Virtual Museums: Where to Begin?

The topic of virtual museums induces list-making mania in me. Twenty pages deep into the Google results for a search on “virtual museums” I have a personal list of more than 100 “special topic” VM efforts. My collection of virtual collections spans the gamut— from the Cultural Revolution and the city of San Francisco, to widescreen cinema and LEDS. The explosion in the number of virtual museums didn’t happen overnight; it is the result of a long engagement between museum professionals and new technologies. Some of the earliest efforts at what might be understood as a “virtual” museum include physical replicas of ancient structures, such as the Lascaux caves and various Greek monuments. As Victoria Newhouse (“The Virtual Museum,” 1998) argues, the use of “reproductive technologies” by museums has a long history. When the originals were too fragile or lost altogether, museums often displayed copies of important cultural artifacts. As she rightly points out, the Internet, and the WWW in particular has profound implications for the circulation of digital copies of museum holdings and the creation of digital collections. “Open to anyone who wants to set up his or her own site, it [the Web] is the great leveler, and an unknown artist and a powerful corporation have addresses of equal weight” (267). With this statement she anticipates the proliferation of virtual museum websites that include the sites sponsored not only by the most venerable institutions such as the Vatican (The Vatican Museums Online), but also by those devoted to niche topics such as valves, typewriters, toilet paper, and (one of my personal favorites) shoes.

Media archeologist and scholar, Erkki Huhtamo was the first one who introduced me to the notion of the virtual museum. His article, “On the Origins of the Virtual Museum” begins by pointing out that the term “virtual museum” is extremely vague. Indeed, even a cursory web search demonstrates that the term is invoked to describe a broad set of digital practices and online resources. As Huhtamo notes, the idea of a vast linked set of cultural documents was the key idea behind Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project. In this sense, both the notion of the virtual museum and the virtual library were prefigured in Nelson’s vision. Other precursors to the development web-based virtual museums include various CD-ROMs produced as supplements to traditional museums. (See for example: Virtual Museums: Uffizi)

Many of the virtual museums that exist online now began as websites for brick-and mortar-institutions. According to one account, the first virtual museum was the EXPO created in 1993 as a guide to artifacts from the Vatican Library on display at the time at the U.S. Library of Congress. The exhibit, “Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture” included 200 artifacts from manuscripts, books and maps. The digital guide, which might be more properly identified as an example of an online exhibit, consisted of a set of html pages that included textual descriptions and images of items on display. Another early effort was the WebMuseum, an exhibition of artworks by begun in 1994 by a computer scientist at the École Polytechnique in Paris. It too consisted of hypertext pages containing textual descriptions and images of artwork.

But for Huhtamo—who is a media archeologist after all—the precursor of the virtual museum was the development of “exhibit design” as a medium in and of itself. He traces the origins of virtual museums to the experimental efforts of artists (such as László Moholy-Nagy, Frederick Kiesler, and Eli Lissitzky, among others) in the 1920s to redefine the viewer’s experience within the (art) museum setting. He suggests that the idea of the virtual museum was explored and developed well before the technologies of the Web became ubiquitous tools within museums. (On this point he also draws attention to in Jeffrey Shaw’s 1990 interactive work called “The Virtual Museum” in which visitors sat on a motorized rotating platform in front of a large screen and could “virtually” travel through images of galleries and museum spaces.)

Current efforts to track the use of the term “virtual museum” support Huhtamo’s basic claim that the term is used inconsistently. Many of the lists annotated below—lists of “virtual museums”—actually consist of links to museum web pages even though the museum sites don’t refer to themselves as “virtual museums.” Moreover, many of the lists of “virtual museums” include not only links to museum websites but also links to virtual field trips, virtual tours, and other kinds of online learning resources. See for examples: The Tramline site called Virtual Field Trips; the Homework Spot site with a field trip archive; and the list of Internet field trips sponsored by Scholastic.

(And of course we know that a “virtual museum” is not to be confused with the notion of a fictional museum such as the Flash Museum that appears in the DC comic superhero Flash stories or the Museum of Curiosity—a comedy game show on BBC Radio.)

