Museum websites: From virtual museum to museum online

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In the 1980s and 1990s, museum websites were referred to as virtual museums or hyper-museums. These terms were developed to distinguish between the real and the vitual, and the two were seen as very seperate entities. Today however, these websites are now referred to as the museum online, with museums using websites as an extension to their physical format, and as valuable online resources.

These online resources range from collection archives to school activities, from games to video documentaries. The Natural History Museum, for example, has a range of videos which tackle contemporary museum issues. These resources allow for museums to deal with their visitors in new ways, and the more entertaining these websites are, the longer people will interact with the content.

With this shift has come a major change in the role of media staff within the museum. No longer are Webmasters mere IT support workers; they now contribute to a vast array of museum activities. Dr Paul Marty, in his paper ‘The Changing Role of the Museum Webmaster: Past, Present and Future’ discusses this issue. Museums are now employing New Media Editors, Interactive Media Managers and Heads of Digital Resources to meet these demands. No longer are webmasters required to simply have good technical skills, but they are now integrated into the museum as a whole, being involved with project planning and information structuring. These individuals need to mediate between the museum and the public, and between management and the technology. As Marty states:

As the design of the museum web site becomes more complex and more interactive, museum Webmasters find themselves needing a broader spectrum of skills: not just technical skills, but analytical abilities to determine user needs as well.

So what does this all mean for museum staff structures in the future? Will the era of digitalisation require all museum professionals to work in both the physical museum and the online museum in order to reach the desired audiences? And what about small museums with a limited budget and staff base?

There is a fear that online museums are replacing the real- but is this justified? With museums striving to be user-centred, and with the posibilities online technologies offer, only time will tell.

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