WHAT IS VIRTUOUS AND VIRTUAL?
Given the breadth and length of CMCC’s involvement with the World Wide Web, we have given thought to the question of what this all means for museums, and the relationship of the physical museum and the virtual museum.
Online consultation - architectural designs for the new Canadian War Museum.
Canadian War Museum
The Web site exists to support the museum’s mandate and its strategic goals, and thus reflects the museum’s programmes, services, and products. This does not mean only providing information about the physical installations, however. The fundamental purpose of the museum is to collect material history and to study the collections, thereby creating resources through which the public can learn more about Canada’s heritage. A Web site can fulfill that purpose in a different and complementary fashion compared to exhibitions, print publications, or other conventional outputs. While many of our online exhibitions are mirrors of physical exhibitions presented at the museum, others have been created exclusively for the Web site.
Any museum has limited physical space and limited “show time” for its exhibitions, but a Web site can continue to make the same information available long after an exhibition has been taken down. Its Web site becomes an archive and a long-term reference tool. Since most text and images used to produce a physical exhibition are in digitized formats, it requires relatively little added expense to produce a digital exhibition from the same material. Of course, not all subjects lend themselves to an online treatment, but many do.
The concept of a virtual museum may appear to undermine a fundamental value of museums, in terms of the focus on authentic artifacts that are the objective materials that mediate between the past and our understanding of that past. The concern with “real” versus “simulation” goes to the heart of the museum experience. Yet I think we will all admit that historical artifacts rarely speak clearly or directly. Museums use many aids to help artifacts speak: the Web is simply the latest addition to that toolbox. All historical interpretation involves hypothesis, so virtual museums are not artificial simulations so long as they are infused with accurate images of real historical objects, the authoritative knowledge of curators, and the professional commitment of museums for accuracy and authenticity.
The main challenge to museums from the Web stems from the nature of the Internet as a democratized vehicle for public communication. Any individual with a small amount of training can mount a Web site on some historical subject. While many such efforts are very good, others present biased, inexpert, or even lunatic-fringe interpretations. In the very early days of the Web, there was the virtual Louvre, an initiative of an individual that appeared to be the official Web site of the Louvre. We saw “virtual museums” created as class projects. We saw highly popular subjects, such as the origin of the Egyptian pyramids, given all sorts of unlikely explanations through personal Web sites. We saw extremist viewpoints proliferating on the Web. As a different type of challenge, we have seen the commercial sector present shallow accounts on various historical subjects, in order to entice the public to their sites, and to market products or services.
I believe it is incumbent on institutions dedicated to the dissemination of thorough historical accounts to ensure that the public is supplied with authoritative information of the highest quality. In computer jargon the term “virtual” means realistic, as opposed to real; that is, possessing the virtues of a thing without actually being it. But older uses of this and its related terms, such as virtue and virtuosity, have connotations of excellence and high standards, effectiveness and influence. In this regard I suggest that the virtual world of the Internet is not a landscape alien to museums; it is an extension of their natural environment.