The Transformation of the Museum and the Way it's Perceived

Howard Besser
School of Information & Systems
University of California at Berkeley

[to appear in Katherine Jones-Garmil (ed.), The Wired Museum, Washington: American Association of Museums, 1997]

New technologies are beginning to cause significant changes in the way museums perform their functions and in the way they are perceived by the public. The rapid conversion of text and images into digital form will affect work processes within the museum. Coupled with the advent of high speed digital networks, this convergence will permit the museum to provide more information to a wider general public.

In this chapter we will explore how technology is likely to transform museums in the coming years. We will look at multimedia exhibits delivered over the Internet as well as other effects of widespread adoption of digital images, multimedia, and high speed networks. We will examine how the adoption of these technologies is likely to cause a convergence between computing systems used for exhibition and those used for collection management, as well as cause paradigm shifts in what constitutes a collection, how the public views museums, and how scholars do research. And we will ground this study in an exploration of the library, a cultural institution which is approximately a decade ahead of museums in the transformation process.

A Changing World of Networked Digital Information

New channels for distribution of information are rapidly transforming the social and cultural landscape. First the television and later the VCR have changed how people consume culture. This has led to a transformation of cinemas and a gravitation towards consumption of culture within personal environments where the user has more control over the time and pacing of their interaction with the culture. The widespread dissemination of networked digital information from the cultural arena is likely to have a similar effect on other forms of culture, moving them into personal spaces where the user asserts more control over pacing and over when the interaction takes place.

We are already seeing a transformation in the world of librarianship. Libraries are becoming less important for the materials they collect or house, and more important for what kind of material they can obtain in response to user requests. This movement from collecting material "just in case" someone will need it, to one of developing relationships allowing the library to deliver material from elsewhere "just in time" to answer a user's needs is a profound shift for the library as an institution. This shift to on-demand delivery of material from elsewhere is a direct result of the recent proliferation of digital networking in an environment where standards for description were already well established.

Along with the changes to libraries as institutions have come changes to the roles of librarians. The proliferation of networked digital information is causing a shift of librarians from caretakers of physical collections to people who identify resources that exist in collections housed elsewhere. This is currently evident in most major research libraries where librarians spend much of their time creating (WorldWide Web based) electronic pointers to resources on the Internet. Efforts like this are likely to greatly increase in the foreseeable future.

As museums embrace networking and convert their information into digital form, we can expect to see similar sweeping changes both in the roles of museum employees, and in how the public views cultural repositories.

Automation-enabled Trends

Recent technological developments have created new capabilities for information repositories. These capabilities in turn will serve as agents that will enable major transformations within these repositories. In this section we will examine a number of the trends that emanate from new technologies, and (after reviewing how these are affecting libraries) speculate as to how these are likely to transform museums.

Large files, More detailed representations

Since the mid-1980s file storage capacity has increased and storage cost has decreased at a phenomenal rate. The 20 megabyte hard drive that was considered "large" in the mid-1980s cannot even be purchased in the mid-1990s (when 500 megabyte disks are considered small). This increase in storage capabilities has enabled the widespread digitization of large bodies of textual information, and will soon enable the digitization of images and multimedia on a massive scale.

Information repositories are in the business of creating representations of original objects, often in the form of cataloging or collection management records. This trend towards massive digitization has meant that repositories can create more and more detailed representations (or "better abstracts") of originals.

Library indexing and abstracting services began by providing titles and index terms online. As storage costs diminished, they added searchable abstracts. Most recently many added full text of articles. Similarly, library catalogs began with bibliographic descriptions and subject headings, then some added Table of Contents information, and today some of them are adding full text or page images.

Since the early days of museum automation efforts, text-based collection management records have served as abstracts (or stand-ins) for the objects they represent. As storage costs have come down, museums have begun to add digital images to their collection management records. In their initial forays into this area, most museums planned to only use the image for identification purposes. But museums who have begun on this path are increasingly realizing the utility of using larger images for a variety of purposes.

Because file-size constraints will continue to rapidly diminish, these will no longer serve as impediments to a repository's use of digital images. In the near future we are likely to see significant increases in the use of digital images and multimedia by cultural repositories.

Networking services, Access from multiple locations

Until the 1970s, computing was viewed as a service which was offered from a particular physical location; user transactions had to be carried on punchcards to the computer. The development of telecommunications capabilities and multi-user systems allowed interactions to take place from remote locations, opening up a host of new applications.

Networking developments have changed the landscape of computing. The 1960s and 1970s notion of users operating dumb terminals and all computer services residing on a central computer has been replaced by the concept of distributed computing and individual user workstations. The ability to have processes on a user's workstation interact with services from a centralized fileserver has led to the phenomenal growth in WorldWide Web activities, services, and use. Web browsers run decompression and formatting programs on files from remote servers, and the text layout and display of images would be slow or impossible without software running on the individual client.

