Beyond Art? Digital Culture in the Twenty-first Century Colloquium

The Oxford Union, 21st April, 1999

Organisers: Oxford University's Humanities Computing Unit (

Museum Directors' Dreams of Digitisation

Jane Carmichael

Assistant Director, Collections, Imperial War Museum

Web site



In Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge, miserly, acquisitive, disliked, is at a crossroads. He is haunted by dreams of his past, present and future. But there is really only ONE true course for him to follow. This morning I present to you; the dreams of Eric Scrivenor, a Museum Director trying to square up to the challenge of the 21st century -the parallels between some thinking in museums and the 19th century Scrooge may surprise you. In dreams of course things are exaggerated and surreal but most of this paper is at least based in fact.

British Museums are amongst the most developed and dynamic in the world, with enormously significant international collections and a total number of visitors each year of over 90 million. The largest are extremely sophisticated in their approach to attracting audiences and related commercial activities. But the museums sector is at a cross roads - traditionally visitors have come for the physical reality of the objects - what are the implications of the capacity of ICT to offer surrogates for remote access? Can they should they embrace it? What will it mean for their visitors and for the organisations institutional development?

Eric Scrivenor, a British national Museum Director is working on his forward planning for the next three years. Its complexities return to haunt his sleep. He has a whirling sensation of tumbling across the 20th century and seeing the conglomeration of Museums in the past.

First dream – Museums in the past

Visions of great collections cascade across his brain -great works of art, huge relics of ancient cultures, peculiar scientific monstrosities, millions of specimens of natural history and all the paraphernalia of social history.

But the guardians of these collections wave him away - contemptuous of his lack of scholarship in their areas, they are too busy searching for acquisitions to the collections, so that they produce more and more catalogues over and over again -counting their collections as Scrooge did with his piles of gold.

He sees the Director of the British Museum in the fifties writing happily:

Relations honey sweet with the Trustee. The freedom to devote time to my own work and no need to hide it under the blotter.

Eric sees the piles of learned journals, the slim, the medium and the fat volumes of erudition which have resulted, but many of which are known only to the informed few.

An old and wizened curator, with 40 years service, grabs his elbow - proclaiming the museums creed - more scholars, more acquisitions, more public money - this is for the public benefit - even if they don’t visit it know about it or appreciate it.,

Shaking the old curator off, Scrivenor wakes and reminds himself that his Museum and other Museums have moved forward enormously in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Second Dream: Museums of the Present

Back Eric plunges into the mass of dream museums, this time in the 1980s, the scholars are in retreat, marketing men and educationalists compete for his attention. See our wonderful revenue- generating exhibitions ! See our shops! Use our mail order! Eat in our cafes! Use our historical designs as bedlinen! Look at these returns! Look at our visitor satisfaction figures! Thus the marketing men.

The educationalists are quieter but insistent; we can reach a wider socio-economic grouping with our in house teaching sessions, we can support the national curriculum, we can give added- value in exhibitions, we can ‘interpret’ the collections for the widest audience. our publications will take the collections into the classroom. Revenue! Commercial publishing partnerships. We are a vital part of the Museums mission.

Eric remembers as a young curator hearing Roy Strong say in 1982:

We were on the road which led to the consumer museum. Such a development was a complete reversal of the post-war cultural concept of the funding and function of our great national institutions. Until then it was accepted as a given that they were basically sustained however inadequately by the State. Those in such institutions worked from the premiss that they were there to give the public what they thought was good for it. (Roy Strong Diaries)

To give the public what it wanted and was prepared to pay for, to aim for different non-scholarly audiences, was novel. But Museums in the eighties and nineties were also preoccupied by the appalling problems they faced with their buildings.

But wait -what’s this? A fairy godmother! In sweeps the Heritage Lottery Fund fairy looking surprisingly like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan.. With waves of her wand she transform the rotten, decaying, leaky, cramped, dirty, dusty, insecure museum buildings into clean, spacious, air conditioned, secure and attractive environments and creates lots of NEW ones. Eric remembers with pleasure the controversy and publicity and eventual success of his own radically designed extension.

It had pleased the government too - increasingly obsessed with business practice - target setting and revenue raising had become the vogue of the eighties and nineties. You must measure your performance against targets- visitors, their satisfaction, revenue, cataloguing, conservation. Tell us what your doing. We must know what all Museums are doing. Are they succeeding?

