What makes a ‘virtual’ museum a museum?

We are involved in an interesting conversation about virtual museums going on in the Museums and the Web group on LinkedIn.  We are asking the same questions in the Online Museum Working Group

The LinkedIn discussion began with this post:

Is A Title a Definition? The Virtual Steam Car Museum.

 Donald Hoke, Ph.D.Co-Owner of Vintage Steam Products, LLCTop Contributor

The Virtual Steam Car Museum has applied for an IMLS CAP grant and been denied for the past two years. The rational is that IMLS does not fund virtual museums, but the Virtual Steam Car Museum has thousands of artifacts. Our exhibits are on line, but our collections need help just as does every museum’s collections.

After several comments from others, Eric chimed in with:

Eric Baird Content Creator at Brighton Toy and Model Museum

Wouldn’t a collection of images of 2D material like brochures, advertising documentation and literature be more easily referred to as a “virtual archive” rather than a “virtual museum”?

“Virtual museum” sounds sexier, but “virtual archive” may be easier for funding bodies to understand, and an “archive” has existing well-defined functions that translate well to an online environment.

There are already a number of major organisations that collect and display 2D artefacts and increasingly put them online ( in the UK, the British Library, the National Gallery, etc), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these organisations refer to their online collections of 2D material as “museums”. So I think that perhaps “museum” is understood as referring to collections of artefacts that aren’t just simple 2D objects.

Here’s my response:

 Liza Loop Vision Keeper: History of Computing in Learning and Education

IMHO the issue is about the various functions of a “museum”. One function is ‘exhibition’ to the public. Before the internet, museums had to provide physical walk-in facilities in order to provide access to the public. Now many established museums are supplementing their physical exhibits with online galleries of images. But many of us who manage significant collections and archives either cannot, or choose not to, take on the additional burden of administering a physical space open to the public. We perform all the other functions of a museum: collection, preservation, cataloging, curating, interpreting, lending artifacts, researching, educating, etc. The only function we don’t have is physical exhibit space. Public access is either via images, text, video and software on the web or at partner institutions that mount temporary exhibitions of our materials.

It’s not just a matter of whether the collection contains 2D or 3D objects. 3D scanning and printing is opening up the study of physical objects to a much broader audience and can be used by virtual museums. We need to elaborate the definition of ‘museum’ beyond the public access function. Is having a walk-in gallery of physical object the sine qua non of being a museum? It is in the current IMLS enabling legislation. Do we want to keep it that way or modernize our thinking?

Virtual or online museums can ‘exhibit’ 3D objects. There is no question that the experience of being in the presence of an object, an ancient throwing stick or the Enterprise space shuttle for example, is different from viewing a digital surrogate of it online. What we do ask is whether both experiences should be considered ‘museum experiences’. I vote ‘yes’ and cite the crowds of visitors huddled around video screens in walk-in exhibit halls. No one questions that viewing a screen along with the physical exhibit is ‘going to the museum’. But the significant change is from physical artifact to screen display, not where that screen is located. And, even within a physical space, the experience of handling an object differs from viewing it enclosed in a plexiglass case.

Depending on one’s purpose for the museum visit, each of these interaction techniques has its advantages and shortcomings. When embedded in a richly contextualized web site (as contrasted with a simple, captioned, online picture album) the visitor can learn an immense amount about an artifact even though the ‘vibe’ of the physical object is missing. These virtual exhibits are accessible to a much larger public and often enable deeper exploration of the object than physical exhibits. This is not to diminish the awe and reverence that many of us only feel when standing physically close to the ‘real McCoy’. We need both/and, not either/or.

This discussion isn’t over yet. Join in either here or through the Museums and the Web group on LinkedIn.


About lizaloop

Social philosopher, educator, writer, idea generator, teacher, parent, grandmother, community volunteer, musician, former horseback rider, skier, former dog owner, trouble-maker.

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