2.1 The use of computers in museums

Interactive computer systems have been used in the museum sector since the 1960s (Economou 1997). Although the first projects merely converted museum records into digital format, over the last thirty years computers have become integral to the running and maintenance of museums. Today, multimedia systems are used in museums to support collection management, administration and the preparation of exhibitions. Increasingly, museums are using multimedia in public displays such as information kiosks, orientation devices, interpretation media, or even main exhibits.

Museum collections are often very complex, dealing with a variety of cultural phenomena. Artefacts and displays can be viewed from many different perspectives; often objects have aesthetic, religious, historical and emotional characteristics, and the museum curator has to try to present the information in a way that makes sense of the complex inter-related links between objects. Multimedia systems provide one tool with which the museum can store and deliver complex cultural information. Different media (text, sound, and the moving image) can be integrated with existing displays and information from external sources, providing a means of disseminating knowledge to the visitor. The interactivity of these displays generally means that the experience is individual to each user; often systems are structured to support different levels of knowledge, and the user is free to navigate through the system at will. Computer installations have the potential to invite active participation from the audience, stimulate interest in a subject, and increase accessibility of collections. Tests have shown that when presented with an interactive multimedia system, the user pays more attention to the existing collection, and recalls more information about the visit afterwards (Economou 1997).

However, although museums have experimented with multimedia, there are many factors that have inhibited the widespread use of technology in museums. Installations usually carry high development and maintenance costs, and require staff training. There is a lack of standards, both in the quality of subject matter and the technicalities of creating a multimedia system, and issues such as copyright need to be considered. It is only as costs of multimedia systems decline and museums become more aware of the potential of such systems that their use will become more widespread. Museums are learning from their experiences, and the standards of electronic displays are improving rapidly.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 29 1999