The Digital Museum in the Life of the User

  1. 1. Paul F. Marty

    College of Information - Florida State University

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artifacts and collections at an astounding rate (Institute of
Museum and Library Services, 2005). The potential of increased
access to digital collections has tremendous implications for
digital humanities researchers, and many recent projects have
focused on the technical mechanics of digitizing cultural
heritage resources. While these considerations are extremely
worthwhile, there is an equally important need to explore how
people use these digital resources once they become available
(Cameron, 2003; Knell, 2003).
This paper explores the role digital museum resources play in
the lives of the users of those resources. It presents results from
an international survey (administered to nearly 1500 visitors
at nine different online museums) that addressed the relationship
between digital and physical museum resources in the lives of
museum visitors. The survey questions focused on how museum
professionals can encourage their visitors to form lifelong
relationships with museums: visiting in person when they can,
and visiting online when they cannot. The results of the survey
help museum researchers and professionals understand the
complementary, cyclical relationship that exists between digital
and physical museums from a user-centered perspective.
A growing number of researchers are interested in studying
how the many different users of museum resources (museum
visitors and professionals, information providers and consumers)
employ digital museum resources in their everyday lives (White,
2004). Museum professionals today work in a changing
environment where information resources are becoming more
technically-complex, and where the users of those resources
are becoming more information-savvy. Over the past decade,
the needs and expectations of museum visitors have become
increasingly sophisticated, and museum professionals are
increasingly concerned with ensuring that the right information
resources are available to all users, inside and outside the
museum (Marty, Rayward &Twidale, 2003).
To meet the changing needs of their visitors, museum
professionals have dramatically changed the way museum
visitors interact with museum resources. Increased access to
digital collections has removed many traditional barriers
between museums and their visitors, offering new opportunities
for interacting with collections and information resources.
Douma and Henchman (2000), for example, discuss an online
exhibit that allows visitors to digitally “strip away” layers of a
painting (Bellini’s Feast of the Gods), examining earlier
versions using simulated infrared or x-ray lenses. Gillard (2002)
explores how the National Museum of American History’s
HistoryWired project encourages visitors to manipulate a
collection of artifacts, uncovering connections between objects
along temporal, cultural, and thematic lines.
These changes have led museum professionals to express
concerns about the impact new information technologies have
on the relationship between museums and their visitors. Some
worry whether providing online access to digital museum
resources will result in a decrease in visits to physical museums
and a corresponding loss of financial revenue (Haley-Goldman
& Wadman, 2002). In the process of providing access to digital
museum resources, someone usually asks, “if visitors can access
these resources over the Internet, will they still come to the
museum?” The simple answer to this question is “yes, they
will,” and a number of recent surveys have shown that online
visitors are also physical visitors (Kravchyna & Hastings, 2002).
This makes sense; nobody asks, “if people can look at pictures
of beaches online, will they still vacation in Florida?” Similarly,
the ability to access digital museum resources online should in
theory serve as a lure, encouraging potential visitors to come
to the physical museum.
Despite this commonsense approach, worries about the
relationship between physical and digital museum resources
persist. Why? The truth is that these worries have far less to do
with financial remuneration than with understanding how the
users of digital museum resources perceive the integration of
those resources into the sociocultural fabric of their everyday
lives. To understand the relationship between digital and
physical museums, one must ask, “what role do digital museum
resources play in the life of the user of digital museums?”
Framing the question in this manner reflects a shift in
perspective away from the “user in the life of the museum” to
the “museum in the life of the user”—a shift that parallels one
that has taken place in the library and information science
community over the past few decades.
Very little is known about why users seek digital museum
resources or how users integrate digital museum resources into
their everyday lives, despite valuable studies that have explored
what visitors do at museum websites (Thomas & Carey, 2005).
Understanding the relationship between digital museums and
their users becomes critically important as more museums offer
digital resources online, and the number of visitors to online
museums increases to be five to ten times the number of
to physical museums. If one wants to encourage a situation where visitors make museums part of their everyday lives and
feel connected to museums whether they are physically there
or not, there is a need to explore the digital museum in the life
of the user.
To meet this need, this study explored the following research