For libraries this trend has meant that users no longer have to go to a single centralized card catalog in order to view the library's holdings; all holdings are usually available in each branch library or even from home workstations. Indexing and abstracting services which were distributed in print form (and usually housed in only one location) are now mounted on fileservers and available from remote workstations.

As network speeds continue to increase, more and more individuals will access information and entertainment from their workstations at home or work. Still images, moving images, and multimedia will become available as networked services. And as individuals access more and more of these resources online, cultural repositories we be under increasing pressure to distribute in this arena. It is very possible that many individuals will become less interested in traveling to sites where they must wrestle with parking and limited hours, and that they will only visit cultural repositories if they can do so any time of the day or night from the comfort of their home workstation.

Better user interfaces, Diminishing role for intermediaries

The advent of graphic user interfaces has made it possible to operate many computer applications with little or no training. In libraries, this has meant that many users will explore bodies of information directly themselves, without asking librarians to help point them in the right direction. And this has meant that many libraries have reallocated staff positions, putting fewer resources into directly answering patron queries and more resources into development and maintenance of online services.

Libraries have begun to explore the storing of user profiles and preferences (such as "only show me material in English" or "Display the items retrieved in chronological order, most recent first"). And research laboratories are exploring the development of "intelligent agents" which know about the user's preferences (including content and level of detail desired, amount willing to pay, and time willing to wait), and troll the Internet to bring back only the material that meets the user's criteria. Developers of these agents expect them to replace many of the jobs which today are devoted to helping people locate information.

The intuitive user interfaces of WorldWide Web browsers has shown that when interfaces are easy to use and the cost of information is not expensive, users will explore all kinds of new information resources. Cultural repositories should learn that this can mean a great increase in the number of people exploring the information that they generate.

Standards and protocols, More resources available

The development and adoption of standards and protocols has led to an exponential growth in resources available on the Internet. Information cannot be passed from one system to another without some kind of agreement on data formatting and delivery. Z39.50 standards have allowed people to use their own familiar query syntax to access library and other information resources around the world. Standards for URLs (Universal Resource Locators) and HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) have allowed WorldWide Web browsers to proliferate. MIME and other standards for multimedia formats and compression have led to wide availability of images and sound on the Internet. New industry standards (such as VRML, Java, and Shockwave) promise to extend functionality to the desktop, allowing users to interactively explore three-dimensional environments (eventually including interactive exhibits) and quickly and conveniently display complex multimedia information on their desktop.

The proliferation of resources available on the Internet has provided museum personnel with access to a wide variety of information. In addition, more and more museums are using the Internet to provide informational resources to other museums and to the general public.

In addition to the enormous amount of information available on the Internet, standards development has led to increased cooperation between institutions. This is most evident in libraries where standards have led to cooperative efforts in interlibrary loan and collection development. Much of the current museum standards development and implementation is centered in the CIMI Project (Computerized Interchange of Museum Information), and particularly in Project CHIO (Cultural Heritage Information Online). The successful widespread adoption of results from these projects are likely to lead to more cooperative relationships between museums.

Collection Management & Exhibition: Increasing Crossover?

Historically, most museum automation efforts have been driven by the need for record-keeping and inventory control, and have resulted in collection management systems. A smaller collection of automation efforts has centered in museum education departments, and has focused on interactive exhibits. The vendors, software, tools, and platforms for computers used in collection management have been very different from those in interactive exhibitions. (For a summary of the differing characteristics between the two, see figure #1.) This split was due to technological limitations, but recent technological changes are likely to increasingly cause a convergence between these two camps.

Collection management systems have historically handled very complex information but have had poor user interfaces and been extremely difficult to learn to use. User interfaces for these systems were very slow to even incorporate underlining or font changes, and not until the mid-1990s did these systems begin to utilize a graphic user interface or a mouse.

Multimedia exhibitions, on the other hand, have used graphic, point-and-click interfaces since the mid-1980s. Because there is no chance to give even a short "how-to-use" lesson to a museum visitor, these user interfaces had to be intuitive and easy to use.

Collection management systems are object-based, and most data within them refers to a particular object. Though they can reflect complex relationships between objects, this is usually limited to situating an object within a set (a group or a collection). The relationship between an object and other objects, people, or theories, (usually a key element of an exhibition catalog) is seldom reflected in a collection management system.

Multimedia exhibition packages, on the other hand, primarily offer a narrative structure; they essentially tell a story and situate the objects in some relationship with other objects, people, and theories. They also offer a coherent view of some domain, unlike collection management systems which focus on individual objects. In this sense they are much closer to an exhibit or exhibition catalog than to a collection management system.

