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Author: Stuart D. Hobbs
Title: The Barbarians from Poughkeepsie are in the Museum: What Now? (A Review Essay on Computers and Museums)
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2002

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Source: The Barbarians from Poughkeepsie are in the Museum: What Now? (A Review Essay on Computers and Museums)
Stuart D. Hobbs

vol. 5, no. 3, September 2002
Article Type: Book Review

The Barbarians from Poughkeepsie are in the Museum: What Now?

Stuart D. Hobbs

Edward Barrett and Marie Redmond, eds. Contextual Media: Multimedia And Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995. Xvi, 262 pp.; ill.; bibliography and index. Paperback: 1997. $25.00. ISBN 0-262-52239-X

Katherine Jones-Garmil, ed. The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1997. 278 pp. Paper. $35.00 ISBN: 0-931201-36-5 (pbk.).

Selma Thomas and Ann Mintz, eds.. The Virtual and the Real: Media in the Museum. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1998. Xi, 196 pp.; ill.; bibliography and index. Paper. $36.00. ISBN: 0-931201-51-9.

.01 Introduction

In April 1968, a conference, somewhat tentatively called "Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums" (my emphasis), was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At the dinner marking the close of the gathering, Thomas Hoving, the director the Met and a man legendary in museum circles for his innovative programming-such as the conference on museums and computers that he organized-told how a friend of "impeccable credentials in traditional aesthetics," "wandered" into one of the sessions, and then ran to Hoving to accuse the director of "selling out to the barbarians." Hoving said that this traditionalist "saw himself and me and museums as Rome in the first century, clutching the glories of the past to its bosom, dewy-eyed with nostalgia for the old days . . . listening to the horrible rattling of the city gates" at the hands of northern barbarians–in this case "the hordes from Armonk and Poughkeepsie". [1]

Hoving, of course, did not see things the same way. He was excited about the possibilities of bringing technology to the museum. He deliberately invited technical people into the museum in order to spark some cooperation between humanists and scientists. Such concerns were typical of the time, of course. But the conference proceedings are of more interest than as one more example of a response to C. P. Snow's ruminations about the divide between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities. They provide a benchmark for thinking about and evaluating the use of computers in museums. Almost thirty-five years and several computers and museum conferences later, much of the potential identified that April in New York has been realized. In this essay, I review some of the recent literature concerning computers in museum settings. I approach this topic with a special interest (and some experience) in the role of computers in history museums, as an historian for the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) involved in exhibit development, including the use of computers. The books under review are more broadly focused, and indeed the theoretical issues for museum computing are much the same for science, art, and history museums. It s is merely the content that changes. I conclude that while the application of computers to history museums in particular and museums in general has lived up to much of the predicted potential, we are now at something of a plateau. New ideas are needed to take museum computing forward. Some of the writers under review have suggestions for what the next steps might be, but the details remain unclear.

.02 A Benchmark Conference

1968 was indeed another time. In one of the first conference papers presented at the Metropolitan Museum conference, IBM programmer Stephen E. Furth noted, "many of us do not know what computers are, because comparatively few of us see them, use them, or work with them." [2] Because of this unfamiliarity, Furth felt the need to explain computers to the uninitiated (he used a comparison with washing machines) before going on to talk about the potential of the computer in processing museum data. Several speakers discussed the use of computers to create databases and catalogs, and these areas would be the primary focus of museum computing for decades to come, a development that would have, as it turns out, specific results for the nature of history museum computing today.

