Creating Museum-Based Virtual Communities

Sherwood A. Dowling
Smithsonian Institution
United States of America


Museums have done an exceptional job in creating visually compelling websites; however, they generally do a poor job of fostering online community. If museums and other cultural institutions are to serve the virtual community in the same manner as the physical, we must create virtual environments that will encompass much more than online exhibitions or publications. Online communities often can increase website traffic; however, increased website traffic must not be seen as an end in itself. Communities are often recognized as the traditional building blocks of culture. Creation of virtual communities can enhance museums' capacities to substantively engage constituents, foster the transformation of outreach programs from local to national/international, and offer the opportunity to forge connections with people who might not consider a museum as a place that would welcome them.

The development of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art website serves as an example of the evolution of a website from a hierarchical gopher-like information store, to a visually compelling multimedia publication, to an online reflection of current place-based programs.

Just as the Internet is for everyone, museums and other cultural institutions should be for everyone. Creation of virtual communities can assist with the transformation of passive surfers into active participants, reducing a sense of elitism and serving the integration of information "have-nots" into the global cultural milieu.


Net-based community

"...the tendency of those involved in building graphical virtual worlds is to create visually compelling worlds that look good, but do a poor job of fostering social interaction. Many of these systems have more in common with lonely museums than with the vibrant communities they set out to create." (Kollock, 1998)

Peter Kollock's reference to "lonely museums" suggests that he is unaware of the transformation in most museums from dusty artifact warehouses to lively engaging places visited by people of all ages. Nevertheless, the point is well made that visually compelling websites may do a poor job of fostering online community. Museums have done an exceptional job in changing from lonely places to frequently visited destinations of choice. This paper argues that museums and other cultural institutions can and should similarly expand their virtual presence from visually compelling presentations of information to interactive destinations that nurture constituency and a sense of community.

The concept of net-based community has been a recurring issue for members of the Internet Society. A sampling from the Society's publication, On The Internet, reveals concerns that echo Kollock's perspective. In particular, Perry states that "the power and virtue of these online communities have been trumpeted loud and clear. But if we examine community building to date, we do not see the clear successes of that notion" (Perry, 1998, p. 7).

Many critics claim that the Internet offers an escape from society and, thus, is counter-productive to the creation of a sense of community. The current state-of-the-net in relation to this claim is hotly debated and well beyond the scope of this essay. The issue at hand is, more narrowly, can museums and other cultural institutions provide virtual places to create and husband a sense of community?

What purpose would a museum virtual community serve?

Online communities often can increase website traffic (Cashel, 1999). Often cited as a reason in the popular media, increased website traffic must not be seen as an end in itself. Communities are often recognized as the traditional building blocks of culture (OTA, 1990, p. 188). Stewardship of culture involves the diffusion of knowledge as well as research and the collection and preservation of artifacts. Thus, the active participation of community members is essential to cultural stewardship. Communities and their cultural institutions often form a symbiotic relationship. Creation of virtual communities can enhance the institution's capacity to substantively engage constituents.

The creation of virtual community can also serve the integration of cultural heritage into the popular consciousness. The humanities have traditionally explored the desirability of different human roles and actions (Bruner, 1986); however, as Gardner points out: "In more recent times, a different set of cultural stories has increasingly taken over. The creations of the media ... and the successful products of the consumer society ... have come for many to crystallize notions of heroism, beauty, and the good life" (Gardner, 1995). Online communities are growing at a rate of twenty percent per month and users also spend more time at community sites (Cashel, 1999); thus, the Internet offers an opportunity to compete with mass media such as television.

When museums primarily served the wealthy or urbane who had the resources and interest, they were perceived as elitist institutions. While museums on the whole have made great strides in serving a diverse population, art museums are still subject to the elitist label. This is ironic given the preponderance and importance of visual information throughout the culture. Creation of a virtual community offers an opportunity to forge connections with people who might not consider an art museum as a place that would welcome them.

Evolution of the Smithsonian American Art Museum website

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has long been recognized as a leader in the use of information technology in the pursuit of its mission, particularly with respect to scholarly research. With the growth of the Internet, the museum expanded availability of online information beyond the research community, and with the emerging dominance of the World Wide Web, the museum's model of information delivery has been the virtual museum. As in the "real" museum, the website presented exhibitions with a distinct point of view, attention to design, and user-friendly presentation. However, the real museum is filled with people: attending openings, browsing the galleries, taking guided tours, listening to talks and panel discussions, observing artist demonstrations, creating art in the activity room, shopping in the bookstore, meeting friends in the courtyard, and eating lunch in the museum's restaurant. As Kollock suggests, successful creation of virtual community will involve less emphasis on graphic design and more attention to the fostering of social interaction.

