Paper prepared for the symposium, "The Potential of Museum Web Sites for Research" at Museums on the Web: An International Conference, March 16-19, 1997, Los Angeles, California. (Sponsored by The Getty Information Institute and organized by Archives & Museum Informatics.)
A hardcopy version appears in Archives and Museum Informatics
©1997 Kluwer Academic Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
The World Wide Web is currently being utilized by hundreds of institutions around the world to place materials within the walls of museums within the grasp of millions. While many of these instutions had taken advantage of earlier generations technology, such as Gopher servers, to provide information via computer networks, the Web's potential to create innovative, attractive, user-friendly environments for interactive computing has resulted in an explosion of approaches.
The potential for scholarly research on the Web is being vastly enhanced by the creation of a variety of online resources, ranging from indexes of Web sites to topical bibliographies. The extent to which museums are involved in these activities is largely determined by the activities of individuals with access to their Web servers. This paper will not attempt to cover the full range of pages and links that are appearing in the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology. Rather it will focus on the Web sites created and maintained by institutions with collections of archaeological and ethnographic material, and the particular ways that they can and will continue to address the needs of patrons whose principal interest is scholarly research.
At the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology (UC-Berkeley), approximately eight months passed between the time of the first ideas for the site and its actual development. Steven Shackley, an in-house research archaeologist with experience at authoring his own research Web pages, was appointed Webmaster. He assembled the basic structure of the site, using a basic outline and guidelines suggested by Director Rosemary Joyce and a committee of museum staff.
Webmasters at these museums have done a commendable job of accommodating users. Image files are usually small and of relatively low resolution to allow for fast loading. The Harvard Peabody Museum site offers a choice of frames or frameless browsing, while the Hearst Museum's design is simple and linear. There are occasional complaints that large sites, particular that of the Smithsonian Institution, are slow and cumbersome. However, this depends largely on the technology of an individual Web connection.
The Phoebe Hearst Museum is placing a high priority on the development of research databases that can be accessed via the Web. One current project is the development of a resource based on ethnographic materials from the Yurok of the Klamath River basin in northwestern California, assembled by anthropologist A.L. Kroeber around the turn of the century. The site will include both published and previously unpublished texts, photographs, audio recordings, and eventually video footage. Although it is being implemented as a teaching initiative for undergraduates, Director Rosemary Joyce describes it as a catalogue raisonée of one of the museum's major collections. A second Web project utilizes material on Ishi, the last surviving member of an indigenous California tribe, supported by the museum in the early 20th century, for K-12 teaching support. It will have interactive features, including an electronic bulletin board. A longer-term project is aimed at facilitating direct access to a relational database of collections records. At present, there are some 250,000 digitized records. Access will be implemented using and existing Java product. The database does not yet contain images, but these are seen as critical to the usefulness of the resource. Director Rosemary Joyce notes that "relatively low res digital images are perfect, cheap to implement and immune to abusive publication, but useful for class papers and the like."
As for the future, Joyce provides an example from her own research:
Digitization projects are far easier for the small- to medium-size museum than for the larger research museum. The Yale Peabody Museum's system manager Lawrence Gall remarks that object counts on the order of 104 to 105 are quite approachable. Larger orders of magnitude, however, can present significant problems. The challenge in these latter cases is coming up with an effective strategy for smaller, targeted digitization projects that will provide the greatest benefit relative to expense and effort.
Another critical issue in the digital world is planning for the future. The "half-life" of new computer technology is about 3-6 months. In today's market, it is almost impossible to think of systems that will persist for as long as three years, and virtually impossible to imagine what will be available in five years' time. Insuring that digitization projects are upgradeable and anticipating that they will grow in scope and quality are essential for success. While there is a great deal of excitement in the rush to make materials available online, the strategy for some museums may be to simply sit back and wait until the kinks have been worked out of quick, cheap, and effective digitization methods and strategies.
There is a great amount of information in accession files and other documentation associated with archaeological and ethnographic materials that remains outside the catalogue itself. An archaeological dig, for example, can generate thousands of pages of supporting documentation. This includes maps, level plans, sketches, field notebooks, excavation forms, photographs, correspondence, and even the published and unpublished site reports, graduate theses, articles, and monographs that result from this research. Add to these hundreds of photographs (in formats ranging from glass negatives to color transparencies), film footage, video, and even audio interviews and one is faced with an overwhelming, but invaluable mountain of primary data of interest to both scholars and the general public.
