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Museum Strategies for Success on the Internet
David Bearman, Archives & Museum Informatics/Getty Art History Information Program

This paper is based on a talk delivered at the Museum Collections and the Information Superhighway conference, held at the Science Museum, 10 May 1995.

Click Here for a biographical sketch of the author.

Click Here to visit the Getty Art History Information Program WWW pages.


Introduction: Getting RICH

The Internet, and the future information highway (I-way), presents museums with a unique opportunity to reach broad and narrow, local and international, publics in new ways. For the first time, museums are freed from their inherent localism, the physicality that requires their 'users' to be in-person 'visitors'. If they are able to take advantage of this opportunity, museums could well be transformed and find new sources of support and cultural authority. If not, their cultural mission could be endangered as other institutions interpret the past through virtual objects available over telecommunication links.

This is a gathering of the converted, and therefore the last place I want to make a case for the vision we share of a universal cathedral of human knowledge and memory. Instead I will address some of the realities of the foundation on which we are building this awe-inspiring edifice. But before I do I feel that it is essential that I state unequivocally that I believe the path we are following is the right and indeed the only one, and that a universe of integrated and networked cultural heritage is a worthy and achievable objective.

Let me describe, superficially, what I think we all believe we want to achieve in the coming decades. It is now possible to envisage world-wide access to the cultural heritage of mankind. By this I do not mean only to catalogues of books and inventories of archives and museums (although these will be there too), but to the things themselves in full, virtual representations.

The mechanisms for this new ability to experience the cultures of others are technologies that are with us today and nearly capable of delivering the edges of the vision we have now. When we locate a song in this Repository of the International Culture of Humanity (RICH), we will listen to it. When we search for an image, we will see it. If we need to study a building, we can walk through it. And all these experiences can be brought together, as desired, to represent the broader experience of living in another time, another place or another culture. Digital access to museum knowledge will, truly, make us RICHer.

Some valuable experiments are beginning to show that this is possible. Within weeks after the discovery of a group of Neolithic cave paintings in France, the Ministry of Culture had made knowledge and images from them accessible over the Internet. In a practical experiment with students and teachers, the Carlos Museum has enabled electronic visitors to plan trips through its galleries or revisit galleries that they want to explore further. The Library of Congress and major research libraries throughout the United States are now bringing millions of objects from their previously rarely available collections to new publics via both CD-ROM and the Internet. World-wide, several thousand museums have access to the Internet, with their numbers expanding by dozens each week. Several hundred have World Wide Web (WWW) sites and these numbers are also growing by the addition of new sites each week. By the end of this decade it is estimated that over 20 million original works will have been digitised. Most of these will be accessible over the I-way. This is the beginning, however preliminary, of RICH.

I am taking it for granted that you are excited by the prospect of getting RICH and want to do it quickly. But before we celebrate our RICHes, let us look seriously at the fundamental problems we face in achieving this end. I do not mean to examine the technological barriers because I do not believe that these are fundamental and feel certain that they will, in due course, fall. Instead I want to look directly at the heart of the internal contradictions of our endeavour and the socio-intellectual, political, and economic implications of remote electronic access.

While examining these issues, I'd also like to report on some initiatives being undertaken by the Getty Art History Information Program which has made it possible for me to attend this conference. I have been engaged by them over the past year in their strategic planning and I believe they are now taking some important steps towards addressing some of the challenges I will describe. Of course the Getty cannot do this alone; it will take the understanding and involvement of the entire cultural heritage community to bring about the kinds of systemic changes, and ensure the re-presentation of information in appropriate standard ways to enable us to achieve the imagined RICH environment.

Cultural implications of a virtual museum

The first set of issues we need to address arise from the premise of our project: the virtual aggregation of the holdings of museums. If we cannot deal directly with the questions this vision poses about the value of our holdings, we will fail from the outset to build the kinds of links between our institutions and their potential users that would support the role of museums within a networked society.

