Russian Digital Libraries Journal

2005 | Volume 8 | Issue 4

Museum Exposition without Boundaries: from Traditional Object-Oriented Exposition towards IT Exposition Environment

Dr. Tatyana G. Bogomazova
Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Science

Part 1. Museum Exposition without Boundaries

This article represents an attempt to find an answer to the question of what is an adequate role of the computer in the museum in general, and in the museum exposition in particular. The assumption of this discussion is the evident fact that at this time virtually all of the young visitor generation consists of people, for whom the screen is one of the major information sources, and the keyboard is the most convenient and customary means of generating the information. Everyone has to deal with this fact of life, including not only the railway stations, airports, hotels, stores, financial authorities, banks, etc., but also the libraries, entertainment centers, and even theaters. Therefore, for museums catching up in this area is an important factor for their survival, preserving their place in society, their capability to influence the social processes and to form the future of culture.

International Experience

For the first time I saw a museum expo, which included the computer-enabled presentation devices, in 1999 in the U.S.A. at the famous Newseum, which at the time was still located in Arlington and not by the State Capitol. The museum, established with the sponsorship of the largest U.S. media companies, was impressive both in terms of the volume of interactive devices in the expositions and a large number of visitors – mostly young ones – who literally occupied the museum.

On that day one could record in the museum halls the television interview with Larry King (he was among us in the museum), issue a magazine with one’s photograph on the cover page, try to play a role of a journalist by filming various episodes, respond to the questions of the history quiz about journalism ethics, as well as work in a television studio replicated with all the details.

The exhibit began with the traditional item exposition describing the history of information resources from the stone and the papyrus to modern day; what followed was an impressive gallery of the first pages of the largest world newspapers that were replaced daily. However, it was the interactive part of the museum that fulfilled its major task of providing a comprehensive picture for the visitors of how the news are created, transferred and disseminated, who does it, what comprises journalist’s work, and what its major challenges and difficulties are.

I should note that by that time almost all of the large Russian museums had their own websites, many issued their first CD-ROMs, and some of them acquired computer registration and archival systems for internal use. However, these were only the first steps – the overwhelming majority of the museums did not have a local area network or a dedicated Internet line; their organizational structure did not include specialized informatization units. Individual enthusiasts were better received at the Automation Directions in Museums and Information Technologies (ADIT) conferences than in their own museums. There still remained many museums, which did not have a single computer.

As for the visitors themselves, a number of museums, including the Russian Museum , had computer classes wired for the Internet, and the Darwin Museum had standard monitors installed in several exhibit halls, where one could browse the museum’s webpages. About the same time, the State Hermitage Museum opened its information space for the visitors.

In any case, in Russia there did not exist anything resembling the Newseum (it does not exist to this day.) In the subsequent several years during a number of internships and conference visits in many countries (primarily in the U.S.A., Japan, Great Britain, Netherlands, France, Italy, and others) I paid close attention to the international experience in the field of informatization of visitor areas, mainly of the exposition itself. This allowed for identifying the key trends in this sphere.

Firstly, virtually every museum – regardless of its type – opened the information and reference space, wherein the visitors could use work stations for individual work with the museum’s information resources. In some places these resources are limited to access to the museum’s website ( Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam ), and other places develop the software and databases specifically for the information center, which provide for the possibility of adding one’s personal information ( Holocaust Museum in Washington ).

Secondly, a number of old world famous museums started to actively include the interactive components into their expositions. These were primarily natural science museums – museums of natural sciences, technics, ethnography, in particular, the Natural History museums in London and New York , Leiden Anthropology Museum , as well as history museums, especially the city history museums (City of London Museum). They use a wide range of approaches: these could include thematic electronic kiosks, which provide detailed explanation of certain parts of the object exposition, or IT expo environments, wherein a visitor submerges into the virtual reality recreated in the museum edifice. These approaches use both the standard presentational means (monitors, sensor and projection screens, plasma panels, including those with multiple screens) and specially constructed and built-in modules that combine mechanic and electronic elements (for instance, mechanical pole with pointer connected to a computer, which can be managed by a child).

Thirdly, both in Europe and in the U.S.A. there has been a wave of entirely new museums created in the last 5-7 years, which rely completely on computers. These include the aforementioned Newseum in Washington , Nemo Museum in Amsterdam , and Urbanis in Manchester . These museums are devoted to a topical theme or a phenomenon, such as news creation, laws of natural science, or modern city environment. Essentially, they lack the traditional exposition; instead they represent experimental and educational multimedia complexes for group and individual learning activities, including a significant game component. The architecture and design of both the museum surroundings and the computer software used play an important role for creating the museums of this type.