Even at this early date, however, presenters also grasped the potential of computers in museums, especially the use of computer-generated graphics. Thus, when Herbert Freeman of New York University described his computer model for designing and constructing a jigsaw puzzle, his listeners immediately thought of possible applications in virtually assembling archaeological fragments. [3] Leslie Mezei, from the University of Toronto, spoke words of caution, however, noting "graphics is another one of the glamour areas of computer application where the promise of quick and easy results may well leave a host of people disappointed." She pointed out that graphics were expensive in computer time, storage needs, and programming. She correctly predicted that technological advances would change this situation, but it would be many years before the graphic potential of computers could be realized. Yet Mezei revealed that the virtual museum had been predicted by no less a source than TV Guide, in which an author foresaw a "giant 3-D color screen" in every room on which "you may be able to dial exact reproductions of art masterpieces electronically 'hung' on your wall from the world's great museums.'" Apparently, Bill Gates has something along these lines in his home. Nor is it dissimilar from the "Women in Art" screen saver I downloaded from the Columbus Museum of Art, or the Rothko screen saver I created myself from available digital images. In conclusion, Mezei asked, "Will the museum . . . become an electronic control center from which the displays are beamed into the outer world?" That question is still being asked. [4]

.03 Computers and Museums: From the 1960s to the 1980s

From the 1960s to the 1980s museum personnel explored the use of computers in data management, in particular computer cataloging and the creation of systems that could transmit data from one museum to another. Katherine Jones-Garmil notes in her survey of the history of computers and museums in The Wired Museum, that museum computing in the early days was based on mainframes–and typically mainframes that were owned not by the museum but by another institution, usually a university or governmental entity. [5] Early advocates of museum computing formed consortiums of institutional members, such as the Museum Computer Network, an alliance of New York City museums (MCN still exists, but has evolved into the Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information [CIMI], a name which suggests its function). The major players at this time were large museums of art, archaeology, and natural history. History museums did not play a prominent role. However, a legacy of this period that has had a profound effect on history museums was the work of archaeologist Robert Chenall, who developed a hierarchical system for classifying objects based on their function that could be used for computer cataloging systems. Published as Nomenclature in 1978 by the American Association for State and Local History, the work is still in print and the system is widely used in history museums (it is used, for example, by my institution, the Ohio Historical Society). Museum computing for the first thirty years was largely focused on what Selma Thomas calls "internal issues." While uses for computers in exhibitions and other "external," or public venues, had been envisioned early on, those ideas did not become practical until the nineteen-eighties, when personal computers became widely available. The PC resulted in museum computing applications beyond cataloging. [6]

.04 Linearity and Non-linearity

Many applications and potential applications of computers to museums were discussed at a 1993 conference held at Trinity College, Dublin called "Culture, Technology, Interpretation: The challenge of Multimedia." The papers presented at this conference formed the basis for the Barrett and Redmond volume under review here (Redmond teaches at Trinity College). Cataloging barely made an appearance in this book as essayists considered the use of computers to present text, pictures, moving images, and sound. The essays are wide ranging, covering e-books, displays that combine objects, human interaction, and computers, as well as museum-based computer exhibits. A common theme emerges, however, from a variety of writers approaching the topic from several directions: the challenge posed by the non-linear world of computers.

Commentators responded to the open-ended quality of computer programs in two ways: they celebrated non-linearity as a triumph of freedom for users over entrenched authorities who limit information, or they suggested the need for careful planning to help visitors use the new technology effectively. The first viewpoint was articulated by Colin Beardon and Suzette Worden in "The Virtual Curator: Multimedia Technologies and the Roles of Museums." Beardon and Worden value computers as a way to empower users. They saw the capacity of the computer to hold large amounts of data "as a challenge to the power structure found in traditional museums," and they believed that computers could breakdown "the organizational structure . . . separating curator from visitor." Beardon and Worden designed a computer program, called "Virtual Curator," based on the premise that users "should be in control of all aspects of the collection of information and its arrangement." They noted that "the starting point [for the program] is the idea of the museum," but the authors affirmed that they wanted "the user to be as free as possible from the preconceptions of traditional institutions." The program that Beardon and Worden described begins with what appears to be an empty virtual environment. Through exploration, the user discovers a variety of objects, represented by bad graphics (many, if not all, cribbed from catalog line art), which, it turns out, can be organized into display cases (represented by line drawings of very unattractive commercial fixtures) to create their own museum. [7]

