have been asked to propose a vision of what the virtual museum of the
future might look like, let us say, in ten years from now. We are obviously
dealing with an almost impossible guess, particularly due to my limited
competence in the matter. I have, indeed, some ideas of how things should
go. But it is extremely improbable that my vision will even partially
match the effective developments. In order to propose a reflection about
what is in urgent need, about the guidelines we should follow and the
ways to establish fruitful cooperative work, I need, in any case, to define
a possible trend of development and some view of its final results. And
this implies formulating a long-term vision of the transition of cultural
heritage in the web. This is what I have tried to do, being fully aware
that mine is purely an exercise of wishful thinking.
Visibility on the web is today one of the major concerns for museums the
world over. Many efforts are devoted to web presentations of Museums and
their collections and of cultural heritage at large. The transition of
museums in the cyberspace is still generally conceived as a linear development
of traditional procedures. This means that the style and traditional conception
of documentation and information tends to exhibit a strong inertia in
the new medium. As a consequence of this inertia, the museum world seems
still to be a long way from having fully exploited the potential of the
transition in the cyberspace.
In this new dimension it becomes ever more difficult to accept the constraints
which characterize the traditional activity of documentation and information.
Let me schematically remind you of two of the basic constraints which
are at work in the documentation strategies of the museums of the real
a) Catalogues are conceived as rigorously confined to the objects preserved
by individual museums.
b) Objects are treated as isolated items; only limited attention, is devoted
to inserting them into the cultural and social context to which they pertain,
and to enhance their conceptual genesis, connections and meanings.
me insist upon the trend we observe in the actual scenario of transition
of cultural heritage (museums, in particular) in the cyberspace and upon
the inertia of traditional models of organization and of presentation.
May be worth reminding that Museums, libraries and archives of the real
world are the result of a process which began many centuries ago. Museums
started out in 16th century Europe as promiscuous bodies where
art objects, instruments, artifacts of various nature, natural items,
books and documents were intrinsically integrated and displayed alongside
one another. The conceptual glue of what we would today rate as a hybrid
ensemble was the exceptional character and the uniqueness of all the collected
entities and the curiosity that they aroused in the visitor. Later evolution
of museums, libraries and archives resulted in a process of progressive
separation of objects from books and from documents.
The evolution of museums might be portrayed as a story of ever stronger
specialization. First, the separation of art collections from scientific
collections (during the Enlightenment). Then art collections underwent
a further process of specialization with the separation of paintings (this
marks the origins of the Pinacotheca) from sculpture (sculpture galleries),
from drawings (print and drawing rooms) and from minor arts (decorative
arts departments). The same process took place with regard to scientific
collections. After their separation from art collections, specialization
progressed through the division of mathematical and physical objects from
natural history items; moreover, in the mid-19th century, technological
and industrial collections gave rise, under the impulse of the Universal
Exhibitions, to new independent museums; later on, new institutions devoted
to the preservation and presentation of bio-medical and ethno-anthropological
collections were founded.
This evolution has produced a fragmentation of cultural documentation
and cultural heritage according not only to disciplines, but also to the
various categories of objects (books, documents, drawings, paintings etc.)
and to their different material supports (canvas, marble or stone, paper,
fabrics, timber, metal etc.).
This specialization and fragmentation process has placed all museums in
a difficult position, when it comes to making explicit to visitors the
value of the collection they preserve. The same holds true for libraries
These limitations derive from the fact that objects are presented in museums
atomized and de-contextualized. This makes it almost impossible for visitors
to grasp their real meaning and to perceive their importance. In order
to achieve this goal it would be necessary to re-connect the object to
the context from which it has been extracted.
When dedicating our energies to the digital conversion of cultural heritage,
we have to avoid the mistake of reproducing the fragmentation of objects
and records in different containers, and, above all, their isolation in
specialized and totally irrelated structures (as museums, archives and
libraries of the real world are today).
The new format of the humanities in the digital Age will have then to
coincide with the re-composition of what the material history of cultural
patrimony has fragmented. Once the information has been processed and
transformed into a digital entity, it has no more to follow the fate of
its physical support. There is thus no reason to store it according to
the same systems used to preserve the object it emulates. In the digital
domain there are no buildings or walls, and we are not obliged to reproduce
distinctions based on the typologies of material objects or on the various
nature of their physical shells.