Cultural creations are unique, but their representation are highly fungible

Museum collections, we must remember, have been gathered locally, for local consumption. Now we are envisioning a universal visitorship as museums are 'freed' from their inherent localism by the capacity to serve the electronic, or virtual, visitor. Imagine that we can succeed in creating a universal cultural heritage resource consisting of the holdings of nearly every museum, archives and built environment. While each institution considers its holdings to be unique, and at some level these are, they are highly redundant from the perspective of a typical user and even a specialist will find little worth in studying the differences between many such items. Consider for a moment the number of photographs of the Eiffel Tower or the number of washing machines from 1890 or even the number of impressionist paintings we will find in this universal collection. Almost no users care about the differences between the Eiffel Tower photographs, even if some were taken by famous photographers. But value added by the repository holding the images, such as putting data into the file that allows for proper scale models and location of the lens of the camera, could make the variety of images more valuable as a collection than individually. Similarly, recording such information as who owned each washing machine (and who they were), can make them more interesting and useful. In the case of the impressionists, a larger percentage of the public (although still a disappearingly small percentage) may care to see a large portion of the whole, but only when numerous representations by different artists of the same scene can be compared, or compared with photographic images or literary reports of the same scene, can we add the value that attracts the average member of the lay public to examine multiple sources of similar information. For most purposes cultural heritage holdings are 'fungible', which means that they are interchangeable from the perspective of most users. How can we ensure that they are more valuable collectively, rather than less? The implications of this for holders of huge bodies of cultural materials are quite significant.

First, it means that unless we represent the information in a way that enables users to add value by its aggregation, a very small proportion of what is in the world's museum collections could potentially satisfy the curiosity and interest of all but a tiny percentage of potential users of the cultural heritage and we will diminish, rather than enhance, the value of the whole. Second, it means that the first institutions on the Internet will enjoy only a very temporary advantage because ultimately it will be those who build successful conduits, and value-added service providers, rather than the holders who benefit. Thirdly, it means that more than ever before the real value of our collections, and their true uniqueness, derives from their connection with our institutions. Provenance, and local associations, are what makes them unique. This requires that we be able to link our descriptions of our holdings with knowledge about people, organisations, places and events that have been created for purposes other than the description of museum holdings, but which give them context.

Representations, even standards-based ones, are not 're-usable things'

One of the promises being made, often by governments promoting the 'multimedia industry', is that we can invest in image bases of cultural objects because they will be a re-usable resource. Even overlooking the reasons why today's technical standards will be of little value tomorrow (a reality we need to face), a future that does without authoring and editing content is a vacant dream. Instead we find that the more raw material there is to look through, the more mediated it must be by surrounding indexing and interpretation. Every audience has a unique perspective and different needs.

Far from being irrelevant, the editors are (along with the most abstruse of scholars) among the few who will be willing to pay for the prolific redundancy we have created. Selecting just the right view of the Eiffel Tower will still be their passion, even if the average man is not interested. This is, of course, because the editor, or author, is seeking just the right source material with which to make a point, argue an interpretation, show a nuance. Not surprisingly then, the value that must be added to cultural materials is so substantial as to make the notion of re-usability meaningless.

To make our representations robust, we will need to be more explicit about the perspectives for which they were edited and the audiences they were designed to serve, rather than pretending that one representation will serve multiple purposes equally well. This requires, of course, that we understand the perspectives for which we are authoring and know where value lies for those users.

People want 'experiences' rather than 'things'

This brings us to another fact of the world of RICH objects: people do not want the things in themselves, they want the meanings they convey. When we provided access to books in libraries this escaped us because the books, once found, conveyed the meanings they wanted to. But when the universe to which we are providing access is relatively mute about itself, the public makes clear rapidly that it is bored. One person in hundreds, visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum, examines each porcelain with care. Consider how much more daunting it would be to examine the ceramics of the RICH universe.

