What is the Role of the Artefact in a Virtual Museum?

What is the Role of the Artefact in a Virtual Museum?

Douglas MacKenzie
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email: douglas@dmcsoft.com


The title is one of the questions to consider when pondering the relationship between the physical museum and its virtual counterpart whether on standalone computer equipment or on the Internet. It is frequently heard from museum curators concerned about 'respect for the artefact' (Michailidis and Loissios, 1995), and wishing to ensure that museum objects are treated with the appropriate reverence. Over the last three years in particular, a huge number of museums have produced virtual versions of themselves. Some are engaging, some dull, as may be the case with their physical counterparts. Many of the approaches to virtual museums, though, are worrying in that their acceptance of hypertext's 'tyranny of the button' (Hall, 1994) mimics the worst of physical museums and ignores the major strides of recent years in audience research.

The Project

The thoughts about virtual museums expressed here come largely from current work on TAMH: Tayside, A Maritime History (MacKenzie, 1995; 1996). This on-going project seeks to tell the maritime story of part of the East Coast of Scotland. Given that local museums are small, that artefacts relating to maritime history are large and sometimes unique, ships, whales, anchors and the like, there is an easy case to be made for a virtual museum to support the work of the physical museum. Although that may be the case to be made when approaching curators for permission to photograph artefacts, it is an apologetic case and I believe there are good reasons for virtual museums to exist on their own merits, independent of any physical museum. Most of the TAMH development has been for a standalone or networked touchscreen system although, recently, we have experimented with Internet versions of some of the material. The reason for the World Wide Web experimentation is to see what can be done to provide meaningful experiences for virtual users in the very home of hypertext. For reasons set out below, we have tried to minimise use of hypertext in the standalone version of TAMH. Given the ubiquity of HTML, the challenge to create non-hypertext interfaces on the Web is greater.

The Trouble with Hypertext

There are several reasons for rejecting the hypertext approach. Its educational effectiveness is overstated and the analogy such systems seek to make with physical space inappropriate, but these are dealt with elsewhere (MacKenzie, 1996).

There are notable exceptions (Hall and Colson, 1991; Hazan, 1997; Kenderdine, 1996) but rarely do computer representations of museums attempt anything more than an inadequate two-dimensional map of a three-dimensional world, seeking only to mimic the physical museum without considering what value might be added. Using a spatial metaphor provides one response to visitors' expectations but not the only one. Asking the question, 'Where are the baked beans?' in a supermarket elicits a response in spatial terms, 'halfway down the third aisle from the left'. Asking an apparently similar question in a museum, 'Where are the Warhols?' can provoke a similar answer, 'Between the lavatories and the gift shop'. A non-spatial answer, however, is equally valid, 'between Abstract Expressionism and the artists, like Oldenburg, who glorify everyday objects.' Unless museums are to be cultural supermarkets, and virtual museums a flat, though glossy, electronic catalogue of these, this distinction must be recognised.

Why is the spatial metaphor so prevalent in the virtual museum? Familiarity is a likely explanation. Within the physical museum the easiest way to relate one artefact to another in an exhibition is to place them in close physical proximity to each other. For example, Figure 1, shows a scutcher's knife and Russian flax bale seals together in a local museum.

Scutcher's knife and Russian flax bale seals

Figure 1

What is the role of the artefact?