Among the several thousand Google results are examples of virtual museums that consist of collections of digital representations of artifacts (images, sounds, texts) that do not exist as a collection anywhere specifically. For example, the “virtual car museum” maintained by Phil Seed includes images of cars taken from his collection of automobile brochures as well as images contributed by other car enthusiasts. While many of the “virtual museums” included on these lists are sponsored by formal institutions, others are created (and maintained) by people without any specific museum affiliation or background. In this sense, the notion (and indeed the creation) of many a virtual museum is an example of the blurring of the boundary between professional and amateur when it comes to matters of knowledge production. These sites are signposts of the pro-am phenomenon of creative participation in digital culture.

At the end of his 2002 talk on “The Origins of Virtual Museums,” Erkki Huhtamo offers a set of questions about the “historical challenges for creators of virtual museums.” For example, he poses questions such as:

  • What is the role of tactility? Can tele-tactility replace the physicality of touch?
  • How does one make a distinction between a museum exhibit and an entertainment application?
  • How should the physical museum relate to the virtual one?
  • Can a virtual museum be a replica of the physical one, or should it be something radically different?

Of course, Huhtamo wasn’t the only one at the time suggesting the need to develop metrics for the assessment and analysis of virtual museums (see for example the paper by Falquet, et. al., Design and Analysis of Virtual Museums, from the 2001 Museums and the Web conference). But he did prefigure some of the contemporary research and conversations among museum professionals about the design and analysis of virtual museums, online exhibits, and visitor (digital) experiences. In a book chapter published in 2006, for example, Lianne McTavish discussed the nature of the visitor experience of a virtual museum to ask whether the participation is “merely passive clicking” or actually encourages new ways of thinking. In the early 2000s, a large project called The “Personal Experience with Active Cultural Heritage” (PEACH) (funded by the Province of Trento in Italy) explored the possibilities of using new media technologies to enhance vistors’ experiences at various European cultural heritage institutions. The PEACH project specifically investigated the creation of novel user interfaces and the use of mobile devices. More recently, a collection of articles published by the American Association of Museums in the book, The Digital Museum: A Think Guide (Din and Hecht, eds.), chronicled the ongoing discussions about the design, creation and technological support for virtual museums. Whereas earlier AAM publications, The Wired Museum (1997) and The Virtual and the Real (1998) focused on issues pertaining to the digitization of collections, data integration, authorship and museum authority (among other issues), the essays in The Digital Museumcollection address issues pertaining to the broad impact of the Web on the contemporary museum. As Selma Thomas writes in the introduction:

The significance of the online museum—to institutions and to their audiences—has been debated from the Internet’s earliest days. The second generation of Web tools has only intensified that debate. In the early 1990s, museum professionals worried about the role of the “virtual museum online. Would it compete with the bricks –and-mortar museum for visitors, funds and programs? Would it dilute the brand of the museum that monument to civic and cultural pride? Would it demean the value of the collections by circulating tiny pixilated images? Could museums, with their commitment to “real” objects, protect the authenticity of those objects while developing Web-based programming? And what about visitors? Would they want to see the real thing if they could see the digital versions of the collections online? (3).

As the book chapters demonstrate, current discussions among museum professionals now also need to address how the Web (and the creation of online museums) demands the development of new business models and requires collaboration among institutions. Moreover, several authors mention the need to develop web-specific assessment methods for evaluating online visitor experiences, such that museums can better understand how their investment in the creation of web experiences (in terms of staff, technology, and creative energy) really contributes to the realization (or not) of core missions.

