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The Australian Museums on Line Project

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Louise Douglas and Stephen Hall describe the Australian Museums On Line (AMOL) project, which aims to dramatically increase access to the cultural resources of Australian museums via the Internet by 2001 through the AMOL World Wide Web site.

Overview

To date, the focus has been on creating a working pilot of the Australian Museums On Line web site [1] which now includes:
  • a pilot of Museum Search, a national Searchable Collection Database currently comprising 43 000 item level collection records from 10 museums across Australia
  • the National Directory with 850 Australian museums listed - the most up to date and the only national directory of Australian museums
  • a wide range of information for museum workers, including links to the most important Australian and overseas museum sites
  • a increasingly active discussion list (Australian Museum Forum) on Australian museum issues
  • research into users of the AMOL web site through an on line survey
The AMOL team is now working on substantial improvements to the pilot site, to be in place by June 1997. Enhancements will include:
  • a site redesign, building on the existing structure of the pilot site to increase visual impact and improve useability
  • the addition to Museum Search of a further 26 museums collections comprising well over 150,000 item records
  • the introduction of a new search engine for Museum Search with significantly increased functionality
  • an expanded number of museums in the National Directory
  • an increase in the amount of information on the web site for museum workers
  • the establishment of a pilot of the AMOL regional network of servers which will decentralise the holding of data, but still enable access through a single Internet gateway
From July 1997 onwards the AMOL site will grow rapidly in terms of museum coverage, database size and features offered to both the museum community and the general public. By 2001 we plan to have the collection databases of more than 80% of Australia's museums linked through a national server network.

Some background

Conceptualisation of the project began in 1993 when the Cultural Ministers Council established the Heritage Collections Working Party and was brought to fruition by the Heritage Collections Committee in 1995 when it established a separate program specifically to examine at improving access to Australian museum and gallery collections using new technologies. At the same there was growing awareness of the importance of the world wide web as a possible tool, and the Committee focused its efforts initially on a pilot to develop to 'proof of concept' stage. This pilot was undertaken by the AMOL Coordination Unit established within the National Museum of Australia from October 1995-June 1996.

What are AMOLs overall objectives?

The following objectives summarise the direction of the AMOL project:
  • to provide a single search of museum information across multiple, disparate and distributed databases using the Internet.
  • to allow individual museums to retain ownership and control of their data
  • to minimise set up and maintenance costs for each museum involved in the project and the need for technical expertise to run the system
  • to allow for future developments such as the use of 3D and moving representations of images (video, virtual reality): standards in these areas are currently being developed
  • to maximise flexibility of software choice - with the rapid change in the Internet, it is vital to ensure that the system is not tied to proprietary standards and products

Who will use the AMOL web site?

One of the promises of the I-way [information superhighway] as a vehicle for museum programming is that it reaches a vast new audience. But the vast new audience is composed of numerous small, specialised, audiences with particular knowledge, interests, needs and abilities. If the museum is presented in monolithic fashion, it will be uninteresting to many of its potential electronic visitors. But if museums are clever and rigorous in their analysis, they are in an excellent position to create data that can support users with many diverse points of view. (David Bearman, US collection database consultant, 1995)

An estimated 40 million people are using the Internet worldwide at the moment. Many claims are being made about the extraordinary growth of the Internet, and even if these figures are treated cautiously there is little doubt that the Internet is here to stay and will certainly form another important means of communicating and obtaining information.

Australian estimates for home based use of the Internet indicate that 2 million Australians will have Internet access from their homes by the end of 1997. This figure is likely to be higher if the price of bandwidth falls in the interim.

Statistical data on the way museums are using the Internet are not yet available. Estimating use levels is made more difficult by the fact that museums are still in the process of connecting to the Internet even for general research purposes.

The provision of Internet access to their collections is being addressed only by a small group of museums with the resourcing and management issues usually precluding the majority of museums developing Internet based programs.

The Internet offers an enormous opportunity to enable increased public access to museum collections and activities. Besides this, within the museum community itself it is anticipated that AMOL will be most useful for:

  • assessing collections for possible loans for exhibitions
  • professional exchange about museological issues
  • increasing communication about museum activities and programs
The geographic spread of Australian museums inhibits regular communication between them. Many museum workers see AMOL as an invaluable tool for improving the general level of interaction between museums. The level of use amongst the museum community is anticipated to be high, once AMOL has established itself as a fully operational information system.

