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A short introduction to the history of Teylers museums online collection

By Fransje Pansters

Teylers Museum is the best preserved public institute for art and science of the 18th century world. The founders wanted to bring together all available knowledge about arts and sciences, as a microcosm of the world. It opened its doors to the public in 1784. People could come to the museum to read books and look at prints and drawings, but also to attend scientific demonstrations or listen to lectures. Throughout the 19th century Teylers Museum was an important knowledge institution. Today, the collection objects and stories are also accessible online.

Museum professionals have been interested in the application of digital media in the museum space for quite some time. In 1991, five years before the breakthrough of the Internet,[1] the first conference dedicated to multimedia in museums was organised.[2] Among multimedia, the introduction and use of a digital collection registration system were understood, as well as the application of digital media in the physical museum space, such as audiotours. Later on, the possibilities of the Internet were discussed as well. Early researchers interested in museums and technology were Glen Hoptman[3] and Werner Schweibenz.[4] Both Hoptman and Schweibenz have presented their ideas from the 1990s onwards in several articles and on international conferences such as Museums and the Web.[5] This blog post takes their ideas of the Virtual Museum and the development of museums’ presence on the web as a starting point to explore the history of the Teylers Museum online collection.

Why are museums online?

Like Teylers Museum, most museums are public institutions, partially funded with public money. Relatedly, part of their mission is to make the collection available for an audience. Presenting the collection in the online environment can be seen as an extension of this public duty and moreover, as a way of serving a growing online audience. In 2013, the Teylers Museum website was visited by 198,473 people (unique visits), versus approximately 116,000 onsite visitors (people who visited the museum in Haarlem). Although it may seem obvious, it is important to stress that online is a real world, where real people interact with each other. It is an important place for information and knowledge exchange. Online, the Teylers Museum collection is available for anyone with an Internet connection. Furthermore, because physical restrictions such as space are less pressing online, the collection can (ideally) be shown in its completeness.[6]

Teylers1

Virtual representation of the Instruments hall at Teylers Museum.

The Virtual Museum

In 1992, four years before the Internet was commonly used, a first definition was given to describe the presence of museums in the virtual world of the Internet. Museum professional Glen Hoptman saw the rise of digital media and the Internet as a great way to connect different kinds of digital information with the aim of offering context. At the time, this had not been possible by means of traditional, analogue media. Hoptman called this concept the Virtual Museum[7]. Four years later, in 1996, Schweibenz takes Hoptmans concept of the Virtual Museums as point of departure for describing the development of museum websites as a result of the rise of the Internet. Schweibenz defines the Virtual Museum as:

“a logically related collection of digital objects composed in a variety of media […] because of its capacity to provide connectedness and various points of access, it lends itself to transcending traditional methods of communication and interacting with the visitor being flexible toward their needs and interests; it has no real place or space, its objects and the related information can be disseminated all over the world.”[8]

Today, this concept of interconnectedness of information and objects is still applicable, as it is what most museums strive for when making their collection available online. Through technical innovation of the Internet, new ways to connect and relate digital information have been and still are being invented. The concept of the Virtual Museum shows that the possibilities of connecting digital information have been well understood by museum professionals since the early 1990s. However, inserting these ideas into daily museum practice was and still is quite challenging. For unlocking collections online, museums highly depend on the way their collection is digitized. Common digitization issues concern the quality and completeness of the collection’s registration and description in a digital database and the availability of high-resolution images free of copyright. The information collected in digital museum databases is the key ingredient of any online collection. For Teylers Museum, as for many other museums, the upkeep of this information is an on-going process and a time-consuming job. At Teylers Museum, all sub-collections are registered in a digital database and an in-house photo studio is working on the digitization of the collection on a daily basis. The output and presentation of information in the online collection is constantly changing as new technologies emerge, for example optimizing search possibilities, connecting related information and user-interaction possibilities. There are many ways in which information can be presented online and museums are increasingly searching for and experimenting with new ways of online curating and storytelling. Like in the physical museum space, the Virtual Museum is constantly reshaping.