One of the questions not addressed in that book that comes up in other articles concerns the cultural politics of virtual museums. Some museum professionals suggest that the virtual museum is an important vehicle for purpose of cultural repatriation (Resta, et. al. 2002). Indeed, this is a point where the concerns of museum professionals and those of library professionals merge. The special issue of D-Lib Magazine (March 2002) was devoted to the topic of “Digital Technology and Indigenous Communities.” Contributors included library as well as museum professionals who discussed issues of preservation, networking, collecting and the creation of digital representations of the cultural artifacts of indigenous peoples (Atkins and Holland, eds. 2002). As might be expected, there was wide agreement on the value of creating digital archives; what wasn’t as strongly addressed in that volume was the need to provide sites of public access to those archives. The first step was to simply ensure the creation of digital representations of important artifacts. Clifford Lynch, in a 2007 Educause article pushes the argument to the next step. While he doesn’t specially cite the advantages of creating a “virtual museum” per se, he argues that when artifacts are to be repatriated, it is vitally important that the process include the creation of digital surrogates of the cultural artifacts. But he goes on to make the point that indigenous artifacts are also part of a collective cultural heritage. For him the creation of digital surrogates serves not only to advance scholarship and research but also, equally importantly, maintain (collective) cultural memory (Lynch, 2008). The broader point Lynch makes is that with the advances in digitalization technologies the quality of the digital surrogates has improved greatly such it is possible now to create highly detailed images and information records that virtually outstrip the original object in terms of its information capacity. This points directly to one of the key cultural affordances of virtual museums: the capacity to create media-rich information environments for the display of surrogate cultural objects. The possibilities for the creation of complex narrative contexts and participatory story making (through the use of games and digital avatars) are the real cultural promise of virtual museums.

Creating Complex Virtual Museums, Exhibits, and Online Experiences

The development of virtual environments has spawned several interesting experiments in creating new forms of virtual museums and web-based exhibits that actively engage participants in creating new understandings about digitized representations of cultural artifacts. Probably the most familiar and commonly cited virtual environment is Linden Lab’s Second Life. But other environment such as WhyVille and Active Worlds are also serving as the platform for creative experiments in the design of virtual museum experiences. In 2008, Paul Doherty and colleagues hosted a workshop at the annual “Museums and the Web” conference on the topic of Museums in Virtual Worlds. They focused workshop activities on Second Life and offered a list of museums already established there.

  • The Splo, Second Life’s oldest Science Museum founded April 1, 2006.
  • The Exploratorium has a sim with some exhibits, a model of an asteroid impact on Mars, and a Brownian Motion exhibit.
  • The International Spaceflight Museum includes models of spacecraft from around the world, planetarium, rocket ride, and a tour of the planets.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has two islands with interactive weather experiences.
  • At the Virtual Starry Night site, Van Gough paintings are used to inspire 3-d constructions.
  • The Second Louvre: a collection of art created in Second Life.

The various museums (or museum-like activities) going on in Second Life (SL) have garnered critical attention. Richard Urban, et. al., (2007) offers an overview of various SL museum efforts. Urban’s paper offers a useful summary of the predecessors of SL (MUDs, MOOs, and VRML) as well as a list of characteristics that differentiate SL museums: (scale, setting, persistence, media richness, mode of visitor engagement, social interaction, intended purpose, collection type, and target audiences). Not only have museums set up spaces in SL, the virtual environment has also become an important site for conferences on the topic of virtual museums. In 2009, the Second Annual Virtual Worldsconference was held in Second Life on the topic of “Libraries, Education and Museums.”

On March 19, 2009, the Smithsonian Museum opened its virtual doors to three Second Life “islands” of the Latino Virtual Museum (LVM). The effort is described as a pan-institutional digital initiative that highlights the vast and rich collections, research and scholarship, exhibitions and educational activities of the Smithsonian Institution as they relate to U.S. Latinos and Latin America. The aim is to use the latest media and communication technologies (i.e., Second Life) to provide access to information and resources and to facilitate the increase and diffusion of knowledge to local and global online audiences about Latino/Hispanic history, heritage and American experience. The website description claims that it is an example of the Museum Web 3.0—the creation of an educational virtual world environment

