The first Virtual Museums on the World Wide Web

There were several strategies for creating the first virtual museums represented on the World Wide Web. Museums as institutions for the storage of unique and valuable objects of historical and cultural heritage began to create web resources designed to represent the museum through the most interesting or even iconic exhibits and collections. Often these were separate images of objects that most vividly and succinctly illustrate certain topics. Some resources could include an image of an important object, accompanied by text, and so illustrate the story, giving historical references and explanations, or offering the user a wider context. Frequently, the creators of the resources did not even accompany these illustrations with metadata about the object, not considering it important to supplement the history or information about the collection with a description of the images, believing that the images were impressive enough (for example, the Canadian War Museum [1]).

Some virtual museums that were being created can be compared with the “curiosity cabinets” of the 17th – 18th centuries, since the new resources emphasized the features of the object, thanks to new interesting forms of their implementation such as animations that stimulated the cognitive interest of users. Some museums have tried to use the previously accumulated multimedia content and transfer it to the online environment. For example, the creators of Deutsches Museum [2] uploaded to the created resource multimedia clips about the first machines and engines (such as the first Diesel engine, “Puffing Billy”), which needed to be downloaded for later viewing on a computer using preinstalled software. The animations, although rather short, made a positive impression with their dynamism. Other multimedia materials were placed in a similar way, to which was added a corresponding textual description with explanations of the presented objects and their use. The attempts of the first interactive online experiments implemented by the Deutsches Museum in the 1990s are also interesting. Several interactive online experiments were placed on the resource, including those that made it possible to “control” the plasma by changing the direction of its flows, measure the thermal radiation of an incandescent lamp, track the properties of electromagnetic waves or see the “bends” of electron beams [3].

At the advent of the Internet, other museums sought to surprise the user with technological innovations, and implementation was sometimes more important than the content itself. Thus, the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, USA) [4] along with other images posted four stereoscopic images with the Museum’s garden, but did not provide them with an additional description. It was assumed that the user, using stereoscopic glasses, would consider these images for entertainment.

The publication of multimedia on virtual resources was not widely spread, since many multimedia resources were created on the basis of partnerships with other organizations such as the IT-companies and academic institutions and could not be used due to copyright restrictions. Also, Museums could prefer to continue usage multimedia for commercial purposes and were not ready to put them in open online access.

A widespread strategy for creating virtual museums was the creation of web sites that were designed to display the created resource as a virtual “copy” of a real museum space. In such virtual museums, objects and collections are located by analogy with the real museum’s building, the plan of the museum was visualized, which could be followed by studying the exhibitions. In some cases, the museum plan was presented in a kind of three-dimensional space. Such a virtual museum is, for example, the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation [5], whose early versions contain an image of the museum plan, which is proposed to be followed when studying museum exhibitions. Images of museum objects with their brief description are presented on the resource as museum objects. The metaphor of the museum as a special historical building can be traced even in the design of the interface, the home page of some virtual resources, such as NTT Digital Museum (Japan) [6], on the front page of which there is a spiral staircase and columns of an ancient building.

Virtual museums were not always created by and with the participation of real museums. Some of the virtual museums were created as educational projects, based on the metaphor of the museum as a special institution in the form of a building in which the halls are dedicated to individual topics and represent museum objects. So, in the Art History Virtual Museum, created by The School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Charles Sturt University (Australia) with the support of Open Learning Australia, the metaphor of a real museum space is used to study the History of Art [7]. This paper does not consider the topic of correctness to call such resources virtual museums if they were created without the participation of storage institutions. We only note that in this case the term “virtual museum” refers the user not only to virtual content brought from museums, but also to virtuality in the sense of “unreality” of the virtual museum itself. The “virtual museum” was made with the transfer of the metaphor of the museum with its structure in the form of floors and thematic halls (rooms). Each “room” contains a list of images with brief metadata (metadescriptions), including designation of the name of the work and the place of its storage, as well as links to the museum web resources where the object itself was presented.


[1] Canadian War Museum. Gallery Tour. WayBack Machine. Snapshot on 09 November 1999. URL:

[2] Deutsches Museum. WayBack Machine. Snapshot on 31 January 1998. URL:

[3] Deutsches Museum. Interactive Demonstrations. Online Experiments. WayBack Machine. Snapshot on 28 January 1999. URL:

[4] Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, USA). WayBack Machine. Snapshot on 11 November 1996. URL:

[5] The Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation (CMCC). WayBack Machine. Snapshot on 12 April 1997. URL:

[6] NTT Digital Museum (Japan). WayBack Machine. Snapshot on 29 November 1996. URL:

[7] Art History Virtual Museum. TROVE. Web archive. Snapshot on 16 May 1997. URL:

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