While I am not particularly impressed with what Beardon and Worden have come up with, it might actually be useful in museum studies courses to introduce students to various theoretical issues surrounding objects and their curation. It is ironic, then, that the whole exercise is premised on the curator as villain. However, that role is hardly a new one for curators. Curators have long been the whipping boys of the museum world. As museum educators have professionalized and fought for higher status in the museum world, curators have been their bête noire. Curators are stereotyped as dull pedants, alternatively talking down to visitors or discouraging them from even entering the curator's private realm, the museum. It is only natural that those trying to apply computers to the museum field would likewise choose curators as the enemy. [8] Beardon and Worden are particularly concerned about the inequitable power arrangements that shape our world (the political and economic power of global corporations, governments, and international organizations such as the World Bank). Feeling powerless to do anything about those inequalities, they pick on the overworked and underpaid museum curator and the inequality inherent in the specialized knowledge that he or she possesses compared with the average museum visitor. This is not fair of course, but flows inexorably from the theoretical perspective (outlined in the first half of the essay–a précis of postmodernism from the British Cultural Studies perspective). That the average curator is a hardworking professional trying to apply professional criteria to managing what must be a finite number of objects in a museum collection ("must be" because neither resources, time, or space are infinite), is not acknowledged.

Beardon and Worden are on the faculty of the Rediffusion Simulation Research Center, Faculty Art, Design and Humanities at the University of Brighton, England. That is to say, their interest in museums and computing is largely theoretical. Those who see a problem in the non-linear quality of computer programs tend to approach the question from the standpoint of actually using or producing computer programs in a museum setting. This practical approach is a strength that curators, and museum professionals in general, bring to the issue of computers in museums, but they are not the only ones. Larry Friedlander, for example, is a professor of English at Stanford who developed a multimedia program to teach Shakespeare, and has consulted with museums on computer projects. In his essay, he described the responses of museum visitors to a particular interactive system in a museum. Friedlander thought the system was well designed and was impressed with the amount of information available. Visitors approached the program with excitement at first but soon "a dispirited glaze spread over their faces" and they lost interest and left. Why? Friedlander said they were overwhelmed with the information they found and did not know what to do with it or where to go. Concluded Friedlander: "The technology that delivers immense bundles of data does not simultaneously deliver a reason for accumulating so much information, nor a way for the user to order and make since of it. That is the designer's task. The pressing challenge of multimedia design is to transform information into usable and useful knowledge." [9]

Janet Murray, in an essay on teaching the writing of nonlinear and interactive narrative, discovered a similar problem. When assigned to read hypertext novels, some students objected to not knowing where they were going in the story and especially to not knowing what criteria to use for choosing a link. "This blind navigating tends to mitigate against the democratic aspirations of the postmodern hypertext group. Instead of feeling empowered by experiencing an undetermined text, students often feel tyrannized by a pre-determined set of often frustrating and incoherent paths. [10] The strength of computers in a museum setting (the large amounts of information that can be made available in a small space) is their weakness (too much information overwhelms the visitor). As Friedlander argued, giving users "complete control at every moment," may be "praiseworthy" in principle, but in practice often leaves users feeling "bewildered and overwhelmed by choices and uncertainty." Friedlander recommended a simple framework to organize the multimedia program, such as a map, or a simulated trip through a museum, or some such. [11]

Marie Redmond, and Niall Sweeney, both affiliated with Trinity College, Dublin, worked with the National Gallery of Ireland to create a computer program organized around paintings in the collection of the gallery. Their essay described the actual process of developing computer programs for museums and drew on that experience to reflect on larger theoretical issues. They, too, saw a practical problem in presenting open-ended information on computer programs (the program they designed was in fact a fairly narrow database). They offer a key insight: "The main challenge in multimedia production is how to write and develop information in a nonlinear form for linear viewing. It is the narrative that connects the linear and nonlinear forms of the presentation; this must be present and valid when creating and viewing the information." They point out that the program "will be viewed as a personalized linear production by each viewer." Each viewer will produce his or her own show that will differ from others in "in length and detail of subject matter but it is always a linear viewing in that it has a beginning and an end." [12]

