First Monday

The role of museums in online teaching, learning, and research

The role of museums in online teaching, learning, and research by Kenneth Hamma

Considering the role of museums in online teaching, learning, and research we should also address the opportunities of creating sustainable digital resources in a shared environment. In large part this is about good cataloging. Expectations for access online have suggested we also look closely at how the resources are going to be used. This has led us to a definition of the task–oriented user. To address this new model The J. Paul Getty Museum is introducing GettyGuide. The system, with personalization online and personal devices at the Museum, puts everything a visitor may want to know in the palm of his or her hand while at the museum, and also allows users to continue their research elsewhere via As we rethink our strategy of sharing information based on user access, we may finally be approaching a point of useful convergence of technology and the institutional missions of teaching, learning, and research.


Cataloging and user access
Visiting audiences and researching audiences





Museums have traditionally been about conserving, curating and exhibiting works in permanent collections and about presenting special exhibitions. While these activities are the basis of responsible collections management, they are also the key opportunities for education and interpretation. More importantly, they generate income. And they drive resource decisions in the direction of managing physical assets, not in the direction of comprehensive cataloguing, full digitization of collections, and union lists of artists.

It should be no surprise that the number of museums with Web sites is big, but the number that have integrated digital knowledge management functions into their organizations is still relatively small. When we seriously evaluate the potential for a large federated digital library, it is immediately clear that the integrated delivery of digital repositories as learning resources or as parts of a digital library cannot be considered in isolation from the physical needs of the collections being represented. Physical books in the library still require interlibrary loan functions in the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC); physical works of art in the museum still require associated climate conditions and teaching opportunities. These needs remain even though the digital surrogates that support these functions are themselves free for other purposes, which may achieve greater interoperability among libraries, museums, institutional archives, research organizations and digital production groups. How we achieve some greater integration while fully supporting the physical needs and traditional uses of collections is a question that plays out differently for different kinds of institutions, but it is not an issue that can be ignored.

Grounding the creation and maintenance of digital assets in these institutional goals of exhibitions and education, of preservation and interpretation, seems to me to be the key strategic opportunity for museums that will lead to full participation in digital libraries of the future. So, with an eye to the bigger picture, sustainable digital resources in a shared environment, what can be the role of museums in online teaching, learning and research?



Cataloging and user access

In 1997 the Getty made available its first interactive system for visitors to the museum [1]. The underlying concept was simple: create full data sets on works in the collection, store the data sets in one standards compliant and open architected place, and make them available in real time on networked terminals in the museum in an easy to use interface that makes the data sets look like fully produced and composed narratives on the collections. The emphasis from the beginning was more on creating a well–modeled data repository around the collections than it was on creating media and media experiences.

We did that, and in the process discovered that the greater part of the work was and remains fundamentally good cataloging: cataloging of objects, makers, subjects, techniques, etc. See Figure 1 below.

Figure 1

We relied on and continue to rely on the capacity of data to be changed and added to in order to grow content and keep things up to date over time. From 1996 to 2003 the system grew from about 2,000 to about 5,000 objects; from about 50 minutes of video to almost 60 hours of video; from 900 to about 3,000 artists; from about 30 treatments of subjects, periods and schools to dozens. Are we unusual in having accumulated these resources? I don’t think so, but perhaps in that we have them as well indexed and distributable digital assets rather than as video cassettes, slides in plastic binders, typed or hand–written central file sheets. And we rely on the capacity of data to be redirected to additional publishing venues to create, for example, the collections online. One year after this system was live in the galleries, the content was also published to the Web site. This is a sample of what that looked like in 1999 (Figure 2).

Figure 2

While we thought a lot about good cataloging, we also spent a lot of time realigning the organizational chart and resource allocation to support digital resources, frequently in place of print. But there were two important things we did not think about.

We did not think about our work in a generic way as building capacity for the Big Digital Library. Digital Library initiatives have been closely conceived on physical libraries instead of on more generic knowledge management models; they have been appropriately concerned with conceptual models for data, but have missed the connection with implementation in production environments that museums have created. The kinds of interpretive resources museums generally are interested in have had no obvious place in a federated digital library.

And we did not think a lot about how the resources were going to be used; we were so focused on building the teaching and learning resources that we neglected the users who we assumed would, well, just use these things in teaching and learning.

First to the users. Since 1997 we have been interviewing users, analyzing statistical use data, and convening focus groups from among several user communities, and have been astonished to find a large and very articulate audience whose voice we have been too long ignoring. They said, and were quite single minded about this: "It is not about you the Getty or you the project managers, and it is not about the kinds of digital access you are providing. It is about us. More specifically it is about me, one individual visitor, one system user; and about how I want to use what you’ve got."

As we worked with many visitors and users, in every single case we realized that the how can be described as task–oriented. (If I had read more books by Clayton Christiensen, as that mentioned by Mr. Liroff yesterday [2], I would have the advantage of the analogy of "hiring a milkshake." But task–oriented seems to serve us well as a term in our evaluation matrix.) People do not come to the Getty or its Web site without expectation, without a goal of some sort. There is no such thing as a general visitor, no such thing as someone just browsing through the online collections. In fact, we realized that using the term "general visitor" mainly let us avoid defining the group.

This was a revelation. As stunningly obvious as it sounds, we were stopped in our tracks when we realized that no one comes to or to the Getty to hang out and be general. We are creating a whole new set of guidelines that describe not only what our audiences want but how they want it — I want it so I can do research, I want it so I can plan a visit, I want it so I can teach my class.




Among other things, this now means that the technology is less about us and more about the visitor. Content developed since 1996 is being migrated into a new interface we call GettyGuide [3] that is literally small, personal, and designed to be with and respond to individuals whenever they want, wherever they are. This rethinking of technology starts with replacing the generic audio guide with this personal guide seen in Figure 3 below. It puts everything each visitor needs to know literally in his or her hands.

