RUNNING A VIRTUAL MUSEUM

Introduced by Paul Elkin, Museum Consultant, Curator, BRLSI, on 12 December 1997

The BRLSI has an impressive array of documents, letters and artefacts which it wishes to make accessible to the public and, more particularly, to those interested in studying them. Economic circumstances do not allow it to display them in the hitherto traditional way.
Paul gave an interesting description of how society has funded public museums in the past. Much of this was done by local authorities during the last 120 years. By the end of the last century they were allowed to spend a half-penny rate for the upkeep of museums. In modern times, Sheffield has set up a charitable trust to look after museums and collections such as those held at the BRLSI.
Although the decision to create a Virtual Museum was initially driven by a recognition that we were unlikely in the foreseeable future to be able to display the collection, it is becoming evident that a Virtual Museum may provide access in a form not possible by the traditional mode of display. By use of a computer and the Internet 'visitors' from anywhere in the world can examine those items from our collection which have been entered into this Virtual Museum in more detail than would be possible for items in a glass case. Normally, the explanatory notes are rather cryptic because it is impracticable to display long text for each item on show. The computerised display can provide for an increasing depth of explanation, to suit the visitor, and will also direct the visitor to other locations where complementary items are held. This has a particular merit in our case because a number of items, formerly part of the BRLSI collection, have become dispersed, though their locations have sometimes been traced. Recovering them could present problems because we may not now be able to house them, but referring a visitor to another Web site or to the location is easy. As more museums develop Virtual displays of their own collections they meld to become a single information source.
In the discussion it was argued that a museum can appropriately be considered as ‘the site where Muses gather’, where people are inspired by what they see. The preservation of documents and artefacts and their display in an attractive and secure fashion should not be the principal preoccupation of the Curator, making the collection accessible is more important than the mode of display by which this is achieved. But for serious study it will often be essential to be able to handle the items.
Roger Cloet.