Figallo (1998) characterizes virtual communities in terms of three factors: interactivity, focus, and cohesion. For cultural organizations, focus is a natural product of the institution's raison d'être. Cohesion describes member relationships within a virtual community rather than the environment that supports them. Interactivity, then, is the key variable in designing and nurturing a museum virtual community. In Figallo's schema, interactivity is not a matter of downloading multimedia or activating Java scripts. Rather, for the purpose of describing virtual communities, Figallo describes interactivity as a continuum of member-to-member communication on websites ranging from shrines to theaters to cafés. Figallo asserts that virtual community does not exist when all content is supplied by the site provider. Shrines are described as websites that offer no member-to-member communication forum and present little member-created content. Theaters present events in which website visitors are mostly passive; however, opportunities are often available for online conversations with experts. Interaction, through chat or asynchronous discussion, is initiated and stimulated by the content of the site. Cafés, by comparison, are devoted to member conversations where personal interaction, rather than the content of discussion, is paramount. The nature of museum as website provider limits the potential for online cafés; however, interaction along Figallo's interactivity continuum can be provided that reflects a museum's core values and mission.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum website has evolved from what was essentially a gopher site with illustrations, to an online multimedia publication, to an interactive site that attempts to engage constituents with dynamically changing content. As the website has evolved, the museum has made modest steps in the development of a virtual constituency.

The original website -- version 1.0

The museum's original home page was based on the metaphor of a visit to the museum where a tourist would have access to exhibitions, a scholar would be able to electronically visit the curatorial office, teachers could visit the education office, and so on, via the ismap that served as the museum's electronic front door. Access to administrative information was based on the information model of gopher and ftp (File Transfer Protocol) and reflected ignorance of the potential nature of the Web. Despite the naive assumption that website visitors would want access to voluminous administrative information, the Smithsonian American Art website was named to PC Magazine's top 100 websites in 1996.

ismap from original home page
ISMAP from the original homepage

Without question, the reason for this award was the museum's first virtual exhibition, The White House Collection of American Crafts. While being somewhat naive about the evolving nature of the World Wide Web, as might be expected of a Smithsonian museum, the website was on top of the medium in relation to exhibitions.

White House Crafts splash page
Original splash page for virtual exhibition

The inaugural version of the website had only one place where visitors could add content: a "comments book" where people could leave messages about the site and read the comments of others. Using Figallo's schema, this site would be considered a shrine, where users go to see content rather than interact with each other. Figallo would probably consider the comment book a place for e-offerings. Unfortunately, the website was hacked using the comment book and an administrative decision was made not to allow users to write directly to the server disk. This has complicated the task of incorporating user content.

The museum's principal efforts to develop community have involved educational outreach. Subsequent to website launch, the museum collaborated with the Texas Education Network (TENET) to encourage use of online resources by TENET's kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) educators and their students. Listserv and e-mail were the primary modes of project communication and user content was incorporated into the museum website via an online webzine, ¡del Corazón!

webzine features page
Extract from ¡del Corazón! features page

Educator content included curricular activities involving art, civics, English as a second language (ESL), local history, multiculturalism, science, and Spanish. For example, an elementary school ESL teacher created a lesson inspired by Carmen Lomas Garza's Camas Para Sueños.

webzine activity page
Extract from ¡del Corazón! activity page


A middle school science teacher created a lesson based on natural dyes used in the Río Grande weaving tradition.

webzine activity page
Extract from ¡del Corazón! activity page


¡del Corazón! also incorporates the means for website visitors to add content through online activities associated with the artists, lessons, and themes presented.

online activities contents
Extract from ¡del Corazón! comentarios page


For example, visitors can submit riddles and rhymes.


Riddles and rhymes

You can create riddles and rhymes for lotería game monitos.

Read the riddles and rhymes submitted by our visitors.


Share your riddles and rhymes with us!

Please type your name:

Where are you from? Tell us the name of your school and the region or town.

Please type your riddle or rhyme in this space:

If your client doesn't support forms, mail your riddle or rhyme to: Managing Editor, ¡del Corazón!


and read the riddles and rhymes submitted by other visitors. (in part)


Here are the riddles that our visitors created!

