What is a museum?

August 8, 2006


National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story last week about online museums and how they compared to bricks and mortar museums. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5563221) When I first started the MUA I referred to it as a virtual museum because in my mind it didn’t seem real but I began to think differently after visiting a few local exhibits at the Smithsonian and Mystic Seaport. Several of the exhibits at the bricks and mortar facilities were composed entirely of images. Those with more three dimensional artifacts on display were not available for the general public to touch. Viewers were limited to moving around the artifact to change their viewpoint. The closer I looked at the vistor experience the less differences I could find.


The NPR story cited two Merriam-Webster definitions for a museum,


“an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value,” and “a place where objects are exhibited.”


If we utilize the second definition then the MUA can be seen as much of a museum as any other. I realize many folks might disagree with this but consider what we had to do to prepare the CSS Alabama exhibit. Our script editors for that exhibit hold MAs in Museum Studies from George Washington University. They were tasked not with writing a webpage but with writing exhibit text in two levels, one for those who wish to scan through the site quickly and one for those who want a deeper level of detail. A third level was provided in the form of the actual archaeological reports which are available within the exhibit.


We received hundreds of images of artifacts from the project. As with any museum exhibit we had to select the ones that best told the story we wished to relate to the public. In addition we had to consider the flow or path that the visitors might take. We offer a suggested path but as with any physical museum visitors are not forced to follow it. They can in fact move from gallery to gallery without viewing all materials. While most of the images in our exhibits are static there are instances where we use slideshows, videos, and even interactive zoomviews which simulate a viewer’s ability to draw closer to an object and examine it in closer detail. Future exhibits will offer the ability to rotate an artifact which is not available in many bricks and mortar museums.


Purists might argue that if you do not have the actual object in front of you, it is not a true museum exhibit. It is true our artifacts are not physically present with the viewer… behind glass… or a rope barrier, but this is a minor difference, one that time and technology will no doubt minimize as a distraction.


The differences between online and physical museums are diminishing but even so what is not different in any professionally directed institution is the over all goal of teaching the public through the use of material culture. As long as that remains the same there is little meaningful difference between the two.


Feel free to comment by clicking on the word “comments” below this posting.


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