Monday, 9 October 2017

Virtual Museums: a "new" way of edutainment?

The concept of Virtual Museum was introduced by the French art historian, writer and politician Andre Malraux in 1947. He imagined a museum without walls and specific location that can be accessed all over the world. Through the following decades, especially during the last 20 years, this idea has been explored and now virtual museum are spreaded all around the earth (or the web).

In 1998, Werner Schweibenz (University of Konstanz, Germany) defined virtual museum as "a logically related collection of digital objects composed in a variety of media which, because of its capacity to provide connectedness and various points of access, lends itself to transcending traditional methods of communicating and interacting with visitors…; it has no real place or space, its objects and the related information can be disseminated all over the world”
Even if it is too "cyberspace-oriented", his definition seems still valid, since this kind of edutainment is now ranging from web-based repositories to more complex 3D reconstructions accessible in a real place or online, realized through softwares commonly used by indie videogame developers (such as Unity Game Engine).

Here are some links to virtual museums/virtual experiences:

Virtual Museum of Canada:
Virtual Museum of Herculaneum:
Virtual visit at Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perù:
Virtual Museum of Iraq:
Acropolis of Athens Virtual Tour:

Articles dealing with Archaeological Virtual Museum experiences, in addition to analyzing the process of digitizing collections, artifacts or creating 3D reconstructions, address the strenghts of this new means of communicating the cultural heritage. The authors underline that virtual museums are space-saving, allow to interact with fragile objects and artifacts that are in non accessible repositories, the interaction between visitors and museum curators and the educational role of these exhibitions.

Here are the articles:

What is your opinion about Virtual Museums? Do you think that they have a greater educational potential than "regular" museums? Could they detach people from the ground, the context, the real archaeological sites?



Arwen Johns said...

I think that virtual museums are a great tool allowing for greater accessibility to museum collections housed the world over, with hundreds of thousands of artifacts up for examination at the click of a button. With so many artifacts in storage at museums, I wonder if this might be a way to present more pieces to the public, if entire collections were to be digitized.

While I do think that virtual museums are hugely valuable educational tools, I do have some issues with them (many of which simply relate to my personal preferences). I would argue that some element of authenticity is lost when viewing an artifact in the digital world versus the real world. While all interactions with artifacts in museums (virtual or otherwise) are heavily mediated, I feel that an element of "authenticity" is lost when viewing an object on the screen versus in a museum, even if my role as observer remains relatively unchanged. I think some of this has to do with the lack of scale that is sometimes an issue in virtual museums, because without viewing the object in space it can be hard to appreciate its true dimensions and form.

I'm not sure that it can be argued that virtual museums provide more or less context for objects, since physical museums don't/can't give us much more than what could be viewed through a computer screen. That being said though, once an digital image of an object is made public in such a way it opens up a whole can of issues related to ownership, copyright, and how/if such images can be manipulated and used by the public. It would be nearly impossible to police this, and that troubles me, especially when dealing with sensitive archaeological/heritage objects.

Amanda Suko said...

Amedeo, thanks for your post. My opinion toward virtual museums is somewhat ambivalent. Indeed, making museum collections (in general) available virtually, and interactively, promotes wider access to the general public. It can be argued that often it encourages engagement because anyone with technological devices can access it, quite literally, anywhere and anytime. In this way, for me, the diversity of museum artifacts (perhaps those that didn't make it to the flashy showcase) can be highlighted and introduced to the public, rather than being kept behind closed doors of the dusty collections room. The following article I stumbled upon brings up a good point, showing indifference toward on-the-screen or in-person experience as she argues that our interaction with museum art displays and performances can be-and has been- private and virtual since time: (

However, I disagree with the author above as there is certainly differences in accessing museum objects in person and behind the screen. Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with my personal preference and specific training as an archaeologist. I do often wonder if latter form of engagement undermines sensory experience with the materiality of the objects (I have not yet access a lot of virtual museums out of interest). As a visitor and an observer, I really appreciate the experience of walking around or stand being in awe with the materials, the medium, the scale (as Arwen rightfully notes above) of a particular object. This is, for me, significantly different from clicking my mouse and simply 'rotate' an object. I also often find myself develop a sense of appreciation when thinking that I stand before an artifact that once engaged with communities that aren't around anymore. More than just a passive entity of analysis and view, these objects hold memories, knowledge and sensibilities of the specific people living at that particular time and place. It can be argued that virtual experience between you and the computer screen can be more 'intimate and private', but one that disregards that very sense of awe and curiosity.

I agree with Arwen that context is not likely altered by virtual or non-virtual means of access. Indeed, based on my experience working at a museum, and because largely museum objects are legacy collections, context don't quite mean the same way as it is in archaeology these days. Often times, and this varies across museums of course, but the catalogues/ledgers in the collections archives may hold original field notes, which can be helpful for research purposes. However, often it is about donors, date of object collection (not necessarily excavation as we see it today), and approximate area where it's found (e.g., county, townships,). This can also be helpful, depending on research objectives. Just, I wonder, how long would it take for researchers to be able to access these supplemental information virtually? Even as a researcher wanting to access artifact collections and the documentations associated, I would still prefer a personal visit.

Anyway, to return, as someone who has been denied access repeatedly to museum collections for my own research purposes, I do understand the value of virtual museums to be accessed as educational tools. Often times, artifacts are sitting on the shelves at the back-of-the-house of museums and making them available online is a way to engage the public with them. Indeed, I don't think virtual museums are a bad idea, if used cautiously and mindfully toward culturally-sensitive objects. However, I do value the experience gained from visiting museum objects in person in ways that digitized versions cannot do.

Jeff Grieve said...

Hi Amedeo,

Thanks for your post. I agree that virtual museums can provide a means to enable the general public to more easily access material culture. However, while this is an opportunity, it is not completely without cost or other detrimental considerations. Similar to the points raised by Arwen and Amanda, I think that we need to be conscious of the implications that "virtual delivery" will have on the perception and meaning of these collections. I recently read this article from Dr. Jeremy Huggett which contains a number of observations which would be very applicable to this discussion. I particularly liked the way he characterizes digital mediation as a two-fold problem for Digital archaeology with technology simultaneously changing our perception of as well as physically separating us from the past.

In reviewing the links in your post, I noted a couple of examples of targeted analysis of usage patterns on specific sites, by specific user groups. This made me think that it would be interesting to see the results of any research studies that may have been done on a cross-site and comparative basis to understand patterns of consumption by the "general public" of "Virtual" vs Traditional Museums. Such a research effort might address questions such as:

• What is the demographic profile of a typical "virtual museum" visitor ?
• How does this visitor differ, if at all, from the profile of the Traditional (original) museum visitor?
• How long is a "Virtual Museum" visit ?
• What features and functions are most appealing and used during a "Virtual Museum" visit ?
• Why did they choose the "Virtual" vs. Original museum?

I did a very cursory scan to see if I could find a good example of such a study. I came across this one which isn't comprehensive. I wonder if you or others reading this post are aware of any other such studies ?