the digital museum

Thursday, March 8, 2001
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
Bartos Theater
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 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 American Museum 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.


[The text below is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Moderator PETER WALSH 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.

KEVIN DE VORSEY 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 division.

About 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.

In 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 the U.S.

To 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.

A 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 basic catalog."

Finally, 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."

De 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.

Differentiating'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 and outreach."

One 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 cases archaic.

"To 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.

De 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."

WALSH: Our 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.

LORI GROSS 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.


"We 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 experience.

She 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.

To 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.

Gross 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 MLN catalog.

Digital 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 MLN 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.

The 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."

Gross 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.

WALSH: Back 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 technologies.

BEN DAVIS said that when a museum comes to his consulting firm, Razorfish, seeking help in the use of digital technology, the first question asked is "why?"

"Are 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 presentations demonstrated?


Do 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?"

On 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.

Moreover, 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.

Enabling 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.

One way to think about these new technologies, then, Davis said, is as a tool for strategic development.


DEBORAH 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?

GROSS: 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.

DE 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.

But 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.

DAVIS: 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.

So 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.

WILLIAM 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.

This 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.

My question is two-fold: Is there money to setup radical new databases? And if there is, are you noticing resistance or delight?

GROSS: 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 issues.

QUESTION: 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?

GROSS: 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.

WALSH: 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.

MARY 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 museum community?

DE 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.

The 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 typewriters.

In 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.

WALSH: 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 is.

GROSS: 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.

KURT 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 on.

But 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.

WALSH: 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

DE 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.

TERRY 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.

This is 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?

Ninety percent 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.

Why not 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?

DE VORSEY: 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.

GROSS: 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.

LESLIE 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.

GROSS: 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.

DE 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.

WALSH: 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.

MIKE 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.

Today's 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?

GROSS: Well, virtual museums are wonderfully important and exciting. But when all is said and done, nothing substitutes for the real object.

--Compiled by Brad Seawell