What ends at the beginning and begins at the end? There are three inside of it and three outside of it.


A doctor and his son are in a car crash and then rushed to the hospital. The doctor on duty comes in and says, "I can't operate on him, he's my son." How can this be?


¿Que es lo que huele en una panaderia?
La nariz del panadero.

Toña Elena Aguilar, Dayton Grade School, Dayton, OR

Despues de haber leído ¡del Corazón!, me trae a la memoria los siguientes recuerdos de mi niñez. Tenía mi abuelo por costumbre invitar a todos sus nietos durante las vacaciones escolares a su finca. No había electricidad en la finca, así que teniamos que lavantarnos al amanecer y acostarnos a la puesta del sol. Para nosotros las noches eran momentos inmemorables de cuentos, adivinanzas y rimas hasta que uno a uno se dormía y el silencio se apoderaba de la noche. A continuación comparto algunas que recuerdo.


Maria Sanjur, Alexandria, VA

Click here to tell us your riddles or rhymes.

Extract from ¡del Corazón! comentarios page

Website visitors can also submit artwork depicting lotería monitos and create online lotería tablas using the monitos created by themselves and other visitors.


Lotería Online

In lotería, each player uses a game card illustrated with small figures or monitos. Carmen Lomas Garza was inspired to create her tablas by first looking at traditional monitos. Sometimes a riddle or rhyme is associated with a monito.

If you were to design your own, what would your monito look like? We invite you to create your own monitos for our Lotería Database. Create your own monitos and generate a lotería tabla online by downloading our directions right now!

While waiting for us to get your monito, you can enjoy viewing some of the lotería tablas other visitors have created.

Let's Play Lotería

How to Play Lotería

Play Lotería with:

Carmen's monitos

Visitor's monitos





Extract from ¡del Corazón!comentarios page

However, with removal of the comment book, the webzine remained the only way for users to add content to the museum's website.

The revised website -- version 2.0

As the museum gained experience, the original website was updated until it became apparent that a re-release would more effectively meet museum and user needs. Version two of the museum's website featured a framed environment and flatter architecture to improve navigation, removed text heavy information, and redesigned linear features to take advantage of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) capability. The design metaphor moved from virtual museum toward an online multimedia publication.

revised homepage
Extract from revised homepage

Unfortunately, the Smithsonian is a rather conservative organization and the decision not to permit users to write directly to the server remained in place. Although the revised site was more user friendly from a navigation perspective, it remained, in Figallo's terms, a shrine.

Although restrictions on direct addition of user content hindered creation of virtual community in Figallo's schema, development of virtual community continued in related online venues.

The museum's participation as a partner in a U.S. Department of Education Challenge Grant, The Community Discovered, involved creation of an affiliated website where user content was a principal feature.

CD Curriculum Units

Curriculum Units

Units are to incorporate into existing curriculum the four strands of the grant: arts integration with a DBAE approach, technology integration, constructivist learning theory, and interdisciplinary curriculum.



The Community Discovered Logo

News & Announcements

(December 09, 1999)

Map and Image Links from Road Trip '99


CD Resources


Web sites & sources of information to assist participating teachers.


CD Special Interest Groups

Special Interest Groups

Special focus on Posters, Latino Art, Storytelling, Folk Art, Public Sculpture, and Post Office Murals.

Extract from Community Discovered Homepage

This six-year project involved development of model educational telecomputing activities by educators in Nebraska in collaboration with the museum and other content providers. Nearly 200 teacher-created units form the foundation of the website. Collaborative activities online and face to face have created a community of learners in the fullest sense.

In addition to creation of a project website, other means of computer-mediated communication have been used that involved user-created content as well as real-time conversation between museum staff, educators, and students. The most notable of these, ConferNet '99, was the first online academic conference featuring participation by K-12 students.

ConferNet info page

Extract from Community Discovered ConferNet '99 page

Apart from a keynote address produced by the museum, student content and conversation constituted the majority of project substance. Software provided by ACTV was used to provide simultaneous Web access and chat.

ConferNet '99 screenshot
ConferNet '99 screenshot

In addition to ConferNet 2000, two other modest conferences are planned for the current academic year using ACTV's eSchool software.

