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Heritage at the touch of a mouse

Kay Smith reports on a pioneering programme to put Scottish museums on to the Internet. The Scottish Cultural Resources Network - SCRAN 2000 for short - is about to harness the Internet and CD-Rom technology to let school pupils have an intimate look at exhibits in museums, art galleries and archives all around Scotland.

At the touch of a mouse each pupil will be given the illusion at least that he or she has a precious object in the palm of the hand, moving it around for close inspection and study, with easy to-look-at explanatory text close by to deepen the experience.

SCRAN has been made possible by money from the Millennium Commission which, over the next five years, is putting up Pounds 7.5 million to enable the network to develop programs for use by schools, colleges and the wider community.

SCRAN's founding consortium - the National Museums of Scotland, the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland and the Scottish Museums Council - along with other museums, galleries and archives, will match the Commission's funds, in cash or in kind.

A CD-Rom on the Lewis Chess Pieces, produced by the multimedia team of the National Museums of Scotland, gives a flavour of what, by autumn of next year, will be readily available through a subscriptions scheme which will cost as little as Pounds 20 per primary school and Pounds 100 per secondary to join.

The board game pieces, which were found 150 years ago on an ancient trading route on the west coast of Lewis, were carved in the Middle Ages from walrus ivory. In bold fashion they caricature the crown, church, and military within medieval north-west Europe.

Through multimedia technology, full-colour photographic images of the ivory pieces, atmospherically highlighted against a black background, can be rotated at the touch of a mouse. Inset images reveal the detail of features such as helmets and shields - and alongside are short texts.

Some of this comes from original source material. For example, one extract from a Norse folk tale describes Berserkers, the warriors who ate mushrooms before going into battle, whence they raged "like dogs, or wolves, biting their shields and in strength equal to furious bulls or bears, their enemies they laid prostrate at their feet; neither fire nor weapon harmed them; this frenzy was called Berserksgangr".

Invitations have already gone out to museums and galleries to take part in a small number of experimental "establishment" projects. SCRAN will award a grant of up to half the cost of developing CD-Rom programs suitable for use in the school curriculum, university syllabus or within community education programmes and public exhibitions.

Through the National Museums of Scotland's multimedia team, help and advice will also be given with the technology. Such partnership working has already taken place with Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway on Lewis over a prototype program with the working title of "Archaeology in the Western Isles". This contains maps, diagrams and pictures, one series of which uses the morphing technique of constantly changing layers, illustrating the reconstruction of a prehistoric man's head found near the village of Cnip on Lewis.

Museum nan Eilean, which wrote the text for a Gaelic version of the Lewis Chess Pieces program, has provided the knowledge and artefacts for the archaeology program. The staff has come from the Western Isles education department's multimedia team who, in turn, are gleaning skills from their counterparts in the National Museums of Scotland (NMS).

Mike Spearman, the head of NMS's multimedia team and the mastermind behind SCRAN, sees the process of passing on skills, which ultimately can be used independently of SCRAN, as the reason for the whole initiative. He says: "We have driven a coach and horse through copyright. This is at the heart of the system. If we can't give to teachers the resources they need for their jobs, then we have failed."

He says that SCRAN, unlike a multinational computer software company, will source materials directly from the keepers of Scottish culture. "It will be grounded as closely as possible in the original heritage of the country. "

SCRAN materials can be run on less than state-of-the-art computer hardware. IBM 386 series or a basic 4mb RAM Apple Mac will suffice. But the better the hardware, the more SCRAN material can do. "We will facilitate existing hardware platforms in schools but look forward to better platforms in the future, " Mr Spearman says.

The new chief executive of SCRAN is Bruce Royan, formerly director of information services at the University of Stirling. SCRAN, he predicts, will provide a stimulus to schools to acquire the equipment that will allow them to access its materials through the Internet.

Meanwhile, institutions abroad with an interest in Scottish culture may be enticed to buy into the system. Mr Royan says: "The project will have Scotland leading the world through the Internet."

SCRAN receives its official launch at the end of this month when all-comers in the arts and heritage industry will be invited to apply for its grant funding.

* Conference: Bruce Royan will give a preview of SCRAN, Thursday 11.30am

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