The logical consequence of what I have been saying is that we can finally
re-arrange the records which digitally mirror the real objects in a totally
new orderly architecture. In this way we will introduce a radical alteration
of the traditional system of managing information pertaining to the humanities
and to the cultural heritage. We will thus build new hybrid repositories
Hybrid not in the sense that this adjective has in the librarian jargon
(where hybrid library means a combination of digital and analogical contents),
but hybrid because the web repository is heterogeneously populated by
a variety of different digital objects, which represent material objects,
preserved in different containers.
To achieve these goals, in recent years, growing use has been made of
information technology especially through the development of so-called
virtual museums. My feeling is that the enormous potential of these new
instruments has not yet been fully exploited.
The idea of the virtual museum which seems to be asserting itself, is,
in fact, the idea of the digital clone of the real museum, accepting all
of its structural features. In the digital replicas the museum's architectonic
structure and rooms are reproduced with faithful realism, the lacunae
in the collection are passively accepted; finally, its internal division
into special departments is strictly reproduced. To have meaning and utility,
the “virtual” museum - especially in the web - should rather
be constructed with a radically different configuration from the ‘real’
museum. In cyberspace the real museum should constitute only the point
of departure and return of journeys that are confined neither to the internal
perimeter of the museum, nor to the same typology of items or the same
discipline or genre to which it relates. The visitor should be permitted
explorations not only of objects, but also of ideas and persons, of places
and events, of books and documents, whenever this information is preserved.
The transition of cultural heritage in the cyberspace has thus to be conceived
as the creation of a totally new architecture of knowledge: a meta-museum/library/archive,
with no walls nor physical separations. A totally different construct
from the way in which cultural heritage is arranged in the real world.
In order to make this vision of the future of virtual museum to come true,
the keywords and guidelines to keep in mind will thus be hybridisation
(in the sense described above), re-contextualization, and systematic
enhancement of the network of meaningful connections among the items
of the cultural heritage.
On the sociological ground, one of the corollaries of this radically new
vision of the future web of cultural heritage is that the traditional
division of labour will have to be re-balanced. There is no question that
in the cultural institutions of the real world (in museums, above all)
curatorial concerns have played a crucial role in shaping the physical
organization of the heritage. The fully understandable priority of the
curatorial vision has also deeply affected the development of traditional
documentation and communication strategies, with their strong selective
emphasis upon the patrimony preserved in individual institutions.
In the cyberspace the documentation and communication strategies can be
finally conceived independently of the curatorial priorities and vision.
The autonomy of documentation activity from curatorial concerns will permit
to stress the connections, conceptual similarities and relations among
items of cultural heritage which in the real world are preserved in different
places and containers. In the long run, this new conjuncture will produce
an unheard of integration of knowledge, thanks to the enhancement of the
enormous multiplicity of threads which connect the various items virtually
stored in the immense repository of the web.
The vision of the web as a universal hybrid repository implies that the
implementation of data be conducted in a way that avoids the risk of the
user getting lost in it and allows for him to explore stored data according
to multiple and effective modalities. It will be necessary, first of all,
to offer the possibility of vertical exploration of collections preserved
in individual institutions. But the crucial step is represented by the
possibility of an effective horizontal navigation in the endless virtual
shelves of the web repository.
Vertical exploration can be easily achieved and, in fact, we have it often
at hand in the actual web, even if with different degrees of effectiveness.
Much more challenging appears the solution of the problem of a 360 degrees
horizontal navigation among the digital surrogates of cultural heritage
items in the web space. In order to achieve this goal, a strong change
of paradigm in the standard procedures of web content production has to
be put into practice. One of the key points is obviously represented by
the adoption of shared methods of classifications of the documents published
on the web. We are far from having solved this fundamental problem. Today
individual content providers publish in the web structured archives which
can be vertically navigated. Only the adoption of common standards of
classifications on the part of content providers – which is still
a rare phenomenon – permit the user to some extent to navigate among
data stored in different archives.
