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Collections: Museum Collections Online

by Bernard Reilly, Chicago Historical Society

Museums have traditionally existed to acquire, preserve, interpret, and present works of art and artifacts. In recent years, some major institutions have emerged that have modeled new museum functions, for example, celebration (Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum), remembrance (the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.), and even advocacy (the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles). In addition, there are many children’s museums and science museums that have no permanent or core collections. Nonetheless, the care and presentation of collections still consume the lion’s share of the energies and budgets of most American museums.

Because gallery and wall space are finite, most museums possess more items than they can present to the public in their own galleries, through loan exhibitions, or in print publications. Unlike libraries, which aspire to provide access to all of their holdings, museums customarily make their collections available on a selective basis. These limitations impose a regimen for the selection of works to be displayed and published that involves interpretation and judgment. Art museums and history museums usually present objects in an instructive or narrative framework. In choosing items to be presented under their aegis, museums routinely make decisions regarding the quality and importance of those items.

Service Models and the Curatorial Role

Museum curators acquire works, document and organize them for access, and present some of them in more or less interpretive settings. In acquiring and documenting works of art and artifacts, curators, like librarians, have traditionally followed what economists term the “just in case” service model. That is, they build collections of long-term historical value, artistic value, or both and then compile and generate authoritative, often voluminous, data on individual works for use by scholars, specialists, and (increasingly) lawyers, who may or may not materialize on any given day on the museum’s doorstep. The curator’s presentation of such works to the museum’s larger public is most often not on a library-like, patron-by-patron basis but is in the context of an exhibition or a publication that is aimed at a larger audience.

The long-term maintenance and administration of museum collections are governed by an elaborate framework of law, policy, and practice that has evolved over many years. That framework addresses issues of retention, disposal, accessibility, and management of the museum’s collection assets.

Digital Collections and Services

Digital technology and the network capabilities of the World Wide Web vastly expand the possibilities for the presentation of museum collections. Although museums have long been able to circulate collection objects in traveling exhibitions and disseminate images of them in publications, slide sets, postcards, and films, digital technology offers a means of dissemination that is far less costly and, in some respects, superior. Once a digital master of an object is created, reproductions can be made virtually cost-free, transmitted over the Web almost instantaneously to an unlimited number of users, and made available on this worldwide network round the clock. They can be kept indefinitely, without being taxed as inventory (at least not yet) or running the risk of fading or pigment discoloration. Use in digital form protects the original object from theft or damage.

The information attached to the digital image can also be easily revised and upgraded without the traditional attendant press costs. Artifacts in digital form can also be enriched and illuminated by hyperlink juxtaposition with related museum objects, texts, data, spoken word, music, still and moving images, and a host of other ancillary resources. The experience and understanding of the original work can be enriched beyond what is possible in print through the addition of software that provides valuable functionality, such as the ability to rotate a portrait bust in pictorial space or reassemble the far-flung fragments of a Roman mosaic.1

In effect, these new capabilities alter the economics of museum collections administration. Digital technology enables museums to make their collections more freely available outside their walls. It also allows museums to behave more like libraries by providing access to more, if not all, of their holdings, albeit in surrogate form. By removing the limitations of wall and gallery space, along with printing and binding budgets, digital media enable museums to offer what Abby Smith, in her paper, refers to as “a comprehensive source base for researchers.”

With these advantages come burdens. Like libraries and archives, museums now must manage the thousands of digital surrogates they create in addition to the original pieces themselves. In the object-oriented world of museums, the digital surrogate carries considerably less weight as a stand-in for the original collection piece than digital files of manuscripts or maps in a library setting. Yet increasingly, the cost and value of such surrogates are compelling museums to treat these images as valuable, collection-like assets and to devote sizable resources to their control, preservation, and use.

Current Applications

To what extent have museums chosen to exploit these new capabilities? A look at current museum Web offerings suggests that although museums have embraced the interpretive and analytical capabilities of the new media, most have not exploited the potential these media offer to deliver larger amounts of collections content. In the virtual world, as in the analog domain, most museums provide selections rather than comprehensive collections. Roughly summarized, these selections consist of the following:

  • masterpieces and other works chosen to illustrate the richness and range of an institution’s permanent collection
  • selected items from exhibitions that the museums have mounted, hosted, or both
  • highlighted individual works, with educational, analytical, or other contextualizing commentary