This is not to imply that ceramics do not have an extremely important story to tell, indeed the opposite. It is to stress that ceramics have numerous stories to tell and that each needs to be told - that of technique, of trade routes, of ownership and of uses - to people of different ages, levels of interest and degrees of expertise. It is important to recognise that age, interest and expertise are not parallel, and that they are further complicated by the disciplinary or intellectual perspective that can be taken on any object.

How can we make the facts of these objects sing to the virtual visitor? How can we enable them to have an experience? The first requirement for museums is to recognise that the networked environment is interactive, and therefore can be user driven. It enables us to respond to the visitor rather than pump information at him. If used to its best purposes, the networked environment enables a user to construct an experience with personal meaning.

Virtual cultural experiences are so new, we do not know if we want them

Just as the public does not want to go prospecting in RICH for nuggets of cultural content, the value of what cultural contents it does receive will be defined not by what we create, but by whether they reach the potential virtual visitors. In effect a new market will have to be created. Despite the expectations surrounding the coming of interactive multimedia virtual experience, few people have had such experiences and most of those who have are underwhelmed. Experiments in interactive television, despite huge investments, have all turned sour. The video phone, while enjoying a momentary surge of publicity again, has twice emerged on the consumer market only to be buried. As always, societal revolution comes more slowly than technology. We may be able to easily imagine a new world of RICH experiences, but the limits of today's delivery technologies make it difficult for us to actually show others what we mean and therefore to create the demand for it.

Making markets is a commercial, entrepreneurial, activity. The truth about entrepreneurship is not that museums don't do it as well as anyone else, but that no one does it without substantial risk. Most entrepreneurial efforts fail within the first year; 80+ per cent fail within two years. If museums did it only as well as others, these realities would be sufficient to dissuade them, because museums are not set up to take risks but to provide stewardship for heritage over the long term. Thus it is best for market creation efforts to fail on someone else's dollar. The downside is that museums are not going to make the killing either. You cannot have it both ways.

Most importantly, markets cannot be created by individual institutions on their own. A market is very demanding about the ease with which potential users can acquire content, and will turn to the richest source of broad content as a matter of convenience no matter how special individual nodes might be elsewhere. Mechanisms to make transactions quicker and cheaper will count for more in the long term than excellence. Encyclopaedic range will count for more than quality. If we collaborate as museums we can make sure that the former values do not crowd out the latter ones, but if we continue along our own paths without respect for the reality that a new market must be nurtured, it is likely that the experiments we invest in today will not reach their intended audiences and we, in turn, will not realise the transformative potential of RICHes.

Intellectual and data-structure implications

Cultural heritage holders, desirous of entering the RICH environment, need to make good use of their knowledge of these cultural limitations. If they rush into creating raw content they will find that breadth precludes them from achieving depth (fungibility), lack of attention to interpretive content makes their objects unavailable to intellectual perspectives other than their own (non re-usable), the cost of authoring inhibits their ability to provide meaningful access, and inattention to delivery mechanisms means that they saturate the limited market before getting underway.

The question, assuming we want to create a RICH universe, is how to do it right. Or at least what is most likely to contribute to success. In my view the answer is twofold: create quality information resources that no one else will be able to match and create the economic and political climate that will sustain a viable market for this information.

The first requirement is to make information available from the world's museums substantially better than that available from other sources. What do we mean by substantially better? Two or three examples might help.


The impetus for success in converting our museum holdings from physical objects in local collections to digital objects in a RICH environment is that the associations which gave the object its local relevance must be emphasised over those which give it its universal relevance. In a North American museum, it may fulfil curiosity to label an item as a Greek vase from 5 BC, but the meaningful connection has been lost - why is it in a local museum? What chain of associations brought it there? Provenance is the context that gives particular life to the otherwise generic.

Context, however, does not end with provenance. Museum image data, generally, depicts an object for which associated data provides measurements. This gives museum images a tremendous advantage over those from any other source if the information about size can be structured in a way that makes it exploitable by software. One of the major disadvantages of image data from commercial sources is that the scale of the objects depicted is rarely known and as a consequence objects cannot easily be compared, situated in virtual environments or in virtual juxtaposition, or understood with accuracy. Because museum curators have historically collected such information (although it has been of laughably little use to date), museum image bases are potentially greatly better than image bases from commercial sources.