The artefact is supreme in the traditional curatorial view: the museum as Tempel der Kunst where visitors stand in 'silent and unspeaking humility' (Wackenroder and Tieck, 1797). Yet only a fraction of the objects in a museum are on display at any given time. Some artefacts have never been displayed. The Victorian museum provided comprehensive documentation on one theme, showcasing a museum's artefacts in one subject area. 'An accumulation of goods', in Barthes' dismissive description, 'so that one could at any moment do the accounts of the ineffable' (Barthes, 1957). Fortunately many museums have moved away from this and exhibit designers increasingly eschew comprehensiveness in favour of representative items telling a story (Honan, 1990). The importance of the artefact is not diminished but its purpose changes. It is not an object of veneration in itself: rather it is a nail on which to hang a narrative. Although the guardians of our cultural heritage may stress that heritage and history are not the same (Lowenthal, 1997), the philosophy of museums, if that is not too grand a term, has mirrored trends in the philosophy of history. The strict, temporally-classified museums of old (or the Louvre and British Museum of today) follow the historical dictum of Leopold von Ranke, 'The strict presentation of the facts is .... the supreme law of historiography.' The move away from this unattainable ideal in presenting history, the recognition that history is not chronicle but narrative, made brilliantly clear by Arthur Danto (Danto, 1985) is illustrated by the interpretative exhibitions of the modern physical museum.

What is the role of the curator?

The curator or designer chooses the artefacts to display in the physical museum. In choosing the objects, by necessity, the curator is also choosing the narrative which connects them. Various projects have looked at what questions visitors themselves wish answered (McCorry and Morrison, 1995; the Getty Points of View project). The best-stated outcome of these is, perhaps, 'a museum can be said to offer intellectual access to its resources if it enables people to think, for purposes they have defined themselves, about the objects in its collection' (Orna, 1994). How can this happen when the narrative is the curator's story? 'Completely to describe an event is to locate it in all the right stories, and this we cannot do' (Danto, 1985). For each artefact there are countless narratives. The scutcher's knife and the flax bale seals in Figure 1 are placed together in the Signal Tower museum because the knife has been dropped into a Russian flax bale by accident. Placing such objects together and linking them by this narrative would make no sense in any other setting.

The problems of limited display space, and the fact that an object can occupy only one physical space, should disappear in the virtual world. However, we impose these limitations upon ourselves by the slavish use of hypertext. The rigid links in hypertext, from URL to URL, are forcing visitors down our paths. The linear path visitors follow through a physical museum is duplicated in the virtual environment. When we genuinely have the prospect of locating an artefact in a multitude of stories we squander it and force visitors to listen only to our story.

Navigation in TAMH

The TAMH project is looking at different strategies allowing visitors to explore a virtual museum: not passively to receive information, not to follow only the paths set out by the designers, but to become their own curators. It also attempts to cater for a wide audience, from primary schoolchild to professional researcher by providing different interfaces to, and filters from, the same underlying databases (MacKenzie, 1996).

There will be some users who do wish simply to receive information rather than to explore. They are catered for by the Tour option (Figure 2) which, although it offer the fixed links criticised above, offers the opportunity to break off at any point to ask a question or explore another topic of interest.

Tour option

Figure 2

The Adaptive Interface

The different user groups described above need different ways to access the information they require. This necessitates both a different way of presenting the information held in the project databases, a filter, and different ways of accessing it, the adaptive interface. An experienced researcher is likely to have experience of using databases and so will be comfortable with a form-like search screen with which to extract data. Part of such a search screen is illustrated in Figure 3.

Search screen

Figure 3

There are a few modifications to the typical database search. Syntactic requirements for > (greater than) or < (less than) in dates are less stringent than usual and much background processing work is done in parsing user input to a format acceptable for an SQL query. Another particular requirement of an archive search is the proximity specifier which determines how many words may appear between two given search terms. For example, in the Merchant field, 'Robert' AND 'Kydd' with a proximity of 1 (one word between the matched search terms) would match Robert Kydd and Robert Alexander Kydd but not Robert Forgan and Alexander Kydd following each other in a list of merchants (MacKenzie, 1996). Pop-up help also allows the user to build fairly complex 'AND', 'OR' and 'NOT" conditions without the need for a grounding in SQL.

This type of interface is of little use to the young schoolchild or the casual museum visitor. The same information may, therefore, be accessed in a different way.

Figure 4 is part of the material which shows how Tayside's European trade changed over time.

