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How are Britain's leading museums exploiting new multimedia technology?

Pundits inform us that the new media age is now upon us. Will this transform the museum sector?

In the UK alone around 3 million householders have personal computers, and a further 650,000 are expected to acquire them this year. Approximately 250,000 people in the UK currently use the Internet.

The last year has seen increased media exposure of the potential of the Internet (an average of one conference a week is held on the subject in London alone), and the multimedia revolution is touted as the next big revolution after the invention of moveable type, although cynics might say that its supposed importance is perhaps in inverse proportion to those who actually understand what the term means.

There is no official definition of multimedia; the following, recently formulated by the Museum Documentation Association, is just one of many possibilities: The term "multimedia" describes a computer program for education and/or entertainment that allows interactive non-linear navigation through the content and includes at least three of the following media elements: text, still images, animated images, sound, video.

So what does this all mean for the arts?

Multimedia is already being successfully used by institutions to manage, make available and celebrate their collections. In museums and galleries, the chief use of multimedia technology is to enhance gallery displays, or to provide information about collections.

The much lauded Micro Gallery at the National Gallery, London, was one of the first multimedia projects in the UK, offering an interactive visual encyclopedia of its collection which is accessed at twelve computer monitors, and makes use of touch-screens. It opened in 1991, and is used by around 200 visitors a day, who stay for between ten to forty minutes. It has proved popular with both the general visitor and the student alike.

Sponsored by American Express, the program was also used as the basis of the "Microsoft Art Gallery" CD-ROM (Compact Disc-Read Only Memory), which went on sale in 1993. The National Gallery of Art in Washington is planning to open its own Micro Gallery this November. Also sponsored by American Express, it is based on the London version and is being produced in conjunction with Cognitive Applications, the UK company which produced the original London version.

The obvious advantages of such interactive displays is that object information can be supplemented with related information in the form of narrative or historical background, putting the displayed objects into context. Works not on display (such as items in storage or in conservation, or fragile items), as well as related objects in other collections, can be brought into play.

The new £1.25 million glass gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which opened in April 1994, has been a resounding success, acclaimed not least because of its popular interactive computer display which allows the visitor to select one of nine introductory "Quick Tours" to the collection. Around 200 items from the collection can be viewed; different techniques of making and decorating glass can be chosen; the history of glass can be explored geographically or according to key people and factories. This multimedia gallery installation is a collaboration with the Corning Museum of Glass and makes an important contribution towards visitor enjoyment and understanding of the collection.

While the above-stated advantages are obvious, many curators are naturally suspicious that such displays can distract the visitor from the "real thing".

However, Oliver Watson, the V&A's curator in charge of the new glass gallery, told The Art Newspaper that a resounding number of visitors claim the interactive installations have enhanced their understanding of the subject. Old-fashioned static information displays are presented to a passive visitor, "but these kinds of installations allow the visitor to be active, to ask the questions and seek information themselves."

At the newly opened Croydon Clocktower arts centre in Croydon, the organisers of the inaugural exhibition, "A Picasso Bestiary" (3 March- l4 May)discovered that their interactive display caused visitors to stay six times longer than usual in the gallery, and was used by over 50% of visitors. (This figure would probably have been higher had more monitors been made available). But how many of these visitors stayed longer to admire the works of art, many of them on loan from foreign institutions?

The British Library, London, has been a pioneer in the development and application of multimedia projects. These include educational CD-ROMs on Medieval Realms and Inventors and Inventions, and the Electronic Beowulf, an ongoing project, part of which can already be viewed at the library and via the Internet, and which will eventually be made available on CD-ROM.

Multimedia is a particularly useful technology for managing a library collection as digital surrogates can be used to make rare, fragile or popular items (such as early books, manuscripts and prints) more accessible, without danger to the originals.

The library's latest multimedia project is an interactive gallery presentation which forms part of the temporary exhibition "The Earth and the Heavens: the art of the mapmaker" (until 22 October). The display offer an interactive exploration of ten historic world maps, using high resolution images together with animation, graphics and audio commentary. The display was recently awarded the 1995 Silver Award for Interactive Displays by the British Interactive Multimedia Association. The technology allows the visitor to "zoom in" on the maps and see them in greater detail than is normally possible with an original map displayed under glass.

Multimedia programs are now a consumer commodity, the vast majority of which are published on CD-ROM. Although initial costs are relatively high, once a program has been created, large numbers of disks can be pressed extremely cheaply (at around 50p each). Both the "Story of Glass", based on the V&A gallery installation and "The Image of the World", based on the British Library' s installation for their current mapmaking exhibition, are now available as CD-ROMs.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Multimedia in the museum'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 51 September 1995