While the general public may think of museums as large, architecturally spectacular edifices with dramatic, corporatesponsored exhibits, museums see themselves as collections of artifacts that help people understand past and present cultures.
The word "museum" covers a wide range of institutions. The American Association of Museums, a U.S. accreditation organization, includes the following explanation in its definition: "governmental and private museums of anthropology, art history and natural history, aquariums, arboreta, art centers, botanical gardens, children's museums, historic sites, nature centers, planetariums, science and technology centers, and zoos."
The Internet has piqued the imaginations of museum professionals. They see the Internet as a problem-solver: It's a potentially inexpensive way to exhibit more treasures beyond limited space, a way to exhibit certain fragile items, a way to reach young or new audiences and measure existing ones; and a way to expand the market (and revenues) from their shops.
Enhancing Bricks and Mortar
In the U.S. alone, there are between 15,500 and 16,000 museums, according to the American Association of Museums. About 285,000 museums worldwide already use the .museum domain name established in 2001, with at least some online presence. They are listed alphabetically by country and are searchable at the registry site (http:// about.museum/fmd).
There is no official statistic for the number of virtual museums or exhibits in the U.S. or worldwide, but we know that there are thousands of them-and the number is growing rapidly.
Extensive online visits to see the jewels of the art museum world, at such museums as London's Tate, Paris' Louvre, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and St. Petersburg's Hermitage, are available.
Modern art museums with digital and multimedia works open to experimentation are pioneers in mounting online exhibits. Some of these museums are New York's The Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the ZKM (Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, Germany.
According to a 2004 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (http:// www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Virtual_ tours_2004.pdf), 45 percent of American adults (54 million people), almost half of them with college educations and beyond, have taken some kind of virtual tour online. Museums are among the most popular tour destinations for the 2 million people who do so on any given day.
Notable museums with new online offerings include:
* The China Millennium Monument, Beijing, China (http://www.bj2000 .org.cn)
* Netherlands Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (http://www.wdw.nl)
* Smilhsonian Institution's History Wired (http://historywired.si.edu)
The Museum Computer Network's Museum Sites Online (http://www.mcn .edu/resources/sitesonline.htm) links to more than 1,700 international museum and museum-related Web sites, including those mentioned above.
The Virtual Library Museums Pages (http://vlmp.icom.museum) is a distributed directory of museums pages. If you glance through its list of museums (http:// vlmp.icom.museum/lists.html), it will give you an idea of the breadth of museum experiences available to online visitors. But not all of these are completely virtual museums or have entire virtual collections on view.
The Web has been used for exhibits that cannot be shown in other environments and, in conjunction with virtual reality, to reconstruct ancient artifacts too delicate for archaeologists to unearth.
In 1997, a Roman city buried beneath the pastoral English town of Wroxeter was recreated virtually (http://www. virtually historical.com/downloads/952_Wroxeter% 20Roman%20City%202.htm). In 2000, a similar method was used to visualize and distribute the Hawara Labyrinth Pyramid Complex (south of Cairo, Egypt) dating from 1800 B. …