Why a Virtual Museum?

A foreword by our Curator

Trained in classical museology, and imbued with a lifetime experience in “real” museums, I initially approached this virtual museum project with the conviction that it was a good solution for this collection, but nevertheless a distant second-best to a “real museum.”

Three years later, I am now convinced that a well-executed virtual museum can provide an educational experience that is second to none. For every aspect of the “in person” experience that one might miss in a virtual museum, there is a definite benefit to the virtual experience that cannot be duplicated in a real museum. Some of the notable virtual advantages we can envision include:

Lighting. Good lighting is one of the most difficult tasks in designing a “real” exhibition. The light must compliment each item, yet not affect conservation conditions, not impede visitor traffic flow, not call attention to itself, and not interfere with the lighting of the object next to it. In a virtual museum, the only limit is the talent of the photographer and the time available. You can place lights anywhere. You can add reflectors, light traps, and diffusers. You can hang the object upside down and flip the image later. You can view it from the top of a ladder, or laying on the floor. A virtual museum can give you the best light and the best angle on every object at any hour of the day.

Scale. Very small objects get shortchanged in real exhibits. Again, they are hard to light properly, but more importantly, they are not suited to crowded environments. Glass beads, for instance, offer amazing details no larger than an ant. Real museum visitors will find it physically difficult to focus on such minute details. In a virtual museum, scale matters little. You can draw the visitor’s attention to any detail worth seeing, using magnifying lenses if necessary.

Peripheral Vision. In a virtual museum, you can show any side of the object worth seeing. Not only can you offer 360 panoramic views, but you can also show the bottom, under the base, or inside an object.

Non-Linear Visit. In a classical museum presentation, considerable attention is given to the grouping of the objects, and the flow of the visit. But no matter how carefully and skillfully the exhibit is thought out, it unavoidably imposes the will of the curator upon the visitor, who is invited to follow his approach. For instance, a visitor interested in mirrors would, in most museums, not have the opportunity to view side by side Egyptian, Etruscan, Persian, Indian, and Chinese mirrors. They would most probably be housed in different rooms, if not in different museums altogether. In a well designed virtual museum, the visitor can opt to follow his own interests or fancy of the moment. It is a more intimate itinerary, a more personal voyage of discovery.

Presentation of Historical Context. In a virtual museum, the almost unlimited amount of space available for information and the negligible overhead required for redundant information makes it possible to provide the visitor with complete historical, geographical, sociological, religious, economic and technological context for each and every object.

For instance, the description of a simple iridescent glass khol tube from 4th century Syria can be presented along with maps of its geographical origin (political, topographic, economic maps at several scales), a discussion of 4th century Syria, an overview of contemporary history in the rest of the world, background information on ancient glass as a material, background information on glass blowing as a technique, a discussion of glass iridescence as a conservation phenomenon, a discussion on the use and composition of kohl, and a write up on the commerce of cosmetics in the Eastern Roman empire.

Not only would such depth of information on every artifact be logistically difficult to deliver in a real museum setting, it would overwhelm the visitor of a real museum. The circumstances of a real museum visit (limited time to complete the visit, sharing access with other visitors, saturation of attention span) are such that visitors feel a genuine conflict between reading the information cards, and observing the artifacts. Visiting a virtual museum is much more akin to consulting the encyclopedia on your bookshelf. You can pick it up and put it down as often as you wish, and dig as deep as you want. Bereft of the pressure of a public space and of time constraints, visiting a virtual museum is a more personal voyage of discovery.

Access and Conservation. In managing collections of antiquities, curators often face difficult decisions on the compromise between public access and preservation of our cultural heritage. With a virtual museum, you can provide worldwide 24/7 access to an item that is actually maintained in the dark, in a nitrogen chamber, under constant environmental conditions.

Of course, nothing replaces the experience of seeing a masterpiece first hand. The intent is not to change, but to expand the palette of experiences. I now believe that a virtual museum is neither inferior nor superior to a real museum. Like oil painting and photography, real and virtual museums are destined to coexist, providing us complementary approaches to embrace the world around us.

Enjoy your visit,

Georges Ricard, Ph.D., Curator
The Virtual Egyptian Museum
A venture of the California Institute of World Archaeology