Copyright 1997 by Jamie McKenzie
and Archives & Museum Informatics
This paper will be presented at the
Museums & The Web Conference
Sponsored by the Getty Information Institute
March 16-19, 1997
Los Angeles, California
Virtual museums provide an excellent opportunity for museums to partner with schools. The Bellingham (WA) public schools, a leader in the development of school Web sites, recognized the potential of a partnership with the Whatcom County Museum of History and Art as early as the Fall of 1995. This article describes how that partnership led to the development of a virtual museum devoted to local history at the turn of the 19th Century and will eventually foster the growth of much more ambitious joint projects. What strategies are needed to cultivate such relationships? How might museum educators best take advantage of the opportunities in their own communities?
Virtual museums live on the World Wide Web . . . the Internet.
The door to the virtual museum is electronic. You drive up for a visit on the Information Highway, but you need no car. A computer and an Internet account serve as your entrance ticket and transportation combined.
A virtual museum is an organized collection of electronic artifacts and information resources - virtually anything which can be digitized. The collection may include paintings, drawings, photographs, diagrams, graphs, recordings, video segments, newspaper articles, transcripts of interviews, numerical databases and a host of other items which may be saved on the virtual museum's file server. It may also offer pointers to great resources around the world relevant to the museum's main focus.
For the purpose of this article, we will divide electronic museums into two main categories:
This article will focus upon Learning Museums as promising ways for museums to partner with schools for the sake of expanding the reach of the museum into the community in support of continuing education. The word "community" takes on a global meaning as a regional museum such as the Whatcom Museum of History and Art can extend its collection into the farthest corners of its large county and then beyond those corners into the rest of Washington, Canada, the United States and far distant Pacific Rim countries like Singapore and Japan.
A learning museum has the following characteristics:
In order to understand how some Learning Museums have set about meeting these demanding standards, visit some of the following models, many of which were favorably reviewed in the January/February, 1997 issue of Museum News in "Perfect Site," pages 34-40. Do any of these museums meet all six criteria?
Why would a school want to participate in creating Learning Museums?
And why would a school want a partnership with a museum to build such virtual museums?
This is an opportunity for students to do real research.
Much of the material housed in a virtual museum may be generated and produced by students who conduct research on the topic within their own community and the global community, engaging in an electronic treasure hunt to find great information and electronic artifacts. Because students are actually building meaning as they add to the museum collection, this is, in many respects, a wonderful workshop for constructivist learning.
Museum professionals and educators are well aware of the many challenges which follow the acquisition of artifacts - challenges which make for extremely useful learning by students:
Development of a museum requires working committees and assignments which parallel the problem-solving required in the adult world.
The attics of elders are often filled with trunks and photo albums that all too often end up in landfills upon their passing away. The diaries, old letters, and other relics that might help middle school students understand American life at the turn of the century or during the Civil War are frequently discarded and destroyed.
Virtual museums offer an opportunity for communities to preserve and display much of this material, while providing an opportunity for students to work on local history projects that involve collection and archiving. Instead of forcing students to learn by reading four-inch thick textbooks, a national network of such local history museums might provide students (and adults) across the nation with a rich banquet table full of primary source materials.
Besides the locally collected information resources, the virtual museum will also point the visitor to the best related resources that can be found on the Internet. A visitor to a Pacific Rim museum, for example, may open a page listing dozens of sites providing weather, tourist guides, economic data, and political news. Click on one of these and the visitor is on a magic carpet ride to a different file server housed, perhaps, in Korea or New York or Boise.
The beauty of a virtual museum is its capacity to connect the visitor with valuable information across the entire globe.
Students and staff, once equipped with HTML programming skills (not much harder than HyperCard), can simply cut and paste the addresses of great sites from the WWW pages created by others. These will then appear as hypertext links on museum pages.
Unlike most school research projects, virtual museums provide persistent, ongoing "change, activity, and progress" (American Heritage Dictionary definition of "dynamic"). The collection process is never-ending. Students may continue their work over several years, and even after they leave their elementary school to begin work at the virtual museum housed at the middle school, they can return for "electronic" visits and note the expanding collection. Multi-age classes may focus upon the same challenge for several years running without fear of repetition. Students can actually see the "fruits" of their inquiry. They become "knowledge builders" rather than mere consumers.
Museums are also fine vehicles for multidisciplinary studies, as the collection may include everything from music and art to science and politics and mathematics.
