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The Virtual Museum

In the movie Field of Dreams, a mysterious voice assures the protagonist, a down-on-his-luck city-boy-turned-farmer named Ray played by Kevin Costner, that "if you build it, they will come." Today, however, in an age of instant, digital entertainment, curators of museums and historical sites must also wonder if anyone "will come" to their static displays to visit and donate ' and what will happen if they don't.

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In the movie Field of Dreams (based on the novel Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella), a mysterious voice assures the protagonist, a down-on-his-luck city-boy-turned-farmer named Ray played by Kevin Costner, that “if you build it, they will come.”

Today, however, in an age of instant, digital entertainment, curators of museums and historical sites must also wonder if anyone “will come” to their static displays to visit and donate ‘ and what will happen if they don’t.

Yet, whether or not visitors appear each day, bills will certainly mount, and the public purpose for which the museum was created must continue to be served, not only to preserve the typical tax exemption, but also to carry out the mission of the institution of interpreting historical events in context and educating the public about the importance of its historical heritage.

Of course ‘ and, unfortunately, it happens ‘ without visitors, the attraction may have to shut down, frustrating the preservation goals of its founders, and taking away from an interested public’s need, and even right, to learn about its past and various heritages, from political to religious; indeed, an historical site’s closing because of lack of funding or visitors (often so closely tied) will also deny many untold numbers of citizens and other visitors the opportunity to learn.

And, in fact, for many institutions, very few people are visiting. Recent studies show measurable declines in “live” museum attendance, which have persisted over a long time (see, www.nea.gov/news/news09/SPPA-highlights.html).

While the studies did not claim or document a cause-and-effect relationship between this trend and the growth of the educational and cultural opportunities available online, in reality, the report states: “The Internet and mass media are reaching substantial audiences for the arts. ‘ More Americans view or listen to broadcasts and recordings of arts events (online) than attend them live” (see, www.nea.gov/news/news09/SP PA-highlights.html). In other words, today’s audience for art, history and culture has many alternatives to visiting the traditional museum ‘ and they are voting with their touchpads. A National Endowment for the Arts 2008 survey stated that “nearly 40% (of Americans) used the Internet to view, listen to, download, or post artworks or performances” (see, www.nea.gov/news/news09/SPPA-high lights.html).

An e-Volving e-Commerce Sector

And why not? As one online museum directory states: “The Virtual Tours of Museums and Exhibits never closes. Visit our Online Tours anytime, and stay as long as you like” (see, www.virtualfreesites.com/museums.museums.html). Similarly, the online-only Museum of Family History highlights the advantages of this new format. “Creating a virtual museum, i.e., a museum that exists only on the Internet, has its advantages and offers unique opportunities,” a page on its Web site states. “Such a museum does not require the raising of funds (though contributions are gratefully accepted) to erect an actual building or pay salaries, but can be created by a person with imagination, time, knowledge and the means to do so, not to mention the material to fill such a museum” (see, www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/help-us-grow.htm).

Fortunately, the Internet is full of more than enough online museums to satisfy the demand of those seeking what the National Endowment of the Arts identifies as “virtual culture.” (For more, see, www.nytimes.com/2003/01/12/science/12MUSE.html?pagewanted=all and www.virtualfreesites.com/museums.html.) Some are digital versions of bricks-and-mortar institutions, but others exist only in cyberspace. Some are professionally built and curated, while others are truly homemade. One unverified and unsubstantiated site claims that the number of online museum Web pages is growing at the rate of one per day (you be the judge and jury, at http://icom.museum/vlmp/overview.html#countries#countries).

Moreover, the ease of creating a Web site, and the availability of inexpensive tools to make visually stunning images, allows many smaller organizations that would not be able to promote themselves to a wider world, or would not likely attract visitors from a distance, to become instantly available to devotees, regardless of the devotees’ place of residence. Just as the specialty retailer that once relied on highly targeted catalog mailing lists can now serve a dedicated customer base more cheaply through online marketing, a museum serving a narrow interest is only as far as the chair in front of a fan’s home computer, and promotion of the Web address among the cognoscenti. Some have even melded social-networking tools with online museums to create a world of highly personalized museums of their own making and to share with others of a like persuasion (see, http://cabinet-of-wonders.blogspot.com/2009/03/news-museums-as-social-network.html). The virtual museum has become so popular that there is even an annual conference on the latest trends and issues in the field (see, www.archimuse.com/conferences/mw.html).

