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Rethinking Research

Charles S. Rhyne
Reed College

Introduction to the session on
The Immense Potential of Museum Web Sites for Research

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
March 16-19, 1997
Los Angeles, California



Good morning and welcome to this session in which we shall be exploring the immense potential of museum web sites for research. We are delighted to be following Eleanor Fink's inspiring keynote address, especially as we have five challenging presentations on web sites that are pioneering many of the directions she foresees.

Participation of the Public in Research

This session is not simply a gathering of submitted papers but was put together and the speakers invited to explore what we see as a major direction for museums web sites in the future - the use of the internet for in-depth research by the full spectrum of public users, including the most advanced scholars. To date, this has been developed by only a few pioneering museums, but we believe it will become a public expectation and a challenge we will all have to meet. As we become aware of the wealth of behind-the-scenes information and objects in public museums, the public will, quite rightly, expect access and will demand the right to participate in the study and interpretation of these objects and information. The public will no longer accept the role of passive receivers of information but will want to observe the research process and to participate in the creation of new content.

       This opens up dramatic possibilities for society, for it is life affirming and life enhancing to be involved in exploring the meaning of our past and present through the study of our cultural heritage, and through this to be involved in charting our cultural future.

Rethinking the Concept of Research

In preparing our papers, we have attempted to rethink the nature of research and of the important role of museums in facilitating it. What do we mean by research? Fully understood, research is a universal human activity. When we look up a number in the phone book, even when a child asks the name of a neighbor, we are engaging in research. But we do not consider this advanced research because this information is already known by many other people and is readily available through easily available sources. There is then a broad spectrum of research activity, from student research for high school reports, to docent research for exhibition tours, to structural research when designing a bridge. At the extreme of this spectrum research involves information and ideas that have not previously been available, in some cases not previously known by any other human being. The reconstruction of historical events, the discovery of new phenomena of nature, and new interpretations of any of these is advanced research at its most specialized. Is this a justifiable area for museum web sites? Not only justifiable we think, but essential.

       We all benefit from the wealth of new information and ideas flowing from advanced research in all fields, and museums house the evidence on which much of this research depends. Museums are responsible not just for the preservation and display of their collections, but also for their study and interpretation. Thus curators, conservators and other museum professionals are leading participants in advanced research, some hold joint appointments, and some museums are themselves part of research institutes or universities.

The Concept of Content

One of the reassuring themes in nearly all recent discussions of web sites has been the emphasis on content. Worded in hundreds of different ways, document after document emphasizes that the initial fascination with inventive design and interactive manipulation (important as they are) will, in the long run, not substitute for the content people are seeking, whether text, images, or sound. But here also we need to clarify the concept we are discussing, because everything on every web site is content. It is not the existence of content that needs recognition but its nature. It is the accuracy, the depth, the range, quality, and relevancy of that content with which we should be concerned. Most importantly for this session, it is not just the provision of content, not even just the reformatting of content for new exhibitions and publications (important as this surely is), but the creation of new content for which museum web sites hold such untapped potential. Without this, as the creation of web sites is forcing museums to recognize, there is nothing to reformat.

Too Specialized?

There is a widespread misconception that advanced research is the preserve of an academic and professional elite, with needs too specialized and too remote from the public to deserve the major space they would require on the web sites of public institutions. This is a tragic misunderstanding that fails to recognize all the bright students in colleges and graduate schools preparing reports and term papers on original subjects, not to mention the thousands of graduate theses being researched and written every year, for which original discovery and interpretation is of course a requirement. This widespread misconception also underestimates the serious interest and frequent specialized expertise of the public. Even focusing on advanced research, there are members of the public who are expert on every conceivable topic, often with specialized information on specific objects, not in the files of any museum or known to the relevant curators. Web sites have begun to give the public opportunities for feedback, but people can only feed back information and ideas related to content provided. Think of the amount of specific information out there (related objects, past owners, in situ photographs) ready to be freely provided, if only we will make our collections available.

Advantages of Web Sites

By good fortune, the full spectrum of research information, from the dates of current exhibitions to detailed conservation reports, can coexist happily on a single museum site. One of the most striking advantages of web sites over hardcopy publication is the comprehensive content that can be accessed through a single web site, organized in such a way that the information sought by one researcher need not intrude on researchers looking for entirely different levels of information. With hardcopy publication, when we pick up a slim introductory guide book, a dense text book, or a large coffee-table book, we know immediately what type and level of information to expect. When we wish to move to a different type or level of information on some aspect of the subject, we must find an entirely different book, but we may not know where to look. On the web, we can browse introductory material when we like or go quickly to indepth information (if it is there), and we can move easily from one to the other.

       The web has the potential to make available comprehensive information on all aspects of museum collections and activities, at all levels of detail and specialization, simultaneously. Browsing such sites, we can be introduced to areas of the museum which we did not even know existed, for favorite objects we can discover new types of information, and we can pursue advanced research in areas of our special expertise.

       I hope it is clear that, while in this session we focus on the immense potential of museum sites for advanced research, we see this as densely interconnected with all other levels of research and indeed with all other uses of the entire Internet.

Differernt Disciplines, Different Needs

This session is based on the premise that different disciplines often have different research needs, needs that can be undervalued or even unrecognized by other disciplines or by information specialists, but which are essential to work in particular disciplines, whether anthropology, paintings conservation, or medical testing. For this reason, I have invited scholars from a variety of disciplines to present papers in this session. The five experts in this session represent not only different disciplines but also different types of institutions, and different roles within these institutions. None is primarily a computer expert, but each of us is deeply involved with uses of digital information, with museums and the Internet.

       I have suggested that each of us present aspects of existing museum web sites that have proved useful for work in our disciplines, describe how museums might more richly provide for the research needs of their diverse audiences, and speculate on the long-term potential of the Internet as a means for us all to share ideas and to engage in cooperative scholarship.

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