Not all commentators agree with this diagnosis. Helen Coxall, for example, commenting on just this passage from Redmond and Sweeney, detected a "conflict of intention and interest." Coxall found it hard to believe that "allowing greater freedom for the user can be seen as a source of difficulty for the designer." Nor did she find "restrictions on the lines of available enquiry" to be desirable. She noted that "uncontainabilty effectively removes ultimate control from the designers of the display," implying that the real issue was the preservation of curatorial power and control. While suggesting that museum staff may be trying to "preserve a long outmoded status quo" by "deliberately ...[closing] avenues of enquiry," she also noted that less nefarious motives might be at work: "using a linear mode is clearly less time-consuming." [13]

Coxall described how museum staff in Brighton and Croydon in England have used computer-based exhibits to tell the stories of their communities. The computer programs feature images (including video), text, oral histories, and tours. The programs in large measure are the result of museum staff going out into their community and talking to people, collecting stories, images, and objects from them, and taking them back to the museum. Coxall concluded that computers might indeed be ideal for presenting the stories of marginalized groups. Certainly, the programs she described appear to be marvelous vehicles for presenting local history. In the case of the Brighton Art Gallery and Museum's exhibit "My Brighton," for example, visitors may choose from a selection of tours. A different Brighton resident designed each tour. Each person walked through the city and took pictures. Volunteers researched the history of the places in the photographs, including who lived there, and incorporated all of that information into the computer tour. I believe, however, that Coxall confused two issues: presenting the history of ordinary people, and restricting or not restricting "the lines of available enquiry." In fact, the lines of available enquiry are restricted on these computer programs. Visitors interact with the Brighton program through the following topics: "Index," "Personal Tour," "Specialist Tour," "Encyclopedia." and "About My Brighton." Within these categories is a wealth of information (she reports that viewing and reading all the information would take forty-five hours), but it is a finite amount of information, and if the topic one is interested in is not covered, then one's line of enquiry is clearly not available.

Coxall missed the larger point of Redmond and Sweeney, in the discussion of linearity. Coxall chided them for being wedded to linear narratives, but they were not. They merely made the sensible point that people live in time, and therefore visitors to Brighton will experience "My Brighton" in linear ways. They will view a particular oral history before taking that Personal Tour before looking up a specific street in the encyclopedia, before going to the index in search of a family name, before viewing the information about that family member before finishing with the program. Humans live in a chronological, linear, fashion, and no change in the power structure will change that. However, each visitor's experience of "My Brighton" will be different–and that is where computer programs become non-linear. People can choose their own path. The point that Redmond and Sweeney wished to make is that perhaps the design of these programs should take that linear experience into account. The program should have built in continuity of some sort, so that there is a flow to the experience. Their concern appears to be that visitors will proceed from the beginning, through the middle, and finally reach a satisfactory conclusion. Such a concern is valid, but the authors may be assuming more about what visitors want or expect. The experience of browsing and creating a meandering story that ends when it is time to go to the gift shop may not be unsatisfactory to visitors. In fact, it probably depends on the visitor.

What is important, I think, and this was Friedlander's point as well, is that visitors must be given clear means to navigate through computer programs. The information must be organized. That does not mean that there cannot be links that enable very complex movement through the program, but it does mean that a button to take you back to the main menu should always be visible and other navigation tools be ready at hand. It means that programs should be clearly introduced as well, so that visitors know what they are getting into. [14] While at the Ohio Historical Society, I have worked on a number of computer programs. These projects have included most of the functions that have been found for computers in the museum setting, though most have been a variation on the theme of database type programs. For example, I worked on a program that presented the economic and migration history of various regions of Ohio. Visitors chose a region and then scrolled through a series of maps with various symbols for agricultural products and manufacturing installations to see changes over time. Similar maps showed migration patterns. This program was designed to be the conclusion of an exhibit about migration from Ohio farms to cities. The exhibit summarized very broadly how changing technology altered farm life and drew people to cities. The computer program was designed to provide information that might be more specific to the place from which a visitor came, while at the same time be grasped quickly and easily. The multimedia department at OHS focuses on usability and ease of navigation. Our programs tend to be very menu based. And while users have freedom to move about within the program, navigation tools are always present to get them back to a central place should they get lost (indeed it is the ever present navigation tools that allow for much of the freedom).