Other virtual world environments are also serving as platforms for innovative museum experiments. WhyReef is a coral reef in Whyville—a virtual world for younger children. Created and operated by the Chicago Field Museum, WhyReef includes a game that engages children in identifying marine animals. Launched in March 2009, the site has had more than 150,000 visits since. (For more information on the project see the MacArthur Foundation Spotlight Blog posting by Audrey Aronowsky.) The New York Hall of Science has created a virtual museum space within Active Worlds called the Virtual Hall of Science (VHOS). The VHOS project is virtual space within the Active Worlds Universe in which the New York Hall of Science intends to create interactive exhibits through a collaborative process involving the contributions of Hall staff, Hall Explainers, participants of the Hall’s camp programs and casual visitors. The first phase of the VHOS project involved a group of 18-23 year olds who participated in a four-day camp to learn how to navigate and build in the Active Worlds environment, research a STEM topic of their choice, learn exhibit design from and expert, and finally design their own exhibits in-world. Prior to the camp, a team of Explainers (the Hall’s equivalent of a docent) went through a series of AW trainings in order to help camp participants realize their designs. At the conclusion of the camp participants completed a draft of their exhibit designs. Currently in its third phase, the VHOS project is focusing on methods to develop richer content as part of virtual exhibits.

Probably the most ambitious and impressive interactive virtual museum that exists entirely as an interactive virtual space is the Museo Virtual De Arts El Pais (MUVA). It is the most fully realized vision of a graphic and spatialized virtual museum. The site is accessible in Spanish and in English. It is a media rich virtual museum that invites visitors to spend time exploring the space. It rewards the long visit.

Museo Virtual De Arts El Pais (MUVA).

Other noteworthy projects include:

  • The Creative Spaces Web Project is a joint effort by nine British museums that creates a place for people to curate a collection of photographs/videos of items from their famous collections. It is a complex multi-institutional collaboration that has sparked interesting discussion about the the nature of authority and cultural information. (See the blog posting on jon pratty/machine culture.)
  • In the U.S., a consortium of telecommunications related museums and archives in the U.S. have banded together to provide educational and entertaining on-line exhibits that make use of their individual collections. The Telecommunications Virtual Museum involves materials from the Capehart Communications Collection (TX), Rye Telephone Company (CO), SNET Archives (U of Connecticut), Telephone Museum of New Mexico, and Telecommunications History Group (CO and WA).
  • This Old Habitat created by the Chicago Field Museum is a hybrid field trip and interactive game.
  • The website for the Museum of Tolerance to be built in the heart of Jerusalem includes a 3-D representation of the proposed physical museum.

The List of Lists

In 2008, the Institute of Museums and Library Services released a “National Study on the Use of Museums and the Internet.” The results of the study provided solid evidence for what many museum professionals had already suspected: that the amount of use of the Internet is “positively correlated with the number of in-person visits to museums.” This suggests that we will continue to enjoy the development of new virtual museums. The following sites maintain lists of Virtual Museums, online museum tours, or web-based museum collections.

The Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp) is a project sponsored by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) that includes links to WWW services offered by various museums around the world. The current VLMP site includes pages of links to international museums, galleries, libraries, and Wikipedia pages on museums. The original VLmp site was founded in 1994 at Oxford University. Page notes indicate that the original page hasn’t been updated since September 2006. On a list of the mirror sites for the page is a description of the reorganization of the project. Here we learn that the project evolved from being maintained by a single person and organization (Jonathan Bowen and the ICOM) to one that was to be expanded and maintained by a distributed group of self-identified volunteers. It is unclear at this point how extensive is the group of people who contribute to the links list on the site. The WWW Virtual Library mirrors the VLmp page. It includes links that were first added in the mid-1990s. While the links to the 1995 sites (such as to the Ontario Science Center) now point to contemporary sites (that announce 2009 events for exmple), the early list of links would be valuable as a resource for anyone studying the history of the development of virtual museums. The WayBack Machine doesn’t have pages from the earliest sites (1995), but would be a useful archeological tool for the other early attempts by museums to create a web presence.

The Museum of Online Museums (MoOM) is a delightful site created by the Chicago design firm, Coudal Partners. It includes a long list of links to museum websites, online exhibits, and virtual museum experiences.

MuseumSpot is a portal to web-based information about museums. It serves as a directory of museum website links that enable users to search by topic, by country/state/city, or by type of resources. It includes articles and activities for children. An editorial team selects the information listed on the site. Links from this site include: that provides a directory to museum websites organized by state (in the US), country, or type and MuseumsUSA MuseumUSA that offers a comprehensive list of US museums.

The Virtual Museum Exhibit….Museum on Demand site include links to different topics of virtual exhibits sponsored by museums across the globe.