Because museum objects have generally had information about their geographic origin recorded as part of their documentation, it would in principle be possible to provide access to them in that context using a map as an interface. In fact, there are numerous problems of data recording standards that make this much more problematic than it should be, but it is a goal that would make the individual items in museums available to a huge variety of new users and uses.

Museum community projects with involvement of end-users, such as the multi-year Art Information Task Force sponsored by the J Paul Getty Trust, can go a long way towards defining how the information needs to be structured to satisfy the requirements of specialised audiences. Further effort needs to be devoted to how the information that museums already typically possess about their objects can be structured to satisfy the needs of broad publics to visualise it.

Access, navigability and linkage

Quality of museum data has frequently been controlled by external value tables, wordlists and thesauri. Much scholarship has gone into the construction of these authority files but little effort has been made to exploit the independent value of these knowledge bases. The benefit of the work done by museologists in the construction of databases of persons, places, objects, events, and concepts has thus been minimised. If the cultural heritage community could exploit the power of multiple independent authority files as knowledge bases they would enable the intellectual integration of museum object information with information resources created by others such as census data, environmental information, or geophysical data. The linkage of such information resources would support natural-language searching beyond the words in a text and the cascading of complex retrieval strategies across databases and such mundane approaches as access organised by travel routes based on highway maps. (An example of a more complex strategy would be to search for images of artefacts used in religious rituals that were collected by anthropologists who studied at Cambridge University in the 1890s; this requires first searching through a biographical knowledge base for names of anthropologists who studied in Cambridge, then through archival sources to identify ritual objects collected by them, and finally through museum catalogues to locate such objects and retrieve images.) Intellectual integration through linkage of multiple independent authority files could be add value to these other information resources in ways that would support the further elaboration of museological databases and create entirely new kinds of intellectual tools. Experiments in such intellectual integration functionality are currently being conducted by the Getty Art History Information Program through their World Wide Web site.

A RICH environment would not just be an illustrated encyclopaedia (without need for additional supportive research) but also serve as a visual thesaurus, the latter being a totally new kind of intellectual resource enabling the location of concepts through visual identification in their proper hierarchical structure, and the discovery of the textual explanation and documentation of unknown concepts without any textual input. Such new knowledge tools would allow someone without knowledge of mushrooms, architectural elements, or coins to properly identify an object they had seen; something which it is now extremely difficult to do. In the near future such tools might automatically identify an object, whether a mushroom or an architectural detail, from its digital image.


One of the promises of the I-way as a vehicle for museum programming is that it reaches a vast new audience. But the vast new audience is composed of numerous small, specialised, audiences with particular knowledge, interests, needs and abilities. If the museum is presented in a monolithic fashion, it will be uninteresting to many of its potential electronic visitors. But if museums are clever and rigorous in their analysis, they are in an excellent position to create data that can support users with many diverse points of view. One of the most challenging aspects of museum information requirements is that the clients for museum knowledge are of all ages, degrees of interest and sophistication, and come with diverse background knowledge. It has long been recognised in artificial intelligence research that it is a challenge to represent knowledge in a way that can satisfy multiple perspectives and 'domains' of knowledge. Less well understood, but now recognised by museum researchers, is the challenge of designing search engines which understand the objectives of the searcher (which are not necessarily expressed in the query). For example, recent research sponsored by the Getty Art History Information Program is attempting to understand how a system could 'read' a query about 'impressionist artists' in order to determine whether the searchers would be satisfied by a list of artists and works, an encyclopaedia article on impressionism, an address from which to obtain posters, or the granting of rights for image reproductions.