.05 Computers and Museums: The Present

After a number of years in which museums have experimented with various kinds of computer programs for museum visitors, some data is now available about who uses museum computer programs. Museum consultants Lynn D. Dierking and John H. Falk summarized research on visitors to history, art and natural history museums their essay "Audience and Accessibility." The data suggests that users tend to be younger, especially children and youth. Many visitors over age fifty feel intimidated by computers, believing that special technical knowledge is required to use them. Furthermore, older visitors cannot always interpret subtle design elements or instructions. There is some evidence that more men than women use computer programs, but the data is inconclusive. Dierking and Falk also point out that computers are only one part of a museum visit. Visitors come primarily to see museum collections. They want to see the real thing. Computers are an adjunct to that primary goal. Data suggests, however, that computer programs can encourage visitors to look more closely at objects. [15]

From practical experience with museum users of computer programs, some practical guidelines have emerged. First, computers need to be subordinate to exhibition themes and goals. That is, the computer program should not be driving the exhibit, but the other way around. Dierking and Falk suggest "The focal point of the experience should always be the object, phenomena, and/or ideas that are part of the institution's mission." They put computers (and other media) in perspective, describing them as a "tool in the museum's story telling repertoire," but "only one communication strategy." [16] Curators and designers need to look carefully at a variety of media so that information best suited to computer presentation is so presented while another technique, for example video technology, might be used for other sorts of information (however, with the use of scanned images and computer generated graphics, video productions, which are typically put on a video disk and presented via computer and not VCR, are increasingly hard to distinguish from computer displays). It is probably not emphasized enough in these essays that computer programs are expensive in terms of equipment and design time. (At the same time, computers have lessened the costs of a traditional exhibit, which at the most basic level can be produced by organizing objects and using a good laser printer and paper stock to print out labels.) The expense only serves to emphasize the need to carefully consider what one wants to do with them. Once a program is decided upon, care must also be taken with the appearance of the program so that it does not become dated. Because of the fast pace of consumer product design, an expensive exhibit component can have a short shelf life, which is not very efficient if it is part of a long-term exhibit. A balance must be struck between something that is pleasing to the eye and attracts attention and that which will look out of date in a few months or a year. [17]

Museums tend to be conservative. As the Hoving story that began this essay indicated, some people associated with museums were suspicious of computers. Most observers tend to believe with George F. Macdonald and Stephen Alsford of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) that museums have been "cautious" in their engagement with new technology, and "they have tended to be followers, not leaders. [18] Within museums, generally libraries and archives took the lead in exploring new technology and have continued to do so. In the early days, the role of libraries meant the dominance of cataloging programs. Today the leadership of libraries means that scanned documents and other items from library collections dominate the museum presence on the web. (Note, for example, that the website for the Ohio Historical Society is headquartered in the library. More recently, other departments have acquired servers and are maintaining other segments of the website. Visitors to the site do not know it, but as they navigate, they are passing across disputed territory and the sites of fierce internal power struggles.) Many observers would like museums to be more imaginative and to take more of a leadership role in developing new approaches using various media in general and computer technology in particular for education and exhibition. [19]

Several commentators note similarities between museum exhibits and the web. The exhibit is a diverse media including text, still images, and moving images, often presented in layer of information. Visitors to exhibits have the ability to wander off in their own direction and explore the material in their own way. Because museum exhibition staffs produce spaces for informal learning and visitors expect this, the exhibit departments of museums would seem to be well positioned to take the lead in producing innovative computer applications. Macdonald and Alsford of the CMC view computers as a way to break through the spatial limits that restrain museums. Space constraints need no longer be a problem with exhibits, they say. Objects can be displayed on-line instead of remaining hidden in a warehouse because there is no room in the museum. They also note that "geographical and logistical obstacles that hinder people from visiting the physical sites of museums" are eliminated by web and other computer based exhibits. Finally, they note that museum servers can support many more exhibits at one time than museum buildings. Macdonald and Alsford tend to let their enthusiasm carry them away as they talk about the unlimited possibilities of the "meta-museum." In fact, there are real limits to what can be done on computers because I know from experience that time, staff, and money is finite, especially in non-profit museums. The meta-museum cannot be without limits. [20]