Five stages of museum on the Web

In 2004 Schweibenz published an article in ICOM News Magazine[9], in which he explains the development of Virtual Museums. In the article he describes five stages of museums’ presence on the web since the early 1990s. The virtual museum is only one of such stages. According to Schweibenz we have first known the Brochure Museum, than the Content Museum, after that the Learning Museum, and finally the Virtual Museum. Currently, we are heading towards the Memory Institution. The development of the stages largely coincides with developments of the Internet in general. Teylers Museum is an interesting case study in regard to these five stages, as the several museum websites all relate to them to a greater or lesser extent. Teylers Museum was on top of new developments, being among the first museums in the Netherlands to launch its own website. This it did in 1996, along with the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Between 1996 and 2013, Teylers Museum has known three websites and a new one is currently being developed.

Teylers2

The first Teylers Museum website homepage (first Internet Archive capture is from 1998). It holds the middle ground between Brochure- & Content Museum.

From Brochure Museum to Content Museum

According to Schweibenz, the first museum websites can be seen as Brochure Museums, mainly presenting text-based information. The first Teylers Museum website was launched in 1996 and conforms to this concept as it was mainly used as a digital flyer to inform the audience about opening hours and exhibitions. The content presented was mainly textual. However, the website also had some features of the Content Museum, offering information about the collection in general and succinct descriptions of specific collection objects. The first website took the visitor by hand and described the different sub-collections per hall, as they were presented in the museum, copying the physical world into the digital space and using the museum building as starting point for the user-narrative and user-experience. In 1996, all five sub-collections were provided online with a brief description. Only the most important, interesting or beautiful pieces of each sub-collection were described in more detail, including a picture. This concept hasn’t changed much over time although ever more information became available, along with more pictures in higher resolution.

Teylers6

Teylers Museum website, 2002. This page explains the online collection themes.

Learning Museum

In 2002 a new museum website was launched in which descriptions of the sub-collections were enriched with stories that served as a kind of bridge. Users could explore the collection from various points of departure, such as the objects in general, objects per museum hall, based on collection stories, themes or people who greatly influenced the coming into existence of the collection. This more or less storytelling and conceptual point of departure fits Schweibenz’s description of the Learning Museum. Schweibenz defines it as a museum website that is mainly focussed on presenting contextual information about the collection, suited to different types of users with the aim of preparing them for an actual museumvisit. At first, many museum professionals feared this approach. If all objects were available online, why would people still visit the physical museum? By now it is clear that visiting experiences online and onsite differ greatly and hardly compete with each other.[10] As Koven Smith, Director of Technology of the Denver Art Museum, has put it:

“Online collections are terrible at replacing the experience of seeing an object in person, but seeing an object in person is a terrible way of communicating lots of information”.[11]

In 2009 Teylers Museum launched a new website, relating once more to the Learning Museum. This website still is the Teylers Museums current website. In comparison with the 2003-website, the online collection was approached differently. Stories about the background of the Teylers Museum and its history no longer form the leading framework, though they are still available. Instead, the collection took a more factual approach as it is presented by its five sub-collections.[12] Each sub-collection displays its most important or valuable objects: the highlights. The scope of these highlights has broadened over time. Currently, all online collection highlight-items are represented by clear images in high resolution and most objects are provided with a short, textual description.[13] The entire collection is available with the search button.

Virtual Museum
A first attempt towards a Virtual Museum was made in 2010 when a separate website called Teylers Universum was launched. This website transformed the storytelling approach of the online collection of the former Teylers Museum website (2003) into a new format. Teylers Universum aims at establishing cross-references between various collections. By wandering through the museum’s stories, you can trace the relationships between the collections, the building and all manner of visitors and leading figures. At the same time, background information is provided on phenomena of 18th and 19th cenury collection, scientific experiment and charity, which gives a glimpse into the museum practice at the time. Though accompanied by lots of images, the information presented is highly text-oriented and navigation can be puzzling. More importantly, it turned out rather difficult to make the online audience aware of the existence of this separate collection website. Although the content presented is of great value, the website soon became outdated.

Teylers3

Teylers Universum homepage.

Teylers4

Teylers Museum website, 2009. Online collection overview of Fine Arts.

