects across a number of different
variables including museums, time periods and keywords.
MLN Directory, Gross said, allows users to create "a
collection in virtual space. You can make connections
between collections that you may have not thought of before."
concluded by reminding the audience of her earlier remarks
about the way the Internet has stimulated museum-going.
Digital technology "is bringing greater audiences
through our doors to see the real objects after their
appetites are whetted online.
in the very dark ages of the late 1980s, art museum publications
were very expensive, phonebook-sized tomes that took years and
years to produce and were not interactive in the least. Our
next speaker Ben Davis of Razorfish has helped transform these
publications into something unrecognizable using these digital
said that when a museum comes to his consulting firm,
help in the use of digital technology, the first question
asked is "why?"
you trying to brand your identity? Do you need some way
to get your huge databases upgraded for a digital world?
Are you building a gateway to increase accessibility as
both the AMNH and MLN
you want to make people smarter? Do you want to create a
self-sustaining museum? Are you looking at this as a source
of revenue or as a way of increasing the value of your collection?
Do you want to find new audiences?"
a different level, Davis continued, "museums are
repositories of memory" and are using digital technology
to create new forms of cultural and institutional memory.
A museum's collection is enlarged and altered, he said,
when more information is added or made newly available
in databases, on-line catalogues and lists.
as digital technologies are implemented to create greater
access and other visitor services, they are integrated
into sales and marketing. "What's always interested
me about museums is that they are a confluence of products
and services," Davis said.
people to think creatively about exhibitions with a system
that allows them to choose objects from different sources,
as the online Museum
Loan Network Directory does, has commercial and well
as intellectual ramifications.
Such technologies allow a museum to be a dealer; matching
objects with people. Curators can now think like brokers,
building an exhibition that will enlarge an institution's
core audience or bring attention to the institution.
way to think about these new technologies, then, Davis
said, is as a tool for strategic development.
DOUGLAS, Curator, science and technology collections, MIT
Museum: The description for this Forum was framed in
revolutionary terms - museums were "reinventing" themselves.
But what I've heard here seems merely a difference in scale
and scope than in kind. We're dancing around the question of
how, or whether, these digital tools redefine the museum itself.
When the members of the public think of a museum they think
of a place that collects objects and then reveals information
about those objects in the form of exhibitions and publications.
Do these technologies as you have used them over time change
that or simply enhance it?
From my point of view, they don't change that. Nor do I actually
think that technologies themselves should change that. I think
it's more of an evolution than a revolution. It is more of an
enhancement. I think the revolution in museums has much more
to do with getting a museum from being an object-centered experience
to an audience-centered experience. Digital technology is one
instrument helps that revolution, but that's much more of a
revolutionary change than the addition of digital technology.
It helps us get to the audience, rather centering everything
on the object.
VORSEY: In the anthropology world, the new technologies
provide freedom for the researcher. My first job involved fielding
research requests; I noticed all the requests involved objects
that were listed in publications. People knew about them and
that's what they wanted to come and see. They didn't know what
was back on the shelves covered in dust, and they don't want
to come to New York and sift through stuff and waste their time,
so they would gear their research requests to the things they
knew about from previous exhibitions or books.
now, in our project of digitizing and cataloging all our holdings,
we're aiming to throw open the doors and free researchers to
figure out for themselves what they are really interested in,
no longer dependent on what they've seen before. It's not revolutionary
but it's realistic in that not everyone has access to the storerooms
of these great museums. But through these new technologies hopefully
we can give some greater access to those collections.
Every time I hear this discussion, I think: What if you went
to the public library and they didn't let you borrow a book?
What if they didn't let you touch the book? Maybe you could
read it through a glass case. That would ruin the library experience.
One hope for digital technology is that it will bring museum
patrons closer to the curators, to those who get to touch all
the objects. The technology doesn't so much enhance the museum
as enhance the visitor's experience of the museum. It can allow
them to get closer to the objects and holdings in a museum.
far, websites don't do this. Digital images don't do it. But
the attempt is there. The more you go after that experience,
the closer you get to what the technology will be capable of.
Certainly, this technology has made museums a lot more popular.
It would be nice if you could checkout the stuff. You can check
it out on the web I guess, in virtual form.
URICCHIO, Professor of Comparative
Media Studies, MIT: It seems to me crucial to think
about what parameters we use to set up databases. I am aware
of a system that was used for 18th-century emblems, and it really
broke away from ideas of name and date and geographic location.
