In the days before the web became an electronic shoppers' paradise, there was a phrase that Internet propagandists would repeat ad nauseam - that you could "visit the world's great art galleries and inspect their treasures from your own desktop". In other words, that there was more to the net than porn.
This was true to the extent that many galleries had websites, often with a "virtual tour" of collections on the menu. With a few honourable exceptions these would often amount to low-grade images and encouragement to visit the museum or buy the book.
There's now a second wave of art gallery sites: a result of governments encouraging museums to develop online educational resources - and galleries, like everyone else, wanting to cash in on the e-commerce potential of their "brand".
The relaunched Victoria and Albert museum site (www.vam.ac.uk) is an extreme example. No more dreary old lists of galleries, epochs and artists. Visitors arrive at an "Infodome" and click on the shards of an exploding cube to move around: to enter, for example, the stimulating Learning Zone. The shop on this otherwise ace site is as yet undeveloped: to get a taste of what might come to British galleries, visit the splendid ndy Warhol Museum site (www.clpgh.orgwarholinformation). Here you can look at the images, search the Warhol archives, read a learned and well-illustrated treatise on the great man's work, then go to the shop, buy the print, the hooded sweat shirt, the book and the video. Andy would have approved.
Back home, the future looks bright for the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art in the converted Southwark Bankside power station. You can find out about the building, forthcoming exhibitions and education services at www.tate.org.ukfuturebanksideindex.htm.
Another art gallery with a fine tradition of education services is the Whitechapel. Its new website, at www.whitechapel.org, is aggressively different, a web designer's two fingers to the world of printed pages and static images. Each section has its own animated ident: in the case of education, a white pixel goes crazy against a background of blue pixels. Why?
Finally to Britain's oldest public art museum, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is to have its own website at www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk. This is to be "dazzling, informative and elegant": but alas, it's not yet visible, so we'll have to take their word for it.