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Anthropology Museums Online

John Hoopes


The growth of the World Wide Web has provided a valuable new tool for anthropology museums to address institutional goals ranging from public education to collections management and focused research. Most major museums have well developed web sites that provide basic information about location, hours, and exhibits. These can be found by using online search engines to seek specific museums by name or by following links from museum indexes such as those offered by the Museum Computer Network, the Museum's Online page, or ArchNet

There are now several institutions that are doing an exceptional job of making available material that is useful and appealing on a variety of levels. Each has a web site that can serve a model for the development or improvement of online resources for the promotion of archaeology. The best way to learn how the Web can be used is to use it. The best way to improve it is to contribute something to it. Just as a museum's value grows with the acquisition, documentation, and accessibility of collections, a museum web site's value will increase over time as staff and associates contribute more to its content, organization, and navigability. This is a tool we cannot afford to ignore.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography

The University of Pennsylvania Museum provides a fine example of what can be accomplished with a Web presence. Their attractively designed, graphics-intensive site provides basic information about the institution as well as linked information on collections, exhibits, research projects, and publications. A section called "World Cultures: Ancient and Modern" offers online exhibits that include "The Ancient Greek World" and "The Corinth Computer Project," the latter offering a virtual "fly-by" of the site. A feature which has a great deal of potential is a "Forum Page" for submitting topics of discussion. However, although it provides a link for subscriptions to the MUSEUM-L discussion list, it is not yet an active "chat" page.

The site includes useful directories of affiliated staff with descriptions of their specialties and links to pages with information about current projects. They have also developed an extensive publications section with descriptions and ordering information for dozens of publications (including several on CD-ROM). There are detailed descriptions of collections, including topical archives. While specific records are not yet accessible via online catalogues, there are links to email addresses of curators to whom one can write for more information.

In general, although it is clear that there is room for expansion and improvement, this site is one of the best models for what can be accomplished with careful planning and skillful execution.

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Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography (Harvard)

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University has been at the forefront of the development of Web-based resources. The museum has assembled several exhibitions with online materials. It is now offering unique features such as Apple QuickTime VR images of monument replicas in its collection (see below).

In addition to providing extensive information about the institution's history and staff, this web site offers an excellent model for how a site can also become a valuable research tool. One of its projects--Finding Aids On-Line--is providing a growing number of inventories of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and other material deposited by individual scholars. There are currently detailed finding aids for 10 different collections, including records from The Peabody Museum-National Geographic Early Man Expedition at Hell Gap, Wyoming (1961-1967), and Zelia Nuttall's manuscripts and professional correspondence. While these do not provide facsimiles of the actual archival material, they do inform the user about what is available in the museum's holdings.

There are several museum exhibits on the Peabody Museum web site, representing material that has been developed for the medium both as an independent resource and as a supplement (and archive) of information associated with actual exhibits. Traditionally, the didactic material developed for an exhibit has been removed from public access after the exhibit is closed. The Peabody Museum web site demonstrates that this new medium is an excellent way to create material, archive it, and keep it available long after the exhibit has been removed.

Mankato State Museum

In Minnesota, the Mankato State University's "EMuseum", directed by Richard Strachan, is not a Web presence for an actual museum, but an multiple-award winning example of what a virtual museum can be. The web site was created as a novel way to organize and store the information that faculty and students at MSU were creating online. The web site provides a clickable map of the EMuseum. You can visit the information desk, gift shop, anthropology department, staff offices, student lounge, and over a dozen thematic "galleries." At the information desk, there is detailed information on the number of visitors the EMuseum has received (over two million "hits" since January). Statistics on the origin of users makes it clear that the site is serving an incredibly diverse, worldwide audience. The database shows which galleries are the most popular and even reveals how individuals are finding the site via links from search engines and other web pages.

