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Going On-line: Moving Multimedia Exhibits onto the Web
Going On-line: Moving Multimedia Exhibits onto the Web

Going On-line: Moving Multimedia Exhibits onto the Web

Sandy Kydd
Douglas MacKenzie
3 La Belle Place
Glasgow G3 7LH

Tel: +44 141 333 9400
Fax: +44 141 333 9490

Producing a computer-based multimedia museum exhibit involves a unique set of problems in the design of a software system to satisfy the needs of a wide range of visitors and researchers. When it comes to moving the exhibit onto the Internet, new problems and issues arise. It is not just simply a matter of converting existing technology for use on the World Wide Web. The networked environment of the Internet provides many advantages in accessing information and in the flexibility and immediacy of interaction with users, but there are also drawbacks in the level of control that system designers have and the assumptions that can be made about the exhibit, users and the facilities that they have at their disposal.

This paper introduces TAMH (Tayside: A Maritime History), a PC-based multimedia project exploring some issues involved in allowing users to ask the questions which interest them in the way they find most appropriate. The process discussed is that of moving the TAMH system from its original standalone or locally networked form to a Web-based virtual museum site, allowing universal access to a multimedia database archive, and novel methods of searching the archive.


It is easy to create a Web version of a physical museum. Countless museums and galleries have done this over the last five years. Some even go so far as to suggest that maintaining the integrity of the museum's physical structure is a necessary condition for website design (DiNicola, 1996). Why should this be?

The architecture, layout and content of physical museums are how they are for several reasons.

Whatever the architectural analogy for the museum, fortress (Altesmuseum in Berlin), cathedral (National Gallery of Canada) or entertainment complex (Pompidou Centre or Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and this is subject to prevailing fashion and philosophy, there are problems in accommodating exhibits. These may be physical, a ship may be too large to fit in any of a museum's rooms, or conceptual when, say, someone like Oldenburg wants to create art 'that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum' and result in exhibits outside the museum, Oldenburg's shuttlecocks outside the Nelson-Atkins or George Wyllie's spires on Calton Hill at the 1994 Edinburgh Festival.

Themed rooms continue the nineteenth century idea of museums representing developmental stages, historical frames leading to the present (Bennett, 1995). It was not always so. The Musée Napoléon of 1793 made no attempt to classify or categorise, the sole criterion for inclusion was that a work be a masterpiece, thus forming a 'society of the elect' (Danto, 1992). The notion of grouping paintings by schools was a rather tawdry nationalist act across the city at the Louvre by which J.L. David tried to glorify Frenchness.

The content of a museum on display at any given time is subject to curatorial choice: there is rarely sufficient space to display all a museum's artefacts. More importantly, curators are moving away from the comprehensive display of all a museum's objects of one type or another towards representative items telling a story (Honan, 1990).

All of these are practical limitations on what can be done in the physical museum. It is the museum professional's job to make the best of what there is. The decision to display a gold necklace from a Celtic burial site with other objects excavated from the same site tells one story. Other stories might associate it with the history of metalworking, the life of the buried, the function of jewellery in Celtic society or many other topics. To 'completely describe an event is to locate it in all the right stories, and this we cannot do' (Danto, 1985). The curator chooses a narrative and illustrates it by placing the objects on which it is based in close physical proximity to one another. None of the limitations of the physical museum pertain in the virtual museum. There are no awkward display spaces, no limitation on the number of objects accessible to the visitor and no limit to the number of stories which can be told. However, in simply mimicking the physical museum these constraints become self-imposed. Worse still, we recognise the ability of computer-based media to be non-linear, making narratives 'entropic', as Alan Peacock calls them (Peacock, 1996) but then impose a rigid linearity upon them with the application of hypertext. How can this be, surely non-linearity is the very essence of hyperspace or cyberspace? In that the total path of a user is not wholly predictable, this is so, but it is, contrary to Peacock's claim, 'pre-determined', there are simply various degrees of freedom on each page determined by the number of hypertext links.

When we offer a hypertext link we offer a continuation of our narrative. All we are doing is conceptually placing one page in close physical proximity with another as the curator does in creating an exhibition display. We are forcing the visitor down our path, telling only our chosen story just as we do in the physical museum: we are subjecting them to the 'tyranny of the button' (Hall, 1994).

The Project

This Web-based project has grown out of a standalone/networked computer project, TAMH: Tayside A Maritime History (MacKenzie, 1995). In that we were not creating a virtual museum built around one collection (indeed many items in TAMH are not in any museum) we did not need to consider how closely we mirrored any physical museum. More controversially, perhaps, we came to realise that there are compelling reasons for the virtual museum to exist in its own right, that, contrary to the interminable debates about image format standards for reproducing museum artefacts digitally, the virtual museum can restore the identity to objects in a way its physical counterpart cannot (MacKenzie, 1997).