If museums do RICH right, they will implement it with an appreciation for the fact that culture is a growing and changing milieu, and not a deliverable product. Thus RICH must take aggressive advantage of a two-way communications environment in which users make new cultural objects by exploring those already in museums. The texts, sounds and images created in the RICH environment are not just part of the culture, they are the ingredients with which our age elaborates its contributions to culture. Human generations build on their cultural legacy and transform it by its appropriation. Can we imagine our popular culture without Mona Lisa's face on T-shirts or jazz without improvisations on baroque melodies? Making data that supports such elaboration AND maintains its referents (so that today's political speech can be read, heard and seen in itself while the passages invoking the Universal Rights of Man can be seen in the context of the works of appropriate enlightenment philosophers) is a challenge that will not be met by the commercial market.

Too often our current interactives are engaging only in the sense that an end user is required to push the buttons to move the presentation along its predefined paths. They do not exploit the true ability of the medium to enable people to have virtual experiences and learn from them. Thus we explain how flints were made in a sequence in which users can choose to make an axe head or an arrowhead, but we do not give them a direct experience of making flints with the feel of the stone and the requirement to improve their technique tied to their virtual survival - for example as a member of a hunting and gathering clan that used flints to hunt for food.


Museums must avoid their tendency to be didactic, which is inherent in the structure of databases that presupposes the validity of information provided by museum scholars. The networked environment is not hospitable to a didactic attitude or the assertion of absolute authority. Museums can become trusted sources and their interpretations can teach only if they are not pedantic and authoritarian. One reflection of such a neutrality is to represent all 'facts' about objects in our care with their attributions, thus allowing for a difference of opinion when scholarly differences exist, and, not coincidentally, reminding viewers of our expertise in such matters whether or not differences of opinion exist. In a data structure in which information is attributed, we can afford to allow others to express their views without endangering 'truth', thus promoting ongoing re-appropriation of our culture.

Hence, attribution allows us to be open to accepting designs for systems in which others contribute information. It even allows us to use the Internet in one of the ways it might be most valuable, which is to harvest opinions from others in order to build a better interpretation. For example, the greatest experts on the cultural meanings of artefacts from other societies are the members of those societies themselves. Can we develop structures for representing knowledge and for acquiring information about our holdings that grow through contributions from others who are not museum curators?


Specific methods will be required to ensure that links made by the use, incorporation, reference or citation of objects in the RICH environment. Philosophically this is an extension of openness to contributions by others and of the commitment to two-way communication, but it demands that we take concrete measures to make these links navigable across a multiplicity of distributed systems not simply that we accept their legitimacy. In the coming years, explorations of such methods will be increasingly important. Once the Consortium for Computer Interchange of Museum Information completes its tests and demonstrations of the Z39.50 protocols and of Standard General Mark-up Language, it will doubtless need to move on to demonstrating the potential of cascading types of searches and navigations across the data links made in distributed systems reached as a consequence of searches.

If museums take steps to make sure that the intellectual content they capture and provide access to satisfies these criteria, they could well be transformed into a new kind of cultural force. Museums could be seen as the virtual place to visit in order to explore the world and its history. Such prominence on the I-way could earn museums new cultural authority, but even if their content earns them a following, they will need to change to convert that to new sources of support.

Economic implications

It is no secret that the cost of capturing and representing our cultural heritage in digital form is going to be massive despite the continuing fall in storage costs and central processing power. The endeavour will engage us over the next century and will (like the conversion from manuscript to print following the sixteenth century) probably never be completed. Some cultural knowledge will be left behind, accessible only in its analogue forms and some will be lost altogether just as the languages and crafts of the past die with the last members of the cultures which invented them. But we, as the keepers and protectors of culture, want to maximise the quantity of cultural materials that are available electronically to the future. How can we best go about this?

To date, museums have been taking small amounts of money from their own budgets to experiment with digitisation and electronic interconnection. The financial rewards have been minimal and the activity itself has been an add-on. It is likely that the greatest benefits to museums will only accrue once they have Internet access and are able to think about achieving their programmatic aims with Internet-based services. But even if such innovations can happen when the need arises, the overall economics of making the museum available electronically requires the creation of a non-zero-sum game. How can money be made to flow into museums to achieve their new ends?