A good example of how primary material and archival data can be presented on the Web to a wide audience is the online project "Pioneers of Southeastern Archaeology: Gordon R. Willey" at Harvard's Peabody Museum Web site, supervised by Katherine Jones-Garmil. This resource provides photographs, excerpts from field diaries, and portions of interviews with esteemed archaeologists Gordon Willey and Richard Woodbury as part of an on-going project to record the history of archaeology using video and related technology. The Peabody Museum has also offered a model for Web research of archival data with its project to develop Finding Aids On-Line for inventories of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and other material deposited by individual scholars.
The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania has been assembling Web "exhibits" on "World Cultures, Ancient and Modern". The first, now available, titled "The Ancient Greek World." A second, featuring the Dayaks of Borneo, is still in preparation. In March 1997, the University Museum will be featuring a conference called "The Virtual Dig" focusing upon the role computers have played in archaeological research. Presenters will discuss computer-generated reconstructions, walk-throughs and fly-overs of ancient cities, landscapes, and excavated sites. They will also discuss the role of satellite imagery and remote sensing in archaeology.
One of the most effective electronic forums for archaeological research is ArchNet, a Web site created and maintained at the University of Connecticut by Thomas Plunkett and Jonathan Lizee. ArchNet, which has a page devoted to archaeology and anthropology museums, has been duplicated around the world at mirror sites in Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The site features a wide range of pages devoted to archaeological topics ranging from lithic and ceramic analysis to museums, radiocarbon laboratories, and online courses.
In one model for such a display, an artifact could be placed in such a way that it could be viewed from many angles and at a variety of magnifications via commands to a robotic camera. Email or "chat" capabilities would permit multiple viewers to share comments or observations about the artifact as it was viewed. Furthermore, still or video digital images could be stored to be viewed again or transmitted to others via email or file transfers. One example of this technology is Mechanical Gaze, a project launched by Eric Paulos and John Canny at UC-Berkeley in March 1995. Mechanical Gaze is described as a Telerobotic Remote Environment Browser. It permits multiple remote WWW users to control up to six degrees of freedom (DOF) of a robot arm with an attached camera. At present, this project is open-ended. The authors invite any insitutions museums, curators, scientists, artists, and individual users to exhibit objects in the browser. The device works via image-mapped captured images that permit the user to move a camera by clicking the cursor within the displayed image. These movements can be either great or small, and are displayed in an accompanying navigation window, allowing for either fine- or gross-scrolling. The camera can be zoomed in or out, with movements controlled by buttons or an image-mapped zoom tool. More complex movements, such as rolling and pitching, are also available. Its creators note:
Models for both the funding and use of such instruments by researchers are already available from common practices in astronomy or computer science that limit, for example, observation time on the Hubble Observatory or access to supercomputing facilities. The Web, however, makes it possible for an unlimited number of associates to peer over one's shoulder, and perhaps even suggest different ways to use and adjust the instruments in real time. It also opens a whole new world of accessibility to objects that are rarely displayed and have been directly examined by only a handful of scholars.
There are many museums that offer the analysis of specific archaeological materials, such as bone fragments or carbonized seeds. Web access to instruments such as scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) or electron microprobes can allow museums to offer specialized analytical services to a worldwide audience. For example, a paleobotanist serving as consultant to an archaeological dig in Ecuador wants to make some critical examinations of carbonized seeds while the excavation is still in progress. Packing them up (with the necessary permits), she ships them to a museum laboratory where an assistant mounts them and places them in an SEM that can be remotely operated to transmit high-resolution images via the Web. Through a satellite connection via her laptop computer, she is able to examine each specimen in detail, download digitized images, email copies to colleagues, advise the project archaeologists how to proceed, and then upload a preliminary report to her Web site. It should be apparent that this same strategy could be used to make the SEM (or any other high-tech instrument) available for use by researchers who would not normally have direct access to such equipment. This would include users in Latin America, Eastern Europe, or Africa who might normally have little hope of accessing cutting-edge instruments. While the Hubble Telescope, which can only be utilized remotely, is a good analogy for this type of work, let us not forget that access to far less sophisticated (and less expensive) instrumentation has enormous potential for improving the quality of archaeological research worldwide. Aerial photography has long been the most common flavor of "remote sensing" in archaeology. However the potential of the Web to open inner spaces to remote observation is enormous.
