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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

About the authors

Tim Hart is Director, Information Multimedia and Technology, Museum Victoria. More about Tim Hart

Martin Hallett is Senior Arts Officer at Arts Victoria. More about Martin Hallett

Australian museums and the technology revolution
by Tim Hart and Martin Hallett

In the early 1970s, museums began to respond to new opportunities arising from computer developments and new forms of electronic communication, in particular for collection documentation, collection management, and scientific research. These early uses of computers provided the first clear demonstration of the power of emerging technology to transform the activities of traditional museology. However, technology’s influence soon spread rapidly across almost all areas of museum practice.

Early electronic museum documentation and digitisation

The evolution of systems to transfer traditional paper-based documentation into electronic formats was significantly influenced by library developments and international innovation. The Information Retrieval Group of the Museums Association (UK), now the Collections Trust, pioneered the establishment of standard formats and procedures required for computer-based information systems. Canada’s National Museums Policy of 1972 ambitiously proposed a National Inventory Programme to computerise all museum records across the nation, later implemented by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). In the United States, the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Museum, and other major institutions established important documentation projects. The Getty Information Institute (GII), established in 1983 as the Art History Information Program (AHIP), pioneered work that underlies much current documentation practice in Australia and across the world. The influential Consortium for the Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) was founded in 1990. These developments were closely followed in Australia and stimulated thinking and action.

Early Australian developments emerged during a 10-year period from 1976 at the Science Museum of Victoria and the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria), the Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia), the Australian Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (now the Powerhouse Museum).

These developments faced many challenges. Computing technology was primitive. In addition to the technological challenges, the developments required museums to create new disciplines, recruit new categories of staff, and re-skill their existing staff.

The first electronic museum documentation databases required main-frame or mini-computers. Both the software and the hardware involved a capital investment beyond most museums at the time. In this new environment, many museums could not afford to enter the world of computing.

Work on electronic systems for natural science collections emerged in the late 1970s, especially through the joint activities of The University of Melbourne, the National Museum of Victoria and the Australian Museum. This led to the development of the Titan Database (subsequentlyTexpress and KE EMu). [1] These packages offered powerful tools for those working with material culture collections, as well as those in the natural science disciplines.

Vernon Systems from Auckland, New Zealand, developed the world’s first PC-based collections management system, ‘Collection’, in 1986,[2] based on MDA [3] standards. [4]

By the mid-1990s a wide variety of collection management systems were available to Australian museums; at this time image digitisation also became possible as scanning technologies emerged. As a result, a number of projects were initiated by Australian museums and libraries to include on their documentation systems digital images of collection objects, and other digitised elements such as sound and video. The first JPEG and MPEG [5] standards for digital images were established in 1988 and provided an important basis for this work. Digital cameras were still some years away, [6] and even when they first emerged were of low quality and very high price; it was 2000 before they were used in museums in any number.

Museums also began to add to their documentation systems information on the processes used to manage collections, such as loans, object movements, conservation activities and rights management, creating the complex integrated systems widely deployed in museums. In the early twenty-first century systems incorporated barcoding or Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

Setting standards for electronic documentation

Traditional paper-based documentation systems used in museums did not depend on standards. Most organisations and disciplines handled specific data elements in very different ways. Electronic systems, however, demanded data consistency, which raised challenging issues for Australian museums, especially given the inherent differences between natural science specimens and artefacts from social history, technology or Indigenous collections.

Despite such complications, standards are emerging, shaped by international initiatives [7] and ongoing consultation between key stakeholders.

Computer technology also expanded research opportunities for scientists, curators, registrars and conservators. For example, databases provided natural scientists with the means to statistically analyse large volumes of collection and geographic data relating to biological populations. This stimulated ecological and environmental research on a regional, national and global scale, crucially influencing the effective management of Australia’s natural resources. The introduction of geographic information systems (GIS) [8] allows the linkage of specimens to locations.

A dramatic impact of technology was the incorporation, from the early 1980s, of multimedia in exhibitions. Multimedia transformed the visitor experience from passive to active engagement.

During the 1980s and 1990s many multimedia technologies came and went. Audiovisual screens proliferated; CD-ROMs and DVDs were widely deployed, replaced in the early twenty-first century by the delivery of multimedia over networks.

Visualisation/simulation is an example of the new presentation methods that have become available to museums over the past 10 years. Using cost effective ‘special effects’ derived from techniques used in movies and computer games, museums have unprecedented opportunities to offer their audiences powerful storytelling experiences. Many museums have established in-house teams that produce programs of stunning quality on modest budgets – depicting photo-quality scenes of almost anything imaginable effects derived from these techniques, from the planetary system to dinosaurs.