Fourthly, a number of museums actively use mobile individual navigation guides, which are controlled by the visitors themselves; the newest models have sensor connection with the exhibit objects (for example, Experience Music Project in Seattle ).

Fifthly, there is a distinct trend of developing the electronic resources by the art museums, in which the information systems generally play a secondary role (except, perhaps, Victoria&Albert Museum in London, where there kiosks are installed within an exhibit enabling macro-zoom of the small forms of decorative art, the quiz kiosks are present, etc.) This trend includes the fact that the museums issue an increasing number of art catalogues in the electronic forms and disseminate them on the CD-ROMs. Such catalogues are often provided in the electronic kiosks at the temporary exhibits, thus duplicating the name labels and stimulating the disc sales.

Terminology

Up to this point I have deliberately avoided term unification and standardizing and tried to utilize the whole variety of definitions, which are customarily used today for describing the electronic components of an exposition. The recent publications of the leading specialists in this field also represent a large variety: A.V. Lebedev names them “information systems in museum expositions” or “museum exposition as multimedia”; O.M. Kissel calls them “modern means of information reflection in the museum environment”; and Ê.À. Meerov gives the names “information resources in the expositions” and “electronic exposition.” The original English language literature also offers a diversity of terms: from informational/electronic kiosks to virtual exposition – it all depends on the specific case and use of the term.

In any case, the phenomenon under consideration is a museum exposition, wherein a number of key expo functions – including name labels, interpretations, information support, demonstration, or education – are performed by a computer connected with the periphery through various presentational devices.

The specialists working on the informatization of museum expositions generally use the term “electronic exposition.” Without attempting to introduce this as an official term, we shall use it hereinafter, implying the above definition. It should be noted that ‘exposition’ in this case is not limited to the exposition halls or the visitor’s route between the “Beginning of exhibit” and “Exit” signs. The notion of ‘exposition’ could include the information center located before or after the exposition halls, multimedia theater, room with computer games, and others, in other words, the complete information complex offered to a museum visitor.

Keywords

Electronic exposition content is an aggregate of the text, graphic, audio- and video-data in the electronic form, which comprise the user information content of the program components of an electronic exposition.

Electronic exposition interface is a graphic interface of the user program components of an electronic exposition, which enables a user to interact with the electronic exposition content.

Interactive dynamic environment of electronic exposition is an aggregate of two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphic, audio and video hypermedia objects, which can be navigated by a user through the dynamic interface elements of the electronic exposition.

Goals and Tasks of Electronic Exposition

The current stage of museum sphere development in our country is characterized by the growth in the number of museums as well as by the dynamic process of museum reconstruction. The key distinction of these processes from the standard museum re-exposition is the need for complete re-conceptualization of the museum role in the cultural context of a city/region, specifically, assigning to a museum the functions of a subject of cultural reproduction and transfer of a cultural tradition. Each museum today explores the adequate forms of interpretation and representation of its collection for the public, as well as for the new methods of interacting with its audience. Museum re-exposition is not limited to mere modernization of the existing exposition by attracting designers and using the modern technical means. It is primarily based upon upgrading the system of museum communication, i.e., turning museums into the information and exposition complexes, whose purpose is to improve visitors’ perception of exposition, to integrate the cultural and scientific potential of a museum with the needs of today’s society.

There is no universal recipe for such transformation. It should be developed individually for ach museum, taking into account a variety of factors from the museum type, the nature of its collection, mission, audience, and position in the city’s information space to the project management capacity within a museum, financing, etc. However, each museum should define its own range of tasks for such a complex. These tasks could include the following:

  1. Provide an orientation to a visitor in terms of the museum’s topography using the electronic representation of the exposition hall plans, exhibit description, name labels for the exhibit sections and individual expo items.
  2. Create visual exposition context, which recreates the living conditions and environment, landscapes, way of life, different phenomena, etc.
  3. Demonstrate for the visitors the beauty and aesthetics of cultures and art styles, create their individual artistic and emotional image, thus facilitating a deeper and more meaningful perception of the museum collections.
  4. Supplement the museum exposition with information, object images, or other forms, which are not fully accessible in real exposition (items from the archives or other museums’ collections, information for comparing and contrasting.)
  5. Provide structured and monitored scientific information regarding the museum exhibit items and provide the general understanding of the related science.
  6. Provide detailed information regarding the work of a museum, many aspects of which are traditionally hidden from visitors (information about scientific research, including expeditions, information about newly acquired collection items, about work of archivists and preservationists) and, thus, form an understanding of a museum as a phenomenon of the modern culture.
  7. Recreate the lost objects and exhibit items and demonstrate various historic and other stages of planning, restoration, and construction activities.
  8. Provide an opportunity for constant update of the information in the electronic exposition for the purpose of forming the frequent visitor audience.
  9. Provide the museum with effective mechanisms of pedagogical, educational and excursion work corresponding to the modern global standards.
  10. Provide access to museum information for the visitors with disabilities.
  11. Establish the basis for providing long-distance access to the museum information.
  12. Establish the basis for publishing the electronic publications in various forms.
  13. Upgrade and improve the system of collection registration and monitoring, which would make the museum collection information more accessible and user-friendly both for the internal and external users.