From Virtual Museum to Memory Institution

Along with the Virtual Museum concept, museum experts still see the potential of future museum websites and online collections in connecting objects from different institutions (museums as well as libraries and archives).[14] The Teylers Universum website is a first attempt at doing this for sub-collections within the same institution, but it does not reach out beyond its own institutional borders. On a national and European level, platforms such as Europeana[15] and Wikipedia make an effort to realise this. Teylers Museum is participating in both Wikipedia and Europeana by sharing several digital images of collection items. Online, they are being combined with objects from other cultural organisations, aiming at realising a virtual European or even international museum.

In 2004, Schweibenz predicted that such connections among different institutions and collections will become highly important as they are the perfect way for museums to live up to their duty of making collections and information available. As a result, Schweibenz states that (online) museums will slowly transform from Cultural Institutions to Memory Institutions. According to Schweibenz, Memory Institutions are institutions that combine “digital surrogates of the collections of archives, libraries and museums in rich interactive environments and [allow] access to the content regardless of the nature of the institution. The goal of the memory institution is to preserve this content for future generations and support its use and management over time.”[16]

Today, many cultural institutions strive to make the entire collection available online.[17] As more objects are made available online, it becomes more urgent to find a format for digital curating that prevents the online collections from becoming an incomprehensible jungle of information. Making an online collection interesting and engaging for an audience can be done, for instance, by focussing on a thematic approach and by developping a digital storytelling approach using audiovisual media.

Teylers5

In 2012 the online collection was connected to the digital collection registration system. This is an overview of the online collection devided by themes, as it looks today.

New technologies are changing user behaviour
As is often thought, the fast-changing digital world is not only about changes in technology itself.[18] More importantly, technology is changing our behaviour and interaction with information. The kind of device we use influences our user behavior and user experience.[19] Analytic numbers show that people visiting a website by smartphone spend less time on site than people visiting the website by tablet. Actually, tablet users spend the most time on websites, probably because the device is portable and easy to use in leisure time, while mobile phones are used while being on the go, asking for quick, well-arranged information. In response to these changing user behaviours, we should focus more on how technology and devices are being used and adjust to that. Whatever the medium, the first encounter with the collection should be quick, engaging and entertaining.

A great example of a collaborative audiovisual storytelling approach and its success, is the video platform ArtTube.[20] ArtTube provides short and highly informative movies, dedicated to art and design. A great example of a platform reaching out to a more general audience is MET Connections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art asked several staff members to present their personal perspective on obejcts from the vast collection.[21] This resulted in a variety of audiovisual stories by different voices in which specific topics, themes or concepts connect different kinds of collection objects.

Conclusion
This blog post took Hoptmans and Schweibenz’s ideas of the development of museums’ presence on the web as starting point to explore the history of the Teylers Museum online presence. The online museum stages towards a virtual museum have mainly developed in parallel with each other and hand in hand with technical developments of the Internet and the Web. In short, the fist Teylers Museum website holds middle ground between Schweibenz’s conception of the Brochure Museum and the Content Museum. The second as well as the third website relate to the key points of the Learning Museum. Teylers Museum made first steps towards what Schweibenz calls the Virtual Museum and the Memory Institution, by participating in European collection sharing platforms such as Europeana and by developing several project websites such as Teylers Universum, alongside the official museum website. Ever more objects became available with longer descriptive texts along with images in high(er)-resolution. Future trends lie in focusing on the audience and how they make use of certain devices. There are unexplored ways for digital curating and -storytelling by use of audio-visual media, to share engaging stories about the museum and it’s collection whose are suited to the needs and interest of a specific audience that is increasingly spending leisure time online. Other than broadcasting information, the museum is increasingly seeking dialogue with their onsite and online visitors. Doing so, the online environment functions as a great addition to the physical museum.