Tayside's European trade

Figure 4

This particular map shows the main ports trading with Tayside in the 17th century. A map might be regarded as an unchanging display. Every museum devoting a section to trade seems to have a series of maps hanging as part of its exhibition. Simply to mimic this in the virtual world ignores the value which can be added. The buttons at the bottom right of the screen alter the display to show how patterns of trade changed over the centuries. The buttons at the top right permit the overlay of political boundaries of different historical periods. Figure 5 shows what happens when the 1885 button is clicked.


Figure 5

Another adaptive element is the choice of names. The user may prefer the modern native København to the English Copenhagen. English-speaking historians typically use the late 19th/early 20th century German names for Eastern Baltic ports, Königsberg for modern Kaliningrad or Reval for Tallinn, which may cause confusion (indeed we found numerous incorrect assignments of Queensbrig (Queensbridge) to Königsberg in published versions of local archives by historians). The interface allows the user, or supervisor, to choose the style of port name to be displayed at any given time.

The full complexity of the standard database search described above can also be achieved from the map as starting point. Selecting the Goods button brings up a selection of cargoes. Clicking on any cargo icon does a database search and displays that icon beside the ports where most trade in that commodity occurred in the displayed time period. Iron in the 16th century is illustrated in Figure 6 with the iron icon beside Danzig.

Iron in the 16th century

Figure 6

Clicking on the icon itself builds the SQL query to extract the individual voyages from the database. One of the six 16th century voyage records showing iron coming from Danzig is shown as Figure 7.

Voyage record

Figure 7

A fairly complicated database search has been built and executed without the user needing to know anything about database search techniques.

Even simpler (for the user) and more complex (for the computer) search strategies are offered. Selecting any word or phrase (not just a highlighted link) triggers a database search. A free-text question option allows the visitor to as a question in plain English and the system attempts to make sense of it. The techniques used to implement these features, and their implications, are described elsewhere (MacKenzie, 1996) but the purpose of this essay is to stress that new media presentations of a museum's assets should not be seen simply as an extension of a collections' management package. It is possible to add value even to something as mundane as a crudely drawn map.

More traditional museum artefacts are not forgotten in the system. Working down from the map, through Elsinore, will eventually offer the object shown in Figure 8, the Elsinore bowl, the opportunity to zoom in on detail, information on the museum holding it and the opportunity to search on any piece of text associated with its description. The same record could also be reached by doing (in a number of ways) a database search on bowls, yoyage memento or, indeed, many other topics. The fact that it will be 'discovered' in a variety of ways, and compared by the user to a wide range of other artefacts, is what is meant by making the visitor a virtual curator and illustrates how an object can be said to be located within a large number of narratives. If it has become only a handle for a narrative, what is its worth simply as an artefact?

Elsinore bowl

Figure 8

Conclusion: De-Sanctifying the Artefact

There are museum and gallery objects which have an intrinsic aesthetic value (and, pace our local curator, the Elsinore bowl is probably not one of them) but to 'understand' and object in terms of, say, its brushwork is to hear only one narrative. The endless debate in the museum world about acceptable digital representations and file formats is a sterile argument. Choosing the best file format is like choosing the best car: it rather depends what you need to carry and the type of terrain it will travel over. Apart from the merit of adopting an open architecture to allow for future advances in compression and reproduction technology there seems to me a deeper reason to challenge the supremacy of the artefact and ignore putative standards for digital reproduction. If brushwork is only one of many possible narratives, is it the most important one? As Danto points out (Danto, 1992), Philip IV did not have his portrait painted by Velázquez so that it might hang with the Spanish School in the Museé Napoleon. 'Only when the form vanished in which the King could multiply himself .... did these paintings reduce to works of art in which aesthetes could murmur about diagonals'. There is a danger in treating museums as cultural cathedrals that not only do we miss many of the possible narratives associated with an object but we elevate one of these explanations to an inappropriately high pedestal. It is 'as if the museum were the consolation prize for objects which had lost their identity with the disappearance of the forms of life within which they enjoyed it' (Danto, 1992). If the virtual museum is to offer anything more than its physical counterpart it must try to restore that identity.


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