It offered ways to access visual images visually. You could
ask for many images that had a star and moon or a tree and bird;
you could access materials in a sort of unfamiliar way. That
resulted in some interesting associations. Suddenly, you start
to see different kinds of images linked together in new ways.
in some sense displaces connoisseurship. People study for years,
memorize slides and in their own brains they can make these
wonderful associations. But now these associations are possible
because of creative databases. That museum community, at least
where I have witnessed it in the Netherlands, feels threatened
and has been severe in its criticism of radical new approaches
of organizing data.
question is two-fold: Is there money to setup radical new databases?
And if there is, are you noticing resistance or delight?
I don't think there is a lot of money, and this is a big problem
for museums. But as for the other part of your question, I think
there is a lot of fear on the part of curatorial experts that
the uninitiated will make inroads into their territory. A lot
is going on now in some exhibitions in terms of multiple perspectives
and getting audiences more involved. If the technical and financial
problem were solved, you would still be left with curatorial
Do you think these new technologies can offer museum visitors
new ways to maneuver through an exhibit? You mentioned the Dangerous
Curves exhibit at the MFA. That exhibit remains linear;
the visitor goes from one object to another and hears some music
and discussion. What about strategies and technologies that
encourage a more random access to exhibited items or that are
customized to individual visitors and their interests? What's
your vision for that? And what's in the museum culture to prevent
it from becoming more audience-centered?
I think there's a lot in the museum culture that prevents people
from doing anything [laughter]. But there is a lot of talk about
such new approaches to the museum experience. Dangerous Curves
was not revolutionary, but it did allow random access. You could
go where you wanted.
I work for a number of museums. Five years ago there was a lot
of resistance to electronic publications on the web. Just this
year, curators are saying 'we want our publications on the web
because people will read them.' This was a big revelation. There
probably is a strong desire on the part of the curatorial community
to communicate directly with the audience. Some of the resistance
those of us inside the profession often feel in speaking to
a broader audience is the fear that no one is listening.
HOPPER, Visiting Scholar, CMS:
I am more familiar with the archival community where a lot of
the resistance to these changes is pragmatic. They don't have
a lot of money and they fear the technology is not yet stable
enough to make purchasing decisions. Is that a concern in the
VORSEY: In the anthropology department, all of our images
are digital. We don't have a cold room and we have no slides.
So that kind of concern with the technology is my nightmare
everyday. Kodak says a CD can last 217 years and we're going
to find out.
American Museum of Natural History is an institution with a
slow-changing culture. It has been interesting to watch the
culture change in adapting to new technologies. Everyone is
dependent on computers now, but when I started at the museum
the scientific assistants were technophobic and used manual
terms of the longevity of technology, my boss is the chair of
the department and in the last four years it has been ingrained
into her that this technology is expensive and its not going
to go away. It has to be drilled into the staff that if you
are going to commit to this it's an ongoing thing, like paper
and pencils. One lump sum of money is great, but unless you
are committed to continually upgrading, you are going to be
in trouble. We are always looking at what are we going to have
to do next.
Last fall I heard a talk about the early history of the first
public museum, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, founded in 1683
to house the first great cabinet of curiosities. Apparently,
in this moment of infancy for the idea of the museum, they had
not yet invented guards and glass cases and all this other paraphernalia
of protection and distancing. They would open the doors in the
morning and people would pour into the museum off the streets
- just anybody - and pour through all these objects and laugh
about them and be excited. In some ways the web and this new
technology return us to that kind of excitement, to the feeling
that we don't have to be dressed up, we don't have to be solemn
and quiet in a museum. We can really explore and experiment
with this. This doesn't require a lot of money; it just requires
a certain thought about what a museum is and what an object
Interactivity is the way people learn, and they want interactivity.
Digital technology may be one way of doing this. I saw a wonderful
exhibition where people took yellow stickies and put them up
on the wall with their comments on them. So again it's back
to trying to figure out all the different ways we can change
the culture of the museum, and digital technology is certainly
one of the ways we're going to do that, but I think it goes
back to what you [referring to Davis] were saying about 'why
do you want to change your museum? Why do you want to reinvent
yourself?' I think that's the ultimate question.