Figure 3

This device knows where the visitor is—so when he or she walks into the photography gallery W102 the handheld presents an overview (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

The visitor may select to hear that or may select from the photographs presented here in the same sequence as they are on the wall. The visitor can also bookmark any work of art and the system keeps a running list of works to find out more about, to come back to look at again, or to e–mail to someone else for their visit. When a visitor sits down at one of the more traditional kiosks scattered around the museum (Figure 5),

Figure 5

bookmarks are automatically loaded so that they become a personal user interface to the collections (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Select the bookmark and there’s the photograph we were looking at earlier, now in a rich context of related works, subjects, artists (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Go home or anywhere else with Web access and there are the bookmarks made while in the galleries. Walk through the visit again, rearrange by adding and deleting, or print copies for a classroom assignment or for other group visit. And for the collections online, anyone can make and keep his or her new bookmarks in the same context (Figure 8).

Figure 8

Let’s say instead of French interiors, which seemed so appealing in the museum, we’ve conceived a passion for dogs in art. Look for dogs as subject, and collect them by clicking "add to my Getty bookmarks." Save them for future use. Pick up a handheld guide next time in the museum and there is the personal tour on dogs in art (Figure 9).

Figure 9



Visiting audiences and researching audiences

As we worked out the needs of visitors in this way, it gradually became clear how inadequate this is for research in the collection. When the activity model is research rather than a gallery visit, this interface and architecture is only a roadblock to quick access to information. Moreover, the information itself does not include bibliography and exhibition history. Nor is the scope comprehensive.

When providing access is about satisfying users’ task needs, it is no longer about a simple online catalogue, but about visiting and about research. So, we will return to the well–catalogued data repository to see if it can support two separate collection publications: for a visiting audience, that is the activity–based publishing we’ve just looked at, and separately for a research audience.

The comprehensive central–file–type publishing is closely connected with and delivered through, of all places, the library. I am showing you the OPAC interface here in Figure 10; the software for this might more likely be an aggregating tool like Encompass or even the Web content management system.

Figure 10

I think some wrong–headedness about repurposing digital assets got us into the one size fits all mistake. This dual approach very closely parallels what we have always done in museum practice. No one has ever expected scholars to be happy with the label next to an object in the gallery. They have had and always will have access to files, publications, correspondence, etc. Further, providing the research view of the collections in the midst of other online research resources takes advantage of the traditional role of the library and takes advantage of well–developed digital resource models that already exist there. A search for Madonna and Child could just as easily find paintings in the Museum collections as books in the library or photographs in the archive.

For the museum, this will almost certainly mean providing a view of its data repository that swims well with library and archival resources, and we will work with the research librarians to define that, probably as a simple XML equivalent of existing data. It could well look like this — with live internal links to among other things books in the library from the bibliography references (see Figure 11).

Figure 11

The bar is raised a bit for everyone. But so also are the opportunities. We will have good opportunities to do cross–institution collection level records, shared authority files, and, to the end of more comprehensive and more precise resource discovery, our own internal metadata harvesting and record or HTML page tagging. None of the tasks associated with this will be trivial, but at least we are coming to a framework for shared goals in a common production environment.




In thinking about the learning resources as well as about a more comprehensive digital library, we have spent a lot of time looking at how we can or do share data, we’ve discussed data formats and standards while they have changed out from underneath us, we’ve wondered how to achieve interoperability among disparate business systems and data repositories. We’ve been asking questions like these: Am I a library? A museum? How do I work well with other libraries? Other museums?

As we rethink our strategy based on user access, the user who says my task is visiting or my task is research, the direction but not the purpose of our work fundamentally changes. We are not permitting institutional needs and cataloging peccadilloes of libraries, archives and museums to define our work. We have turned our heads a bit to look at the millions of people who just want access to what we’ve got.

We may be getting finally to a point of useful convergence while we rethink data and technology issues fully and completely as elements of the institutional mission in teaching, learning and research. End of article


About the Author

Kenneth Hamma is Assistant Director for Collections Information at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Senior Advisor for Information Policy for the J. Paul Getty Trust. As Senior Advisor he oversees the management of the Getty Trust Web site,, as well as strategic planning and funding for information management across all Getty programs in art collecting, conservation and research as well as philanthropy. As Assistant Director in the Museum he oversees the creation, maintenance and use of digital resources in the Museum’s public and scholarly activities. This includes oversight of the departments of Information and Media Systems, Photo Services, Digital Media, Interactive Programs and Information Planning. From 1987 until 1996 he was Associate Curator of Antiquities for the Getty Museum. Prior to that, he was Associate Professor of Greek and Roman archaeology at the University of Southern California and Associate Director of the Princeton Archaeological Expedition to Marion, Cyprus. He has published on Greek and Roman art, on classical theater production, and on resource discovery for cultural heritage online. He holds advanced degrees from Stanford and Princeton.



1. K. Hamma, 2004. "Setting the Stage for Interaction; Interactive Narrative and Integrated Applications in a Museum," In: Heide Hagebölling (editor). Interactive Dramaturgies: New Approaches in Multimedia Content and Design. New York: Springer–Verlag.

2. C. Christensen and M. Raynor, 2003. The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

3. Case study documentation in D. Marshak, 2003. J. Paul Getty Museum Re–Architects Technology to Enhance Visitors’ Experience, Patricia Seybold Group.

Editorial history

Paper received 31 March 2004; accepted 19 April 2004.

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Kenneth Hamma

The role of museums in online teaching, learning, and research by Kenneth Hamma
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 5 - 3 May 2004