The new new museum website -- version 3.0

On January 3, 2000, the museum closed its doors and began a building renovation expected to last three years. While 500 of the museum's best works of art have been organized into exhibitions that will travel the country during this time, the museum's primary public venue will be the Internet.

most recent homepage
Extract from Smithsonian American Art Museum homepage

No one in the museum believes that you can duplicate the experience of actually visiting and seeing artwork with your own eyes. Our director, Dr. Elizabeth Broun, calls the immediacy of an artwork its "aura." You can't compensate for the loss of an artwork's aura on the Web with more information because no one wants to read a lot on the Web. While the website does provide access to nearly 5,000 images of artwork, emphasis has been shifted to the human element; the artist, curator, critic, and others. The museum still maintains the position that visitors should not write directly to the server; however, the revised site provides an e-mail address associated with many features and staff respond or edit posts.

calendar page

For example, a curator might present a featured object and, through a mailto script, answer visitor questions. Similarly, exhibition reviews elicit user opinions that can be sent via e-mail to staff and subsequently added to the website. Games and puzzles for children offer prizes for the first correct answer and researchers can ask our online librarian, Joan of Art, reference questions.

While not linked to the museum's website, we continue to engage the educational community directly using computer-mediated communication tools such as conferencing and chat. Museum docents, the volunteers who provided gallery tours for school groups, are developing virtual tours where students can ask questions in real time about artwork available on the website. For example, as part of the Ohio Consortium for Conceptual Learning, the museum has obtained video-conferencing equipment and is experimenting with hybrid applications where source materials are available on the Web and discussions are conducted via video conference.

Creating virtual communities on the Web

The active participation of members is essential. This involves much more than viewing virtual exhibitions and other multimedia narratives. Jones discusses the relationship:

Narratives are not, of course, communities, though they may be artifacts of community and may represent a good portion of what communities do to maintain and reproduce themselves over time. If we are to create a sense of community beyond mere recognition, we require far more than its construction, physical or virtual -- we also require human occupancy, commitment, interaction, and living among and with others. The sense of community that is created on the Internet is in large part incidental to activity that takes place therein.... (Jones, 1997, pp. 15-17)

With large collections of primary source materials and long experience with participatory educational models, museums are natural hosts for virtual participation as described by Jones. Consideration of recognized community design principles and incorporation of existing aspects of current best practice will foster creation of a sense of place and feelings of community. Ultimately, however, success will derive from the community's ability to meet the real needs of its members. As in "real life," the needs and the means to meet those needs are largely derived from the members themselves.

Meyrowitz suggests "that changes in media may have much more to do with recent social trends than is generally thought" (Meyrowitz, 1985, p. ix). The current negative connotations associated with Hollywood and violence come to mind; however, a similar dynamic could be a force for a reduction of elitism associated with cultural institutions. More important, museums and other cultural institutions now have an opportunity to serve the larger public good. In this context, Mitchell calls for the reinvention of public space:

The twenty-first century will still need agoras -- maybe more than ever. But these will not always be physical places. They will operate at an extraordinary range of scales, from the intimately local to the global. And even where they look familiar, they will no longer function in the same sorts of ways as the great public places of the past.

Under these new conditions, though, the simple, ancient principles of public space remain crucial. If public life is not to disintegrate, communities must still find ways to provide, pay for, and maintain places of assembly and interaction for their members -- whether these places are virtual, physical, or some new and complex combination of the two. And if these places are to serve their purposes effectively, they must allow both freedom of access and freedom of expression (Mitchell, 1999, p. 97).

Museums and other cultural institutions have often been characterized as valuable public places, for education and aesthetic enjoyment, places that nurture constituency and a sense of community. Mitchell suggests that since "new technological systems are complex social constructions, we must understand our emerging options, choose our ends carefully, and build well" (Mitchell, 1999, p. 12). A good start in this endeavor would be for cultural organizations to begin creating virtual communities on the Web.


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Cashel, J. (1999). "Community is a Commodity." New Media Magazine, 9.9. Available

Figallo, C. (1998). Hosting Web Communities: Building relationships, increasing customer loyalty, and maintaining a competitive edge. NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Gardner, H. (1995). Leading minds: an anatomy of leadership. NY: Basic Books.

Jones, S. (ed.)(1997). Virtual Culture: Identity and communication in cybersociety. London: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Kollock, P. (1998). "Design Principles for Online Communities." PC Update 15(5): 58-60.

Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No Sense of Place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior. NY: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, W. (1999). E-topia: "Urban life, Jim -- but not as we knew it" Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Office of Technology Assessment, Congress of the United States (1990). Critical Connections: Communications for the future. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Perry, J. (1998). "One Byte at a Time." On The Internet 4 (1): 7 & 15.