There are a variety of ways that remotely-controlled devices can be effective in exhibitions. The Mercury Project at the University of Southern California was the first installation to combine robotics and Internet access to simulate an archaeological investigation. Users were able to send commands to control the movement of a device that explored its surroundings and even excavated artifacts in a sand pit. This enormously entertaining installation has been followed by a telerobotic garden, where a remotely-controlled device can be used to view and water several plants from anywhere on the Web.
Looking even farther into the future, telerobotic installations such as remote-access "tele-embodiment" blimps with cameras could permit individuals to "wander" through actual museums (after hours, of course). The use of new technology to provide 3D binocular vision and even stereo audio through robotic touring devices will no doubt become both technologically and financially feasible as an aging population in the U.S. comes to appreciate the practicality of desktop tours of museums and historic sites. We might anticipate that tours of virtual reality might face stiff competition from virtual tours of reality!
Publications, ranging from monographs to catalogues to posters, have long been a major responsibility of museum, especially those affiliated with universities. The Web offers a a wide range of possibilities in the area of electronic publishing. The University Museum of at the University of Pennsylvania has made extensive use of the Web for promoting its various publication series, most of which are in traditional print media. However, the Web and related digital media-such as CD-ROMs-are becoming increasingly important as primary outlets for scholarly research. There are already several Web journals, refereed and not, that publish research in archaeology and anthropology. These include Internet Archaeology, and the AZTLAN E-Journal.
One area for Web publishing of museum research include making available primary documentation of materials relevant for specific collections. This is already done for zoological and paleontological collections at Yale's Peabody Museum, where field notes are treated as publications and linked into the searchable collections database. The Phoebe Hearst Museum offers information on archaeological documents at its Web site. These constitute an enormous base of information whose consultation is often as difficult as that of actual artifacts. Files associated with particular collections will contain field notes, maps, record forms, and other documents. Available at the site is a list of 574 documents including fieldnotes, completed and partially finished site reports, and drawings for sites and regions in California and other areas of western North America. Much of this constitutes a valuable "grey literature" of unfinished site reports and manuscripts. Although many of these are unpublished, they form the basis for published documents. The aforementioned project of the Hearst Museum to create a digital database of A.L Kroeber's research on the Yurok of northwestern California will represent one such publishing opportunity as this material is made available on the Web and transferred to CD-ROM for use by others. Other such projects include targeted grants to digitize and publish material from specific archaeological projects and collections. Archaeological "digs" generate large amounts of handwritten records, photographs, and databases, not to mention artifacts. The cost of reproducing these in facsimile in traditional print media is prohibitive. While digitization can also be resource- and time-intensive, the cost of reproducing a given collection of primary materials in digital media can be much lower. It also provides a greater flexibility of manipulation and access, especially with reference to raw data. For example, the Yale Peabody Museum's project to publish online images of some 15,000 artifacts with catalogue data would be unthinkable in paper. Once the infrastructure, including equipment acquisition and staff training, for such projects is in place, electronic publishing can become as permanent a part of museum functions as a photographic laboratory or printshop. Furthermore, the Web can facilitate inter-museum collaboration when materials bearing on a particular archaeological site or culture are distributed among different institutions.
Rosemary Joyce, at the Phoebe Hearst Museum, states that a primary goal for her museum's site is the publication and archiving of exhibits. This process will combine digitized text and images using existing text files and a digital camera. "So much work goes into exhibits at a university museum, that to not republish them is a great loss".
The Phoebe Hearst Museum Web site offers a statement on its policies relative to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This Federal legislation requires museums in the United States to provide detailed documentation of any Native American human remains or artifacts to interested tribes. These tribes may then request a return of this material for reburial, which will in turn result in deaccessioning collections.
The effects of NAGPRA have already been felt throughout the United States. A significant cultural phenomenon is that the Web is being utilized by Native American communities almost as rapidly as it is by museums. There is no doubt that the Web will continue to facilitate the implementation of NAGPRA by making it possible for interested communities to identify collections pertinent to their group, or even of interest to a variety of groups, via a computer connected to the Internet.