Major museums and many regional and community museums routinely incorporate various audiovisual experiences: projections (large and small), soundscapes, interactive and immersive elements, computer games, simulations and 3-D experiences. These elements are integrated with traditional elements such as objects, labels, text panels, images, illuminated signage and built form to provide audiences with unique and compelling multi-dimensional experiences.

Many of the early experiments with multimedia drew heavy criticism from within the profession and the media. The term ‘Disney’ was used to denigrate a museum perceived to have forsaken traditional roles and crossed the line where entertainment was valued above traditional approaches and curatorial authority. The word ‘edutainment’ was coined in the 1990s to describe this phenomenon. The Powerhouse Museum when it opened in 1988 was dubbed a ‘Disney’ experience. In 2000, Melbourne Museum suffered similar criticism.

However the modern museum is an increasingly complex environment and its visitors have come to expect to use interactive technologies, based on their experience outside museums. Users of mobile devices, for instance, are increasingly expecting cultural information to be available to them. Fortunately the multimedia delivery platforms and software are becoming more intelligent, simplifying the task of distributing quality content.

As technologies converge and become even more complex and sophisticated, maintaining a central place for collection objects and core museum values will be critical in resolving a creative, intelligent, and responsible integration of technology in museum practice. [9]

Arguably, the most significant impact of technology on museums has resulted from the development of the Internet, with its potential for online access to digital content.

Australian museums first began to develop websites from 1993, following the development of the World Wide Web (WWW) through the grounding breaking work at CERN [10] by Tim Berners-Lee. [11] Early Australian networking history is complex, involving a mix of university, government, private, corporate and telecommunications initiatives from the mid 1970s. Major museums were in a good position to be early adopters of the Internet, because of their links with CSIRO and universities, where the first Australian networks were developed. [12] The role of libraries and their early networks was also influential. The Australian Bibliographic Network (ABN) was established in 1981 by the National Library of Australia, linking for the first time computerised library catalogues from around Australia.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Australian museum websites have been developed, providing access to a vast array of collection records and significant stories. For the larger museums, websites constitute an essential core element of their business, with online visitors outstripping physical visitors by a significant margin.

The development and maintenance of museum websites was difficult for most Australian museums during the first 10 years of their evolution. Initial reactions from within the sector often involved fear and suspicion. Many museum professionals struggled with the concept and felt that building ‘virtual museums’ would reduce visitation to venues. Other museum professionals sensed that the opposite was the case. Recent Australian and international studies suggest websites encourage venue visitation and greatly facilitate access to information. [13]

The need to deliver information online to the education sector, professional industry, internal users and the general public is now an essential consideration and key aspiration for museums. A consequential question is how to enhance and digitise traditional museum documentation so that it is of sufficient quality for effective online use. This issue has major resource implications for large institutions holding hundreds of thousands or millions of records. Content Management Systems (CMSs) and Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS) jockey with traditional collection management systems as core resource-management tools, particularly to address the imperative for international and national interoperability standards and protocols.

The Australian Museums and Galleries Online (AMOL) project, a key initiative of the Heritage Collections Committee, is an interesting case study reflecting the early efforts of Australian museums to provide online access for national and international audiences to the nation’s ‘distributed national collection’. [14]

A prototype system [15] was built at the Museum of Victoria in 1993 to guide the development of the first Australian Museums and Galleries Online (AMOL) website. The National Museum of Australia (NMA) developed and launched the first AMOL website in October 1995.

In December 1996, the Cultural Ministers Council established the Heritage Collections Council (HCC) to build on the work of the Heritage Collections Committee. The HCC's On Line Working Party guided the ongoing development and expansion of the AMOL website, supported by the Commonwealth Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts. The original principles guiding the website’s development were collaboration, comprehensiveness, convergence, and a regional and national focus.

In January 1998, the Powerhouse Museum took on the role of hosting AMOL. Until 2001, the Powerhouse Museum's AMOL Coordination Unit worked closely with the On Line Working Party to ensure that AMOL continued to provide an effective portal to Australia's collecting institutions, and to the collections they hold.

A notable first came in 1994 when AMOL linked to the Western Australian Maritime Museum’s online databases.

In 1997, some Australian universities, led by The University of Sydney and funded by an Australian Research Council grant, used AMOL as a model to establish Australian University Museums On Line (AUMOL).

In order to facilitate reliable access to the collection data, AMOL established regional servers at the Museum of Victoria, Western Australian Museum, Queensland Museum, the History Trust of South Australia, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston). As a result, by the end of 1998, online users could search the collection records of 52 museums and over 600,000 item-level records. [16]

AMOL took important steps in assisting regional and community museums to provide digital access to their content and collections. Almost 1400 museums across the nation became involved with the project.

