13th October 2000 at 01:00
"This House believes that the virtual museum has more to offer than the physical museum." That proposition was actually debated at a recent conference. I'm not sure how tongue-in-cheek it was, but it is a sign of the times.

Rowena Loverance, head of education at the British Museum, points out that more people are visiting the museum online than are going through the doors. However, to most people a real visit to a museum or gallery is better than going to it online.

You can't really appreciate the massiveness of the Fin-back whale in the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge or the way that Van Gogh trowelled the paint on to the canvas of the Sunflowers. The fact is that if you're a youngster living in Morpeth or Derry or the Orkneys, your visits to the British Museum will be limited. Equally, if you are living in London and you are interested in doing some research into Hadrian's Wall you will have a long way to travel. Now, almost overnight, or so it seems, there is access to wonderful resources in a way that even 10 years ago would have seemed like the ravings of a mad visionary. If the Internet does nothing else, it democratises access to the vast collections held in the UK and puts them into every school.

The place to start is the 24-Hour Museum a great site that should be book-marked on all teachers' computers. This valuable portal is comprehensive and perfect for schools. Louise Smith, director of the Museum Documentation Association (MDA), who developed the site, points to the curriculum trails that have been built up to take the slog out of searching and made a coherent path through some of the materials. You can travel to the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire or to "Museums and Macabre" or cross "Prehistoric Britain". The Curriculum Navigator contains information on a variety of educational resources including workshops on the solar system for science, teachers' packs on Victorian life and art objects. Many of these resources are available online.

A fascinating part of the site is the map of the UK that enables you to find museums in your area or in an area that you want to study. It deals not just with the star names of the museum and gallery world but small idiosyncratic collections like Tymperleys Clock Museum in Colchester. Did you know that there is a Tutankhamun collection in Dorchester, even a museum dedicated to Tom Brown's School Days in Uffington? If the 24-Hour Museum did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.

The way that the British Museum is meeting the challenge of putting its collections into the digital domain is impressive. Illuminating world cultures is one theme of the site. And it does illuminate: so loved by Sixties scooter riders and Manchester rock stars, was created by American Indians? There is even a picture of an original early 19th Century Inuit parka made from Caribou that is more stylish than any that you will see on a Lambretta.

One feature of the site is the astonishing beauty of many of the graphics. Rowena Loverance is pleased with Compass, a powerful tool to navigate round the collections. Compass is a database containing information about objects from the collections, images, background information, and links between them. There are also trails. If you want to be impressed, explore the Ancient Egypt site. It is possible to search either on themes or through objects. Soon even visitors will be online, the British Museum is about to open up the Round Reading Room, the haunt of Karl Marx, which will be equipped with terminals for access to the collection.

Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network (SCRAN) labels itself as "a searchable archive of history and culture". It differs from most of the other organisations in that you will have to pay a subscription if you wish to take a full part. For a primary school, about pound;50 and secondary pound;120 annually. That was a brave decision. Undoubtedly SCRAN is ambitious and idiosyncatic and the quality of its resources is high. By the year 2001, SCRAN hopes to provide access to one million text records plus 120,000 related multimedia resources. SCRAN will also have commissioned 100 multimedia essays, based on these resources, for educational use. The education packs that have been produced have proved popular.

Galleries like the National and the Tate take their online responsibilities seriously. There was tremendous hype over the opening of Tate Modern in the refurbished Bankside power station. For the majority of people in the UK the online gallery will be just as important. The Tate site claims 25,000 works and 8,000 images. One third of the works in this section are illustrated, and they are adding an average of 500 new images to the site every week. By the end of 2001, the entire Tate collection of over 50,000 images, including works on paper from the Turner Bequest, will be online. This site, in particular, is beautifully designed and easy to use.

Sarah Mumford of the National Museum of Photography Film and Television has developed more resources for the site. With the support of Bradford amp; Bingley and Arts amp; Business, they created the Magic Factory website, a mini interactive games site that allows pupils to explore some of the basic principles of light explored in The Light and Colour pack and in the Magic Factory gallery in the Museum. The site is designed to appeal to children aged 7-11 and provides a focus for classroom activities. For teachers there is a specific page that links into the different children's games, where notes and suggested lessons can be downloaded free of charge.

The Students' and Teachers' Educational Materials project (STEM) is linked to the Science Museum and encourages pupils and teachers to make creative use of the National Museum of Science and Industry site and to develop the sharing of materials that have been created. Pupils can create a website based on an actual or a virtual visit to the museum. One site from Weymouth College is a good guide to the Science Museum itself.

Karen Brookfield of the British Library recommends the Living Words section that has been specially developed for schools. There are various projects, such as: Chapter and Verse, Gutenberg, and The Making of the UK. In Chapter and Verse there is a section on drafting. Pages on screen are probably better than seeing them under a glass case. Right up close, you can see a draft of "Dulce Et Decorum Est". Blake's Tyger is there with his second thoughts and re-draftings. There is even a draft of Harry Potter. It is when you see material like that, that you realise the transformation in access that this technology is bringing about.

One thing that the 24-Hour Museum does show is that many museums have not yet developed a presence on the Web. Others just use the Web to advertise their opening times. The visionary ones like the British Museum have realised that the online presence is probably almost as important as its physical collection. Anyone looking at some of these resources ought to find no difficulty in agreeing with the proposition: "This house believes that the virtual museum has more to offer than the physical museum."




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