• What is the role of the digital museum in the life of the
museum visitor?
• How can museums use museum websites to build stronger
relationships with their visitors, before and after a museum
• What needs do digital museum resources meet for museum
users outside the museum?
• When and how do people use museum websites before and
after visiting museums?
• What do visitors prefer to do on museum websites vs. in
the museum, and vice versa?
• How do museum websites influence the visitors’ desire to
visit the museum?
To answer these questions, the researcher developed an online
survey that asked online museum visitors about their use of
digital museum resources before and after museum visits, and
how they integrate digital and physical museum resources in
their everyday lives. The survey was advertised on the websites
of nine different museums, including the Fine Arts Museums
of San Francisco, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the
Australia War Memorial Museum, the Victoria and Albert
Museum, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. From
October 2005 to October 2006, 1464 online visitors responded
to the survey.
The survey results provide valuable insights into the behavior
of visitors to online museums around the world. Certain key
findings from the study are summarized in the following list:
• Online museum visitors consider it very important for
museums to have a website.
• They are very likely to visit a museum’s website before
visiting the museum.
• They are likely to use a museum’s website to determine
whether they want to visit the museum.
• They have strong preferences for what they want to do in
the museum vs. what they want to do using the museum’s
• They are likely to visit the museum’s website after visiting
a museum.
• After leaving a museum, they expect to be able to find the
museum’s website easily, and they rely on the museum’s
website to answer questions about the museum.
• They are likely to establish a relationship where they visit
a museum and its website repeatedly, visiting the museum
when they can, and its website when they cannot.
• They are likely to visit museum websites in their daily life,
independent of planning or returning from a museum visit.
These results indicate that online museum visitors view
museums and museum websites as complementary, and that
digital museum resources are not likely to replace physical
museum resources in the lives of museum visitors. The users
of digital museums are constructing, mostly on their own
initiative, a complicated relationship between digital and
physical museum resources in their own lives. By focusing
solely on the user in the life of the museum, one sees only how
visitors use resources there, not how they make use of all
museum resources, digital and physical, in the museum and
online, in their own lives. Studies of the digital museum in the
life of the user, therefore, are more likely to paint an actual
picture of the complex interactions the users of museum
resources experience at the boundary of physical and digital
This study explores the broader implications of access to digital
culture by addressing the relationship between physical museum
objects and digital information resources. Much of the world’s
cultural resources are located in small museums, historical
societies, and community heritage associations—organizations
that are just now digitizing their collections. Without a solid
understanding of how people use digital museum resources in
their everyday lives, what good does it do those institutions to
create those same resources? If one is to create a sustainable
future for the digital humanities, one must improve the overall
understanding of how individuals use digital information
resources in ways that augment their appreciation and
understanding of physical artifacts and cultural heritage
Cameron, F. "Digital Futures I: Museum Collections, Digital
Technologies, and the Cultural Construction of Knowledge."
Curator 46 (2003): 325-340.
Douma, M., and M. Henchman. "Bringing the Object to the
Viewer: Multimedia Techniques for the Scientific Study of
Art." Museums and the Web 2000: Selected Papers from an
International Conference. Ed. D. Bearman and J. Trant.
Pittsburgh, PA: Archives &Museum Informatics, 2000. 59-64.
Gillard, P. "Cruising Through History Wired." Museums and
the Web 2000: Selected Papers from an International Conference. Ed. D. Bearman and J. Trant. Pittsburgh, PA:
Archives &Museum Informatics, 2002.
Haley Goldman, K., and M. Wadman. "There's Something
Happening Here, What it is ain’t Exactly Clear." Museums and
the Web 2000: Selected Papers from an International
Conference. Ed. D. Bearman and J. Trant. Pittsburgh, PA:
Archives &Museum Informatics, 2002.
Institute of Museum and Library Services. Status of Technology
and Digitization in the Nation’s Museums and Libraries. 2005.
Accessed 2006-10-31. <
Knell, S. "The Shape of Things to Come: Museums in the
Technological Landscape." Museum and Society 1.3 (2003):
Kravchyna, V., and S. Hastings. "Informational Value of
Museum Web Sites." First Monday 7.2 (2002). Accessed
2006-10-31. <
Marty, P.F., W.B. Rayward, and M. Twidale. "Museum
Informatics." Annual Review of Information Science and
Technology 37 (2003): 259-294.
Thomas, W.A., and S. Carey. "Actual/Virtual Visits: What are
the Links? ." Museums and the Web 2005. Ed. D. Bearman and
J. Trant. Toronto, CA: Archives &Museum Informatics, 2005.
White, L. "Museum Informatics: Collections, People, Access,
and Use." Bulletin of the American Society for Information
Science and Technology 30.5 (2004): 9-10.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None