Virtual museums

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
If I told you that last week I saw a pride of lions in Kenya, and that I'm assured of the best seat in the house at the Oscars on Sunday, even the most jaded of you would be impressed. If I told you I did all this on the internet, you'd quickly lose interest and wouldn't wait around to hear details of my virtual visits.

And yet the internet is too often seen as a virtual replacement for real experience. Having easy access to the Museum of Modern Art in New York is, of course, great for a student with no hope of affording a seat on Virgin Atlantic. But going online to the local museum is a wasted opportunity if you never actually visit the museum itself.

Using ICT is seen as one of the most obvious ways of attracting and keeping custom. Museum staff long ago realised that objects inside dusty cabinets are more likely to alienate than inspire, and touch-screens and multimedia displays are now a standard way of disseminating information.

Engaging online content is also seen as an essential aspect of any museum or gallery. But has online access made museums and galleries just another online attraction vying for attention?

At the recent Learning Power of Museums and Galleries conference, at the British Library, Cameron Hawke-Smith of the Cambridge County Folk Museum warned of the danger of placing too much emphasis on the virtual experience. "We are learning less and less with touch and feel, and we are no longer using our hands to make things."

In a similar vein, the director of Reading museums, Karen Knight, talked about the local scheme to lend archive objects to schools. "The majority of the students preferred learning from the object than from a book," she said. Again, given the choice between the internet and the real object, children would probably choose the hands-on experience.

The World Wide Web can whet the appetite and be a useful post-visit research tool, but it is no replacement for the real thing - even with a pair of chunky goggles and a pair of sensory gloves. As words and pictures give way to real 3D views and touch, museums will lose their quirks and uniqueness and will be judged on how good the graphics lok and how quickly the pages load. Even if content grows more exciting, I doubt if the class at the computer screen will be half as excited as the class with their eyes on something solid.

In an attempt to fill in the gaps for virtual visitors, online content is often strait-jacketed. Lots of words and pictures and plenty of links ensure that the site-seer doesn't miss out.

Some organisations are already re-evaluating this strategy and giving outsiders online opportunities to contribute material. Long-running schemes include the STEM project involving the Science Museum, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and the National Railway Museum.

Participating schools have produced websites on their visits to these institutions, allowing other schools to use them as learning resources. is another online space which is more about collaboration and participation than reading and clicking.

The Science Museum is currently running a pilot called the Online Museum Educators project, which allows teachers to provide materials that reflect their take on a particular exhibit.

Such schemes could soon become commonplace if Culture Online, a Department of Culture, Media and Sport project launched last week, has any impact. The department hopes Culture Online will encourage "using digital technologies to widen access to resources of the arts and cultural sector for the purposes of learning and enjoyment".

Culture Online is in its infancy but you can go to the site to have a look of the sort of thing it has in mind. It's too early to draw conclusions as to where it may all lead, but the focus is not on becoming a web portal of heritage sites, but on mixing and matching information from many sources. There is talk of allowing users to "create their own cultural resources and interact with others".

If Culture Online encourages students and teachers to enrich their experiences rather than replace real ones, it will really help technology make a difference rather than be used as a short cut.

yolanda brooks

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