It’s e-Commerce,And Standards Apply

Although a virtual museum certainly provides “culture,” its Web site is really just as much a form of e-commerce ‘ soliciting contributions, promoting the name of the institution and selling memorabilia from the gift shop ‘ as any traditional dot-com widget-seller. For that reason, the concept of the online museum was seen by Internet organizers as so compelling that they created a separate domain, .museum, managed by the Museum Domain Management Association (“MuseDoma”) (see, http://musedoma.museum). This domain is limited by its bylaws to “Museums, professional museum associations, and individual members of the museum profession.” According to MuseDoma, having an alternative to the widely used .com, .org and .edu domains “enables museums, museum associations and museum professionals to register .museum Web sites and e-mail addresses. This, in turn, makes it easy for users to recognize genuine museum activity on the Internet,” at the height of the dot-com era (http://about.museum, emphasis added). In a two-step registration process, MuseDoma must first “determine an applicant’s eligibility to hold a name in the domain,” after which the applicant can register through an authorized .museum registrar (see, http://about.museum/registrars).

The explanatory material at the MuseDoma Web site clearly articulates a goal of using the separate domain to create an online museum culture and community, and to foster exclusivity in what is otherwise a very decentralized online world, in which caveat emptor rules the day (whether or not the viewer has the knowledge or skills to know to be cautious at a purported museum site). MuseDoma also says:

The purpose of this domain is to reserve a segment of the DNS name space reserved for the use of museums; a name space whose conventions are defined by the museum community. The museum [top-level domain ("TLD)"] grants users a quick and intuitive way to verify the authenticity of a museum site. Conversely, since it is a type of formal third-party certification, museums using this name space obtain a way to assure visitors of the site’s validity. (See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.museum.)

With such a strong vetting process, MuseDoma wants to assure visitors that anyone or any entity with a .museum domain name is a “true” museum. It states so this way:

In other [TLDs], anyone can register a domain name including the letters “museum”. This does not mean they are museums. You will only find genuine museums in .museum! Eligibility for .museum is based on the definition of museum provided by the International Council of Museums (“ICOM”). A name in .museum tells Internet users that its holder is a museum, museums association or individual member of the museum professional [sic] according to criteria established by the museum community, itself. By its restriction to genuine museums, the domain validates and verifies the legitimacy of museums around the world. (See, http://about.museum/benefits.html.)

Indeed, a searchable list of sites registered in that domain appears at http://about.museum/find. (It’s interesting, though, that my firm’s widely used spam filter blocks the site, despite the site’s benign purpose.) The size classifications in the museum bylaws governing the .museum domain seem tilted toward the larger institutions like the one named for one of the domain’s founders, the J. Paul Getty Trust (see, http://musedoma.museum/corporate_bylaws.html).

Rewarding or Redundant?The Sector Responds

Notwithstanding this effort to facilitate finding genuine culture online, many major cultural institutions have opted for the more traditional domains. The Web sites of the “top museums” named in online lists, such as those at www.toptenlinks.com/cat.php/Reference%3AMuseums%3AUS+Museums and www.americasbestonline.net/index.php/pages/museumsbestunitedstate.html, reveal almost complete .gov, .org and .edu registrations. Perhaps this reflects only that significant institutions followed the herd to those domains at the dawn of e-commerce in the 1990s, long before the .museum domain was established, which occurred in 2001. MuseDoma tries to counter these challenges in the FAQ section of its Web site, with answers to such questions as: “Why shouldn’t we wait until more people have heard about .museum before going to the trouble and expense of registering?” and “We’ve invested a huge amount in branding our current domain name. Why would we want to change?” (see, http://about.museum/register/faq.html).