Museumlinks’ Museum of Museums: This site began as an effort to share online resources among Illinois museums in 1997. The website boasted that it would eventually contain links to every “museums on the planet, from the world’s largest to the most obscure.” As of 2009, its list of “virtual museums” includes 59 links.

Virtual Free Sites includes a page of links to virtual tours of museums, exhibits and special points of interest. There are 45 links to virtual tours of museums; 17 tours of virtual exhibits; 83 tours to places of interest (including a tour of a domestic violence shelter); 23 tours of “real-time” adventures; and 20 virtual reality tours.

The Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) provides an interactive space that offers activities and experiences based on Canadian museum collections. It includes links to virtual exhibits and tours, but also creates new online activities that span the collection of different museums.

A list of Online exhibits throughout Australia is provided by the Australian Libraries Gateway site.

The Association of Science-Technology Centers maintains a site called Try Science that includes interactive experiences and activities created and hosted by its member organizations.

The Exploratorium maintains an extensive set of web pages that provide online science/technology related activities and experiences. The Exploratorium Digital Library is a rich resource for photos, videos, learning activities, and web casts.

The Teachers Tap is a free professional development resource that helps educators and librarians find useful online resources and activities. It maintains a page on “Digital and Virtual Museums” that includes briefly annotated links to 32 online museum sites across the globe. The site also includes a long list of links to virtual field trips that were ONCE created by the Apple Computer Corporation’s Learning Interchange Team, but are no long available. The list of dead links remains useful though for those doing research on the history of interactive educational efforts.

A page called “Oldies and Goodies: The Grand List of School Virtual Museums” announces that as of 2006 it is no longer up-to-date. As of its last update, it listed 45 “museums” that were created by elementary school classes. Almost all of the links are no longer active, but one example persists: The Deer Creek School “Our Town” project to create a museum about the Gold Country (Nevada Count) of California. As the site explains:

This community project provided hands-on experiences that involved students while they learned the history and geography of Nevada County. The outcome of student participation included publishing a book of Community Treasures for Thomas Brothers’ Maps Educational Foundation and developing a web site about Our Town using state-of-the-art technologies. The book will be on display at the California State Capitol in Sacramento in conjunction with the California State Sesquicentennial celebration this coming year. At a later date, Thomas Brothers Maps Educational Foundation will take the books on a tour of the United States on horseback along the old Pony Express Routes to share California communities with other children. The process involved fifth grade students and high school mentors who met one day a week after school for an enrichment class. They formed cooperative teams and selected subject areas to study. Each team made appointments to interview and videotape local people and historical experts.

The Library of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies includes a page with links to more than 40 sites about Jewish museums or exhibits.

The Dittrick Medical History Center at Case Western Reserve University maintains a list of medical museums and thematic virtual museums.

Midge Frazel collated a set of links to web museums and virtual field trips as a resource for teachers; the site also includes a toolkit to help teachers create virtual tours and field trips.

L.S. King has compiled a list of virtual field trips, museums, and tours for use in home schooling activities.

Philip Harland maintains a site that offers educational virtual tours of archeological museums.

The Pygoya Webmuseum, also referred to as the Pygoya Museum of Cyber art or the Pygoya Web Art Museum, is a creation by Hawaiian artist/dentist Rodney Chang, who claims that his “Truly Virtual Web Art Museum” was one of the first websites of internet based cyberculture.


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Author Bio:

Anne Balsamo directs the Interactive Media Division’s Co-Design Lab in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She teaches courses in design across the curriculum, public interactives, and culture and technology for the Interactive Media Arts and Practice program, the Interactive Media Division, and The Annenberg School of Communication at USC. She is also a freelance museum exhibit developer and curator who has created interactive exhibits for the International Museum of Women, the San Jose Tech Museum, the Papalote Children’s Museum in Mexico City, Liberty Science Center, and the Singapore Science Center. Her new research effort called “The Tangible Culture Research Project” investigates the design of evocative (mixed reality) knowledge objects and the role of tinkering in a digital age. For more information about her current work and new transmedia book project, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work visit (to be launched August, 2009).