Museums have assumed that they will be able to satisfy some needs and interests through publishing partnerships. To date these have been disappointing however, because the full costs of these projects have rarely been planned in advance and they have generally involved serious unexpected costs. It must be remembered that in partnerships with electronic publishers, the publishers are, like the museums, just beginning to explore the potential of digital access using internal funds and do not yet have a full grasp of the economics. Because these processes are new, each has been assisted, from time to time, by research and demonstration grants from industry or government. Needless to say, such underwriting will not be available forever.

As a community we need to make sure that the economic drivers are created that will enable us to achieve our ends. Using the limited funds we can release from existing obligations, the largely uneconomic investments of experimenters in multimedia publication, and the occasional grant, will not enable us to capture the critical mass that could set off the cultural chain reaction we require.

What do individual institutions holding cultural heritage materials require? They need to be able to earn income to afford to digitise their holdings in order to experiment with new ways of delivering these same holdings to their immediate constituencies. They do not need to engage in distracting or risky publishing ventures, they cannot afford to give away rights to their holdings to any third parties, and they lack the expertise and the mission to engage in publishing and dissemination activities. Overheads from having to service remote enquires for their holdings are to be avoided if possible.

Consortial activity can help individual institutions do the things they need to do better than commercial- sector partnerships. This is in part because individual museums also lack the skills required to establish and maintain partnerships, and in part because a consortium can be in the business of publishing and developing outlets for museum holdings, but the museum is in a different business in which these activities will always be a sideline. An equally important reason for consortia is that they can overcome the limitations of fungibility, re-usability, meaning and markets identified earlier.

A consortium of museums can target the development of non-overlapping resources among its members, build on the different intellectual perspectives its members bring to similar holdings, supply a market with the range of raw materials required for broad series of authored products, and invest in the front-end tools and interfaces that will enhance the value of items within the RICH collection. A consortium can use the income from high demand items to create more markets for lower demand items and pool the individual collections of its members into resources that compete in encyclopaedic quality with those of any one source no matter how great. Several models for this look promising and should be explored further.

Site licensing

In the spring of 1994, a group of museum directors and multimedia specialists met in New York City under the aegis of Muse Educational Media Inc., a non-profit film maker serving the art museum community. Muse asked how the needs of museums and of multimedia developers could be satisfied in a digital environment because they had found through experience that it was nearly impossible to obtain rights for CD-ROM productions even though museums professed to be interested in reaching new markets and realising the potential value of their holdings. Museum directors explained their wariness regarding commercial rights deals, but in the course of discussion it became clear that they felt differently about educational uses. While they would appreciate income from educational uses, they were also interested in promoting such uses in themselves. With that, the Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) project was born.

The existence of MESL was enabled by support from the J Paul Getty Trust Art History Information Program. Its limited purpose is to define the terms and conditions for educational use of museum images and data, but its larger purpose is to develop a new economic mechanism that could bring millions of dollars a year into the cultural heritage community. It is as an economic model that I believe MESL shows the most long-term promise. Built on the premise that information should be free at the point of use, it recognises that a RICH resource would be of great value to universities and school districts. While there are numerous intellectual property and technical distribution issues to be resolved, the larger question is whether the museum community can create a rights and reproductions organisation and the mechanisms for end-to-end identification and acquisition of licensable cultural data. In early discussions, museums imagined that a university would view this facility as a subscription and would be willing to pay several thousand dollars a year for it. However, when the idea was broached to universities and to school districts they viewed it as an improvement on and replacement for their current visual resources or slide libraries and imagined costs for it closer to those of maintaining such facilities, including the media acquisition and staffing costs. As a consequence the economic projections realistically involve subscriptions costing tens of thousands of dollars a year, which, when the size of the market is considered (3500 universities in the United States and 15,000 school districts) creates a potential income stream to return to museums for the digitisation of culture on the order of many tens of millions of dollars a year. Thus, instead of a simple research project, MESL has the potential to become new economic driver.