Again Roy Strong had put it best in 1985

The old concept that a museum opened its doors and that was that has gone forever. We live in a society where what we offer has to be lined up against what other have to offer. The alternatives to museum visiting and the information gained through it are far greater that forty years ago. The public expect a quality product, and to be brutal, we don’t not give it. … Whether museums like it or not they are now right down in the market place. (Roy Strong Diaries)

But as Eric smiles in his sleep at the memory, small but insistent voices are making themselves heard from the basements of his dream museums; you must have computers! you must have technology! It’ll make you efficient and economical! But we need lots of money first - and lots of people. You must pay them the going rate - almost as much as you get. All across Museums the chorus gathers strength - you must computerise - all your work processes- but above all YOUR CATALOGUES. Computers mean your dreams of complete catalogues can be realised - After all it was in 1912 that the Public Accounts Committee said Museums must do this. The backlogs are huge. Eric groans as he remembers his own and his colleagues anguish as they realised that these computer scientists kept throwing machines away. - after only three years - sometimes less. It was horrifying - manual systems of beautifully bound registers and cataloguing cards had lasted for decades, often the entire life of the Museum, in some cases well over 100 years.

The jargon these people spoke was pretty impenetrable too - though plain enough on how much more money and how many extra staff they needed..

Anyway by 1999 Eric had learnt to call it ICT. In his forward plan the section of its development had given him more trouble than any other. he’d written endless drafts (typed with two fingers) - he couldn’t decide. Was he going to be innovative or play safe? What risks was he running? Possible technical failure? A compromise on professional standards? A - terrible thought ‘dumbing down’ ? And what were the implications for his commercial operations such as publishing?

He knew he was not alone- his colleagues were in a similar dilemmas.

His anxiety woke him up and he tossed and turned before falling into a troubled sleep.

Third Dream: A Bleak Future for Museums without Digitisation

Eric sank into a very different sort of dreamland - it seemed to be the future - but it was a pretty bleak place. He seemed to be retired (early) for he felt fit and reasonably well and he was visiting his old Museum. But it seemed a dark and dreary place - he knew the signs of an ailing institution galleries as quiet as the grave- a few glum visitors, hardly any staff in sight, ageing displays, old decor, a grumpy service in the cafe and a tired look to the shop stock. Eric - now a dedicated ‘silver’ surfer of the net, had looked for information before his visit and found none. What had gone wrong? What was his successor doing? A prematurely aged and lined face appeared and moaned - we gave up on ICT just as you said we should- too complex, too expensive, too difficult to fund, too competitive, too dependent on partnerships, a threat to expertise, a threat to the authenticity of the museum experience, a threat to our publications programme, too wide an audience, too many questions. We followed your 1999 plan Eric and worked within the limits of what we had. But the writings on the wall - money is running out - nobody wants to visit anyway, we shall probably close in two years time - the collections will be sold and amalgamated, the staff pensioned off..

Eric groaned - I wanted my institution to thrive! I wanted it to flourish! He woke up cold and disturbed and it was still only three in the morning. Pulling his duvet round him, he tried once more to sleep and this time he dozed off into a very different kind of dream - it was the culmination in 2010 of all his most adventurous planning begun in 1999.

Fourth Dream: A Bright Future for Museums with Digitisation

He remembered how for most of the twentieth century Museums and the Museum sector had not been part of the political scene; in Britain their function was seen as independent highly-individual organisations whose existence was obviously desirable but essentially peripheral to main government agendas. The sector itself was fragmented professionally into the huge national museums, local authority museums, university museums and the independents. The driver for change came with the convergence of internet technology, social emphasis on cultural identity and political agendas for social change.

Internationally by 1999, some governments had extended their funding far beyond simple resourcing of individual institutions towards dynamic developments of cultural information networks with national and international connections.

For example in America,

The New York Times of 4 Feb 99 announced

Tucked away in the $1.7 trillion budget proposal is an item that could help bring digitised version of photographs, memorabilia, documents and other items from the nationals cultural treasure trove into the American classroom.

In Europe the Culture 2000 programme was announced as

An opportunity to implement a new approach to Community cultural action, enabling it to respond to today’s challenges and to meet the aspirations of both the European public and the cultural sector itself. Culture is no longer a subsidiary activity but a driving force in society making for creativity, vitality, dialogue and cohesion. (Communication form the European Commission to the European Parliament)

The Canadian Heritage Information Network was established in the early 1980s. CHIN’s Artefacts Canada resource provides online access to over 2.5 million artefacts drawn from over 80 Canadian institutions. CHIN provides a special thematic on-line exhibition developed by Canadian museums working together and with museums around the world

In Australia the Cultural Network website described itself as a public access gateway to Australian cultural organisations, websites resources, news and events. Its objective is to assist the development of the digital cultural economy. It is also an exchange centre where cultural workers and organisations can communicate with each other.

