The Digital Museum in the Life of the User

Despite a recent increase of research into the information needs of visitors to digital museums, there is still much to learn about the information behavior of online museum visitors and how museum visitors incorporate digital museum resources into their daily lives. This is especially true when these questions are considered in comparison to similar questions concerning the information behavior of visitors to physical museums. Our inability to answer these questions is unfortunate, as the number of museums offering digital resources to their users continues to grow, as does the number of online visitors, who frequently account for five to ten times the number of physical museum visitors. As we can only expect these trends to continue, it becomes all the more important that we improve our understanding of how museum visitors make use of digital museum resources, online and in house. This panel, therefore, will discuss approaches to and the need for a better understanding of the “digital museum in the life of the user.”

Achieving this goal may prove to be difficult, as it is likely that this approach will be as much a challenge for museums as the transition to studying the “library in the life of the user” has been for libraries. Many museum researchers and professionals are still focused on questions about the “user in the life of the digital museum”. In the process of providing online access to digital museum resources, for example, it is not uncommon for a museum director to ask, “if potential visitors can access our museum’s resources over the Internet, will they still come to the museum?” Despite increasing evidence that this fear is unfounded, many continue to worry that museums will lose significant revenue from would-be visitors who decide there is no need to visit a physical museum if they can access high-quality digital images for free from a digital museum online? The reason this question continues to vex so many museum professionals, however, is that the relevant issue has far less to do with financial remuneration than it does with how users of digital museum resources perceive the integration of those resources into the sociocultural fabric of their everyday lives. The actual question we are unable to answer is: what role does the digital museum play in the life of the user of museum resources?

If a digital museum is truly to serve the needs of its users, we must be able to answer questions such as: • Why do individuals desire access to digital representations of museum resources? • What needs does this help them fulfill? • What is the relationship between digital and physical museum resources according to the user of those resources? • How can we help users integrate digital museum resources into the socio-cultural fabric of their everyday lives? • How can enhanced gallery devices, such as PDAs or tablet computers, help individual visitors interface with or make sense of museum exhibits? • How does increased access to digital information resources affect the ability of the information professional working in the museum to meet the needs of museum visitors? The answers will address these and similar questions in an attempt to explore the fascinating issue of the “digital museum in the life of the user.”

By Paul Marty and Hsin-liang Chen

Editor: Xu Xinlei