Wading the Web

Museums Australia Conference, Sydney, 1996

This paper is titled 'Wading through the Web'. To me, this is far more descriptive of adventures on the World Wide Web than the more commonly used adage of 'Surfing the Net'. Surfing has connotations of style, confidence and knowledge, but wading is where everyone has to begin.

A beginning is one of the key elements in any endeavour - it helps set out what is to come, it gives you a framework and should inspire interest. The crucial element in museums creating, and using web sites is the beginning. Although this may seem obvious there are numerous beginnings to regard, long before a web site is on-line, and it is easy to let initial planning be overwhelmed with concerns about outcomes.

This is of course true for most things, including research. Earlier this year I began work on my doctorate thesis, which is currently titled The Cybermuseum? Art Museums and The Impact of Technology. I began, like most post-graduate students, by reading around my topic. It was the vast amount of literature about the use of the Internet and CD-ROMs in museums, rather than experience using the technology, which was my primary motivation towards the topic.

Therefore, I must confess that I come to this issue as somewhat of a novice as far as technology goes. Having worked as a curatorial assistant at the Queensland Art Gallery for a number of years, I am excited by the many benefits that technology can have in a museum context.

It is what museums can achieve using technology, rather than the technologically determinist 'There's all this fab computer stuff, let's do something' that concerns me. My perspective is one of a user, rather than of a direct participant. It is only from this angle that I can discuss museums on the World Wide Web.

Some figures indicate 30 million people have Internet access, and at the moment there is a growth of 100% per year. Museum web sites are amongst the most popular. Webmuseum claimed in February this year to be hosting 200,000 visitors per week. This figure does not tell how long each visitor spent at the site, and does not take into consideration the accidental visitor.

Before museums delve into the Web, CD-ROMS or any other new technology, they have to have cohesive objectives in mind, crucially what does the museum hope to achieve by going on-line. Is it to attract more visitors to the museum or is it to give people who don't have an opportunity to physically visit the museum an insight or to enhance the actual visit; is it to attract sponsors or to sell merchandise; possibly it is to give artists an opportunity to exhibit their on-line art at a museum web site, as the Whitney Museum does.

Is it to give information regarding programmes or to gain feedback from visitors, actual and virtual or to give students and academics an opportunity to research the collections. It is, of course, a combination of any or all of these, and probably much more, including the simple desire to have a web presence.

There is a plethora of information on the web, and an enormous amount of data which individual museums can place on-line. Like editing a film or curating an exhibition, what is left out is as important as what is included. This does not mean that museums should place minimal information on the web, but it should be carefully considered and set out in a clear and informative manner. Visitors should also get what is offered. For example The Philadelphia Museum of Art's site offers a tour of its Galleries. There are only a selection of the listed galleries hyperlinked and those that are very disappointing. Rather than information regarding the works, why they have been chosen, at least an outline, the visitor clicks on to say European Painting Before 1900 and is given three titles to choose from. I chose Van Gogh's Sunflowers, mainly because it was 45K to download, as opposed to Cezanne's Large Bathers at 74K. The image which appeared slowly (patience wading the web is a necessity) was quite good, clear and of a fair size. The information available on the painting, though, was much like label information - artist details, title, date etc, but there were no dimensions and no context. It seemed that it should be enough that there was a Van Gogh on the screen, a sort of gee whizz approach to the technology, on the part of the museum. Possibly the site may be in development, but in an actual museum when an exhibition is being installed the area is roped off, but often in view of the public. They can see the art but not the context, and they understand that it is not complete. Some disclaimer on Philadelphia's site would be beneficial if the site is a work in progress.

The Whitney Museum, on the other hand, clearly states what is available, and has a guest book in which visitors are invited to make comments. This not only helps the museum know who has visited the site and gives them direct feedback, it also allows the visitor to feel included in the visit in a far more meangingful way than simply clicking on images. The Whitney also avoids any attempt at recreating the museum on a two dimensional plane. Floor-plans are sometimes interesting, but they cannot replicate the museum, though they can give an idea of the layout, its size and what the museum has to offer a, but they can be confusing. A cross-section of the building, as used on the MCA's site gives a far better idea of the building, and seems less like a guide and more of a useful design element.

A sense of being in the museum is not possible with the technology currently available, and until virtual technology has advanced to the point where we can jack-in and be there, trying to recreate the museum is selling both the museum and the visitors short. You cannot give a visitor an impression of physically being there, simply an understanding of what is available. A web site cannot be a replacement for the museum visit, but it can be an alternative type of visit, an augmentation or extension of the actual museum visit.

Museums, like all social phenomena, do not operate in a vacuum, but they rarely enunciate their influences or processes. For many actual visitors to museums the exhibitions seem to miraculously appear in the gallery. There is little attempt to give people an understanding of the processes involved from within the museum and from the perspective of the artists. Conservation work is sometimes referred to via video or didactics. Technology allows such information to be available without necessarily affecting the design of the space, through workstations within the gallery. Via the Web it would be possible to give visitors the option to explore how exhibitions are chosen, designed and perhaps even give them alternative layouts and selections. Increasing the audiences' awareness of the processes involved in exhibitions and in the art displayed removes it from the realm of divinely inspired creation.

