Search Engines: Second site Behind the screens at the museum

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THE 24 Hour Museum Website puts its finger on the $64,000 question with its slogan "Museums, Galleries and Heritage for Everyone". Although public museums are common resources, they have always been more accessible to some than others. In the past, distance and disability were probably the greatest obstacles. Affluence has ameliorated the former, policy the latter but, since the 1980s, admission charges have raised a new barrier between the public and its patrimony.

Now, the New Labour government has pronounced the goal of free admission. While we wait for freedom, the 24 Hour Museum is in place, performing an important new service in the cause of museums for all. It is brought to the Net by the Campaign for Museums, at the behest of and funded by the Department for Culture. Also involved is mda [sic], a body which helps museums and similar organisations make good use of information technology.

The result is a directory of over 2,000 British museums, which can be searched according to location, type of collection and facilities. One would-be visitor might call up a list of all the museums in, say, the Yorkshire region. Somebody with a special interest, such as the Wars of the Roses, might add the "Weapons and War" option to help plan a tour of relevant museums. Others might exclude museums which lack disabled access, baby-changing facilities or parking.

A couple of dozen institutions are participating in a pilot scheme to link their own Websites more closely to the 24 Hour Museum. These range from the British Museum site to the cheap and cheerful Gosport Museum pages. Many regional museum sites compare very favourably with those of the giants. The Welsh Slate Museum and the Museum of the Welsh Woollen Industry have an impressive Net presence because the National Museums and Galleries of Wales have a very attractive graphic template for their Websites, projecting a stylish identity and encouraging the jaded surfer to linger. Many virtual visitors will never make it to Llanberis or Llandyssul, though - nor to London. The further away a museum's publications can be seen, the more the goal of accessibility demands that the museum's holdings be presented on-line.

For scholarly researchers, the priority may be catalogues and databases; for the public, virtual exhibitions are the way forward. Some museums, such as the London Transport Museum, use photo presentations to offer glimpses into their galleries. The Museum of London has a cluster of pages about Spitalfields and the archaeological excavations in progress there. These efforts pale in comparison with the achievements of two institutions taking part in the 24 Hour Museum pilot project. One is the Tate Gallery, which presents both database and exhibition in the form of a collection showing catalogue details and thumbnail images for 8,000 of its works. Some museums talk about the digital future. The Tate has delivered it.

The other is Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry. Most museum sites are the Web equivalent of saloon cars. This is a spaceship. It comes in two versions, one of which demands less computer power and software. The higher tech "shocked" version is based on Shockwave animation software (if you don't have it on your machine, there are links to download the necessary plug-in). A luminous green outline of the museum turns in three dimensions; the museum logo of a cone and a sphere performs clever graphic manoeuvres.

Although much of the animation is for its own sake, some makes useful points. A reaction timer, for example, demonstrates how people respond more quickly to sound than light, because the latter requires more neural processing. Exhibits like these could form the on-line museum of the future, existing only on the Net.

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