Interactive Multimedia Exhibition       Collection Management Systems           

Designed for explanation and access     Designed for inventory control,         

Good user interface                     Poor user interface                     

Records are limited and carefully       Unlimited records and all are           
            selected                                available                   

static                                  dynamic                                 
figure #1

Collection management systems attempt to create and store records for every object in the museum. Interactive exhibits, on the other hand, usually store only a selected group of records and images -- just enough to tell a story. And while the records in the exhibition system may be derived from records in the collection management system, they are often enhanced and always stored in a separate location.

Collection management systems usually incorporate a powerful database, and give users the opportunity to pose just about any possible query to that database. Interactive exhibit systems seldom contain a database. Though on the surface these exhibit systems appear to give users a variety of choices, usually the choice consists of multiple-choice branching, with only branches anticipated by system designers being possible.

Collection management systems have tended to be relatively open; for the most part vendors have recognized the need to import records into these systems and export them to other systems, and in recent years have provided tools so that even naive users can perform these functions. Interactive exhibit systems, on the other hand, have almost always been "closed-box" systems. They see themselves as stand-alone systems that have no need to share information with other applications (except perhaps during the early stage of a project when developers might take text or images from other sources).

While collection management systems have always been dynamic (with system tools oriented towards handling data that is constantly growing and being updated), interactive exhibits have tended to have static contents. Like a publishing media, interactive exhibits have mostly captured growing and changing information and frozen it at a particular point in time, and systems have seldom provided tools for updating that information.

A number of technological limitations have led interactive exhibit systems to evolve in this particular way. Until recently, the vast storage needs for digital multimedia had led most developers to favor analog videodisc systems. Because in the mid-to-late 1980s good toolkits for developing graphic user interfaces were only available on single-user systems (like the Macintosh at that point in time), most interactive exhibit developers conceptualized their projects as single-user systems. Developers chose to store their text and images in whatever format would help them achieve the highest performance, ignoring standard formats (which frequently diminished multimedia performance). They also discovered that they could simplify their work if they chose to limit the total amount of information, and control the types of questions that could be asked. And because most developers saw their work as ending with the installation of the interactive exhibit, few considered implementation of a function to export images or text.

Collection management systems were first implemented on mainframe computers, then on early PCs -- both platforms that were slow to adopt graphic user interfaces or incorporate images or multimedia. System vendors have seen their role as handling complex information about and relationships between objects (in groups), and until recently ignored technological developments bringing graphic interfaces and multimedia to their platforms.

Technological developments are making collection management systems and interactive exhibits begin to share more characteristics in common. The advent of faster processors, higher capacity digital storage, and more efficient compression algorithms will soon eliminate some of the major performance concerns that have led the interactive developers to avoid standards and keep their text and images in formats that are inaccessible from other applications. This coupled with the development of platform-independent multimedia authoring systems will likely lead developers away from single-station, closed-box systems.

The advent of robust graphic user interface toolkits and software for handling multimedia are making it easy for collection management systems to develop better user interfaces and incorporate forms of multimedia. As they do this, on some levels they will begin to resemble the interactive multimedia systems.

But the recent development which holds the greatest promise for the convergence between interactive exhibition systems and collection management systems is the WorldWide Web (WWW). The widespread deployment of WWW browsing tools essentially creates tens of thousands of multimedia-capable "clients". This large "market" will provide incentive for interactive developers to abandon closed-box, single-station systems in favor of producing "servers" designed to deliver to multiple clients -- something that just wasn't possible before the number of clients had reached a critical mass.

The WWW holds the promise of combining an overall narrative view of some domain with a database of individual items. A museum could create WWW documents out of narrative essays from an exhibition catalog and link these directly to text and images from a collection management system which is constantly being updated. Thus, instead of the "frozen snapshot" that characterizes most catalogs and interactive exhibits, the WWW exhibit would be dynamically updated as collection management records changed. Furthermore, designers of a WWW interactive exhibit could allow users to view any non-protected text or image within the collection management system and to ask almost unlimited questions -- a radical departure from the limited questioning available within current interactive exhibits.

Though thus far this has not been fully exploited, this approach holds great promise in integrating the advantages of both interactive multimedia exhibition tools and collection management systems, while eliminating many of the drawbacks of each of these.

Broader Trends

Information technology will cause broad changes in museums and in how the general public perceives cultural objects. There is no way of accurately predicting what these changes will be, but we can certainly identify major areas of concern and ask questions about what kind of changes will occur in these areas. In another chapter in this volume ("The changing Role of Photographic Collections With the Advent of Digitization") this author speculates about how the democratization of access will affect how people view cultural objects, and he examines issues of authorship, ownership, and intellectual property. In this section we will raise questions about basic changes to research and scholarship, as well as impending changes to museums and how they're perceived.

