A new generation of websites means visiting a museum on the Internet can be almost as rewarding as setting foot in it. Gary McFarlane reports
DID YOU know that between 85 and 90 per cent of a museum's holdings are in storage at any time?For this reason, the idea of putting exhibits on the Web appeals to museums, but there are also advantages for schools. After all, how often do pupils get to visit one of the national museums (most, but not all, are in London)? When they can, how much do they see? Would visiting the museum's website first have made the visit more beneficial?
The Natural History Museum, the first of the big museums to build a website in 1994, makes good use of the Net's interactive possibilities. The Quest area on the education pages offers up to 12 objects for students to analyse using various diagnostic techniques, in online form, to determine factors such as age, size and weight. Equally useful is the Science Casebook where, for example, you can try to determine the identity of the skull of the "Beast of Bodmin Moor". Virtual reality technology also allows fossils to be viewed in three dimensions.
The National Museum of Science and Industry also features online exhibitions. For example, there is the history of flight, which incorporates exhibits from the museum to tell the story. More innovatively, the museum holds email conferences for schools and is experimenting with CUSeeMe video conferencing software.
Katie Streten, the museum's Web manager, sees the site as "an ongoing project". By next month she expects a database of information sheets to let teachers better plan visits will be on the site along with a 3D navigational map.
In addition, the museum's Students and Teachers Educational Material (STEM) project seeks to encourage educational development on the Net. Schools can contribute and so far 47 have posted an entry about the learning experience of their visit.
The British Museum is aiming to enable virtual visits that are as close as possible to the real thing. Rowena Loverance, its multimedia education unit head, says a series of online experiences on ancient civilisations, beginning with Egypt, are being created. The hundreds of Egyptian pages will stand alone and not depend on a visit. Aimed at pupils aged seven to 11, they go online in June. The museum is also developing its Collections Multimedia Public Access System (Compass). Due for completion early next year, it will include audio and video relating to many objects in the collection.
Meanwhile in Scotland, pioneering work in preparing museums for the delivering resources over the Net is taking place. Three years ago the National Museums of Scotland launched the Scran (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network) project, aimed at developing a digital database of its exhibits. More than 100,000 images and 1.5 million documents are being digitised and staff are working with Lochaber High School in the Highlands and Islands to test some of the theoretical concepts.
Ian Rose, principal teacher of history, is enthusiastic about the possibilities but says there is no point in devising these systems if schools cannot afford to access them. He turned theory into reality by downloading high-resolution images, then compressing and copying them on to floppy disks so pupils could view the images simultaneously on their own machines.
Doing so allows them to view objects in detail and from angles that are not possible if an object is in a display case, and gives access to those too fragile to be exhibited. However, Rose is concerned that computers do not become glorified televisions: "To be interactive and to become learning tools computers have to be structured into the curriculum as part of a programme that is properly differentiated so children are encouraged to think, and to think critically." The exercise shows how a future system might work, taking account of schools' hardware limitations.
www.nhm.ac.uk www.nmsi.ac.uk www.british-museum.ac.uk For a comprehensive list of British museums on the web see www.mda.org.ukvlmp