When museums became virtual – 1: the origins

Text by Riccardo Bianchini, Inexhibit
For image credits: see captions

Guggenheim Virtual Museum Asymptote architects 01

Screenshot of the Guggenheim Virtual Museum (1999) by Asymptote Architecture

When museums became virtual – Part 1: the origins

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.  (1)

This article covers the origins and evolution of a diverse assortment of entities we collectively call “digital museums”. My scope is, more than provide a simple overview of such kind of entities, to investigate how the introduction of digital media has questioned and somehow changed the idea of what a museum should be today.

What the word “virtual” actually means?

The term “virtual” is one of the most abused in contemporary language; unfortunately, it is one of the most confused too.
In its current use, virtual can become indeed a synonym for many other adjectives: digital, cybernetic, immaterial, theoretical, hypothetical, near-real, potential, illusory, and so on.
In its original modern definition virtual (from the Latin word virtus, roughly meaning power) identifies something that doesn’t physically exist but nevertheless produces effects capable to influence the physical reality (virtual particle, virtual displacement, virtual work). (2)

Thus, the term “virtual reality” is substantially an oxymoron and so its creator, the French dramatist Antoine Artaud, arguably intended it when in 1938 he defined theatre as “la réalité virtuelle”.
Nevertheless, in information technology, the original sense has been somehow altered and has taken two different meanings:

a) Carried out, accessed, or stored using a computer, especially over a network
b) Not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so (3)

Such definitions can be applied to radically different kinds of entities, and as such they create a certain confusion when coupled to the word museum, leading to two separate interpretations of what we call a “virtual museum” today. Let’s take a moment and dig a bit further into this matter.

Antonin Artaud portrait 2

Antoine “Antonin” Artaud, here in a 1926 photo, is considered the inventor of the term “virtual reality”; photo Agence de Presse Meurisse – Biblioteque Nationale de France

The origins

In the early ’80s, the diffusion of digital media soon triggered a change in how museums and cultural institutions communicate, initially in the form of CD-ROMs and the like, from the early ’90s mostly through the new opportunities made available by the success of the world wide web, as well as by the increasing speed of internet connections, which improved from 1,000 bits per second in the late ’80s to over 100,000 only ten years later (4)

It was in 1995 that the seminal book “Being Digital” by Nicholas Negroponte (actually a collection of his articles previously published on Wired magazine) made clear that, at least when talking about communication, immaterial bits running at the speed of light would have soon replaced slow-moving physical atoms (5). It is quite remarkable how, in a field mostly dominated by professionals with a humanistic background like that of museums, the so-called digital revolution was quickly adopted as a matter of fact.

being digital nicholas negroponte

In his 1995 book “Being Digital”, Nicholas Negroponte introduced the idea that bits would replace atoms in most fields of communication, photo Gin Kai, U.S. Naval Academy, Photographic Studio

Two sides of the same coin? Different types of virtual museums

Nevertheless, two different approaches to the relationship between museums and digital media quickly emerged, one somehow more conservative and one more forward-looking.

Type 1: do cultural websites can be virtual museums?

On one side, the advent of digital media has been interpreted by many curators and museologists as “just another way” to communicate their institutions, only more powerful than traditional methods such as physical exhibitions and paper publications.

Let’s have a look at a real example. There is a reputable website called Webexhibits (www.webexhibits.org) which, since 1999, presents educational content and defines itself as “an interactive museum of science, humanities, and culture”, it is listed on Wikipedia among the virtual museum “pioneers”. This “museum” is a collection of educational web pages on various topics; their creators call them “exhibits” and not “articles” and state that “the context provided by an exhibit’s curator is central to visitors’ online experiences. Without this context, the presentation is nothing more than a catalog of images and documents. In other words, it’s an archive, not an exhibit.”

This approach explains why such kind of sites are not virtual museums, not because they are not virtual but because they are not museums. Let me briefly summarize why.

When revising its definition of the museum in 1974, ICOM decided to include both “to communicate” and “to exhibit” among the activities that an institution ought to do to be considered a museum, therefore implicitly asserting a difference between the two.
Of course, an exhibit is a form of communication, but in a stricter sense. Exhibiting something means to publicly display it in a physical environment or, in a broader sense, in what could “be perceived” as a physical one. The context provided by a curator (given that we would know what a curator exactly is) is not enough to transform a document into an exhibit, sorry. Therefore, a museum should exhibit cultural content, which means that is should provide the visitors with both physical and mental experiences built around cultural heritage.

