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In recent years, the notion “virtual museum” has been evoked so often in cybercultural discourse that it has lost all of its novelty value, if indeed, it had any left. The list of Web sites purportedly falling under this category is long, and growing. A recent search with Google for “virtual museum” brought up more than 141,000 hits. Such a “category” is understandably extremely vague, accommodating entries that have little to do with each other regarding both their institutional status and their interpretation of the word museum. There are “virtual museums” that might more conveniently be classified as libraries or archives, although the cyberspace definitions of these are not absolutely clear-cut either. If the “wired” virtual museums have a common denominator at all, it is a very general one, referring to almost any kind of collection of material (supposedly of “historical” or at least “cultural” value) put on general display on the Web.

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There is no doubt that the vogue for virtual museums received a powerful impetus from the emergence of the World Wide Web and particularly from its transformation into a multimedia environment with the introduction of the Mosaic browser in 1993. Yet the idea did not originate with the WWW. The invention of the hypertext in the 1960s may, in the long term, have been a more decisive influence, pointing out the possibility of creating huge non-linear data-architectures. Ted Nelson’s “Xanadu” was an early description of the cultural implications of networked hypertext, which Nelson foresaw leading to the creation of an accumulating universal databank accessible from any node in the network. A pioneering project investigating the implications of this idea for the museum institution was “The Museum Inside the Telephone Network”, an exhibition organized in 1991 by the Project InterCommunication Center, founded by the Japanese telecom NTT.2 The exhibition was only accessible to home users by means of the telephone, fax, and in a limited sense computer networking (the Internet was not yet available in Japan). It was meant as a model for a new kind of an “invisible” museum. Logically, it was followed up four years later by another ICC exhibition titled “The Museum Inside the Network” (1995). The “museum” had now been re-located into the Internet.

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In the early 90s the possibilities of hypertext were applied to the creation of numerous CD-ROM-based virtual museums. One of the first was Apple Computer’s “Virtual Museum”, a demonstration disc for Apple’s proprietary QuickTimeVR software shown at “Siggraph 92” in Chicago. By clicking the mouse the user was able to explore interactively a 3-D simulation of three interconnected museum spaces, one of which was a very conventional looking art museum gallery. Numerous commercial, some of them highly successful, CD-ROM products, now almost totally forgotten, were conceived as virtual visits to existing art museums such as Le Louvre or the Hermitage. These products rarely attempted to simulate in 3-D the physical space of the museum (with the exception of a CD-ROM about Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Rather, they deliberately limited their scope, highlighting some treasures from the collection and providing useful background information. For many users such CD-ROMs were supplements rather than substitutes for the physical museum. They were sold as souvenirs in the museum shops as part of their promotional machinery. In France, such CD-ROMs were also widely available through the FNAC chain of book and media stores. As products, they did little to question the legitimacy of the traditional museum institution. Many museum websites today continue this tradition, although they may occasionally contain virtual galleries and other non-material elements with no physical counterpart in the museum building. Whether straightforward museum websites merit the title “virtual museum” is open to debate.

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As important as new software (hypercard, QuickTimeVR, VRML) or new media (CD-ROM, The World Wide Web) were for the emergence of the virtual museum, the topic was also grounded in wider cultural issues. In recent years, we have seen a massive amount of academic writing about the museum as an institution. This has received an impetus from a wave of post-modern theorizing about the impact of media on notions like authenticity and the original. With images and sounds reproduced in principle in unlimited numbers, and distributed, copied, mixed and manipulated at will by the media, the idea of temples dedicated to the cult of the authentic (or “auratic”) objects seemed outdated to many. As prophesied by Walter Benjamin in 1936, the original was seen to be disappearing, replaced by an infinite number of copies. The (media) reality itself was turning into an all-encompassing, albeit chaotic, museum available to anybody. Theorists and critics often felt they were standing, to quote the title of Douglas Crimp’s well-known book, “on the museum’s ruins”. This attitude was influenced by André Malraux’s famous idea about the imaginary museum without walls, presented in 1947. The main factor behind Malraux’s questioning of the traditional role of the museum institution was the spreading of photography. The ever-present photographic reproductions of artworks made art accessible to audiences who would never have entered a museum. At the same time in the United States (but unknown to Malraux) Vannevar Bush was theorizing about the Memex, a new non-linear system of storing and retriving data. As well known, Memex was later recognized as the earliest model for hypertext. The ideas of Malraux and Bush combined take us to the gates of the virtual museum.

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In this article, however, I will claim that the origins of the virtual museum can be taken even further back in time. A key factor in this respect is the emergence of exhibition design as a new medium within the avantgarde art movements of the early 20th century. In their own ways artist-designers like László Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, Herbert Bayer and Frederick Kiesler reacted to the challenges posed by new media technologies, like photography, film, and sound recording. Aware of the need for radical changes in the concept and the roles of art, a radical re-thinking of the relationship between exhibition spaces, exhibits and spectators/visitors was needed. Besides re- defining the public viewing contexts, the notion of “domestic picture galleries” was also raised and explored. Having a closer look at these experimental designs and their cultural backgrounds will help us understand better the design challenges facing the creators of virtual museums and galleries as well. One should also note that some of the issues explored by the avant garde artists and designers of the first half of the 20th century have been recently taken up by contemporary experimental media artists, working with installations and networked environments. Their works often raise issues like storage and erasure, memory and forgetting, revealing and hiding, the physical and the virtual. Some such works will be introduced and discussed in the final part of this post.

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The aim of this post has been to shed new light on the design of virtual museums by looking at some of their anticipations in the fields of exhibition design and interactive media art. The article does not claim that these are the only factors that explain the nature and the emergence of the virtual museum as an institution. Even in the field of experimental art there are other phenomena that still deserve to be investigated. An interesting starting point for this continued analysis is Craig J. Saper’s recent study titled “Networked Art”. Saper explores the background of current electronic networking art practices by analyzing such overlooked phenomena as mail art networks and visual poetry as a communication system.

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Based on the discussions in this article, the “historical” challenges for the creators of virtual museum can perhaps be best summed up as a series of questions:

  • Public or private: should a virtual museum be addressed to the home user or the museum goer or both? How does this affect the design?
  • What is the role of tactility? Can tele-tactility replace the physicality of touch?
  • Push buttons and peep holes: are these still valid interfaces? What else is needed?
  • How does one maintain user involvement without turning it into a goal in itself?
  • What role does creating “a total atmosphere” play? Are there any alternatives?
  • How does one make a distinction between a museum exhibit and an entertainment application?
  • Is there a need for distancing the user, at least sometimes? When and under what conditions? For what purpose?
  • Is there a limit to the “multisensory overload” in exhibition design? How many information channels can be added without causing confusion and miscommunication?
  • How should physical museum relate to virtual ones? Can a virtual museum be merely a replica of the physical one, or should it be something radically different? What?
  • Can all location-based exhibits be replaced by virtual ones? Is this a viable goal
  • How important is user interaction? Wouldn’t it be good to try to do without it, at least sometimes? What would be the consequences of non-interactive virtual museum design?


As an institution, the digital and “wired” virtual museum is still in the earliest stages of its development. As a consequence, the key questions to ask will certainly change, and new ones will be added to the list. Much will depend on the development rate and the spreading of higher speed Internet connectivity to everyday consumers. However, solving problems of routing and data-transfer is not everything. Our modes and routines of communicating and interfacing with multimedia databases are cultural, historical and ideological issues as well. Considering precedents from the non-digital eras – covering most of the history of mankind so far – should not be neglected.

Resources: On the Origins of the Virtual Museum
by Erkki Huhtamo
University of California, Los Angeles