Hyperlinking, that is, interoperability among different digital archives,
is guaranteed on a large scale only by search engines; that is by a third
party (the other two being content-providers and users), which has no
role in the content production. Search engines work from the outside,
totally ignoring the conceptual structure of data that they filter. As
everybody here knows perfectly well, search engines use above all statistic
methods. Because of their extrinsic filtering procedures, search engines
cannot guarantee content-driven search.
The actual schizophrenia between content and link providers is one of
the problems of the actual web. It represents a serious obstacle to the
exploitation of the web as a universal and hybrid repository of cultural
heritage. We need then first of all to integrate and tune these two crucial
functions. Moreover, in order to be really satisfactory, especially in
the cultural heritage, links among the documents which are disseminated
in the web should perfectly adhere to the representation of knowledge
embedded in them.
We touch here upon a second strong limit of the hyper-linking system provided
by search engines in the actual web. Search engines filter the web using
words and strings, that is textual elements. But textual search is very
inadeguate in order to filter conceptually coherent content in a federal
digital repository, like the web.
Textual search is ambiguous; it suffers the misleading effects of word
polisemia (both in queries and in answers); moreover, it is almost impossible
to effectively manage the multi-linguistical character of the web; finally,
it is not appropriate to represent and filter extra-textual documentation
(sounds, images, audiovisual materials etc.) which constitute an ever
growing dimension in the web.
Even if some of these limits can be overcome by the adoption of community
multilingual controlled dictionaries, textual classification and search
in the web repository remains inadequate if we look for content-sensitive
linking. In fact content-sensitive linking constitutes a fundamental challenge
for the development of a web of cultural heritage intended as a universal
and hybrid repository to be meaningfully explored horizontally.
In order to achieve this goal we will have to shift emphasis in document
description and hyperlinking from words and textual elements to meanings.
It is at this very point that the semantic web – that is the central
topic of our meeting – comes quite appropriately into play.
In the scenario which I have sketched of the future web as a universal
hybrid meta-repository of cultural heritage, the shift from textual elements
to associations based upon meanings has to be considered as a crucial
step. The re-composition and re-contextualization of the cultural heritage
in the cyber space implies in fact the systematic production of content-sensitive
hyperlinks. These latters will be fully effective only if they are based
upon semantic relationships. Ontological system of classifications, shared
by the specific web community involved in cultural heritage exploitation
- a community formed by subjects who are, at the same time, users and
providers, clients and servers - will guarantee both the rational construction
of a universal hybrid repository and the possibility of effective navigation
Ontologies will serve both as content-sensitive search engines and as
effective representations of the structures of knowledge embedded in the
web repositories, thus paving the way for their use as tools for e-learning
activity and giving the users the possibility of designing personal itineraries
in the web repositories. Users will also have the chance of improving
the efficacy of ontologies, by producing standardized descriptive meta-data
which will become shared knowledge for the community. They will not simply
access data provided by others, but will be able to create added value
to be exploited by the community. Content-sensitive hyperlinking is a
need strongly felt by members of the international community who work
in the humanities and in cultural heritage. This need inspires also the
vision of a recent initiative of the E.C., the ECHO network project.
Other speakers will focus upon the many ways in which semantic web can
be exploited and the technicalities which its adoption involves.
I will limit myself to stress the strong relationship that I foresee between
my vision of what the web of culture and cultural heritage should be in
ten years time, on one side, and the development of semantic web, on the
other. It is basically for this vision and these strong expectations that
the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza has enthusiastically adhered
to the Mesmuses project. We have had a fantastic experience during the
project period, working side by side with our colleagues of the Cité
des Sciences, with Alain Michard and his team, and with the authoritative
partners who have put at our disposal their deep knowledge of the structure
of the semantic web and produced effective tools to put it into practice
in our specific task.
We are very pleased with the outcome of the project. And we hope to have
offered, as content providers (this has been our role), a fruitful contribution
to the definition of the ontology structure and of the implementation
tools. We have clearly perceived the enormous potential of the semantic
web. For this reason we are now planning to use the tools developed by
Mesmuses for restructuring our digital repositories which , up to now,
have been organized according to the traditional data-base structure.