Don’t get me wrong, websites like Webexhibits are admirable projects; nevertheless, it is quite hard for me to tell why Webexhibits is a museum and the website of, say, Science Magazine is not. Therefore, I think such digital entities should be better called “cultural websites”; maybe a less high-sounding definition, yet an unambiguous one.

Type 2: immersive digital museums

A second, more daring, approach was that of immaterial museums which could give the illusion of being somehow real, playing with (someone may say cheating) the visitor’s senses and mind.

During the ’90s, films like The Lawnmower Man (1992) or The Matrix (1999), following the route traced by the seminal Tron (1982), spread the idea of a near-future in which virtual reality will have become so diffused that the boundaries between cyber and physical space were removed. Following such a scenario, IT big names, such as Microsoft, devised operating systems the users interact with a 3D Graphical User Interface, and promptly almost all PC graphic card manufacturers introduced special sockets for 3D glasses and VR headsets. The path was pretty clear: like the 2D Graphical Interface had replaced the text-based one in the late ’80s, the 3D interface was to replace the bi-dimensional one in the early 2000s.

sensorama machine Morton Heilig

Early experiments of virtual reality, the “Sensorama” machine, conceived by the American inventor Morton Heilig in the 1950s

Ivan Sutherland Sword Damocles

The ancestor of all virtual reality headset, “The Sword of Damocles”, conceived by the American scientist Ivan Sutherland in 1968

Ivan Sutherland virtual room

The 3D-modeled “virtual room” by Sutherland, one of the first real-time interactive virtual environments

virtuality headset 1990s

VR headset and glove produced by Virtuality Group in the early 1990s

It is therefore not surprising that museums too started envisaging “virtual” versions of themselves in the form of interactive 3D replicas of their buildings and galleries, and that cultural institutions have begun developing “intangible” digital museums, maybe presenting virtual collections made of pieces from different institutions in what was called a “web-based museum network” or a “meta-museum”. A combination of both was consequently considered the next step toward museum virtualization, aimed to remove all geographical and physical barriers between museums and create new collaborative experiences in the cyber-space.

It is interesting to remark that one of the first digital projects called a “virtual museum” overall was indeed an immersive one, though in a still primitive form.
In 1992, Apple Computer Inc. released an educational CD-ROM, entitled “The Virtual Museum”, where some 3D-modelled scientific exhibits were displayed in a pre-rendered environment that mimicked a “typical” museum building. The user could navigate from room to room and get detailed information about the exhibits on view. (6).

Apple Virtual Museum 1992

“The Virtual Museum” by Apple, the first digital virtual museum, released on CD-ROM in 1992

In the following years, the increasing computational power of PCs, the popularization of 3D-accelerated graphics cards and the introduction of real-time 3D navigation platforms and languages, such as VRML and Shockwave 3D, made possible to go further pre-calculated digital environments and create a quasi-real experience of virtual spaces, eventually surpassing the idea that a virtual museum should look like a physical one.

A well-known example was the “Guggenheim Virtual Museum” designed by Asymptote Architecture in 1999. Commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation, this project was intended to create a completely new three-dimensional digital organism, in no way imitating the architecture of the celebrated Guggenheim’s building by F.L. Wright, that people could explore in real-time through a VRML-based interface. The virtual museum would have acted as a digital hub for all the Guggenheim venues around the world.

To create a museum existing only in cyberspace suggested also an ambitious idea: that such museum, rather than showcasing digital representations of real artworks, could be home of a new form of art, a cyber-art, created, stored and presented through digital devices only. Again, in the seminal 1990s, the success of an “evolved” art form living exclusively on the mass memories of computers was considered just around the corner.

Guggenheim Virtual Museum Asymptote architects 02

Guggenheim Virtual Museum Asymptote architects 03

Images of the Guggenheim Virtual Museums by Asymptote Architecture

Notes and references

1) Definition of the museum by ICOM – International Council of Museums, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly in Vienna, Austria on August 24th, 2007

2) The adverb virtually has a different use as a synonym of nearly, and it is only barely etymologically connected to the adjective virtual

3) Definitions from Oxford Dictionaries, 2016 Oxford University Press

4) See: Jacob Nielsen (1998), Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/law-of-bandwidth/

5) See: Nicholas Negroponte (1995), Being Digital, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf

6) See: Erkki Huhtamo (1992), On the Origins of the Virtual Museum, Nobel Symposium (NS 120) “Virtual Museums and Public Understanding of Science and Culture” May 26-29, 2002, Stockholm, Sweden


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