Linking to education

In the discussions we had across Canada this spring, which Lyn Elliot Sherwood referred to (Click Here for Lyn Elliot Sherwood's remarks), we heard from museum directors that they wanted to find a market for multimedia titles that would not become saturated, but instead would become increasingly attractive as more titles became available. The mass consumer market is probably an example of a market that becomes saturated with cultural heritage materials relatively rapidly (just how many museum disks does the average person want once they have the national galleries of London and Washington, and the Louvre?). Schools, on the other hand, are an example of a market which is synergetic, in which individual titles become more desirable as more titles become available. Only with a lot of content can full curricula and new methods of teaching be developed. If RICH was a reality, schools would be among its heaviest users.

So, how do we ensure that schools will make the necessary commitment? This is not something a single museum can do by itself but rather requires a systemic commitment on the part of education authorities, which in turn will be based on assurance that teachers will be involved in selecting museum objects and creating curriculum materials and that there will be a continuous/ongoing stream of data. In discussions this summer (1995), the synergy between the interests of museums in having experts author content and the interests of education authorities in having a growing body of material in digital form designed for classroom use, in upgrading the technical skills of teachers, and in equalising opportunities for students in remote areas, was noted. Teachers, meanwhile, are also interested in gaining skills and excited by the opportunity to work with primary materials. Nationwide summer schools for ongoing development of electronic curricular materials were seen as possible responses at a system-wide level.

Creating a commercially desirable networked service

Museums need to understand why members of the public would be interested in RICH and what they would want to do with it. Serious research on the point of view of the public user will need to take place and be consolidated and acted upon if museums are to fashion a virtual world as exciting as that which is frequently envisioned by science fiction novels as the place where people spend as much of their time as they currently spend with broadcast television. To develop a commodity with significant public appeal, the heritage community needs to engage in a systematic effort to learn about why users of existing Internet services visit them and what they want to see in future services.

The Getty Art History Information Program has begun this year to model a series of focus group sessions and analysis of actual user presentation language in networked services. These are intended to model a kind of research that could then be conducted throughout the heritage community over a number of years to fine tune the services museums are offering. Ongoing market research of this kind will be greatly enhanced by provision of two-way communications facilities within applications. Users should be encouraged to comment in the most specific ways and places on matters of interest to them and on their further needs. This can be enabled by conscious design of services that are perceived as dialogue rather than broadcasting, as conferring rather than teaching.

End-to-end rights mechanisms

As far as I know, no one has yet identified the possibility of harnessing the very mechanism by which rights are asserted, the copyrights registration process, to create a new financial instrument. An 'electronic copyright deposit/registry' function could be used to generate income for the heritage community as well as to sustain an electronic national bibliography. Non-exclusive indices to cultural objects, such as the proposed 'Visualizations in Print' by the publishers of Books in Print, could enable potential users to license materials also. Whatever the mechanisms involved, it is essential that end-to-end search and licensing be enabled and that registration of uses be categorical so that people do not need to be involved in each request for use.

Experiments in licensing of rights and delivery of content can look to the experience of document delivery services, text copyright permission clearance methods, mechanisms established by the music industry, and early digital stock photo licensing facilities such as Kodak Picture Exchange and Picture Network International.

National investments for cultural information as an export market

There appear to be two quite distinct models of how a country could become a significant exporter of cultural heritage information. In my opinion, one is a sure loser and the other a likely winner. The first approach involves trying to become a net exporter of cultural information through creating a national cultural resource that everyone else in the world would want more than the citizens of your own country want information about other cultures. This model is similar to that which has made the United States the only major exporter of films. The second approach creates a distributed national cultural resource accessed through an index supported at a national level, but emphasises the creation of an index tool that also serves as a means to access the cultural heritage of other countries and is distinguished by being a value-added search facility with high levels of functionality. Rather than depending on national content per se as the source of cultural exports, the second model aims to maximise traffic through its gateway. The second approach, therefore, depends on exploiting techniques of Networked Information Discovery & Retrieval and on providing the best visualisations of vast universes of data held elsewhere.

