Children and teachers build museums together and offer them up to a world of visitors arriving through the portals of the World Wide Web. If a school is fortunate enough to be in a town which offers a traditional museum, the school partners with the museum so that both develop a presence on the Web. Visitors arrive from China, Japan, Germany and Chile.
The vast archival resources of the traditional museum, most of which could never be displayed on the limited wall space of the physical building, can now be digitized and shared through the wonders of the multimedia computer. A local citizen walks in, sits down at a monitor and reviews a hundred photographs of the canning industry shot at the end of the previous century. At the same time, an electronic visitor from Iceland reviews the same photographs. The museum has an international presence.
This chapter offers strategies for the creation of virtual museums in schools which will engage students in collection development as curators.
1. Exploration and Definition
What is a virtual museum? How does it work?
Museum building begins with exploration of existing virtual museums. A team of ten or more students and staff members spends a morning visiting both adult and student created virtual museums.
Examples of Adult Virtual Museums
- Bellingham Antique Radio Museum - This special collection museum goes global with a well designed WWW site.
- Field Museum - Dinosaurs & Masks
- Franklin Institute - Long renowned for its wonderful "hands on" science exhibits, the Franklin Institute is leading the pack of virtual museums with multimedia and superb online resources.
- High Museum - Excellent collection of paintings and photographs.
- Palaeolithic painted cave at Vallon - Pont-d'Arc. Startling and dramatic images from the recently discovered cave. Brilliant photographs. Excellent text.
- Native American Resources - Culture, Art, Education, Texts Related to Native American Issues, Video Resources, Related Museums, & Goverment Resources.
- New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science
- Ontario Science Center
- Paleontology (California Museum of)
- SeaWorld Animal Database
- Smithsonian - This site leads you to some very good national collections.
- WebMuseum - An extensive collection with hundreds of excellent paintings along with quite interesting biographical and interpretive sketches.
- Whales - Rich collection of resources and projects to support the study of whales.
Examples of Virtual Museums in Schools
Oldies and Goodies provides an extensive list of school museums.
2. Purpose, Focus and Theme
The morning of exploration leads to definitions which must then be matched with curriculum. One school may chose to focus upon Pacific Rim cultures. Another may decide to explore "diversity" through the topics of national origin and family histories. Another school may build a collection devoted to local history. In each case, the virtual museum should relate to topics and questions students would be studying in the course of the school curriculum.
3. Map of Future Development.
It pays to identify every "wing" of the museum before building and opening any of those wings.
The planning team tries to anticipate every major category related to the theme and actually draws a "floor plan" outlining the relationship of each "wing" to the entrance hall (or home page). This same team also makes decisions about which wings will open during which months. They are, in effect, building a schedule for the collection development and the gathering of artifacts.
4. Design Decisions
The planning team must agree on some common design principles (see the chapter on Home Sweet Home) and page templates which will give the museum a smoothly flowing and inviting appearance.
Form combined with function. In general terms, changes in format should be restricted and minimized so as to reduce distractions from the content. Many WWW designers switch from background to background in an attempt to show off virtuosity (or something), but end up slowing down and frustrating the visitor. Graphics should be used sparingly (and repeatedly) as decorative items. Once a small icon has been loaded, for example, it may be used over and over again without slowing things down. Menu pages should be fast and coherently organized. Visitors should be able to find their way around.
5. File Management
As museums ultimately require the display and filing of hundreds of electronic artifacts and documents, the structure of the HTML directories should be carefully considered in advance. It pays to keep collections very large and quite flat with relatively few subdirectories because programs like Netscape require very simple addresses for local files (nothing more than the file name) unless they are hidden away in subdirectories which will require extra addressing. The more subdirectories, the more complex the addressing each time a page points to a different page.
While very large collections can be frustrating because they require substantial scrolling when finding files, there are naming conventions which can organize files within the directory.
Every file related to a particular wing of the museum might begin with the same letter or code, for example, thereby making sure they are all grouped together. It pays to name paired HTML and GIF files with the same file names (except for the "html" or "gif" extensions at the end), thereby making sure they will cluster together on the menu. Those who create separate "image" directories create a good deal of extra work in locating and addressing pages.
6. Museum Management
While it is highly desirable to engage students in significant roles, real publishing in a global setting carries with it enormous responsibilities, some of which must be shouldered by the adults. The very necessity of selecting some writing for publication and other pieces for rejection sets up potentially controversial decisions which can involve civil liberties and the danger of legal suits. Some schools hand over pages and sections of their sites to individual students. Some let them run the entire show. The results can be embarrassing and even catastrophic. The responsibility for policy and content ultimately must rest in the hands of the adult representatives of the school. The situation is somewhat analogous to the printing of a school newspaper and the need for staff guidance of such publications.
7. The Student as Curator
Students gather and assess the value of electronic artifacts according to criteria established early in the museum-building process. Artifacts may be submitted by other students or people from around the globe who visit the museum and offer to make a contribution. They may be gathered locally by students as they interview local citizens or meet with local museum officials. Once gathered, they must often be transformed from their original media into digitized versions which may be added to the museum's collection.
In the early stages, nearly any submission will seem welcome, almost without regard to quality, but as time moves along and the novelty wears off, quality may become a major concern and an important issue. Students will learn a good deal about evaluation and assessment as they review the submissions.
Part of building the collection is the categorization of artifacts. Where does this piece belong? How should we name it? How should we display it? What should we attach in the way of explanatory material?
8. Scheduling Work Flow
Once the structure of the museum is clearly established, students and staff may set about completing each wing in turn or by cluster. The organizing team must assign chunks of work to various groups after making sure they are sufficiently equipped to handle the challenge. The assignments carry with them deadlines just as they would if the group were putting out a magazine.
9. Permissions and Copyrights
Before we publish the words and treasures of individuals, we require written documentation that permission has been granted. Before we use a graphic on a page, we obtain written permission or clarify how we know that it stands in the public domain. Museums, virtual or otherwise, must be extremely careful about the terms and conditions under which objects are loaned or given to the museum.
When we publish the personal opinions and stories of individuals, we state clearly that those opinions do not represent the positions of the institution. While it may not be immediately apparent that such disclaimers are needed, the content of writing can sometimes provoke extremely strong reactions. Silence on the part of the publishing site can too easily be construed as approval or support.
Smooth operations will require frequent monitoring and updating, especially of links to outside resources, since URLs often change. The group that plans a museum or WWW site must ask who will do the "grunt work" two years later when the first blush of enthusiasm has worn off and the reality of hard work has sunk in. Several staff members must be willing to devote many long hours to ongoing support.
At a time when many educators are asking how to support student-centered classrooms where children construct meaning around difficult questions, challenges and issues, virtual museums provide an excellent vehicle to encourage such thinking and learning. After the hoopla about the "electronic highway" subsides, we will be left with the question, "So what?" Virtual museums supply the answer.
©1995, Jamie McKenzie
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