What is the status of exhibition on the web? The Canadian Museum of Civilization, acting on the enthusiasm of its leaders (Macdonald was formerly the executive director and Alsford was director of Special Projects), has developed web exhibits to go along with their museum exhibits. [21] While the analogy between exhibits and websites is not inappropriate, it seems to have shaped the CMS presentation of history on the web far too much. Most of the CMC web exhibits look either like the physical exhibits on which they are based, coffee-table books, or popular history magazines. They consist of pages of text and some images. There is some ability to pursue hyperlinks, though limited. No new ground has been broken, and many of the designs (which are diverse, reflecting the roots of the exhibits in various physical exhibits) are starting to date. This result surprised me, given Alsford and Macdonald's sometimes breathless enthusiasm for new technology.

.06 Computers and Museums: The Future

Macdonald and Alsford are surely right, though, to believe that "the future will be one in which people are much more inclined to acquire knowledge and experiences through computer mediation." Given the likely increased role of computers in people's lives, what is the next step for computers in museums? Most commentators agree that increased interactivity is the key next step for computers in museums. Museums have explored the interactive possibilities of databases and other applications and must find ways to move forward. [22]

The area of computer simulation games is one area of history computing that has many possibilities. There are of course various commercially available games dealing with historical topics, especially military games, but "The Oregon Trail," in which players to try their luck and skill migrating to Oregon in the 1840s, and "Tycoon," dealing with railroad building in the late nineteenth century, exemplify non-military applications. At OHS we have experimented in the field of computer simulation games with the development of a computer game called "River Trader." "River Trader" was inspired loosely by the "Oregon Trail." The OHS game attempts to recreate the experience of trading agricultural goods down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in 1821. The game was designed for use in an exhibit dealing with the business practices of a man engaged in just such a trade. As befits a game designed for use in a museum gallery, play only takes a couple of minutes. The game illustrates the obstacles traders faced as flatboats sink and steamboats are stuck on sandbars or occasionally blow up. Along the way, players make decisions that affect their success, but the ultimate outcome is as dependent on the prices offered in New Orleans as on anything the player does. Comments from players suggest that some are frustrated by the role of luck in the game. One of the historic messages we wanted to convey, however, was that mid-western farmers were very much at the mercy of forces beyond their control when it came to financial success.

I think that many possibilities for historical simulation have not been explored. Take for example, "SimCity," the popular city building simulation. There is putative historic content to the game: you typically start in 1900 or another past date, and certain technologies, such as airplanes and nuclear power, only become available as you go along, but the focus of the game is on building a city from scratch. Consider, by way of contrast, the possibilities of a game more focused on historical issues. For example, one might be mayor of New York City beginning in 1870 confronting a computer screen depicting the city as it looked then. Over the course of the game one would confront real issues: to build or not to build the subways, be a Tammany Hall mayor or reform mayor, to clear out slums or not. Such a game could be a laboratory of "what if" history, allowing players to see possible outcomes from resulting from the pursuit of one policy or another. The computer coding for such a potentially widely branching narrative would be complex, but the experience could be historically rich. Such an application would not be feasible for a museum visit, but might be a project that a museum might develop in consultation with a commercial partner, the museum providing historical expertise (on a variety of levels) and the partner providing the graphic and programming expertise.