The specialisation of knowledge disempowers sections of society and museums contribute to this by mythologising themselves as the normal, natural places to view art. It is important to remember and to attempt to impart to visitors, that there is not just one way to look at works, that all exhibitions could be done differently, that they are being conditioned to view in a particular way. Technology can provide museums with an outlet for different explanations, from museum workers with varying perspectives. The museum must be pluralistic and nurture creativity in all rather than deifying it in a few. By putting viewers in the position of the artist or the designer and giving them some ability to change and/or add material they will become better viewers and better creators.

The beauty of the World Wide Web is also its frightening aspect - there is so much information that it is hard to know where to begin. It is very easy to get side-tracked and to lose sight of your initial goals. This is true for the instigators of web sites, as well as users. Like most museum projects, the work is collaborative, requiring the input of many departments. Scott Sayre of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts reported in 1993 that the Institute had been developing interactive multimedia throughout the museum, but that their most successful work was completed after the formation of the Interactive Media Group.

The museum found that with this group, comprising an electronic graphic designer, media producers, a production assistant and a manager with multimedia experience, that their productions could be done fully in-house and the group had opportunities to work with different areas in the museum and (quote) "the technical aspects of production and installation take a back seat to the real problem of how to effectively communicate with the visitor".

And so we return to the question, what do we want to achieve on-line. Advertising is a major component of the World Wide Web, from the sponsor's messages we are invited to click on to, to the more subtle variety found on Web pages themselves. Museum pages which only give information about opening times, floor-plans and information about their shops seem to be utilising the web as another form of advertising, as a means to bring new visitors to their museum. This is an important benefit of the web, but conversely the fact that visitors may be thousands of kilometres away and extremely disinterested in your cafe has to be a consideration. They may be physical visitors one day, but for now they want to know about your collections, exhibitions and perhaps behind the scenes information.

On-line museum shops are another form of advertising, but they are more of a service, which have the ability of allowing people to feel they are in tangibly in touch with a museum. In some ways it is even easier than shopping from television - you just fill in the order form. Last week I came very close to be the proud owner of salt and pepper shakers from an American museum, which I would have purchased from a brief description and a grainy image about 3 x 2 centimetres.

It is very seductive, but after working out they would cost over fifty dollars, and I do have salt and pepper shakers I was saved. Until payment systems on the net are fully formalised, there is little scope for the on-line shop to become a great source of revenue, but it is always there for people who want to buy a hard to find book or an obscure gift.

Including who designed or who is responsible for the site in the introductory blurb has numerous benefits. It gives visitors a name behind the screen, the feeling that the page is created by real people. It also acts as a point of contact, and more importantly legitimises the site. I have found some pages that are ostensibly for a museum, but are made by a third party who has pieced together information from museum and other sources. This raises a myriad of concerns, including whether the right information is being put on-line, and of course, copyright issues.

Copyright is an area which is as and confusing as the Web itself. No fifteen minute paper can hope to even begin a proper discussion on this subject, but I would like to make some general observations. One of the greatest concerns of museums on-line is the downloading of their information, particularly images. The quality of images presently on the Web is probably one of the best defences against infringement, but quality will improve in the future. The image on screen may be of high quality when printed, despite the impression on screen.

Legitimate users will be dissuaded from reproducing visual and textual information by warnings and giving them a point of contact for reproduction enquiries. Some pages use standard small-sized images which cannot be enlarged. They are useful to give visitors an idea of holdings, but they do not have enough clarity to be useful as reference material. They are also not useful for pirate replications. The choice of how images are digitised again relies on the objectives of the museum. If the Web page is a 'teaser' as to what the museum has to offer, then small images are adequate. If the page is to provide more in depth information, visuals need to be of a reasonable size and quality, but naturally this opens up the problem of copyright abuse. If someone really wants an image, for whatever purpose, they will find a way to get a copy - this happened in the dark old days of books, and until there is a way of controlling what is downloaded, then museums may have to risk putting high quality images on-line for the integrity of their own site

The Californian Museum of Photography highlights another problem with images, apart from copyright. Their first page is reliant on a large image which is slow to download, and the next page is similar. This led me to lose my web patience and leave the sight despite the interesting tool they have, the Virtual Magnifying Glass, which allows the visitor to look closely at particular areas of an image. Until connection speed improves, images should be secondary, or equally balanced by text.

Naturally, to attract people to your site is one thing. To make them want to return is entirely another. Constant, or at least regular, updating of information is vital to capturing and maintaining visitors' interest. One site I visited recently did not seem to have changed since March, and the last useful information was applicable in September. This leads to the conclusion that they do not view their site as valuable and this does not ignite interest to visit again, except the perverse desire to see if the information changes in the next six months.

Museums function as a business and as a cultural service, and both these aspects benefit from the implentation of technology. It is as a cultural service, though, that the museum can fully extend itself, particularly via the World Wide Web. The perception of museums as entertainment and as places of learning has ramifications for their presence on the Web. By making available more contextual information with structured option and the use of secondary information, such as video and music, the museum can become an entertaining learning centre. We just have to wade a little further from shore.