We will use ontological classification to integrate and make more effectively
interoperable the many digital archives which have been built in-house
during the last 15 years. In particular, we are testing this new approach
in two large hybrid archives: Galileothek@ and the Multimedia
Catalogue of our Museum Collections.
We expect further promising developments from the fruitful interaction
which has been established, thanks to Mesmuses, between content-providers
and technology developers. I am confident that this cooperation will generate
a continuous refinement of the ontologies and of the tools to effectively
manage them and an improvement of their capacity, not simply to work as
search engines, but also to represent the structure of knowledge which
is embedded in web archives of cultural heritage.
The experience of Mesmuses has also permitted to isolate some problems
to which we will have to pay attention in the future. I will briefly touch
upon one of these problems.
If we want ontologies to be able to represent the structure of knowledge
of documents in the web repository and to work also as tools which help
in the creation of intelligent road maps, we have to take into account
the fact that, when we deal with the representation of intellectual history
documents (and particularly with the history of science items) we need
recurring to flexible ontological structures. We should be able to adapt
semantic grids in order to make them able to match the structure of knowledge
of the web documents. I shall give you a concrete example.
Everybody immediately understands that the same ontology is not able to
adequately represent the conceptions of the physical world of Galileo
and Einstein. It is not simply that. The same ontological structure has
serious problems in representing Galileo’s and Descartes’
conceptions of gravity and motion. For Galileo gravity is an internal
tendency of all bodies to move towards the centre of the world. That is
to say, a permanent and universal attribute of the body. On the contrary,
for his contemporary Descartes, gravity is a force which operates upon
bodies from the outside. That is to say that it is not an attribute of
the bodies. To make this problem even more complex, one could add that
the flexibility of ontologies is required not only to represent the structure
of knowledge of documents whose actors are different and who have lived
in different epochs, but also to semantically represent the structure
of documents of the same author in different periods of his life.
In order to use semantic web to faithful represent the structure of knowledge
embedded in web repositories of intellectual history, I thus foresee the
need to have at hand more flexible ontologies, maybe through recourse
to meta-statements which submit to chronological or spacial limitations
the value of the monotone statements of the actual semantic classification.
I would like to go back, in my concluding remarks, to the vision of the
virtual museum of the future which I sketched at the beginning of my presentation.
And this in order to reinforce such a vision by stressing what I consider
a fundamental precept or guide-line for the transition of cultural heritage
in the web-space. That is to say that real world museums, libraries and
archives must not be considered as models to be replicated in a linear
way in cyberspace. I should be even more radical: the way in which cultural
heritage is organized and exploited in the real world represents a negative
model which must be abandoned once we have at hand the web and the digital
surrogates of real objects.
The real world museums, archives and libraries tell us incomplete, fragmented
and often incomprehensible stories. The items that they preserve are organized
according to extrinsic criteria which do not help to catch their conceptual
value and relationships: format, physical supports, typological categories,
state of preservation, and so on. No major concern in the real world of
cultural heritage for concepts like hybridisations, recomposition, conceptual
In the real world the curatorial and patrimonial preoccupations have taken
over the documentation and conceptual integration needs, that is the cultural
and scientific exploitation of heritage.
The web dimension offers the space to operate this much demanded reunification
and integration. No room is left here for curatorial concerns. No need
to reproduce the multi-level fragmented landspace of the items of cultural
heritage in the real world. Rather, the multi-dimensional structure of
the web seems born to exalt connections, meaningful associations, conceptual
relations. It would be really a pity to miss this fantastic opportunity.
In the future web of cultural heritage museums will be, at the same time,
individual entities (that is representations of the real museums) and
global and hybrid repositories. Global, in the sense that the
items they preserve will be linked to all conceptually and/or materially
meaningfully connected items. Hybrid, because those connections
will not be limited to items of the same typology, or sharing similar
physical supports, but will be extended to all kinds of documentation.
If the cultural heritage in the web does not look something like this,
let us say, ten years from now, we will have to candidly acknowledge that
the revolutionary potential of the transition of cultural heritage in
the cyberspace has not been fully exploited.
Semantic web is expected to play a fundamental role in this process. Thanks
to the continuous refinement of the methods and tools of semantic web,
and thanks to its universal adoption, I hope that the vision of the future
of museums in the web which I have proposed will prove to be more than