HASSELBALCH, Curator, Hart Nautical Collections, MIT
Museum: We're talking about museums as if everyone in
the world has that experience. How many people on the face of
the earth have been to the Smithsonian or the MFA? It's a small
percentage. If everyone had the capacity to plug into this digital
technology, that would be a revolution.
What is a museum but a compilation of human ideas; there are
an infinite number of ideas about how to use this technology
and that discussion is ongoing. But we need to remember that
it will take immense amounts of money to put the material culture
that exists on this planet into this new medium. Think of the
total material culture that is housed in the world. It is a
gigantic cash question and something we have to move forward
what excites me is the potential that people who have never
even considered that this material is available to them might
have the opportunity to see it.
The process of digitizing catalogs is going on now; some of
the funding is a shifting of money from the old to the new.
In some ways it is cheaper to do these things digitally. So
there is some hope for getting these materials all online
VORSEY: We work with museums in Africa, we work with museums
in Vietnam, and so we try to be sensitive to the different levels
of technology around the world. If we are working with someone
we can send them a CD or give them our URL, but we are also
glad to send them a batch of slides. We try not to shove technology
down people's throats if they are not ready for it.
MARTIN, Director, Harvard
Law Library: I am a little troubled by this discussion
of "The" Museum, because there are many kinds of museums
and their needs are different. I am not sure they would all
apply digital technologies properly. As a librarian, I have
had a lot of experience with the problems of preserving paper.
First, it went to microfilm and now to digital form.
about money to some extent, but it's also about time. A lot
of the discussion about the resistance of curators is pragmatic
to some degree because the new technologies represent additional,
time-consuming work. Even if the money is available, this is
new work they have to do, and where do they find the people
and time to do it?
of today's museums were created after World War II. I think
there are too many museums, and many museums have too much stuff.
There's no way you can digitize everything. On the other hand,
not every object in every museum is worthy of veneration. We're
going to have all this wonderful technology in the digital museum,
but not everything has to go into that museum.
sell off some of the stuff and use part of the purchase price
to digitize the artifact; the buyer can take the original while
its image would be available on the net?
Funding agencies have asked, 'Why don't you just do the greatest
hits?' Why don't you digitize selectively, choosing only your
strongest, most significant holdings? But, the strength of an
anthropology collection is its scope. We collect utensils as
well as beautiful objects of art, and our digitization efforts
are not selective. We're doing it across the board. That's my
defense of the anthropology department.
You get a different defense from different museums. The question
of who decides what to part with is important. You look at art
from 20 years ago and some artists who were not in vogue then
are now valued. You don't know what to keep. So, if you start
this it's a slippery slope.
JOHNSTON, Head of Instructional Technology,
Harvard School of Design: I am really pleased to see
so many institutions working on these integrated, centralized
information resources that allow greater distribution and the
serendipitous discovery of relationships between objects. I'd
like to hear about how the institutions you all are working
with are creating new digital education resources based on their
new digital assets.
Digital technology has allowed more opportunities for museums
to work with schools. The Museum Loan Network worked with the
Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY, which created a website
and connected it to the school system so that students could
study and work on items in the collection and then visit the
museum to see them.
VORSEY: We are a scientific department, and K through 12
has never been a primary focus for us. But since we have made
materials available on our website, we do now get questions
every week from high school and grade school students doing
research. There's no way a high school student would be allowed
into our storerooms, but via our website there is now access
for a school project that didn't exist three years ago.
Five or six years ago I was at a conference where differences
between American and other museum systems were highlighted.
The European and Canadian museums which are state funded for
the most part had created huge consortia and were collaborating
to get materials out to the schools. The American museums which
are by and large privately funded saw themselves as totally
individual, totally subversive, trying to break up the museum
culture, trying not to be cooperative with anybody. So, the
technology has brought about some interesting developments in
terms of international differences.
BARKER, MIT: A comment, not so much a question. One of the
metaphors I have heard is that if you go back a few years and
ask people on campus, 'Where is the computer center?' they could
point to it. If you ask them today, there is no computer center,
it is everywhere. In relation to libraries some have said we
are moving toward a library without walls or a ubiquitous library.
discussion implies that we are doing the same with museums.
What happens when Lori Gross's virtual exhibitions are available
for everyone's use, when those exhibitions themselves are ubiquitous?
Well, virtual museums are wonderfully important and exciting.
But when all is said and done, nothing substitutes for the real
by Brad Seawell