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Audience: Responses and Discussion


Summary of Paper

Spencer Crew presented an oral summary of the paper he wrote with his colleague from the National Museum of American History (NMAH), Katherine Spiess. He emphasized that collection documentation and digitization need to accommodate a growing diversity of audiences and differing appreciations of objects. He called for a collaborative approach both within and among institutions for collecting, virtual lending, and creating links between Web sites. The technology almost mandates such collaboration, and new audiences demand it. The for-profit world is moving away from the concept of a captive audience; cultural institutions, which are in direct competition with entertainment conglomerates, need to become part of this environment of rapid change. What museums have uniquely to offer is the original, authentic object. Therefore, a museum site should offer the object in facsimile but also encourage audiences to experience the original object within the museum environment.


  • Laura Campbell, National Digital Library Program, Library of Congress
  • Samuel Sachs II, Frick Collection
  • Patterson Sims, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Institutions need to create a digital presence in order to remain relevant and reach new audiences. When libraries approach these audiences, they need to provide the appropriate content, the necessary tools for navigation, and a high level of service. Achieving this is a process of trial and error. What does it mean for our institutions to become audience-oriented? Do we give people what they want or what we think they should want? If we are in competition with consumer-oriented entities, we must distinguish ourselves by offering something unique. Libraries do not know their audience in the same ways that commercial interests know theirs, but they do know their collections. That is their competitive advantage.

For museums, the stakes may be different. There is a legitimate concern that in the race to be relevant, museums will be tempted to expand their audiences by compromising the high standards of display they maintain. For example, it is important not to oversimplify the content of a digital presentation of art in the mistaken notion that this will broaden its appeal. The personal experience between a person and a work of art is what museums are about, and the digital environment cannot provide that. For the Frick Collection, creation of a Web site to increase access to the collections does not mean, as it may in libraries, putting as much of its holdings online as possible. It means encouraging visits to the museum collections themselves. Encounters with original art are impossible in the digital environment. A comparison of two paintings by Constable, for example, would fail as a digital exhibition, because that can be done only by examining the originals side by side. Art museums must reach out to the public more than libraries in order to engage audiences and lure them into the physical environment of the gallery. This approach informs the Frick Collection’s site, which offers a virtual tour of the museum as well as of parts of the collection.

There is an important distinction between exhibiting objects in a history museum such as NMAH and in an art museum such as MoMA. The NMAH may need, as Mr. Crew said, to create a context for its objects because they have been removed from the context that gives them meaning. The opposite is true for MoMA’s obligations to its art objects. The real context for a work of art is the museum display. The Web cannot properly represent that object, no matter what context is created online, but it can provide rich information about objects and can do so round the clock, not only during museum hours. The Web can stimulate interest in the original object and increase audience size. The Web not only creates new audiences for art but also widens the circle of authorized interpreters. It expands authority for presentation from the traditional curator to the media or Web staff who create the digital version of an exhibition. The Web changes the balance of power in a museum. In the end, the media or Web staff for an exhibition will reach a wider audience than will the expert curator who relies on the traditional medium of the published catalogue. In contrast to libraries’ claims that that they can satisfy the information needs of online patrons by serving digital surrogates of their holdings, a strong Web presence is not a surrogate for serving museum collections, which must be experienced firsthand. Digital initiatives at the Museum of Modern Art, far from reducing public interest in visiting the museum, have actually increased attendance to the highest levels in the institution’s history.

Discussion of Audience

Administrators of art and historical museums dominated the discussion of digital audiences. This reflected in part the museums’ recent focus on education and outreach, which are not traditional concerns of libraries. It also appeared to be a direct result of museums’ understanding of the term “increasing access to collections” to mean bringing more people through their doors. This interest in attracting visitors was referred to as marketing or outreach, depending on one’s point of view, but it was seldom called service in the librarian’s customary use of the term.

Level of Presentation and Interpretation

The call for maintaining high standards in museums while reaching out to new audiences online resonated with many discussants. Some expressed concern that the number of visitors to museums may be soaring, but the intellectual and educational purposes of museums are in danger of being lost in the rush to marketing. Others said that the curatorial staff members of many museums voice the same concerns. Making intellectual content accessible to a broader audience is a professional challenge that curators must meet.

The Web makes possible a layering of access for different types of audiences, from those who are simply checking the hours a museum is open to those seeking to experience a virtual exhibition. How do we know who is looking for what? Institutions have insufficient data about how long visitors remain at a Web site or how often they bookmark a site or return to it later. There is very little meaningful information about how visitors use library and museum sites. The use of elapsed time of site visits as a way of measuring visitor interest is outmoded and irrelevant. Studies such as those at the Minnesota Historical Society indicate that there is no correlation between time spent by a visitor in a gallery and the extent of that visitor’s appreciation or understanding of an exhibition, in part because visual learning is much faster than text-based learning. Again, the contrast between patterns of use for art museum Web sites and historical museum sites came into focus. Visitors to the latter are using them much as they would use library sites, that is, for personal research rather than in preparation for an exhibition experience. Both art and history museum administrators agreed that the Web makes it possible for museums to stay open 24 hours a day, and that ways should be found to make the content of Web sites available free to teachers and students. They also agreed that different levels of service and content can be provided to fee-paying audiences or to institutional or net members.

Librarians did not express the same interest in using digital media to create new audiences. They did note, however, that many of the issues that have dominated museums’ concerns about audiences are now beginning to affect the physical environment of libraries. The architectural design of new public library buildings is being influenced by a desire to attract users to an environment that functions more like a museum. Even college and university libraries are now investing resources to create learning environments within libraries, just as has been the case historically with museum exhibitions and programs.

Copyright and Intellectual Property

An overriding concern for all was the fact that copyright restricts much of what could be available on the Web. In some cases, the digital copyright laws are clear about what is permissible and what is not. Far too often, however, institutions are faced with ambiguous situations. When they are, they err on the side of caution and do not put things online. Once something is online, the institution loses control over its use. The user is always in charge. The idea of layering information for various users, some fee-based and some free, will not work in an environment in which institutions are constantly second-guessing themselves and cannot even decide, for example, if the use of thumbnail images infringes rights or invites lawsuits.

There were general assertions that museums tend to focus first on the rights of the creators, while libraries are concerned above all with fair use. This was related both to the differences in the ways in which libraries and museums are funded (as a rule, libraries do not charge admittance and thus have no financial incentive to encourage onsite visits) and to traditional notions of mission (museums have maximum control over terms of presentation, while libraries emphasize delivery of collections any time, anywhere). In practice, however, both types of institutions are behaving in similar ways. Both are wary of violating the rights of creators because they are valued donors. To alienate a creator is to risk warding off a future donor. The ambiguity of fair use and fear of litigation have kept both museums and libraries from moving aggressively in mounting multimedia collections, even if they are more amenable to digital presentation than traditional textual and fine arts visual resources. Finally, both museums and libraries are thinking about how to use what intellectual property rights they have to offset some of the costs of supporting digital services.


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