Why a Virtual Museum?
A foreword by our Curator
in classical museology, and imbued with a lifetime experience in “real”
museums, I initially approached this virtual museum project with the
conviction that it was a good solution for this collection, but nevertheless
a distant second-best to a “real museum.”|
Three years later, I am now convinced that a well-executed virtual
museum can provide an educational experience that is second to none.
For every aspect of the “in person” experience that one
might miss in a virtual museum, there is a definite benefit to the
virtual experience that cannot be duplicated in a real museum. Some
of the notable virtual advantages we can envision include:
Lighting. Good lighting is one of the most difficult tasks
in designing a “real” exhibition. The light must compliment
each item, yet not affect conservation conditions, not impede visitor
traffic flow, not call attention to itself, and not interfere with
the lighting of the object next to it. In a virtual museum, the only
limit is the talent of the photographer and the time available. You
can place lights anywhere. You can add reflectors, light traps, and
diffusers. You can hang the object upside down and flip the image
later. You can view it from the top of a ladder, or laying on the
floor. A virtual museum can give you the best light and the best angle
on every object at any hour of the day.
Scale. Very small objects get shortchanged in real exhibits.
Again, they are hard to light properly, but more importantly, they
are not suited to crowded environments. Glass beads, for instance,
offer amazing details no larger than an ant. Real museum visitors
will find it physically difficult to focus on such minute details.
In a virtual museum, scale matters little. You can draw the visitor’s
attention to any detail worth seeing, using magnifying lenses if necessary.
Peripheral Vision. In a virtual museum, you can show any side
of the object worth seeing. Not only can you offer 360º panoramic
views, but you can also show the bottom, under the base, or inside
Non-Linear Visit. In a classical museum presentation, considerable
attention is given to the grouping of the objects, and the flow
the visit. But no matter how carefully and skillfully the exhibit
is thought out, it unavoidably imposes the will of the curator upon
the visitor, who is invited to follow his approach. For instance,
a visitor interested in mirrors would, in most museums, not have
opportunity to view side by side Egyptian, Etruscan, Persian, Indian,
and Chinese mirrors. They would most probably be housed in different
museums altogether. In a well designed virtual museum, the visitor
can opt to follow his own interests or fancy of the moment. It is
a more intimate itinerary, a more personal voyage of discovery.
Presentation of Historical Context. In a virtual museum, the
almost unlimited amount of space available for information and the
negligible overhead required for redundant information makes it possible
to provide the visitor with complete historical, geographical, sociological,
religious, economic and technological context for each and every object.
For instance, the description of a simple iridescent glass khol tube
from 4th century Syria can be presented along with maps of its geographical
origin (political, topographic, economic maps at several scales),
a discussion of 4th century Syria, an overview of contemporary history
in the rest of the world, background information on ancient glass
as a material, background information on glass blowing as a technique,
a discussion of glass iridescence as a conservation phenomenon, a
discussion on the use and composition of kohl, and a write up on the
commerce of cosmetics in the Eastern Roman empire.
Not only would such depth of information on every artifact be logistically
difficult to deliver in a real museum setting, it would overwhelm
the visitor of a real museum. The circumstances of a real museum visit
(limited time to complete the visit, sharing access with other visitors,
saturation of attention span) are such that visitors feel a genuine
conflict between reading the information cards, and observing the
artifacts. Visiting a virtual museum is much more akin to consulting
the encyclopedia on your bookshelf. You can pick it up and put it
down as often as you wish, and dig as deep as you want. Bereft of
the pressure of a public space and of time constraints, visiting a
virtual museum is a more personal voyage of discovery.
Access and Conservation. In managing collections of antiquities,
curators often face difficult decisions on the compromise between
public access and preservation of our cultural heritage. With a virtual
museum, you can provide worldwide 24/7 access to an item that is actually
maintained in the dark, in a nitrogen chamber, under constant environmental
Of course, nothing replaces the experience of seeing a masterpiece
first hand. The intent is not to change, but to expand the palette
of experiences. I now believe that a virtual museum is neither inferior
nor superior to a real museum. Like oil painting and photography,
real and virtual museums are destined to coexist, providing us complementary
approaches to embrace the world around us.
Enjoy your visit,
Georges Ricard, Ph.D., Curator
The Virtual Egyptian Museum
A venture of the California Institute of World Archaeology