While museums must, by law, provide the information stipulated by NAGPRA, none could have anticipated the swiftness with which the documentation created under this legislation would be accessible to the world. In spite of Federal assistance, many museums are still struggling to muster resources for with the strict requirements of NAGPRA compliance. As the Web makes it easier for Native American groups to identify collections for repatriation, many museums will have to confront the requirements of access and repatriation. Although information on collections affected by NAGPRA is available to the public, the response of museums with online collections data may be to mask sensitive materials from ready access via the Web.
Take the hypothetical example of a Central American country that has asserted a policy of demanding repatriation of all Precolumbian artifacts, identified as "national patrimony". An archaeological museum affiliated with a major university in the U.S. offers an online catalogue with provenance information through its Web page. Individuals in the national museum of the Central American country discover that the U.S. museum has hundreds of its Precolumbian artifacts, identified as "grave offerings". Furthermore, the accession information reveals that these objects had either been donated by an unscrupulous collector or brought into the country after the date of international agreements controlling their importation. The Central American museum formally requests repatriation of all of these objects, a request that the U.S. museum refuses. In response, the Central American country denies research permits to all scholars from the museum's associated university until provisions are made for the requested repatriation.
On a brighter note, the Web can play a critical role in assisting international museums in many different aspects of the control of illicit traffic in pieces of national patrimony. Despite regulations banning the importation of many types of antiquities, customs officials are often inadequately prepared to recognize or authenticate these objects. If it is not possible to distinguish a shipment of antiquities from a shipment of tourist items or reproductions, smuggling is made easier. The Web offers some valuable solutions. A network of Web resources linking museums with customs offices could make it vastly easier for individuals in Peru or Turkey to respond to inquiries from customs officials, the FBI, or INTERPOL. For example, digitial imaging could be used to send pictures of artifacts directly to museum personnel, facilitating the identification of specific pieces that had been stolen or smuggled. National museums could also develop digital databases accessible by customs official via the Web that would make it easier to identify questionable objects and to notivy museum officials of smuggling attempts. The immediate documentation provided by video or email exchanges (like those little cameras in banks and convenience stores) could also prove valuable in supporting prosecution attempts. While there are many museum curators who might resent this use of the Web to restrict their access to artifacts or great value and interest, it only fair to level the "playing field" for institutions and countries whose resources for policing trade in their national patrimony are limited or nonexistent. It should be evident that Web technologies cannot be developed without a similar development of basic museum ethics. We should not be collecting, or even curating, artifacts that do not belong to us without the permission of their rightful owners.
Improved Web access to museums by researchers also means improved access for the general public. At Yale's Peabody Museum, the number of email messages to curatorial staff that originate from commercial ISPs is growing relative to those from university-based sources. This has already begun to tax the resources of some curatorial staff, who are beginning to avoid prominently featuring their email addresses on museum Web sites. The future of scholarly research on the Web will depend upon the future of the Internet itself. Harvard and other institutions are already exploring the possibility of a parallel "research Internet" whose access would be restricted to scholars. Most museums already have strict guidelines with regard to which individuals can have access to actual research collections or documentation. Hard decisions as to how and what kind of information should be made available via the Web to a general public as opposed to qualified researchers will have to be made if service cannot keep pace with demand. These issues will also have to be confronted by public granting agencies such as NSF and NEH, whose investment in the creation and maintenance of Internet resources is often driven by concern for the needs of U.S. taxpayers as a whole.
The technology for information storage and retrieval is here. It is relatively inexpensive and not especially difficult to use. However, much remains to be done to make the Web worthwhile. Whereas the rule of thumb in real estate has always been "Location, location, location!" the rule of thumb for the Web is "Content, content, content!" Scholars themselves must participate in the process not only of using, but creating valuable research materials on the Web. These must include not only traditional text publications, but databases, bibliographies, images, recordings, innovative presentations, and virtual exhibitions. All of these will also need to be referenced through thoughtful, user-friendly indexes and search engines.
There is every indication that the creation of content in archaeology and anthropology on museum Web sites will be driven primarily by the personal satisfaction of scholars who recognize the potential of the Internet and other digital tools to facilitate contributions to greater knowledge. The Web provides a new and powerful medium by which an individual or small group can filter, process, and disseminate knowledge to a worldwide audience. This work will happen only as scholars and museum professionals apply to the digital universe the passion, dedication, and diligence with which they have approached the creation and management of museums for the past three centuries.