Most often, the works that do appear are presented in thumbnail or less than half-screen format and at a relatively low screen resolution. More extensive museum holdings in “higher fidelity” tend to be presented within restricted environments that are open to limited audiences. These environments include password-protected university Web sites and consortia databases of works of art that are disseminated on a site-license or subscription basis. The Art Museum Image Consortium (AMICO), as one such consortium, presents digital images of works of art owned by member museums on a Web site that is licensed for educational uses.2

A few museums have declared their intention to place on the Web either their entire holdings or significant portions of their collections. For example, in January 2000, The Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted all of the approximately 2,000 paintings in its European Paintings Department on the Web. Similarly, the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, in an “effort to behave more like a resource and less like a repository,” have begun to mount high-resolution images of their entire permanent collection on their Art Imagebase Web site. As a condition of membership, each of AMICO’s full members must agree to contribute digital images of 500 works a year to the consortium database until their entire collection is documented.

Museums tend to revise their Web sites often, removing and replacing artifacts and works to provide fresh content to casual and repeat visitors rather than retaining them as permanent features. Exhibitions featured on the Web are sometimes archived for a period but rarely are kept indefinitely.

Selection Factors

The following factors seem to be driving museums’ decisions as to what collections and collection items they put on the Web and under what conditions they do so.

Intellectual Property

The potential for unlimited, unauthorized copying and distribution of images posted to the Web exposes museums to liability for infringing creators’ and publishers’ copyrights and subjects’ publicity rights, as well as for committing other violations of intellectual property. These restrictions make Web dissemination of all works that are not clearly in the public domain a matter of risk management or subject to the painstaking process of obtaining item-by-item clearances. Museums have dealt with this problem in various ways. The San Diego Museum of Art has embargoed the display on its Web site of any works from its modern collection because of copyright restrictions.3 Fear of infringement has caused other museums to restrict reproductions to small, low-resolution display images.

Cultural Sensitivities and Community Standards

The desire to avoid the risk of offending constituent groups can also influence selection. On the Web, museums reach far beyond their traditionally self-selected audiences to a more diverse and unfamiliar community of users. With this expansion of a museum’s constituency, the likelihood that the content it offers will be objectionable to someone increases accordingly. Paintings can violate community standards of decency, historical cartoons can be offensive to particular ethnic groups, and objects with special religious or cultural significance can be considered inappropriate for display in the “secular” environment of the Web.4


Because current digital technology is limited in terms of display size and resolution, certain kinds of museum objects lend themselves to Web dissemination better than others. (Anne Kenney’s paper discusses these limitations in depth.) Original works on paper, such as architectural drawings, maps, and posters with substantial text, as well as costumes and other works that require scrutiny of detail for full appreciation show poorly on the Web. Likewise, three-dimensional museum objects, such as sculpture, armor, and architectural fragments, often depend for their full effect on characteristics such as mass and scale, which are not communicable in a digital image.


Because digitization projects are expensive, they often must be underwritten by special funding, and the interests of funders often contribute to determining the content. What are major corporate, government, and private funders supporting on the Web? On the one hand, they are supporting educational materials and tools for the K-12 audience; on the other hand, they are supporting technologically innovative research and development projects. Museums’ own revenue-generating activities can also influence their selection decisions, skewing content toward their more “licensable” images or, conversely, limiting display resolution on those same pieces to prevent loss of potential income through unlicensed use.


A prerequisite for presenting museum collections on the Web or in any medium is the availability of complete, authoritative, curatorial documentation and consistent, high-quality image capture. Although digital technology offers an easy means of dissemination, the cataloging and systematic duplication of sizable collections of museum objects can require many years to accomplish. Hence, holdings that are already well documented and photographed normally rise to the top of the list of museums’ candidates for the Web.5


Most museum Web sites are devoted primarily to promoting museum visitation, visibility, and products. Often more prominent than collections on these sites is information about the museum: how to get there, current exhibitions and programs, what to see, and what one can buy. Esther Dyson (1998) has said that the most scarce and valuable commodity in the Web economy is the attention of consumers, and that organizations will have to add value and functionality to their content to build audiences.6 Sometimes this richness of content will be at the expense of breadth of content.

Distribution of the Selection Decision

The complexity of the technology involved and the scale of the financial commitment required by digital technology tend to remove museum Web content decisions from curatorial departments, the traditional loci of museum exhibition and publication decisions. Where the responsibility and, often, the impetus for determining Web content reside vary from museum to museum. Some Web projects originate in technology or imaging services departments, some in marketing departments, and others the museum director’s office. A number of museums, like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, have set up Web editorial committees that have representation from both senior management and curatorial offices.7 In other museums, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, the publications department administers the Web site relatively autonomously.