Colin Beardon and Suzette Worden, the rather tedious postmodernists discussed above, do come up with one idea that could guide our thinking about computers and museums. The authors explore three paradigms for computers in museums: database, hypertext, and communications. They dismiss the first two in (too) short order because of their "universalizing tendencies" and support the latter (Beardon and Worden seem to be alone among analysts of computers in museums in advocating one and only one function for computers). The communications model they propose is based on the notion that "the computer is seen not as a depository or processor of knowledge, or even as a virtual world in which users act, but as a medium by means of which humans communicate knowledges." For the authors it is important that the computer has no power to act and does not exhibit intelligence or thought. Nor do they talk about "human-computer-interaction" because they are interested in people communicating to each other through a computer. Language is important to Worden and Beardon and they believe the computer should not determine what language is used. Rather, they argue that "the users' professional language" should be, "as far as possible," the "language of the system." These ideas are maddeningly unspecific, but I think that they ideas are very suggestive. I appreciate their emphasis on using computers as a tool to link people together. They also suggest that computers can enable museum visitors (whether virtual or real) to interact with museum staff and perhaps other visitors. [23]

The late Stephen Borysewicz, of the Field Museum of Natural History, seemed to be thinking along similar lines in his essay "Networked Media: The Experience is Closer than you Think." Borysewicz developed the Field Museum's website and was a creative advocate for computers in museums. In this particular essay, he tried to image some next stage applications for computers in museums that especially emphasized more communication with the museum's public. For example, Borysewicz suggested using computers for "continuous, open-ended dialogue" with visitors. His model here was the talkback station used especially in controversial exhibits. Here visitors get the chance to write down their comments on cards or in books, and other visitors can read and respond to those comments. Why not take this one step further and have a museum bulletin board and chat room, Borysewicz asks. [24]

As we have seen, the "real things" that museums have is central to their appeal. These objects are typically too rare to be handled. Borysewicz suggested that a computer-modeling program could allow visitors to handle selected artifacts virtually. They "take them apart, turn them upside down" and otherwise examine them in a way that they could not the original. I can imagine an effective display based on an object and an adjacent computer monitor with a program that allowed extensive manipulation of the object, including magnification, disassembly, and views from all sides. [25]

Borysewicz noted that many people collect things and increasingly make at least images of those collections available on-line. He suggested that here is a community that museums could tap into. Borysewicz envisioned museums offering certain data on-line that could serve as the basis for a visitor's personal collection and exhibit. Museums could also "offer templates for constructing personalized on-line exhibits." Such programs could be tools to educate people about curation techniques, thus both empowering people and connecting them with the museum. Taking this idea one step further, however, Borysewicz urged that "Museums also . . . accept data files from their on-line visitors as contributions to an exhibit or as study material." He described a two-way process through which museums responded to visitors directly, "can request contributions from their users and allow users to construct their own content or interact with the museum directly." He mentioned (with out giving an address) a European museum that "exists only on a Web site." The collection consisted of content contributed by visitors to the site. "Content relating to one topic is requested;" Borysewicz said, "text, sound, and images are all accepted. Each time I revisit the site, it has grown. To whom does this museum belong," he asked: "the users, the makers, the curators?" Borysewicz noted that such an approach could make visitors feel strong sense of ownership, connection, and commitment to a museum. [26]

.07 Conclusion

These ideas seem to me to be practical applications of what Beardon and Worden were trying to get at from a philosophical perspective. Museums can do databases and hypertext. They have produced websites that combine exhibits and libraries. What else can they do with computers? An interactive interface in which a museum and its public interact in ways that foster communication between the institution and its constituents and create new knowledge for both has yet to be developed. The ideas are out there, but I have not seen a great deal of movement. Museum chat rooms and other plans for heightened interactivity would require some re-arrangement in staff and resources. A financially insecure time may not be the most likely period for innovation. Leaders are needed now to take museums and computing to the next level. Envisioning computers as tools to allow museum visitors to communicate with each other and with museum staff is the real answer to the challenge of non-linear narratives identified earlier. The postmodern vision of interaction without boundaries is not really practical with computers. The time and expense associated with programming, research, and design, not to mention the patience of visitors, all mitigate against such an idea. The real realm in which free interaction takes place is between people. Thirty-four years of discussion on the role of computers in museums has led us to see computers as a tool to enable people to interact with other people.