References:

Bowen, Bennett & Johnson. (1998). Virtual Visits to Virtual Museums. Presentation on Museums and the Web Conference. Retrieved November 2013 from: http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw98/papers/bowen/bowen_paper.html

Difference between the Internet and the Web: http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/networking/19/314

Finnis, J, Malade, S., Kennedy, A., Ridge, M., Villaespesa, E., Chan, S. (2012). Report form the Culture24 Action Research Project. Let’s Get Real. Phase 2: A journey towards understanding and measuring digital engagement. Retrieved November 2013 from: http://weareculture24.org.uk/projects/action-research/

Hoptman, Glen H. (1992). The Virtual Museum and Related Epistemological Concerns. In: Schweibenz (1998). The “Virtual Museum”: New Perspectives For Museums to Present Objects and Information Using the Internet as Knowledge Base and Communication System. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT-Press, pp. 141-159.

Hoptman, Glen, H. President of Lightbeam Group & Studio. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/bios/au_110011483.html or http://www.linkedin.com/pub/glen-hoptman/0/17/315

Open Universiteit. Inleiding in de Communicatietechnologie. Leereenheid 2: internet en world wide web. Retrieved December 2013 from: http://www.ou.nl/Docs/Opener/Inf/Communicatietechnologie/leereenheid_2.pdf

Schweibenz, Werner. (1998). The “Virtual Museum”: New Perspectives For Museums To Present Objects and Information Using the Internet as a Knowledge Base and Communication System. In: Zimmermann, Harald H & Schramm, Volker ed. (1998). Knowledge Management und Kommunikationssysteme. Workflow Management, Multimedia, Knowledge Transfer. Proceedings des 6. Internationalen Symposiums für Informationswissenschaft (ISI’98, Prague 3-7 November 1998).

Schweibenz, Werner. (2004). The development of virtual museums.  In: ICOM News no 3, 2004, p. 3. Retrieved November 2013 from: http://icom.museum/media/icom-news-magazine/icom-news-2004-no3/

Schweibenz, Werner. (2012). Museum exhibitions, the real and the virtual ones: an account of a complex relationship. In: Uncommon Culture, vol 3, 2012, pp. 39-52.

Websites

ArtTube: http://www.arttube.nl/en

DISH. Conference on Digital Strategies in Heritage. http://dish2013.nl/

Europeana platform: http://www.europeana.eu/

ICOM. International Council of Museums. http://icom.museum/

MetConnections: http://www.metmuseum.org/connections/

Teylers Museum website: http://www.teylersmuseum.nl

Teylers Universum: http://teylersuniversum.nl/

The Way Back Machine: http://archive.org/web/


[1] There is an important difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web, in short: the Web. The Internet is a network of computers. This network is a way of transporting content (information). The web is software that lets you use that content. It’s a network of linked web pages and the graphical interface of the Internet (a web-browser for example). The Web was invented in 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee. This was a huge breakthrough in the use of the Internet, because in the beginning of the Internet around the 1960s, information was only accessible for those who could understand the coding language. Around 1996 the Web took off and many websites were made. In: Introductie in de communicatie technologie, Open Universiteit, p.27.

[2] This was the International Conference on Hypermedia in Museums (ICHIM). In: Schweibenz, 1998, p. 379.

[3] Glen Hoptman is producer of the Lightbeam Group & Studio and started his involvement in the use of electronic media, education and museums in the early 1970s. He was selected as one of the top multimedia developers in the country and was working on several Web-based content initiatives and services since the early days of the Internet. In 2000 he was one of the speakers at the Museums and the Web Conference. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/bios/au_110011483.html

[4] Schweibenz is currently Deputy Head of MusIS Museum Information System, University of Konstanz, Germany. Furthermore, Schweibenz is coordinator for BAM, the joint portal for libraries, archives and museums in Germany. He studied linguistics and information science at the University of Saarland, Germany and the University of Missouri, Columbia, USA. His PhD thesis in information sciences (published in 2008) described the transition process from the traditional to the virtual museum. His research interests are virtual museums and user-centered information design.

[5] In 1997 the first Museums and the Web Conference (MW) was held. With 400 representatives attending the conference, it was called a success. In: Bowen, Bennett & Johnson, 1998. Meanwhile MW has grown into an annual conference, with representatives from museums all over the world, to discuss topics related to museums and digital media.

[6] Ideally and in theory, the entire collection can be shown online. In practice however, this turns out to be a goal that cannot be reached on a short-term basis.