In 2005 AMOL was re-badged as the Collections Australia Network (CAN), with greater emphasis on supporting community museums, and coverage of archives and libraries sectors.

For its time, the AMOL project was remarkably innovative, and the team behind the project was involved in working with international bodies to set international standards for museums and in some cases the World Wide Web in general. AMOL was represented on international standards committees and worked with CIMI on Dublin Core elements for museums, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on the Resource Discovery Framework. AMOL represented radical thinking and pushed the available technologies and cooperation of museums to their limits. In 1998, AMOL won a prestigious Museums and the Web prize for ‘Best Professional Website’,[17] sharing the prize with the Getty Information Institute. AMOL won the award for a second time in 2002.

With the demise of the Heritage Collections Council (HCC) in 2001 the guidance, support and leadership given to the AMOL project through the HCC’s Online Working Party was lost. In addition, despite its success, financial support for AMOL/CAN declined in real terms.

The Internet search engine Google has changed the world. Organisations in the cultural sector are its beneficiaries. Their traditional status as trusted sources of information has helped them to establish a similar status in the virtual world.

Web technologies are rapidly evolving in ways that enable people to fully engage with content in modes only dreamed of in the past, as described in Des Griffin’s Introduction to this section. The OPAC 2.0 project (2006) at the Powerhouse Museum, led by Sebastian Chan, incorporated Web 2.0 ‘social media’ technologies for the first, including tagging and folksonomies. This approach enabled the public to contribute as well as consume content. There has been a strong public response to this type of engagement with museums.

The extensive use of technology placed new demands on museum management. Information technology departments were established in Australia’s larger museums in the early 1980s. Along with new requirements for public accountability and regulatory compliance, the backup of digitised information has become a significant responsibility and risk-management issue. These developments have profoundly reshaped the skills that museums need to recruit and cultivate in their staff.

Australian museums can be proud of their reputation as innovators and leaders in the use of technology; however they need to maintain a creative balance between traditional scholarship, research, and the application of appropriate technologies in all aspects of their operations.

The Australian government and state governments have been an integral part of the adoption of technology by Australian museums over the past 40 years. They have been the primary source of funding for most large-scale computerisation and digitisation projects. Continued government support for ICT in museums is essential to ensure that Australian cultural resources held in museum collections remain visible in the online world and accessible to the community.


1 An Australian-developed and widely used early database (released in 1984) suitable for large collections that subsequently evolved into KE Emu (2000), now used across the world in natural science museums with huge collections.

2 Bil Vernon founded Vernon Systems in 1985 after developing a custom dealer gallery application. From this initial system he saw the need for a general museum and gallery cataloguing system, and he began work on a prototype of the world's first commercial PC-based museum system.

3 MDA Museum Documentation Association

5 The name JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, the name of the committee that created the standard. The group was organised in 1986, issuing a standard in 1992 which was approved in 1994 as ISO 10918-1. JPEG is distinct from MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) which produces compression schemes for video. From Wikipedia,

7 A range of standards is available at

9 As Pat Cooke states, ‘Museums, therefore, must constantly interrogate and reformulate their roles, and search for ways of making their collections, their object worlds, more engaging for visitors whose perceptions and expectations are being transformed in any case by the new technology.’ Pat Cooke, ‘Things and technology: museums as hybrid institutions of the 21st century’. From the excellent paper given at the University of Limerick 2005, at

10 European Organization for Nuclear Research – known as CERN, established in 1954 – the world’s largest particle physics laboratory complex.

11 The first website built was at CERN and was first put online on 6 August 1991. It provided an explanation about what the World Wide Web was, how one could own a browser and how to set up a Web server. It was also the world's first Web directory, since Berners-Lee maintained a list of other websites apart from his own. In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It comprised various companies that were willing to create standards and recommendations to improve the quality of the Web. In December 2004 he accepted a chair in Computer Science at the School of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton, UK, to work on his new project — the Semantic Web (this information is from Wikipedia

13 A 2002 study by the Colorado Digitization Program, for instance, showed that for 70 per cent of visitors, using a museum website would increase their likelihood of a visit., Http://

14 The concept of a ‘distributed national collection’ was championed by the Heritage Collections Committee, formed by the Cultural Ministers Council in 1993.

15 The prototype was known as the Australian Museums Information System (AMIS).


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Tim Hart and Martin Hallett, 2011, 'Australian museums and the technology revolution', in Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6