The Age of Museum Multimedia

Virtual museums today aim to be able to reproduce museum objects by creating digital products for presentation to the public. Museum experiments with multimedia have emerged from the concept of A. Malraux of a museum without borders [1]. The idea of André Malraux was based to some extent on Le Corbusier’s earlier ideas [2] about an endless museum, the expansion of which is possible constantly, for which a whole series of architectural solutions was proposed.

In the museum without frontiers, space is not limited to physical galleries and exhibition spaces, museum activity is not confined to the space of a real museum, it reaches new audiences by promoting research, curatorial and other projects, publishing and distributing catalogs, reproductions, books, slides, microfilms containing reproductions of museum objects, information on exhibitions. Radio programs are created, films are created with the participation of museums for television broadcasts and movie rental industry, which are subsequently distributed on various mediums. In the 1970-1980s, the shooting the videos of exhibitions, artists, curators and other topics related to museums was practiced by museums quite widely. Turning to the example of The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the earliest record in the video catalog dates back to July 1977. From that moment in the 1970s, 29 records were created, and during the 1980s are 97 [3], which illustrates the museum’s initial activity in the production of a new product and maintaining the pace over these nearly one and a half decades.

The idea of the museum without frontiers was continued by the concept of an “expanded museum”. Experiments with multimedia, alternative ways of presenting museum collections created a new space, separated from the physical museum, in which it became possible for the viewer to interact with reproduced museum objects. Nicolas Negroponte and Steve Gano, who worked on the opportunity to ensure the interactive nature of museum multimedia in the 1970s – 1980s [4] can be called the pioneers of interactive museum multimedia. Gano posed a key task for developers of museum multimedia in the need to create such a digital product that even a layman can use [5].

Transition from analog video formats to interactive multimedia content was noted by J.L. Sheldon, who began to use the term “value added video” as an increment to a simple video of a previous period [6]. J.L. Sheldon has created two interactive multimedia discs for the Addison Gallery of American Art. One disc included a specially created video, based on numerous plates with fragments of horse movement from the Muybridge collection. The museum could not put these records in the traditional exhibition due to their huge number and the inability of the audience to “grasp” the essence of what is happening, it seems that there are practically no changes in the freeze frames, the horse’s movements are repeated, the exhibition space is limited [7].

Sheldon transferred the Muybridge collection into motion, through shooting images of the horse and making an animated film. The created computer disk was used in the exhibition space of the museum; 35 people could watch the film at the same time. The disk’s interface had been programmed that externally resembles a book, which is easy to navigate in chapters. The user could select the desired scenes and animations for viewing from the four main sections of the disk and display them on the computer screen. The created video disc and interactive multimedia organically supplemented the space of the museum, strengthening its exhibition concept.

Another interactive multimedia disc was dedicated to the sculptor Harold Tovish and his work for an upcoming personal exhibition. Capturing video, it was possible to present three-dimensional objects, fragments of documentaries about the work of the sculptor in his studio, as well as a catalog of his works. The catalog was an important component of this “video disc”, which included the sculptor’s works in collections from various institutions, public and private collections.

The catalog also included images of some lost sculptures (the sculptor had destroyed some of them, but photographs of these objects were preserved), sketches, drawings and prints. The sculptor’s works themselves pushed for animation and the use of movement, since they themselves seemed to be in motion, looked “frozen” for a second [8]. Not surprisingly, works by this particular sculptor were chosen to create the disc as part of Motion Studies by Sheldon. The disk became an iconic multimedia product, as it presented opportunities for the study of the sculptor’s work by a wide audience. The created disk provided for wide possibilities of its use outside the gallery walls and the disk was created taking into account its use on inexpensive, widespread computer platforms.

Wider distribution of museum multimedia products on CDs became possible with the microcomputer revolution. A powerful technological breakthrough, the widespread availability of a personal computer, and the reduction in cost of technology have allowed museums to more actively expand their activities and audience. The microcomputer revolution has given impetus to the development of an entire industry of interactive museum multimedia.

In the early 1990s museum multimedia soared, and disks became one of the best museum’s souvenirs as an opportunity to bring along some impressions from the museum. Museums were actively involved in the process of creating interactive multimedia discs with the presentation of unique exhibits and a variety of stories. This process went along with the digitization of museum objects, the creation of catalogs and the filling of museum documentation systems, which at that time were already capable of presenting digital copies of objects.

The compact disc “Treasures of the Smithsonian” [9] was recognized as one of the best museum multimedia products, received the “Muse Award” in 1991 from the American Association of Museums. The disc contains the most interesting objects in various formats (images, audio and video) from the Smithsonian museum collections. The user got the opportunity to search and sort “treasures” by museum, category, chronology and theme, read additional information about collections, objects, their authors, circumstances of creation, zoom in or zoom out. The disc was intended for a wide audience, where many very different people could find something interesting for them. The disk was intended for personal use on a PC or in standard CD-players, which were widespread, or were often embedded in a TV. The authors have successfully solved the problem of intuitive use and the ability to view information in any order.

Interactive multimedia implemented several fundamentally important features, such as creating a user interface, organizing content based on a database, linking visual images to their description, and the presence of clear and simple instructions for use. The user has the opportunity to choose the order to follow in the study of materials, since it was implemented dividing the video stream into fragments, the ability to select the desired fragment, regardless of order. These features made it possible to realize the personalization of choice. Interactive multimedia demonstrated new ways of re-presenting museum content that changed the perception of a museum object or collection by user, since it was possible to develop and deepen the contexts in which a given object or group of objects could be presented and used.


[1] Malraux A. (1967) Museum without walls. Doubleday. 252 p.

[2] Corbusier, L. (1927) Vers une architecture. 1970 ed. s.l.:Architectural Press.

[3] MOMA. Video Recordings. URL:

[4] Negroponte N. (1995) El Mundo Digital. Publicado por acuerdo con Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 144 p.

[5] Gano S. (1983) Forms for Electronic Books. Cambridge, Massachusetts. M.I.T. Master’s Thesis. Architecture Machine Group. 

[6] Sheldon J.L. (1989) The Extended Museum Production and Design of the Harold Tovish: Sculptor and Eadweard Muybridge: Motion Studies Videodiscs. p. 14.

[7] Addison Gallery 1984-1988. Eadweard Muybridge: Motion Studies videodisc. P. 22

[8] Harold Tovish: A Retrospective Exhibition 1948-1988. Andover, MA : Phillips Academy; First Edition (1989)

[9] Theasures of the Smithsonian (1991). Interactive compact disc. Published by Philips Interactive Media Systems.