Future Digital Collections

Beyond the near term, what will library and museum Web offerings eventually add up to? For purposes of discussion, here are three of the many possible models or approaches that museums and libraries might adopt to deliver collections electronically. Although neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, these models represent fundamentally different strategies for populating the Web.

  • The Selective Model presents selected works from library and museum collections. Because it is subject to the internal and external selection factors cited above, this model could result in significant blind spots in library and museum Web offerings. Notably absent from these offerings, for example, might be items of a potentially problematic or disturbing nature, works produced after 1923, works and artifacts considered less accessible to a broad audience, and poorly documented or unattributed works. Conceivably, the public could be left with low-resolution images of “safe” and popular materials from the precopyright period. These offerings, moreover, would be fluid rather than permanent.
  • The Collections Catalog Model would provide Web delivery of high-quality digital versions of whole library and museum collections or cohesive bodies of materials from single libraries or museums. These would be accompanied by authoritative information about the works and artifacts to facilitate searching and analysis and, possibly, by software tools for manipulation and analysis. Delivering these materials is extremely costly in terms of preparation time, technology, and (potentially) rights clearances. The materials would also require long-term maintenance.
  • The Shared Holdings Model is a modern variation on the traditional catalogue raisonné. This model involves assembling on the Web digital “collections” of like or related objects that are drawn from the holdings of several museums, libraries, or both. The shared holdings approach has been used successfully with holdings of ancient papyri, medieval manuscripts, and the like, where the multiple parts of an object or set of documents are held by different institutions. Like the collections catalog model, the shared holdings model is a very resource-intensive approach. Digital resources created through this model would also have to be maintained and updated indefinitely. Costs could be shared among participating institutions.

Concluding Thoughts

Although museums and libraries will continue to differ in the materials they collect and make available onsite, putting collections online poses many of the same constraints and challenges to both kinds of institutions. Given the extraordinary expense involved in creating and maintaining digital collections, the biggest challenge they both face is to determine which collections work online and which do not. When a painting or a book is digitized, what makes that individual artifact unique and uniquely interesting is lost, and what remains is a bitstream. By virtue of their traditional missions and resources, museums and libraries see the opportunities offered by online collections quite differently, and that is reflected in their presences on the Web. If, as Anne Kenney argues, libraries and museums are developing a new service paradigm, then we must study the behaviors not only of users online but also of the objects, or the digital artifacts, with which they interact.


Web site addresses noted in this paper are valid as of January 20, 2000.

Bearman, David. 1997. New Economic Models for Administering Cultural Intellectual Property. In The Wired Museum, edited by Katherine Jones-Garmil. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.

Dyson, Esther. 1998. Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. New York: Broadway Books.

Fine Art Museums of San Francisco 1998. Art Imagebase [Web site]. Available from

Steiner, Christine. 1992. Controlling Our Images: Museums and the Licensing of Imaging Products. Museum News, (July-August): 62-64.

Whitney Museum of American Art. 1998-1999. The American Century [Web exhibition]. Available from

Zorich, Diane M. 1999. Introduction to Managing Digital Assets: Options for Cultural and Educational Organizations. Los Angeles: Getty Information Institute.


1 See, for example, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s The American Century Web exhibition (1999), which incorporates audio files for a director’s tour of the exhibition, film clips, and interactive features such as a time line and notebook for assembling the viewer’s own tour.

2 For more information on the wide range of considerations and options for dissemination of museum images, see Zorich’s Introduction to Managing Digital Assets: Options for Cultural and Educational Organizations (1999), Steiner’s “Controlling Our Images: Museums and Licensing of Imaging Products” (1992), and Bearman’s “New Economic Models for Administering Cultural Intellectual Property” (1997).

3 Available from

4 In developing its Web site (, the National Museum of the American Indian has had to scrupulously avoid reproduction of Native American grave goods and other items associated with the dead.

5 The Metropolitan Museum of Art acknowledged that the availability of comprehensive documentation and photography was an important factor in the museum’s decision to mount its entire European paintings collection on the Web.

6 The Minneapolis Institute of Art has used collection images as the basis for a value-added “product” by offering ready-made electronic postcards of works of art in their collections on its Web site.

7 The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Museum Internet Task Force is chaired by the museum’s senior vice president for external affairs and includes among its members both the director and president of the museum.

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