The rate at which primary, secondary and tertiary institutions are taking advantage of the educational resources offered by the Internet varies considerably across states and sectors and is often determined by resource issues. However, most state governments have recently moved to ensure their school systems are well connected to the Internet by 2000. As AMOL becomes more widely known as a source of substantial information on heritage and cultural issues, it is anticipated that educational institutions will use it extensively. Specialist subjects featured in many museums could generate great interest if made accessible through the World Wide Web. Possible subjects for development include:

  • the environment: the breadth and depth of natural sciences would complement existing on line services such as the Environmental Resources Information Network [2]
  • multicultural/cultural diversity: increased access to museum collections would provide a unique resource for assisting students to understand Australia's culture and society.
  • cultural studies: this burgeoning discipline addresses cultural issues through a wide range of media, and the mixed media nature of museum collections would be an invaluable resource for this kind of study and research.
Indigenous people are also increasingly requiring access to museum collections to assist in the process of cultural maintenance and revival.

Further consultation will be undertaken with potential users and in the process of reviewing the web site structure and design, consideration will be given to segmenting the site for particular types of user.

Who is involved in AMOL?

The AMOL project is a uniquely collaborative project in that it brings together the combined resources and expertise of:
  • the federal government in the form of the Department of Communications and the Arts
  • the museum community which is represented on the Heritage Collections Committee and its program committees and which is supporting the project through the participation of a range of museums in supply collection data or becoming server sites
  • the state governments whose arts/heritage ministries support the project
All three parties contribute funding for the project. A number of consultants have been contracted to undertaken specific elements. They include:
  • National Museum of Australia - administers the AMOL Coordination Unit
  • Computer Sciences Corporation - provides technical advice on the overall architecture of the distributed server network
  • Datascape Information - managed the first stage of the National Directory which incorporates basic directory information on 850 museums.

National directory of Australian museums

In February 1996 all Australian museums were sent a questionnaire - responses to this questionnaire form the basis of the National Directory. Approximately 850 out of a possible 2000 survey forms have been received. These 850 responses now appear on the National Directory.

Museums were invited to include basic information (the Australian Museums On Line Information Record - a minimum data set for describing museum objects on AMOL) on five 'items of interest' from their collections. About 100 museums were able to provide images with their directory entries. Users can access the national directory by:

  • state
  • museum type
  • collection strength
  • alphabetical listing of all museums
Connections to a number of museums which have their own home page can be made via the directory. Currently all AMOL information is on one server at the National Museum. The next phase of the project will see a pilot network extension, with the addition of the Western Australian Museum as the first AMOL remote server.

From July 1997 onwards an Australia-wide network of distributed servers will be built on this foundation.

Museum Search is a searchable collection database made up of the collection records of a number of local and regional museums which is searchable as if it were one database.

The first stage pilot version of Museum Search was completed and made accessible through the web site in June 1996. The pilot concentrated on bringing together a diverse selection of local and regional museum communities.

Museum Search comprises collection data from the following 10 museums.

  • Newcastle Regional Museum, NSW
  • Castlemaine Art Gallery, Victoria
  • King Cottage - Bunbury, Western Australia
  • Ballarat Gold Museum, Victoria
  • Rockhampton City Art Gallery, Queensland
  • City of Unley Museum, South Australia
  • Schaeffer House Museum (Clarence River Historical Society), Western Australia
  • Golden Dragon Museum, Bendigo, Victoria
  • Killer Whale Museum, Eden, NSW
  • University of Melbourne Art Museum, Victoria
All collections can be searched simultaneously. This is possible because each museum's data has been 'mapped' out of its original database and into a new database.

AMOL also provides separate searches of collection databases of museums with web access - currently:

  • Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Tasmania
  • Museum of Victoria's Social History and Science and Technology Collections
  • Australian National Shipwreck database.
In selecting participants advice was sought from:
  • branches of Museums Australia
  • museum sections of state arts departments
  • local museum liaison officers working in state museums
In addition, a number of museums (Newcastle Regional Museum and Unley City Museum) enthusiastic about AMOL, approached the AMOL Coordination Unit to be considered as contributors to Museum Search. Criteria used to assess which museums to include in the pilot were:
  • collection database system type - a minimum of three different types were sought
  • collection type - the greatest diversity possible was sought covering all types of collections
  • geographic location - as a national project, it was essential for the pilot to include sites from around Australia
  • availability of technological support - participation in the pilot needed support from the participating museum in the form of technical liaison
By mid 1997 another 26 museum collections will be added to Museum Search. Although the majority of these museums will be local and regional museums, a number of large museum collections will be included.

References

  1. Australian Museums On Line Web site,
    http://www.nma.gov.au/AMOL/
  2. Environmental Resources Information Network
    http://www.erin.gov.au

Author Details

Louise Douglas, Stephen Hall
AMOL Coordination Unit
email: webmanager@nma.gov.au
Tel: 06 242 2122
Address: GPO Box 1901, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia

Date published: 
19 May 1997

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How to cite this article

Louise Douglas, Stephen Hall. "The Australian Museums on Line Project". May 1997, Ariadne Issue 9 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue9/museums/


article | by Dr. Radut