What's the point of museum collections online?

Earlier this week I posted on our developer blog to ask 'what’s your number one question about presenting museum collections online?'.

Merel van der Vaart (@MerelVaart on twitter), who has just finished an internship with the Science Museum's climate change content team, posed an interesting question in response:

"I'm still struggling to decide what the value of online access is. Not  that I think it's bad, but how exactly is it good?"

I tend to think that everyone knows the benefits of online collections – providing access to museum objects and the knowledge around them, to start with – so it's actually a really good question: why are we putting collections online?  Who does it benefit?  Are the benefits clear to others in the museum, and to our audiences?

I can think lots of answers, but the exercise of stopping and examining my automatic response was really useful.  I'm still thinking about the presentation on selling your ideas because  it's made me realise the importance of having answers to questions we'd forgotten might be questions.

3 thoughts on “What's the point of museum collections online?”

  1. Hi Mia
    I was asked a similar question and was similarly struck by the acceptance without necessarily definition. I came up with this.

    Collections, the mainstay of cultural institutions, are contextualised through their association and provenance with communities. Yet, as Pearce, Hooper Greenhill and many others have shown, collections + communities is not enough. For audiences to ‘make meaning’ of cultural content, interpretative techniques were required. These took the forms of exhibition panels, text labels and later, interactive kiosks and public and educational programs.

    The rise of online activity in the sector brought with it the opportunity to create digital content which linked collections and communities though compelling stories told by/and or for audience members. Digital content increasingly took the form of communicating the compelling stories which enabled audiences to ‘make sense’ of exhibition material. In doing so, digital content recogonises audience experiences, providing opportunities for personal stories to form significant part of the process of interpretation.

    You can find the model at

  2. Hi Mia, In response to the question, you may be interested to read a couple of posts from my own blog of 18 months ago. See http://new-additions.blogspot.com/2007/12/feb-2008-special-report-close-museum.html
    and http://new-additions.blogspot.com/2008/03/march-miscellany-and-more-on-museums.html
    Where I talked about online museums at length. I am a collector and find research frustrating when I cannot see a public collection, I also note how poorly designed many online museum searches are.
    Cheers, Don

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