To survive against such widespread use of alternative domains by well-regarded institutions, MuseDoma tries to persuade potential registrants to “double pay.” It recommends that they maintain a .museum domain, and their existing one, in the name of building the .museum domain as a place for culture-lovers to find sites easily. “If a museum has a well-established and otherwise satisfactory domain identity, the most appropriate short-term action is probably to supplement, rather than replace, it with a newly-acquired name in .museum,” the organization says at http://about.museum/register/faq.html. The person seeking culture online, then, could go to a directory of the .museum domain, and flip through the list of all “authentic” museums found there ‘ the .museum domain becomes an online “signpost” to find Web sites and museums that the person searching had not known previously.

But in the age of Google and Bing, does anyone use the Internet that way, which, really, adds multiple steps, in favor of search engines that will take one directly to the site one wants? The concept that a person would go to a particular domain to find a particular type of Web site echoes e-commerce and the Web as it existed several e-generations ago, when “portals” were all the rage, before the existence of powerful search engines. Why should I pick through listings at a .museum directory, when Google or Bing or Yahoo can take me to exactly the place I want to be (or to a listing that is just as good)?

Also, today, a crucial skill for using the Internet for any information ‘ whether the data sought is news, culture or another type ‘ is assessment of a Web site’s credibility. Many other Web sites, such as the well known www.snopes.com, www.quatloos.com, www.millersmiles.co.uk, www.truthorfiction.com and www.hoaxbusters.org, try to fill the need identified by the well intended folks behind the .museum domain. In other words, do most Web surfers today need the service that a specialized domain such as .museum provides? In an electronic version of the chicken-and-egg conundrum, until some museums use the domain, none will.

MuseDoma, however, believes it knows the answer. “Adopting a wait-and-see stance toward actively supporting .museum will ‘ certainly slow the rate at which the domain becomes known. In the worst of cases, it might be taken to indicate that something as specialized as a top-level domain dedicated to the museum community is not sustainable,” the organization’s Web site states at http://about.museum/register/faq.html. Unfortunately for its organizers, perhaps this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Regardless of one’s philosophical position over the need for an online museum domain, the .museum organizers’ advice also faces a hard financial challenge. While MuseDoma’s noble goals may work well for a cultural elite unconstrained by such mundane commercial matters as budgets and staffing, they are less appealing when the cost of building the concept is borne by individual institutions, often themselves non-profits, rather than by donors.

Also, while the .museum selection criteria described by MuseDoma may try to ensure the integrity of the concept of a museum, that self-selection flies in the face of another, much stronger, Internet ethos, the so-called “information wants to be free” culture (see, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_wants_to_be_free). The democratization of information online allows anyone with access to a Web browser and an online account to find, publish or critique information. The Internet has enabled anyone to create an online museum to make information available to others, bypassing the cultural elite at traditional museums, at relatively little cost.

This is the educational and cultural do-it-yourself analog to the growth of e-commerce sites that created the disintermediation that has changed the role of the travel agent, bookstore and other well compensated middlemen, and the way that content is distributed in the 21st century in general. For example, a science journal reported the story of a self-labeled master collator who created a site linking to remote-camera videos of animals (see, www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55975 and www.sameasterson.com/map). Without the scrutiny of an organization such as MuseDoma, anyone can create a museum online, and the only protection against misinformation that the casual Internet user can rely on are his or her own skepticism, and the proclivity of Internet posters to expose shams and frauds by publishing corrective information on sites such as those listed above.

The Nitty e-Gritty

The concern for integrity of the .museum domain is also well taken, in light of the prevalence of quasi-charitable institutions that sometimes seem to exist more to pay the salaries of their officers and solicitors than to raise funds for a public purpose ‘ especially when the name is similar to a well known and trusted charity, but not close enough to trigger prosecutorial enforcement. There have been so many frauds that play on the gullibility of the well intentioned (e.g., http://abcnews.go.com/Business/PersonalBest/story?id=4228271&page=1) that many organizations now have lists and guidance available online to help people spot frauds (such as the Wise Giving initiative that is now a part of the Better Business Bureau’s site at www.bbb.org/us/charity), or the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch (www.charitywatch.org). Similar sites include:

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