Birmingham Egyptology

The Virtual Museum

A recent session of the Birmingham Egyptology Forum addressed the question, Virtual Museums: What are they and what do they do? and, as can be seen from the write up in the ‘Previous Sessions’ section of the Forum page, this gave rise to some lively debate. The session was chaired by Mary Ann Marazzi, a doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham, who now offers some of her own thoughts and research on the subject which she presents under the head: Virtual Museums: Are they good or bad for established museums?

‘ Virtual museums are exhibits ‘understood as a selection of objects put on show for an audience’ either in a kiosk within an established museum or online (Davies, 2010, p. 307). There are several topics that should be mentioned to discern if virtual museums have any effect on established museums such as: whether or not virtual museums contribute to or detract from revenues; if they supplement physical visits; and if they have educational value or not. Virtual museums or exhibits can include two-dimensional or three-dimensional scans and such didactic information as title, artist (if known), date, provenance, current physical location, and any interpretive information deemed necessary by the collection curators. ………’ more

The Forum session, and the question posed by Mary Ann, each raise a number of topics which are open to further debate; and Birmingham Egyptology would be interested in your opinions on such matters. What is the role – or even an adequate definition – of the ‘virtual museum’?


  1. Carl Graves
    March 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Thank you Mary Ann for this very brief introduction to your views and research on ‘virtual museums’, something that perfectly compliments the discussions we aired at the BE Forum on the 8th March 2013.
    A question that comes to my mind when following this debate is; at what point does an online collection database become a ‘virtual museum’? There seems to be some confusion amongst online visitors about what they should expect from these platforms – and indeed contributes to the issues we felt during the forum, about what exactly is a museum?

  2. Marsia
    April 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Wonderful question. A museum is what museum visitors want it to be. It is time we put the visitor first, and then the museum as a cultural institution. Museums should be adjusted to the needs of the public – not vice versa. If museums wish to go virtual and digital, they must be encouraged to do so, as some visitors experience and appreciate culture better via the internet. But if visitors prefer the traditional visit to museums, they can always visit the institution in person. Every museum visitor is different. People appreciate culture in an entirely personal way. Frankly, in my opinion, a combination of the two (an established and virtual museum at the same time) is the best option.

    • April 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      Very good points Marsia, can I ask a question in reply…

      To what extent, in your opinion, should a virtual museum attempt to emulate the surroundings of an established (brick-and-mortar) museum, i.e. should the virtual visitor have the experience of ‘walking’ through galleries for the virtual platform to be called a ‘museum’?

      My feelings is that this is not necessarily needed – although the audience should be taken into account. For me a virtual museum simply requires objects to be presented within a theme and given some degree of interpretation – as opposed to an online catalogue which should lack that degree of subjective interpretation.

      What are your thoughts?

  3. Gwyn Ashworth-Pratt
    April 9, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    To me, virtual museums are a wonderful innovation make the collections more accessible to the many. A virtual Museum can never replace a real museum, the same as a travel book cannot replace the travelling! It helps with research and education as items that interest can be studied separately in more detail. Displaying a selection, virtually can also introduce that museum to someone who hasn’t visited before, not only enticing them but also acting as a pre plan for a visit – me? I’m a technophobe but this idea I really like!

  4. April 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    The museum definition is rather flexible anyway. But just because the definition is flexible, it doesn’t mean that limitations should not apply. Ideally, every modern, museum should provide some material online. That is, a catalogue of some of the major items exhibited, a bibliography for further reading, but most importantly, the ‘hooks’ to attract visitors to actually visit the museum in person (e.g. list of cultural events and activities, pictures of the major finds, announcements of temporary exhibitions, etc).

    Sometimes I wonder: what would the British Museum or the Petrie Museum be without their website? I think that those two museums have it right: their websites provide just the right amount of information on their online catalogues; their websites do not overshine the experience of anyone visiting the museum in person.

  5. April 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Now, with respect to your question, there are plenty of media to enhance the online visiting experience, from video, to audio, to 3D imaging and highly-sophisticated software. Surely, museum specialists should make the most of these resources.

    But of course, there are actual museums or heritage sites that are not open to the public for various reasons. In that case, a ‘virtual museum’ is more than necessary. Take for example, the Theban Mapping Project website. It is brilliant because it covers a vast amount of information for heritage sites are not open to the public. And for the sites that are open, it makes you want to visit them!

  6. Eleanor Simmance
    April 9, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    It appears that many people assume a virtual museum as being an offshoot from an existing building. Carl, or anyone else: are you of the mind that virtual museums can exist without a physical counterpart?

    The forum saw us debating (quite hotly) what the definition of a museum was and hence whether it was appropriate label for online media i.e. something that is not brick-and-mortar. Someone eventually, and quite rightly,. pointed out that we had ended up talking semantics and that it doesn’t really matter; a virtual museum is not limited and can be anything it wants – a series of pictures, a catalogue with added interpretation or anything that can provide information to the user. The name is technically irrelevant, and is essentially a convenient label.

    However, my personal thoughts are that part of the joy of visiting museums is the feel, the look, the sound of them. The way museum space is organised and the way the exhibits are presented lends an interpretation of its own, but I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing for the most part. It adds an extra dimension that many online resources cannot really provide.
    It would certainly not be viable for all organisations to recreate their entire museum space that can be explored through photos or an interactive image (akin to Google maps, for instance, or recreations of sites), but I certainly appreciate provision of something of the sort, even to a small extent. Only then would I start to see it more of a virtual MUSEUM, rather than virtual information.

  7. April 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    It would be interesting if visits to virtual museums were part of the educational curriculum at school. One virtual visit per week: A standard educational practice in which students get closer to culture without necessarily leaving the classroom.

    NB: One of my favourite virtual museums is the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  8. April 18, 2013 at 11:51 am

    I think Ellie makes some very thought provoking points.
    In reply to your question: I think that a virtual ‘museum’ can exist without a physical counterpart. In fact, I think that this is a very positive point about the virtual way of displaying this information. For example, a virtual ‘museum’ can include objects from different museums that are constantly on display. Such as, if I was to make a virtual ‘museum’ about the pyramids of ancient Egypt – I could use objects such as the statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum, and the bust of Akhaf in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As well as this I can also incorporate 3D landscapes of the Giza necropolis to contextualise these objects within my online display. These objects would cost a lot to transport, without even considering the paper work involved – having them displayed side by side virtually would be a suitable compromise.
    Similarly, the burial assemblage of the master builder Amenhotep (from the reign of Amenhotep III) were discovered in his tomb (A7) at Dra Abu el-Naga in the late 19th Century – however, they were quickly dispersed among museums (including the Eton Myers Collection). Creating a virtual ‘museum’ of his assemblage would assist in better appreciating the objects in their originally assembled context.

    Ellie’s point about the word ‘museum’ simply being discussed as a case of symantics is correct, and so perhaps the word ‘virtual exhibition’ is better for the above two cases I propose? During our forum discussion it was also brought up that a museum is actually a collection of exhibitions (otherwise it is simply a collections facility). Therefore, is it possible that for a virtual museum to exist, it should consist of a number of ‘virtual exhibitions’?

    I may have dragged us back into semantics, but a thought nonetheless.

    Either way, a virtual museum does not display objects, but instead displays digitized images (whether 2D or 3D) of those objects. Therefore, objects can be transported, digitally, across the world and also used more than once in different, simultaneous virtual exhibitions at once.

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