Stuart D. Hobbs ( is an historian with the Ohio Historical Society. He is currently project manager for the Adena project, which involves the restoration of Thomas Worthington's home and the construction of a new museum, including a digital archive and a database of historic Ohio architecture. His essay "Exhibiting Antimodernism: History, Memory and the Aestheticized Past in Mid-Twentieth Century America," was published in The Public Historian, in the Summer of 2001.

.08 Notes

1. See Thomas Hoving, "Foreword," Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums: A Conference Sponsored By The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, April 15, 16, 17, 1968 (New York: Arno Press for the Museum, 1968), vi.

2. Stephen E. Furth, "Data Processing for Information Storage and Retrieval" Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums, 5-18, quote 7.

3. Herbert Freeman, "Computer Methods for the Processing, Classifying, and Matching of Profiles and Other Irregular Curves," Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums, 237-253, see the comments from the audience, 254-255. Today, computer graphics are used to not just recreate objects, but whole archaeological sites; see Maurizio Forte and Alberto Siliotti, editors, Virtual Archaeology: Re-creating Ancient Worlds, translation of Archeologia: Percorsi virtuali nelle civiltà scomparse by Judith Toms and Robin Skeates (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1997).

4. Leslie Mezei, "Applications of Computer Graphics in Museums," Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums, 259-271, quotes, 260, 262-263.

5. Katherine Jones-Garmil, "Laying the Foundation: Three Decades of Computer Technology in the Museum," in Jones-Garmil,Wired Museum, 35-62.

6. The distinction between internal and external computing comes from Selma Thomas, "Introduction" in Thomas and Mintz Virtual and the Real, ix.

7. Colin Beardon and Suzette Worden, "The Virtual Curator: Multimedia Technologies and the Roles of Museums," in Barrett and Redmond, Contextual Media, 63-86, quotes 74 and 73.

8. This discussion is by way of locating the authors within the institutional history of the museum. It is appropriate to do so because "understanding one's location with respect to dominating organizational structures" is important to the authors; see Beardon and Worden, "Virtual Curator," 64.

9. Larry Friedlander, "Spaces of Experience: On Designing Multimedia Applications," in Barrett and Redmond, Contextual Media, 163-174, quote 163.

10. Janet H. Murray, "The Pedagogy of Cyberfiction: Teaching A Course on Reading and Writing Interactive Narrative," in Barrett and Redmond, Contextual Media, 129-162, quote 146.

11. Friedlander, "Spaces of Experience," 169.

12. Marie Redmond and Niall Sweeney, "Multimedia Production: Non-Linear Storytelling Using Digital Technologies," in Barrett and Redmond, Contextual Media, 87-102,quotes, 90, 98.

13. Note that the Coxall essay is not from any of the volumes reviewed here: Helen Coxall, "Re-Presenting Marginalized Groups in Museums: The Computer's 'Second Nature'?" in Desire by Design: Body, Territories and New Technologies, edited by Cutting Edge, The Women's Research Group (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1999), 123-138, quotes 133-134.

14. See Friedlander, "Spaces of Experience," 169-170; and Selma Thomas, "Mediated Realties: A Media Perspective," in Thomas and Mintz, Virtual and the Real, 12-15.

15. Lynn D. Dierking and John H. Falk, "Audience and Accessibility," in Thomas and Mintz, Virtual and the Real, 57-72.

16. Ibid., 60.

17. Selma Thomas, "Mediated Realities," 12-15.

18. George F. Macdonald and Stephen Alsford, "Conclusion: Toward the Meta-Museum," in Jones-Garmil, Wired Museum, 268.

19. Stephen Borysewicz, "Networked Media: The Experience is Closer than you Think," 103-118; Selma Thomas, "Introduction," xi, and "Mediated Realities," 16; all in Thomas and Mintz, Virtual and the Real.

20. Macdonald and Alsford, "Toward the Meta-Museum," 267-279; Borysewicz, "Networked Media," 116.

21. These may be viewed at

22. Macdonald and Alsford, "Toward the Meta-Museum," 277.

23. Beardon and Worden, "The Virtual Curator," 69-70.

24. Borysewicz, "Networked Media," 113.

25. Ibid., 114.

26. Ibid., 114-115.