Virtual museums offer multi-sensory opportunities appealing to a variety of learning styles and multiple intelligences. One can see a Picasso. One can see and hear Tori Amos perform "Cornflake Girl." Virtual museums have great advantages over textbooks - bringing vitality, color and motion to student exploration.
In the past, schooling has been too divorced from real life. The study of life through textbooks and teacher lectures was all too often a case of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Few students mistook the lessons as approaching the "real thing."
Virtual museums offer a different kind of learning - one which is fresh and vibrant.
As schools first begin to put together museums on the World Wide Web they will rapidly recognize how much they need to learn about the work of museums. The partnership helps teachers and students learn about the complicated work which goes on behind the scenes.
Just what contribution is made by each of the following museum staff members and which roles need to be duplicated to create a Learning Museum?
Students need to learn about the thoughtful display and interpretation of artifacts. How do they select and then organize the material? What is the role of words alongside images? How do museum people create exhibits around themes and issues? How can the work of museum people inform the museum building of students?
Without the support and guidance of museum professionals, there is some danger that the museums constructed on the Web will be awkwardly amateurish and (even worse) may misrepresent facts and history, contributing to ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding rather than the reverse.
The challenge of communicating accurately and sensitively about historical events is immense for the adult museum professionals such as those who created the controversial Hiroshima exhibit for the Smithsonian and those who have encountered serious anger from Native American groups which have protested the display of tribal treasures.
School people have much to learn from their museum partners about the job of sharing treasures with the world.
Schools can often find many excellent sources of material for virtual museums locally, but for particular topics such as local history, the museum may be the main holder of copyright. In those cases, it may be very difficult to proceed with a virtual museum unless the copyright holder agrees to share those rights by permitting some scanning of photographs and documents or photographing of objects.
Most museums can display only a portion of the artifacts and treasures which have been collected or bequeathed. Large portions of the collection may never meet the public eye.
As part of the charge of museums is the preservation of treasures, the prospect of broadcasting images on a global network can be a threatening thought at first, but thorough exploration and review of those issues can lead to some satisfying strategies which preserve and share at the same time.
Why would museums want to build Learning Museums on the Web instead of relying upon and limiting themselves to Marketing Museums ?
And why would museums elect to create partnerships with schools?
Visit a traditional art museum and you must generally experience the paintings as they are hung, side by side with neighboring paintings which have been selected by the museum. In a virtual museum, you may change the paintings around so that you can view all of the Mary Cassatts together or can pair Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings with her husband, Alfred Steiglitz's photographs, a rare but occasional possibility in the physical museum world. (In 1993, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. launched a joint O'Keeffe-Steiglitz collection, called "Two Lives: A Conversation in Paintings and Photographs.")
A strong case for Learning Museums was made by Humanities and Arts on the Information Highways: A Profile (Summer 1994) - http://far.mit.edu/diig/Related/arts.txt
Quoting from the report:
Public Benefits of the Humanities
and the Arts in an Information Age
Reshaping humanities and arts information for distribution over electronic networks can provide many dividends, among them the following:
- Enriching a sense of community through active participation in a networked environment.
- Improving the quality of teaching and learning.
- Fostering intellectual and artistic collaborations that will result in new resources in the arts and humanities.
- Preserving the full complexities and quality of cultural information for the use of future generations while making it accessible to more people today.
If the NII were to offer access to everything found in the nation's libraries, museums, theaters, auditoriums, and archives, it could help dissolve the boundaries that now separate communities, social classes, people of different economic levels, the highly educated and the broad public, and the peoples of different nations. Networks and new multimedia formats for information can reverse current inequities in access to resources.
This possibility has been a driving force behind a statewide initiative in Illinois . . .
Museums in the Classroom is a Learning Technology Initiative of the Illinois State Board of Education.
Quoting from the project Web page:
In this initiative the ISBE is partnering with eight Illinois museums (or consortia of museums) to provide on-line access to museum artifacts, fine arts and histories. The museums involved in this project are partnered with a total of 200 classrooms (25 classrooms with each museum group) in order to bring students, artists, scientists, curators, educators, keepers, and technicians together to explore the issues of interest to the students.
Students from the classrooms visit the museums to image objects from the museums' collections and to work with museum personnel. Students are also video-conferencing with museum personnel from their classrooms. The on-line presentation of the student-constructed projects will be presented with a "kid spin" on both context and significance.
Cross organizational partnerships have a way of provoking "out of the box" thinking and innovative programs.
It should be noted, of course, that most museums will have some concern about standards and professionalism which must be met when considering the use of student volunteers.
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on this site are courtesy of Jay Boersma's site