A director of each cultural institution has a choice of fulfilling the topical tasks individually or developing the unified information policy, which would facilitate their gradual completion using the information synergy as a special type of energy.

Part 2

Hence, we determined that the museum, which improves the museum communication and strives to integrate its cultural and scientific potential with the needs of the modern society, gradually transforms into the information and exposition complex (hereinafter – IEC.) Such a complex provides conceptually new educational opportunities for the visitors from gaining impressions and learning new knowledge to a much more complex notion of cultural self-identification, social adaptation and rehabilitation, etc.

We shall suppose that you have decided on creating the IEC in your museum and started working on developing the electronic exposition. You face a number of questions: how to develop a concept, how to organize the internal work in a museum, which external specialists to attract, which equipment to purchase, how to provide support and development of IEC in general and of the electronic exposition in particular.

From the planning standpoint, establishing the electronic exposition consists of several stages. We shall review each stage of this work looking at the experience I acquired during the exposition informatization projects at Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Science, at the Saint Petersburg Water Museum , Museum of Nature and Human of Khanty-Mansijsk, National Museum of the Tatarstan Republic , and others.

I. Planning Stage

This stage consists of two phases:

  1. Developing the concept and basic technological and designer solution.
  2. Selecting the type and configuration of the equipment and hardware for the electronic exposition and their control mechanisms.

From the planning standpoint, the electronic exposition is an aggregate of the multimedia hardware and software usually integrated into a unified network and having common information and administrative core in the form the museum database, which is intended for use by the museum visitors. The user elements of the electronic exposition are installed in various locations of the museum exposition in the form of electronic information kiosks, including the sensor ones.

Developing the concept of the electronic exposition is determining its key idea, way of understanding and interpreting, which is coordinated with the constructive functioning principles, i.e., content, visual, and subject solutions. The concept of electronic exposition generally consists of the following parts:

  1. Characterizing the major principles of design and conceptual and artistic solution of museum exposition that includes the electronic component, as well as the conceptual specifics of its design.
  2. Briefly characterizing the individual components of the exposition environment.
  3. Identifying the goal and tasks of the electronic exposition.
  4. Determining the principles and approaches to the content, visual, and itemized solutions of the electronic museum exposition.

The concept is created either by museum specialists or by the representatives of the electronic exposition developers, who work in close contact with the museum. This is an important document, which serves as a basis for developing:

  • Structure of electronic exposition – the plan for content, software and hardware system, administration and work schedule of electronic exposition as well as the structure f its database and
  • Electronic exposition scenario – consecutive description of the user program blocks’ functioning of the electronic exposition.

The electronic exposition can be tentatively divided into several types, each of which has its won function and content, specifically:

Block Type

Block Functions

Block Content

Placement Options

Possible Hardware Solutions

Navigator

Assistance in orienting visitors in museum topography

Exposition hall plan, name labels for exposition sections and items

Before exposition

Sensor kiosk (possibly with duplicating screen)

Prologue

Preparation for viewing the exposition, emotionally preparation for perception

Thematic multimedia clips, dynamic timeline, event chronology, light and sound effects, etc.

Before exposition /Transfer zone

Projection screen /plasma panel /

display

Interpreter

Providing multilevel interpretation of exposition, usually supplements exposition blocks that are most difficult for adequate individual perception by the visitors

Visual and graphic, text, audio and video information related to a phenomenon, usually includes interactive components and games

Hall of permanent /

Temporary exposition or exhibition

Sensor kiosk (possibly with duplicating screen)

Extender

Creating exposition context, recreation of the way of life and state of events

Visual and graphic information (landscapes, views and reconstructions of historic monuments, interiors, interactive maps and graphs)

Hall of permanent /

Temporary exposition or exhibition

Projection screen /plasma panel /

Display

Sublimator

Supplement to the exposition with images, items, and other items that are unavailable in the exposition