We set out in the standalone environment to create an adaptive interface which catered for a wide spectrum of visitors, from young schoolchildren to professional researchers (MacKenzie, 1996). This meant, in the spirit of the AHIP/CIMI Points of View meetings (Sledge, 1995), allowing visitors to ask the questions which interest them in the ways they find most appropriate. Having created some of the programming structures to achieve this without imposing rigid links on the user, we wanted to find out if it was possible to transfer our hypertext-free zone to the World Wide Web, possibly hypertext's spiritual home.

The standalone TAMH system uses interactive maps and visual criteria selection to search the database, as well as more traditional field searching methods, allowing a whole spectrum of users to traverse the database and discover facts and connections. The original design concept was to move away from rigid hypertext-like links. Emulating this flexibility in the on-line version involves careful design of the Web-based system. Indeed, the fact that the underlying structure is a database will be of interest to only a small proportion of users. To the rest, to maintain their interest, this fact needs to be disguised. In addition, the Internet environment provides new facilities which can be used in the evolution of the exhibit, and a perfect medium for collecting feedback on system and content design from a large body of visitors.

Using a website as a virtual museum allows a number of technologies to be combined in both the client side of the system (the web browser) as well as the server side (the actual website) to produce the end result of a multimedia exhibit. Websites are no longer constrained to using static pages of data - pages can be generated from querying databases, dynamically creating images, and interfacing to other networked applications. New web browsers have scripting and other processing capabilities which allow data to be manipulated even after it has been transferred to the client machine, so that more interactivity is possible.

The on-line version of the TAMH system utilises several different technologies to produce the exhibit that the virtual visitor sees. As in the the standalone system, a database is used to store the main information which TAMH contains. A server-side scripting language (PHP/FI) is used for basic page generation and interface to the database (currently the Postgres95 SQL database). For more complex database queries such as the map-driven interface, the web server communicates with a FastCGI-based C++ application which generates maps and map data on-the-fly or from cached copies where appropriate (to speed up response times). The map-driven interface also uses Javascript on the client side to manage basic interface operations and provide a greater degree of interactivity than plain HTML.

One of the most important points about a web-based exhibit is that it is continually evolving. As new search methods for the system are implemented they can be brought on-line.

TAMH as a Standalone Application

The standalone version of the TAMH system provides a number of interfaces for the user to query the contents of the TAMH database and retrieve records information on mariners, ships, voyages and ports relating to maritime trade with the Tayside region of Scotland through the centuries, as well as matching images from the images collection (MacKenzie 1996). The main ways of interrogating the database are:

  • Form-based queries on fields in the database tables, including advanced date queries and word proximity searching
  • Selection of arbitrary words and phrases in record displays to initiate searches
  • Interactive map-based interface
  • Free form question input parsing

The form-based query interface is designed for users who are used to doing database searching and are comfortable with the principles and concepts of modern computer databases. The forms allow field searching for mariners and voyages in the database and will display results as a list of matching records which can be inspected individually. These results have some intelligence built into them, so that, for example, users can link from a matched voyage record to mariners for that voyage, and vice versa. The forms also allow flexible input of date ranges, so that users do not have to do repeated searches to narrow down the list of results to those they are interested in.

Form-based Query

Figure 1 - Form-based Query

Form-based queries also allow proximity searching for words in record fields. 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. The overriding premise in the form-based interface is that all the search specifications which are input by the user will be turned into an SQL query and some post-processing done on the results of that query.

Proximity Searching

Figure 2 - Proximity Searching

Selection of arbitrary words and phrases by the user (not just a highlighted link) can also be used to trigger a database search.

An interactive map-based interface is the most visually appealing and easy mechanism for the new user to appreciate. The map can be chosen to show political boundaries from a number of periods. A century can be chosen, and ports which are actively trading will be displayed, based on a database query. Icons for the most common types of cargo goods can be displayed, and the user can select these to display the icons beside the ports where most trade in these items occurred during the selected period. Clicking on an icon on the map will then build a query and return results for the individual voyages from the database. It can be seen that all the visual elements in the map are produced using SQL queries to the database, using the same underlying data as the form-based interface, but without the user being aware of the database or needing to explicitly construct the query themselves.

Map Interface

Figure 3 - Map Interface

One final method of querying the database is achieved through allowing the user to input their own free-text questions. The user can ask the question in plain English and the TAMH system attempts to parse it and build an SQL query based on what it finds.

