The Transformation of the Museum and the
Way It's Perceived
Howard Besser
Visiting Associate Professor, University of California--Berkeley,
School of Information Management & Systems

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.

     This chapter explores how technology is likely to transform museums in the coming years. It looks at multimedia exhibits delivered over the Internet as well as other effects of widespread adoption of digital images, multimedia, and high speed networks. It examines how the adoption of these technologies is likely to cause a convergence between computing systems used for exhibitions 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. This study is grounded in an exploration of the library, a cultural institution that 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 users have more control over time and pacing. 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 how quickly and 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 delivering material from elsewhere "just in time" to answer a user's needs, is a profound shift for the library as an institution. This shift 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 in libraries as institutions have come changes in the roles of librarians. With the proliferation of networked digital information, the librarian's role is shifting from caretaker of a physical collection to someone who identifes resources in collections housed elsewhere. This is currently evident in most major research libraries where librarians spend much of their time creating (World Wide 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. This section examines some of the trends that emanate from new technologies, and (after reviewing how these are affecting libraries) speculates as to how they 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 cataloguing 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 on-line. As storage costs diminished, they added searchable abstracts. Most recently, many added full text of articles. Similarly, library catalogues began with bibliographic descriptions and subject headings, then some added table of contents information, and today some 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 fallen, 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 images for identification purposes. But museums that have begun on this path are increasingly realizing the utility of using larger images for a variety of purposes.

     Because constraints on file size will continue to rapidly diminish, they will no longer prevent 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 and Access from Multiple Locations
Until the 1970s, computing was viewed as a service that was offered at a particular physical location; user transactions had to be carried on punchcards to the computer. The development of telecommunications capabilities and multi-user systems has 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 of all 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 World Wide 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 catalogue 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 that 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 on-line, cultural repositories will be under increasing pressure to distribute in this arena. Although it is currently a nightmare vision for most museum directors, 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 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 and a 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 for guidance. 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 on-line services.

     Libraries have begun to explore the storage 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" that 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. These agents, their developers believe, will replace many of the jobs that today are devoted to helping people locate information.

     The intuitive user interfaces of World Wide Web browsers have 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 have 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 World Wide 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 among 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 is likely to encourage more cooperative relationships among museums.

Collection Management and 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 set 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 advances are likely to promote the 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 make widespread use of a mouse and a graphic user interface.

     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" 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 among 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, however, 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 that focus on individual objects. In this sense they are much closer to an exhibit or exhibition catalogue than to a collection management system.

Figure #1
Interactive Multimedia Exhibition Packages Collection Management Systems
Designed for explanation and access Designed for inventory control, record-keeping
Good user interface Poor user interface
Offer coherent view of some domain
No overall view of domain
Records are limited and carefully selected Unlimited records; all are available
Frequently no database Usually a powerful database
Limited user navigation Unlimited user navigation
Always single-user Single-user or multi-user
Closed-box system Open or interoperable systems
Static Dynamic

    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 have always been stored in a separate location.

     Collection management systems usually incorporate a powerful database and let users pose just about any possible query to it. Interactive exhibit systems seldom contain a database. Though on the surface these exhibit systems appear to give users a variety of options, usually these are limited to multiple-choice branching, and the user can only follow branches conceived by the system designer).

     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 inexperienced 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 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.

     A number of technological limitations have shaped interactive exhibit systems in this way. Until recently, the vast storage needs for digital multimedia had led most developers to favor analog videodisc systems for exhibits incorporating images or multimedia. Because good toolkits for developing graphic user interfaces were only available in the mid-to-late 1980s on single-user systems (like the Macintosh at that time), most interactive exhibit developers exmployed 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 among objects (in groups), and until recently ignored technological developments bringing graphic interfaces and multimedia to their platforms.

     Thanks to technological developments, collection management systems and interactive exhibits now share more in common characteristics. 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 interactive developers to avoid standards and store 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 is 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 that holds the greatest promise for the convergence between interactive exhibition systems and collection management systems is the World Wide 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 a domain with a database of individual items. A museum could create WWW documents out of narrative essays from an exhibition catalogue and link these directly to text and images from a collection management system that is constantly updated. Thus, instead of the frozen snapshot that characterizes most catalogues 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.

     Although this approach hasn’t been fully exploited yet, it holds great promise in integrating the advantages of both interactive multimedia exhibition tools and collection management systems while eliminating many of their respective drawbacks.

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 relevant questions. Another chapter in this volume ("The Changing Role of Photographic Collections with the Advent of Digitization") speculates about the effect of democratized access on how people view cultural objects, and examines issues of authorship, ownership, and intellectual property. The section below raises 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 generally 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 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 that 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. (1; 2; 3) For example, viewers can examine images of a work of art both before and after restoration, and decide whether the rehabilitation<<maybe this should be "restoration" again; rehabilitation doesn't sound right>> was appropriate. Or a user can compare three translations of an ancient manuscript, looking at them all on the screen side-by-side. Scholars will have powerful tools for research when their workstations have access to databanks of journals, other textual information, and digital images.<<could you try to reword this sentence again?  Though I like your reworking better than my original, you've eliminated the concept of a "scholar's workstation" which is important.>>

     Though we can identify a variety of aids 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 help the researcher. Even in the field of imaging there has only been one significant set of studies to date of scholarly researchers’ image quality needs (6; 7).

     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 among them.

Changes to Museums and How They're Perceived
As more and more museum information (images and text about objects, on-line 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 can visit an exhibit without physically entering the museum premises, how does that change the public's perception of the institution? Does the museum's authority increase (because more people actually see its exhibits)? Or does it decrease (because it’s being delivered through a channel adjacent to "Home Shopping")?

     When a museum begins to service more people electronically than in person, will more resources be put into on-line exhibits than into physical exhibits? How will services to the public change? Will sources that currently base funding levels on the number of people who enter the museum premises change their accountability measures to include on-line visits? If so, will the ability to track how often viewers look at each individual part of an on-line 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 World Wide Web exhibitions are relatively small files of descriptive text and images joined through links from a set of master files that provide the narrative coherence to the exhibit. As museums create more and more of these building blocks of images and descriptive text on-line, will disputes develop over the rights to use them 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 public’s ability to link to these building blocks begin to erode the authority of the curator as the only one who can visually present themes and juxtapositions?

     As the general populace begins to visit more on-line exhibits, will a museum become more notable for the strength of its on-line presentation than for the contents of its 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 (1), 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 (4) that met at George Eastman House on June 4, 1994 (organized by Roger Bruce).  An expanded version of one section of this chapter appeared as part of the Proceedings of the 1997 Museums and the Web conference under the title Integrating Collections Management Information into Online Exhibits:  The Worldwide Web as a Facilitator for Linking 2 Separate Processes.  Julie Herrrada assisted in editing this chapter.


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

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

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

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

5. Besser, Howard. "The Changing Role of Photographic Collections with the Advent of Digitization." Chapter in this volume.

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

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

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This paper originally written in Microsoft Word 6.0/95 for MacIntosh on February 25, 1997.
It was converted to HTML 4 using Netscape Composer 4.04 on 5/18/98.