Images of items from other collections, information for comparing / contrasting and for generating the full contextual picture

Hall of permanent /

Temporary exposition or exhibition

Sensor kiosk (possibly with duplicating screen)

Video-Presenter

Supplement to the exposition of thematic video materials

Fragments of documentary, scientific and educational and motion pictures, movie archives and chronicles, museum video films

Museum movie theater or special area for video demonstration at the exposition

Projection screen /DVD player

Catalogue

Systematic representation of museum items

Images of items with their descriptions, macro images

Information center, exposition hall, or the exit area of exposition

Sensor kiosk (possibly with duplicating screen)

Encyclopedia

Systematized representation of information related to the exposition topic for individual study

Images, texts, video and audio information

Information center, exposition hall, or the exit area of exposition

Sensor kiosk or standard computer workstation with protected design

Undoubtedly, the actual projects often mix these types; however, in general they encompass virtually the whole spectrum of tasks faced by a specific exposition.

We should note that the structure and scenario are usually created by the specialists-developers working in close contact with the museums. The purpose of their creation is providing a strong understanding of the volume of resources required for project implementation, compiling the packet of technical tasks, lists of equipment and its specification, as well as the project financial estimates. At this point, the creation of electronic exposition moves from the planning stage to the development stage.

II. Development Stage

The development stage consists of the following phases:

  1. Designing and developing the database of electronic exposition, which is typically integrated with the museum’s registration and archival database.
  2. Collecting, processing and digitizing of content – text, image, audio and video materials, and inputting these data into the database.
  3. Developing and programming the interactive environments and multimedia elements of electronic exposition.
  4. Assembling, testing and installing the electronic exposition programs to the hardware and equipment.

Whereas the museum specialists take active part in the planning stage of developing electronic exposition, the development stage involves mostly professionals – designers, engineers, and programmers. Therefore, we will not elaborate on the details of the process, but will rather focus on the key aspects.

Content generation. In general, at the beginning of any museum informatization project it is difficult to estimate the true volume of work involved in content collection and systematization. My experience demonstrates that no matter how hopeless the situation appears at the beginning, there are effective possibilities of identifying content and including it into the project. Each museum has accumulated vast amount of information, which is held by its various structural divisions: exhibit sector, marketing and PR sector, publishing sector, library, scientific sections, and the registration and archival sector. Hence, the first step should be taking an inventory of all the existing databases, including any systematized information in the electronic form, and assess its volume and quality.

For instance, if one of the sections has the database with descriptions of over one thousand objects in Word, Excel, Access or other format, then they could be automatically converted into the project database; the task is to notify the programmers of this duty. As for the materials and images that are owned by the museum or its employees (monographs, catalogues, scientific and other articles, expedition diaries, etc.), contrary to the Internet sites, their placement in the electronic exposition cannot result in unauthorized use or breaking copyright laws. The system is closed: the user blocks only provide viewing access to the information. Thus, the copyright should be coordinated only at the internal level, and relevant copyright information should be included into the section “About the project”, which is present at each terminal*.

Working in the database philosophy. There are two typical mistakes in creating the electronic exposition:

  1. Underestimation of the importance of administrative component while paying much attention to the user terminals.
  2. Attempt to “stuff” the electronic exposition with all the information that did not fit into the physical exposition for various reasons.

Both of these mistakes can be avoided, if the project developers work within the philosophy of the database from the very beginning, meaning that they realize that any accumulation of information substantially increases its contextual capabilities if it is properly structured and if there is a relationship system between its parts.

In a simplified form, the materials available usually represent the following information:

  • Classifications (hierarchical structures or tables of contents);
  • Reference materials (articles);
  • Images of museum items (graphic files);
  • Item descriptions (item cards);
  • Iconographic material (graphic files);
  • Descriptions of iconographic material (notes);
  • Video materials (video files); and
  • Audio materials (audio files).

Thus, for instance, if the database includes the capacity of multilayer description of an object (which is especially important for the ethnographic and archeological collections) and the possibility of connecting these descriptions with various reference materials, then the interpretational potential of one and the same object collection can be increased by several times. Hence, creation of user terminals of electronic exposition essentially represents the creation of filters of meaning or screen interfaces, which reflect a certain range of relationships between the items of the database. The more detailed is the indexation of the information during its entry into the database, the more capacities will be created for creating thematic terminals.