By selecting individual galleries, one can learn about Minnesota prehistory, ancient Egypt, ancient Latin America, Anglo-Saxon England, vikings in the New World, and Minnesota ethnobotany. Other useful resources include a searchable bibliography on Minnesota archaeology, descriptions and images of key artifact types, a page on archaeological dating (with an interactive program for creating battleship curves), and information about the MSU Field School. Another valuable feature is a growing collection of almost 100 thumbnail biographies of influential anthropologists. What is most apparent about this site is that it demonstrates how valuable "exhibits" for public education can be created and put online by a staff of students working with readily accessible, inexpensive resources. Many of the pages in the EMuseum were created in the context of anthropology courses that encouraged students to compose their own online documents. Links to pages of the EMuseum's student creators can be found in the site's "Student Lounge." This site is an excellent example of how a useful resource can be created and improved in the context of university training. Instead of disappearing into boxes and file cabinets, informative student work remains open and available to other students and scholars.

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Peabody Museum of Natural History (Yale)

One of the best examples of online catalogues is that offered by the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale The museum has substantial holdings of archaeological materials, especially from the Americas. The anthropology collection records were not even machine readable until 1993, but in the past five years they have moved to the forefront of accessibility. Two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants provided for direct entry into ARGUS of records for over 200,000 objects. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) facilitated creation of digital images of 15,000 objects in the Mesoamerican and South American collections for online access. ARGUS, from Questor Systems, Inc. is a collections management database system used by over 160 museums worldwide. ARGUS is capable of managing every type of collection, including but not limited to fine arts, historical, ethnographic, natural science, archival, archaeological and slide collections.

Computerization of the collections is being undertaken by geographical area within subdisciplines of anthropology. As blocks of records are added to the database, more detailed descriptions of the data sets are provided. To date, information on all of the Caribbean, Mesoamerican, and Intermediate Area archaeological collections are available online, as are the Australian and Egyptian collections. Catalogue records for the following materials can now be accessed via a search engine that provides for the entry of several configurations of keywords, including geographic information and material: Caribbean collection (105,245 object lots), Meso/South American collection (52,386 object lots), Australian collection (422 object lots), and Egyptian collection (2,252 object lots).

Searches for anthropological materials are carried out by filling in a Common Gateway Interface (CGI) form where one can select among the four major collections. CGI permits external programs to interface with Web servers. It allows someone visiting a web site to run a program that performs a specified task, such as entering the contents of a form into a database.For the Meso/South American collection, it is possible to search only for objects with accompanying images. Searches are conducted with four criteria: description (catalogue no.), locality, temporal provenance, and other attributes. The locality field is a composite of country, state (or equivalent), county (or equivalent), place, and latitude and longitude, depending on what is in the original record. Unfortunately, it does not include names of individual sites. For temporal provenance, it is best to consult the long list of specific period and phase names used in the database. The last category allows the following keywords: bone; carbon; ceramic; coral; feathers; glass; hair/fur; hide; horn; lithic; metal; mineral; miscellaneous; paint/dye; paper; pitch/resin; plant matter; plastic; rubber; shell; soil; textile; twine; and wood.

A sample search of objects with images from Costa Rica yielded a total of 239 objects, including jade pendants, ceramics, and metates. Each is accompanied by a catalogue number, a full-color, 80 x 80 pixel thumbnail image linked to a 240 x 354 pixel photograph of the object (with scale), a verbal description, and provenience information. While the catalogue descriptions are brief and reflect the state of knowledge at the time the materials were collected, they are sufficiently detailed to allow one to find examples of specific objects. Links to help information suggest a variety of strategies to find that elusive object.

It is important to keep in mind that the Peabody Museum search engine was written by a systems manager with a background in biology, not archaeology. While it is currently the best example online of what can be accomplished, there is clearly much more that could be done to accommodate the particular research needs of archaeologists.

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Virtual Museums and Artifacts

A critical function of museums, especially those with archaeological collections, is making exhibitions and objects accessible to visitors and researchers. There are now a number of useful tools for simulating a museum visit online. These include text- and photo-based tours and "virtual reality" images. The latter include Apple QuickTime VR movies, which can be viewed using free plug-in software for either Macintosh or Windows platforms. There are two basic flavors of QTVR movies: 360deg. panoramas and 360deg. object views.