Over the past several weeks, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) has been involved in strategic planning designed to create a facility built around the second objective. I believe their action is a realistic reflection of the strategies that are required to succeed in a distributed, networked, environment in the future. Traffic in such an environment will go to the most functional server and ultimately the greatest economic benefit will derive from information services not raw information resources. This will, of course, mean that there will be continued competition to provide the most interesting and valuable concentrators, searchers, visualisers, and presentation systems. It will be important to create national content, but as indicated in the earlier sections about the fungibility of data, the national information resources will increasingly prove to be overlapping and the tools for accessing them and exploiting them will be more important than the raw content itself. (The lesson of the industrial society may have to be relearned; those who depend on the export of raw materials will not prosper.)

Create new markets

In a recent discussion with Lyn Elliot Sherwood, Director General of CHIN ( Click Here for Lyn Elliot Sherwood's paper), we agreed that the public is having trouble purchasing CD-ROM products because of their current price point and because they do not feel they get adequate use from them. Presumably they envision a degree of use more similar to that of an audio CD (play it several times a week) than that of a coffee table book (don't ever open it, or open it once after receipt). We have been struggling to make these products more exciting to increase the degree of usage, but another approach would be to accept the reality of low use and adopt the model of movies rather than books. Lyn suggested that a rental market could be created.

If we pursued this approach we could give other museums a copy of our CDs in return for a copy of theirs, and buy cultural CDs not made by museums. We would sell them in our gift shops, but more importantly rent them there. Renters would pay the equivalent of movie rental fees (stopping twice in our shops in each transaction). If we were really successful, we would attract the attention of Blockbusters or other commercial video and game cartridge renters and they would enter the market and render us insignificant. If less successful, our shops would still create a mini-market and enable our constituents to explore interactive multimedia. Tastes of our offerings could be provided over the networks to attract new users.

Similar approaches may be necessary to create new markets for networked museum content. We may need to work with providers of public television or commercial channels offering cultural content to offer interactive content from museums and build clienteles devoted to it before these are able to return income. The concept would be to encourage them to invest in creating demand, thus stimulating our production and enabling their widespread dissemination, and holding off on trying to make a paying market until afterwards.


The methods and approaches to digital publication and networked heritage currently being explored by museums will not lead to the creation of a sustainable and usable Repository of International Cultural Heritage (RICH). If we pursue these isolated approaches we will be squeezed out of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) by a commercial content that embodies very different values from our own. We need to explicitly acknowledge and act upon some fundamental technical/cultural limitations of the undertaking we are engaged in and make efforts to structure responses that will limit the drawbacks of these. In addition we need to take concrete steps soon to distinguish our information content by its quality from that of commercial interests. Finally, we must create economic drivers capable of producing income to museums for these purposes on an ongoing basis.

One of the clearest lessons of the Internet and GII is that structural changes in museum economies and institutional mandates must be anticipated and planned if the opportunity it presents is to be truly transformative. Otherwise the Internet will prove to be just another publication vehicle and the museum community may see little benefit from it - indeed it could be a threat as other purveyors of cultural heritage squeeze the museums out of the position of being primary providers of cultural experience.

I'm encouraged that there are interests in the heritage community that are trying to think in broad strategic terms even in these early, heady days, of preliminary exploration. I'm less than sanguine however that we can collectively develop the kinds of responses that will enable us to take advantage of the Internet and I-way infrastructures and build the RICH environment that we desire. In my work with the J Paul Getty Trust Art History Information Program, the Canadian Heritage Information Network and the emerging Australian Museum Information Network and Foundation for the Hellenic World, I am beginning to see the kinds of agents and the kinds of thinking that can lead to international solutions.

This paper was referred to by 1 Suzanne Keene, 2, 3 Jeremy Rees, 4 Neil Thomson


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