[7] “The concept of the Virtual Museum was continually refined of the course of my work in the founding of what was the National Demonstration Laboratory for Interactive Educational Technologies, the Research Consortium and subsequently as Consulting Coordinator for Technology Initiatives and Experimental Publishing at the Smithsonian Institution” In: Hoptman, 1992, pp. 142.

[8] Hoptman, 1992, p. 146 In: Schweibenz, 1998

[9] ICOM stands for International Council of Museums. ICOM News is a magazine for museum professionals providing the reader with reports, articles and interviews with museum experts as well as practical information. http://icom.museum/media/icom-news-magazine/

[10] Schweibenz, 2012, Museum exhibitions – the real and the virtual ones: an account of a complex relationship, p. 49 In: Uncommon Culture, volume 3 issue 5/6, 2012.

[11] Smith, April 30 2012, in a reaction on the blog post ‘Museum collections and the rhetoric gap’ by Susan Cairns (PhD University of Newcastle)

[12] fine arts (drawing, painting and sculpture), fossils and minerals, coins and tokens, scientific instruments and the library.

[13] On the external website http://instrumenten.teylersmuseum.nl/ all Instruments from the Teylers Museum collection are presented. The Instruments sub-collection page on the Teylers Museum website gives a direct link to this webpage.

[14] Connecting collections of institutions and collaboration is a recurring topic on conferences such as DISH13. DISH: Digital Strategies for Heritage is a biannual conference organized in the Netherlands.

[15] Europeana is a multi-lingual online collection of millions of digitized items from European museums, libraries, archives and multi-media collections, with procedures for content sharing. The objects that are shared in Europeana include images, texts, sounds and videos. http://www.europeana.eu/portal/aboutus.html

[16] Schweibenz, 2004, The development of virtual museums, ICOM News

[17] Looking at museum missions from museums in the Netherlands, in general they are striving to make their collection available to a wide audience. As online contributes to the experience of and engagement with the collection, it can be seen as a virtual extension of the onsite museum mission.

[18] Though changes in technology are important.

[19] After Jane Finnis, (Chief Executive of Culture24 and Project Lead of the Action Research Project) as she explains in the foreword of the Let’s Get Real Action Research Project 2 ‘A journey towards understanding and measuring digital engagement. http://weareculture24.org.uk/projects/action-research/

[20] ArtTube is a collective video platform of five museums in the Netherlands and Flanders: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, M HKA Antwerp, Gemeentemuseum The Hague, De Pont in Tilburg and Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

[21] https://www.metmuseum.org/connections/about-connections. Credits: Thomas P. Campbell is executive director of MetConnections, Theresa Lai producer, and Christopher Noey, director.

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3 Comments

  1. iljajj says:

    Nice, extensive overview, although it sounds somewhat partisan to me. Having spent a lot of time on various Teyler sites, I can recall how particularly the 2002 site was an absolute pig to work with – the horrors of an absolute choice between either a purely flash-driven or a barebones plain text site still were unnecessary at the time.
    And although that’s been remedied since, it points to the traditional achilles’ heel of Teyler’s web efforts. The challenges for the coming years are not so much in the museological approach (in which Teyler has traditionally done quite well), but rather in technical know-how and innovation (where its track record is decidedly less rosy). For instance, the instruments site is a wonderful effort, but is marred by olf-fashioned interaction design; and most of Teyler’s online presence is still not suited for mobile use *in* the museum itself.

  2. Fransje Pansters says:

    Hi there,

    Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right that it is a challenge to keep up with fast chaning technologies to make sure websites such as the Instruments site based on Flash technology, don’t run outdated in software and/or interaction design. However, as the internet and technology is ever changing, this is inevitable to happen at some point. Still, we are working on keeping-up with our online platforms on a daily basis. There’s wifi in the museum and the new website we are currently developing will be user-oriented and suitable for mobile, aiming at better connecting the onsite and online museum experience. Until then I hope you keep enjoying wandering one of our museum sites every now and then! 🙂

    Best,
    Fransje

  3. Bobby says:

    Good over view. The information shared in this post is really helpful to us to find the best. The subheadings shared in this post is interesting and useful to the researchers. Keep sharing more information about the gallery information in the upcoming posts too.

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