Most 3D, "virtual reality" images remain novelties, with little more than "gee whiz" value. The ideal would be to facilitate an interactive, user-directed examination of an artifact in three dimensions, providing sufficient visual information to permit a scholarly level of analysis and interpretation. For example, an image of a projectile point might be created that would not only allow for the examination of general morphology, but also closeup "zoom" images of raw material characteristics and microscopic usewear patterns. An image of a ceramic vessel might not include only 360deg. photographic views, but also link images of x-rays and petrographic thin sections. This has not yet been achieved, but technology is bringing it closer to realization. The following are some examples of what is available online right now. In the next generation of images, we can expect even more.

Oriental Institute

< The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago offers an impressive "Virtual Museum" created with Apple QuickTime VR images of its principal galleries and exhibitions. Visitors to the web site can enter galleries and view them in 360deg. panoramas of their Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, and Persian galleries. While these would be more useful with "hot spots" that corresponded to object labels, they do give a good sense of what one can find in the museum galleries.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography

< An example of a large object image is the Peabody Museum at Harvards QTVR image of a cast of Altar Q from Copan This is a large (> 3 MB) file that can take a long time to load over a slow modem. Displayed using Apple QuickTime VR, it provides 360deg. of views from angles beside and slightly above the monument. An improved version of the file will allow one to zoom in for more detailed images of the glyphs on the monument. As a research tool, the current version is mostly a novelty. However, with improved images of carvings and glyphs, this type of display will allow individuals to study the object in detail. The web site includes a brief description of how the image was created. An associated online publication, "Hieroglyphs and History at Copan" by David Stuart, does a nice job of placing Altar Q in its scholarly context, but would be even more useful if it were linked not only to drawings, but to images in the QTVR display.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The de Young Museum of San Francisco has the ambitious goal of putting images of its entire collection--which includes a large number of ancient artifacts from several world areas--online. Under the guidance of Web wizard Dakin Hart, it has also been among the first institutions to offer online virtual reality images of galleries, artifacts, and even archaeological sites. Displays are available in LivePicture formats Among the resources that have been created are virtual reality 3D views of artifacts. Two major exhibits that have included archaeological and ethnographic materials have been accompanied by online virtual reality resources (which remain accessible online after the exhibit has closed). "The Spirit of Ancient Peru: Treasures from the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera," featured VR panoramic photographs of Machu Picchu and VR movies of ceramic vessels. "Art of the Americas: Art and Ethnography" featured a panoramic "virtual gallery" with clickable hot spots that simulate the sensation of walking through the actual exhibit by providing several locations from which one can get a 360deg. view of the gallery space. Links to these materials can be found through the "Exhibitions" page of the de Young Museum web site. They provide some of the best current examples of how virtual reality techniques can be used to promote museums and exhibitions via the Web.

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The quality of information relevant to museum anthropology on the Web is growing at a steady pace. However, it remains far short of what it should be, given the power of the medium to contribute to the mission of museums. There are only a handful of institutions that have attempted to provide online access to information about their collections. The type of information that is currently available from cutting-edge sites such as that at Yale's Peabody Museum is impressive but rudimentary. Much more could be done to facilitate research on collections at locations distant from where they are stored. Individuals who work on these collections should strive to return to the institution information that can be readily integrated into online data repositories.

Images such as virtual reality movies currently offer a taste of the Web's potential for turning computer monitors into tools for exploring actual museums and collections. As these become linked to information content, they will come closer to justifying the amount of time, energy, and expense they require to create. As I wrote in a recent article, "This work will happen only as scholars and museum professionals apply to the digital universe the passion, dedication, and diligence with which they have approached the creation and management of museums for the past three centuries." (J. W. Hoopes, 1997, "The Future of the Past: Archaeology and Anthropology on the Web" in Archives and Museum Informatics: Cultural Heritage Informatics Quarterly 11:2. Kluwer Academic Publishers, There are great things to anticipate as serious researchers combine content with presentation to improve the quality and depth of online information.

John W. Hoopes is associate professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas and is associate editor for the "Networks" column.

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