We shall provide a simple example: if during the data entry the object is indexed according to its age, gender and seasonal association – in addition to the regular registration fields – then there is an opportunity to create three thematic terminals at once – about the life cycle in this culture, about roles of men and women, and about traditional calendar. All that is left is to make classifications (perhaps, the simplest ones: for example, childhood-adolescence-youth-adulthood-old age, or summer-autumn-winter-spring), find relevant articles, and “attach” previously indexed items, which is done automatically by pressing a few keys. Now it is only necessary to give the designers the adequate creative and functional task, and three independent terminals that can be placed anywhere in the exposition are ready.

Furthermore, the terminals of the electronic exposition that are unified into the network feeding from the server database can be used in various ways: the administrator can plan the shift of a terminal to the game mode when the children groups are present. Another option is to enable a tourist guide to make such shifts; everything depends on the tasks that are to be fulfilled by a specific electronic exposition.

Nonetheless, there are cases when the terminals can work independently of the database. In particular, the visitors are always attracted to the terminals with interactive dynamic environments, which are developed using the modern hypermedia technologies – thematic clips, historic reconstructions and panoramas, games, etc.

It should also be noted that technological solution of electronic exposition should be such that it stipulates creation of ÑDs and DVDs from the database, which could be disseminated by the museum for profit.

III. Implementation Stage

Implementation stage is one of the most important; it consists of the following phases:

  1. Organizational events.
  2. Teaching employees and operators.
  3. Developing the procedure of support and development of the electronic exposition.

This stage is a transitional stage from the planning mode of creating the electronic exposition to the programmatic regime. One should realize that with acquiring new capabilities, we also acquire new obligations – the terminals require information updates, the hardware and equipment needs service and repair, and the database needs support and update, etc. In order to resolve these problems it is feasible to create either a special division with relevant job descriptions or a permanent taskforce for which the electronic exposition support and development procedure is identified.

It is particularly important to provide support for the administrative part – the underwater part of the iceberg unseen by museum visitors. This includes creation and support of operator workplaces, administering the server and database, servicing equipment, etc.

As for the user terminals, their development can become part of the museum’s fundraising strategy; for instance, the thematic terminal, created as part of the temporary exposition financed by the sponsoring organizations, can become an integral part of the museum’s permanent exposition.

The presentation will also provide examples of some of the implemented projects – parts of the electronic exposition of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Science, Museum of Nature and Human of the Khanty-Mansijsk, and others.

Recommendations for UNESCO

It is proposed to expand the informational and interpretational space of institutions, which keep and present the cultural heritage, primarily museums, by introducing the electronic elements of interaction between the museums and their visitors, which would allow to:

  1. Provide an orientation to a visitor in terms of the museum’s topography using the electronic representation of the exposition hall plans, exhibit description, name labels for the exhibit sections and individual expo items.
  2. Create visual exposition context, which recreates the living conditions and environment, landscapes, way of life, different phenomena, etc.
  3. Demonstrate for the visitors the beauty and aesthetics of cultures and art styles, create their individual artistic and emotional image, thus facilitating a deeper and more meaningful perception of the museum collections.
  4. Supplement the museum exposition with information, object images, or other forms, which are not fully accessible in real exposition (items from the archives or other museums’ collections, information for comparing and contrasting.)
  5. Provide structured and monitored scientific information regarding the museum exhibit items and provide the general understanding of the related science.
  6. Provide detailed information regarding the work of a museum, many aspects of which are traditionally hidden from visitors (information about scientific research, including expeditions, information about newly acquired collection items, about work of archivists and preservationists) and, thus, form an understanding of a museum as a phenomenon of the modern culture.
  7. Reconstruct the lost objects and exhibit items and demonstrate various historic and other stages of planning, restoration, and construction activities.
  8. Provide an opportunity for constant update of the information in the electronic exposition for the purpose of forming the frequent visitor audience.
  9. Provide the museum with effective mechanisms of pedagogical, educational and excursion work corresponding to the modern global standards.
  10. Provide access to museum information for the visitors with disabilities.
  11. Establish the basis for providing long-distance access to the museum information.
  12. Establish the basis for publishing the electronic publications in various forms.
  13. Upgrade and improve the system of collection registration and monitoring, which would make the museum collection information more accessible and user-friendly both for the internal and external users.

About authors

Tatyana G. Bogomazova - Ph.D., Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Science
E-mail: Tatyana.Bogomazova@kunstkamera.ru


©  Tatyana G. Bogomazova, 2005
The publication is based on the paper presented at International Conference "UNESCO between Two Phases of the World Summit on the Information Society" (Saint Petersburg, Russia, 17-19 May 2005)

Last update - : 2005-09-27

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