In Britain a turning point came with the arrival of the New Labour government in 1997. Prior to that there was only one, albeit a highly successful, national project, supported by the Millennium fund. SCRAN, the Scottish Cultural Resources Access network, showed how basic records can be re-presented to create highly popular resources for education and lifelong learning. Further, SCRAN provided software to enable people to create their own authored productions from the basic text and image resources.

The new government’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ translated into the buzz words of social inclusion, urban regeneration, community, regionalisation, people and imagination. The Department for Education and ?? presented the agenda for ICT

For the first time we have the opportunity to link all our learning institutions and providers including schools, colleges, universities, libraries, adult learning institutions, museums and galleries - and more, to link them purposefully to an agenda for developing the learning society.’ (Connecting the Learning Society DfEE 1997)

The library sector stole a march on everybody else by their proposals to re-invent the public library system through the New Library, the People’s Network in 1998, a brilliant initiative aimed at linking all the libraries in an information network accessible to all - and offering government a major conduit for relations with the nation.

Eric remembered his admiration for the way funding flowed in the wake of this proposal - the New Opportunities Fund with 50 million plus to come on-stream in 1999.

Could Museums get a foot in the same door? Development in ICT was concentrated in a few leading institutions rather than spread through the sector. A 1998 survey showed:

2500 Museums
200 with websites
45 museum websites with significant on-line education content
5 with collections information on-line

Were surrogates an acceptable substitutes for the real thing? One former Imperial War Museum Director was convinced otherwise:

These so-called virtual reality experience exhibitions, however thrilling they may be, are the stuff of theme parks rather than historical museums. Moreover, in the case of the Imperial War Museum there is an additional moral point; before entering the Blitz experience or embarking upon the Mosquito sortie, the visitor knows that he will not be killed. The experience is therefore bogus and perhaps even dangerously so.

Noble Frankland, War as History .

Throughout the eighties and nineties Museums had been encouraged to recognise their major assets in ownership of intellectual property rights in their collections and to exploit them accordingly. Would anyone buy the books if they could see similar information on the net? Would their assets be stripped by calculated acts of intellectual piracy?

Eric remembered a definition of Museums agreed by a European Union workshop ‘ A framed experience rooted in authenticity.’ Museums were centres of expertise based on their stewardship of the authentic. Was this threatened by the inevitable dilution of widespread dissemination?

By 1999 some Museums had tried out exciting ICT projects including

responsive participatory galleries and digital exhibits
digital cameras and other media for use during a visit
content created by visitors as well as by staff
searchable collection information
interactive web sites and internet based services
connections between actual and virtual museum and other resources

But these innovations were limited to very few Museums. Many had extensive computerised catalogues based on structured text but essentially these were in-house reference tools. They were nonetheless fundamental to further development and - their prime requirement was the addition of digitised images. They would then offer the key unit of information as a starting point for additional interpretation and further development.

In his dreams Eric saw himself being adamant about the way forward it was digitisation of collections - the combination of catalogue information and images was the raw material for the future. Images offered incredible ‘added-value’ to the existing information. The development of technology for scanning and storing meant that what was once a pipe dream for enormous institutional collections could be turned into a reality. But where would the money come from?

Digitisation means ACCESS. It meant COLLABORATION.

It meant PARTNERSHIPS. It meant RISKS.

It offered enormous possibilities for the extension of audience and dissemination of knowledge. It offered - and this was very novel - a chance for Museums to engage in extended and extensive dialogue with their audience. It could operate on all sorts of different scales, global, national, regional, local and build on the established popularity of Museum sites on the world wide web. The key to Museum’s popularity on the web was their content - their range across human history and their expert ability to put it in context.

Eric was thoughtful remembering the gap that had existed at the turn of the century between the aspirations and the realisation. The number of Museums with serious digitisation programmes could be counted on his fingers. But in June 1999 The National Museum Directors Conference presented a report - A Netful of Jewels - Museums and the New Networks to government pointing to the potential contribution the whole museums sector could make but also the lack of funding for a serious initiative.

The key quotations from the report hummed in his brain.

Information and communication technology enables museums to contribute their skills and resources to the cultural network that the government is creating. Working in partnership with educators, librarians, archivists, publishers and broadcasters, museums and gallery staff are now able to create digital learning resources that can meet people’s needs in classrooms, in people’s homes and at the workplace.