Changes to Scholarship

In the past, scholarly examination of books, photographs, and other material took place only in specialized environments such as museums, archives, and libraries. As tools are developed to analyze works from personal computers, and as more of the works are available digitally through networks and CDs, scholarly research will shift from these specialized environments to homes and offices. This is likely to change both the way scholars work and the view of research institutions as specialized environments.

A scholar's workstation can provide tools which allow the user to analyze digital images, combine them in different ways, create new juxtapositions, and explore scholarly text-based information about individual images, artists, subjects portrayed, etc. (Besser 1987; Besser 1991; ; Besser 1992) For example, the viewer can examine images of a work of art both before and after restoration, and make up their own mind as to the appropriateness of the restoration. Or they can compare three translations of an ancient manuscript and look at them all on the screen side-by-side. When the scholars workstation is combined with access to databanks of journals, other textual information, and digital images, this will provide the scholar with powerful tools to do his/her research.

Though we can identify a variety of tools that might be desirable in such a workstation (bibliography-handling, finding tools, image-sorting, image-processing, multivalent documents, etc.), much work still needs to be done to identify and develop tools to aid the researcher. Even in the field of imaging there has only been one significant set of studies to date of image quality needs of scholarly researchers (Ester 1990, Ester 1994).

But the world of information at the scholar's fingertips carries with it the potential for recasting scholarship. If user behavior on the WWW is any example, when a huge body of multimedia information is readily available it is possible that scholarship may shift its focus from discovering new knowledge within objects to discovering connections and themes between them.

Changes to the museums and how they're perceived

As more and more museum information (images and text about the objects, online exhibits) becomes available across the Internet, will people begin to forego the experience of actually visiting a museum? When a large number of museum visitors find it possible to visit and exhibit without physically entering the museum premises, how does that change the public's perception of the museum? Does the museum's authority increase (because more people actually see its exhibits)? Or does it decrease (because its being delivered through a channel adjacent to "Home Shopping")?

When a museum begins to service more people online than in person, will more resources be put into online exhibits than into physical exhibits? How will services to the public change? Will sources that currently base funding levels upon the number of people who enter the museum premises change their accountability measures to include online visits? If so, will the ability to track how often viewers look at each individual part of an online exhibit affect the types of items and themes covered (causing a focus on high-visitation areas)?

At this point in time, the building blocks for most WorldWide Web exhibitions are relatively small files of descriptive text and images which are joined together through links to them from a set of master files which provide the narrative coherence to the exhibit. As museums create more and more of these building blocks of images and descriptive text online, will disputes develop over the rights to use these building blocks in different ways? Will commercial enterprises develop their own exhibits that incorporate links to hundreds (or thousands) of these building blocks in museums? Will the fact that anyone can link to these building blocks begin to erode the authority of the curator (as the only who can visually present themes and juxtapositions)?

As the general populace begins to visit more online exhibits, will a museum become more notable for the strength of their online presentation than for the contents of their collection?


Some of the ideas here are excerpted from The Changing Museum, a paper the author wrote for the 1987 Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science (Besser 1987), and from The Changing Role of Photographic Collections With the Advent of Digitization, a discussion paper he wrote for the Working Group for Digital Image in Curatorial Practice (Besser 1994) which met at George Eastman House on June 4, 1994 (organized by Roger Bruce).


Howard Besser, "The Changing Museum," Proceedings of the 1987 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science, Medford, NJ: Learned Information, 1987, pages 14-19.

Howard Besser, "Advanced Applications of Imaging: Fine Arts," Journal of the American Society of Information Science, September 1991, pages 589-596

Howard Besser, "Adding an Image Database to an Existing Library and Computer Environment: Design and Technical Considerations," in Susan Stone and Michael Buckland (eds.), Studies in Multimedia (Proceedings of the 1991 Mid-Year Meeting of the American Society for Information Science), Medford, NJ: Learned Information, 1992, pages 31-45.

Howard Besser, "The Changing Role of Photographic Collections With the Advent of Digitization," in Roger Bruce (ed.), Selected Papers from the Working Group for Digital Image in Curatorial Practice, George Eastman House, June 4, 1994 (gopher://

Howard Besser, "The changing Role of Photographic Collections With the Advent of Digitization", 1996 (chapter in this volume)

Michael Ester, "Image Quality and Viewer Perception," Leonardo (Digital Image-Digital Cinema, Supplemental Issue, 1990): 51-53.

Michael Ester, "Digital Images in the Context of Visual Collections and Scholarship," Visual Resources X (1994):11-24.

Return to Howard's Homepage

Last modified: 3/11/1997