Free text question input

Figure 4 - Free Text Question Input

The above search mechanisms are only some of the possible ways of searching the same database for information and presenting it to the users in a variety of formats. The TAMH system also gives the user access to images and document fragments linked to the records in the database, including historical information and images of the port cities involved in trading, or some actual trade artifact images.

Website Design and Implementation

TAMH Website Overview

From the previous section, it can be seen that the choices made for the TAMH system have built up a collection of tools which are integrated to provide the TAMH website:

  • The Apache web server is used to serve as the basis for the TAMH system.
  • PHP/FI is used as the server-side scripting language to generate dynamic web content from the database.
  • Postgres95 is used as the SQL database to store the TAMH records.
  • A FastCGI application is used to dynamically generate the map images from the database for the map-based interface.
  • Javascript is used to provide interactive feedback and minimise response times to user actions on the map interface for browsers that have the Javascript capability.

The TAMH website is designed with a two level menu structure for navigation, which always shows the user their current location in the system. The menu header on every web page also contains the TAMH logo, which links back to the "front door" of the website. Sections which have been added to those from the standalone system include an introduction to TAMH and the TAMH project, a news section on updates to the site, and a reference section which contains reference papers on TAMH and links to other websites of interest.

Form-based Searches

The form-based searches on the TAMH website allow the user to interrogate the database in a similar way to the standalone system. Currently only the main search options have been implemented. The next stages in the evolution of the site will see the addition of the flexible date searching and the word proximity checking.

Form-based search

Figure 5 - Form-based Search

Search results list

Figure 6 - Search Results List

Searching with the form-based interface allows the user to specify parameters for either or both the mariner and voyage details they are interested in. The search query will be built on the parameters entered, and the results list returned. if the user only enters parameters for mariner details then the search will be conducted for matching mariner records, and similarly if only voyage details are entered. However, if the user specifies both voyage and mariner details, an initial voyage search results set which matches voyages for both the voyage and mariner details will be displayed, but the user will be able to switch between voyage and mariner results sets using additional search form buttons on this results page (e.g. if the user selects the mariners button on the results page the search will be repeated but will return a matching mariner list rather than matching voyages).

When the user selects either an individual mariner or voyage record from the results list, another search will be performed to return that record. Individual mariner records will also display a list of the voyages which match for that mariner, and voyage records will display a list of matching mariners.

An individual mariner record

Figure 7 - Individual Mariner Record

Interactive Map Generation

The map-based interface to the TAMH database uses a Javascript enhanced display to show the map and options button images for the century and goods selection. Currently there are no selection options for the political boundaries, but this will be added shortly. When a century or goods image is clicked by the user, the selected version of the image is loaded and the map is reloaded to reflect the changes. At the moment the system only caters for the display of one type of goods item at a time, which is a restriction over the standalone version of TAMH, but display of multiple goods is one of the facilities currently being developed. When the user clicks on one of the cities on the map a search is initiated which brings back the results set as if a form-based query had been done for the city and the other selected parameters for the map.

Map-based search interface

Figure 8 - Map-based Search Interface

Continuing Development

Developing a website is a continuous operation, and additions and enhancements to the TAMH website are ongoing. These include:

  • Optimising the generation of images for the interactive map interface, and enhancing its query capabilities.
  • Enhancing the form-based searching with flexible date specification, word proximity searches and free form question parsing.
  • Investigating the options for instigating database searches using arbitrary word/phrase selection.
  • Adding image and document fragment collections to the site, and linking them into the appropriate records in the database.
  • Design and implementation of other novel search mechanisms based on Internet technology.

The last option in the above list would allow the TAMH system to produce new interface mechanisms which were perhaps not possible with the standalone system. Methods of user tracking using cookies to determine user search patterns, search rankings based on common searches which previous users have done, and methods of allowing remote sites to search and index information from the TAMH system can all be investigated.


Converting an existing multimedia system into a website is not a straightforward task. Many technological and design problems need to considered in advance, but with the Internet's proliferation of tools which can be integrated into a website, and the use of sensible options in the initial design of the main interfaces for the system, an Internet version of the exhibit can be achieved. Many techniques go into building a website and these should be taken into account when designing the system. The Internet's advantages and drawbacks need to be considered so that the application can be optimised for its new environment and its new users. Because of the nature of the Internet, the technology it uses, and the expectations of Internet users, the application will never be a carbon copy of the standalone system. But the facilities which the Internet offers can provide advantages over the existing system.

Moving TAMH onto the web has been an interesting and enlightening experience. Widely available tools have been integrated together to produce the application and ease the transition from the existing system. Databases, server side and client side scripting languages, persistent processes, dynamic image creation have all been used to good effect, and other techniques will continue to be used to develop the site further.


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