By building on their established place as social centres for cultural exchange within our communities, their rich collections and the educational and interpretative skills of their staff, museums can contribute to the achievement of the most important items of the national agenda; to the creation of a learning society; to social inclusion, and to creativity and economic competitiveness.

Museum resources of all kinds must be linked to resources from libraries archives universities and other arts humanities and science institutions world wide.

All this will require additional resources - a total of £55 million up to 2004.

Eric remembered the trepidation with which this bold demand had been made and the delight when he heard in 2000 that Government had responded to it.

Now in his dream he saw himself in 2010 still working happily in charge of his institution and reaping the benefits.

Physical and remote access operated in parallel. His Museum was thronged with visitors, its specialist ‘cybercafe’ acted as an information centre to its own and related collections, its web site buzzed with activity, provided publicity information, virtual exhibitions, interactive projects and newsgroups, catalogue information on-line and so on, the institutions contribution in imaginative curriculum material to the learning networks was highly regarded, it was frequently sought as a partner in information initiatives with other museums, libraries and archives, plus the Museum was a regular contributor to several digital broadcasting channels. Not least Eric had thoroughly enjoyed presenting his own programme The Director’s Choice in which he discussed his favourites items from the collections with a studio audience and invited further participation via the Web.

His reward was the lively dialogue between his institution and its users in the volume of correspondence generated from home computers and the network of public access points in libraries.

The interaction with the public had its moments; sometimes it seemed as if an entire nation wanted to question him or his staff about their family history or to give the museum their family ‘antiques,’ which turned out to be sham or insignificant but the dialogue ensured a strong and positive relationship. It helped to direct the Museum’s development. Equally he enjoyed the use the creative economy made of his collections- it provided further revenue and sometimes, leading edge partnerships with the media in particular.

He looked back on the various institutions he’d co-operated with in the push towards digitisation and felt that the museum sector had genuinely moved on. The pedigree - national, local authority, university, independent, mattered far less these days - than it once had. There had been some strange and uncomfortable bedfellows at times but the common agenda had pulled them together. Big thinking was essential it was a necessity to avoid re-inventing the wheel.

There were unpleasant memories over the conflicts between conventional commercial enterprise and unrestricted circulation of large quantities of information before the market settled down to being complementary rather than competitive. It was up to Museums to balance what went on the web, sometimes setting up subscription services, with their conventional publication activities.

But he then remember the real horror of the intellectual property issue - the European Union Directive on the European Harmonisation of copyright which first appeared in 1997. By 1999 this threatened a nightmare future for the Information Society where nothing could be looked at, read or copied without permission or additional payments. British lobbyists advertised in the Times of 1 Feb 1999:

The traditional fair practice exceptions for copying for research or private study presently allowed under UK law and backed by international copyright treaties are under threat by amendments to the Directive which will outlaw reasonable private copying on digital equipment and all lawful users to be blocked and charged for by technical means. Added to this the home recording of television programmes will be made unlawful.

There is a social need to maintain a balance between the right of authors and the public interest in particular for education research and access to information. The big guns of the rights owners seem to have the attention of the decision makers in the EU.

The horrors of that one had never gone away and Britain was isolated in her stance. The only consolation was that ten years on, in 2010, the EU, distracted by scandal after scandal, was still talking about it unable get agreement in the European Parliament.

But overall Eric’s dream was of bright future:

Museums in the 21st century would be reaching a far wider audience with user-friendly information tailored to their needs. Museums would be responsive as well as reflective organisations engaged in wide-ranging dialogues with their audiences. The sector would be the stronger for it, more united, working with diverse partners, and catalysts for innovation. The visitor would have a far wider choice of experience and range of information. Many remote visitors would of course, never be able to see the real thing - but most mass mediums since the invention of printing have come in for the same kind of criticism as being a dilution of the authentic and survived to gain acceptance. Printing and photography have both survived to be accepted for they are, for the most part mediums of communication . Electronic access to museum collections is in the same bracket.

Eric’s dream drifted to a close in a warm glow. He woke up to the reality of 1999. With a spring in his step he set off for his desk. There was a lot more two fingered typing to be done. His forward plan was going to be a bold and forward looking as he could make it. He would make digitisation the key to audience creation and sustainability -his museum would offer its physical collections and their electronic presentation with imagination and verve. His first priority would be to talk to other institutions about positioning themselves in common funding bids. He thought about the night just gone and his four dreams of the past, the present, and the possible options for the future; he had enjoyed - as he always did, re-reading Dickens A Christmas Carol before he slept - but never before had he found it so inspirational.

© Jane Carmichael

Assistant Director, Collections, Imperial War Museum

Web site


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