Digital Turn in the Museums

The digital turn in museums was part of the digital turn of using computers and information technology for human needs. This became possible thanks to the development of cybernetics, computer technology, and a turn towards humanity was indicated in the early 1950s by Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), the founder of the theory of cybernetics, in the book “The Human Use of Human Beings” [1].

The 1960s were significant for the GLAM sector in terms of developing the first projects related to the use of information technologies in museums. During this period, the realization occurs of the need for collaboration between GLAM-organizations, IT-companies and academic institutions. In 1967, the Museum Computer Network (MCN) appeared as the initiative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA), which initially brought together 15 museums, but the number of participants in the network began to grow rapidly. MCN is a currently functioning non-profit organization, a professional association whose goal is to support the development of the museum sector in terms of the use of information technologies in various areas of museum activity. The mission of MCN is “to grow the digital capacity of museum professionals by connecting them to ideas, information, opportunities, proven practices, and each other” [2].

In April 1968 the first Conference on computers and their potential applications in museums was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the support of IBM Corporation. The discussion at the conference focused on key topics including the possibilities of using information technologies for processing data from storage facilities, the creation and implementation of museum information systems, the use of computer technologies in data analysis, and the prospects for graphical visualization systems [3].

At the same time, the creation of a professional organization, and the holding of specialized conferences, contributed to the institutionalization of the new direction, stimulated cross-sector communication, cooperation of various organizations in this field, supported the exchange of experience, and promoted the first experiments in the new field.

In the 1970s and 1980s, information systems for documenting and cataloging were distributed, which gradually became an integral part of the functioning of museums. The development of these systems has revealed the need to present images that were originally requested by curators to facilitate the creation of exhibitions. Naturally, the level of technology development was such that the quality of digital photos of that time did not satisfy the demands, but experiments in this area progressively prepared the way for the development of digital museum content and revealed the potential for its representation through virtual museums.

In 1983, the Museum Documentation Association conducted a survey of decision-makers from UK museums using computers in their activities. The results of the survey have identified that most museums use cataloging and accounting systems, administration systems, specific programs for organizing data (databases) and collection management software packages [4]. However, most catalog systems, documentation systems were not intended to visualize museum objects, which prevented the expansion of their use.

In the description fields of such systems, instead of the image, the number of negative image of the object from the physical storage was simply indicated [5]. In addition, the serious issue was related to the limited space of magnetic disks on which information was stored and the constant need to control their size so that the storage of information of existing systems was stable [6]. Another significant limitation for the first museum experiments with computers was the high cost of the computers, software and the work-expenses of the IT-professionals [7]. Therefore, the formation of a new museum audience among computer users at that time was problematic.


[1] Wiener  N. (1954) The Human Use of Human Beings. Houghton Mifflin.

[2] MCN: Advancing digital transformation in the museum.

[3] Computers and their potential applications in museums: conference sponsored by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, supported by a grant from IBM corporation. April 15, 16, 17, 1968. Published for the Museum by Arno Press. New York, 1968. 402 p.

[4] Light, R.B. (1984) Microcomputers in Museums, in: Laflin, S. (ed.), Computer Applications in Archaeology 1984. Conference Proceedings. Centre for Computing and Computer Science, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, pp. 33-37.

[5] Booth, B. (1986) Information Project Group at the National Maritime Museum, in: E. Webb (ed.), Computer Applications in Archaeology 1985. Proceedings of the Conference on Quantitative Methods, Institute of Archaeology, London, March 29-30, 1985. Institute of Archaeology, University of London, London, p. 36.

[6] Light, R.B. 1984. Microcomputers in Museums, in: Laflin, S. (ed.), Computer Applications in Archaeology 1984. Conference Proceedings. Centre for Computing and Computer Science, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, pp. 33-37.

[7] Sarasan L. (2005) Why Museum Computer Projects Fail. In: Collections Management. Ed. Anne Fahy. Routledge. P. 193.