Getting out of the Building: A Museum’s Internet Experience

by John Rattigan
from Museum Ireland, Volume 14, 2004

“When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the Internet…now even my cat has its own page”. William Jefferson Clinton, 1996

Museums are being increasingly viewed as information providers and community resources used by people regardless of where they live. When compared with the United Kingdom and other countries the potential of the Internet as a means of providing information and public access to museum collections is still relatively underdeveloped in Ireland. Clare Museum launched its website in 2002 in an attempt to embrace the future by exploiting the World Wide Web as a method of promotion and publicity, a source of virtual exhibitions, a facility for remote scholarly research, and as an outreach and education tool. The Internet has taken the museum out of the building and makes its collections available to all with Internet access, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks per year.

The origin of Clare Museum’s Internet experience can be traced back to 1996 when the Clare Library Service launched its web site.

The library web site describes its service as a:
" …publicly funded resource to be used for information, learning, culture and the imagination thereby improving the intellectual and cultural quality of life of the community, and is crucial in achieving equality of access to the benefit of the information society."

The library was asked to demonstrate its web site to judges of a national competition, the Information Age Project. Organised by Eircom, at stake was £IR15 million for the winning entry for investment in Information Technology and the title of Ireland’s Information Age Town. The library demonstrated the objective of marrying the site with the Intranet browser in branch libraries to create Ireland’s first public library online catalogue, a goal it achieved, becoming the first library in Ireland to do so. When Ennis emerged as the winner in 1997, Clare Library had played an important role in securing the title.

The Information Age Town project had an enormous impact on the population of Ennis in a variety of ways. On the second anniversary of the awarding of the prize to Ennis, 5600 PC’s had been distributed to Ennis homes. Significantly, an additional 500 PC’s had been provided to the town’s schools in specially adapted computer labs, which pushed the education of pupils forward by ten years in terms of resourcing.

In June 2001, a quantitative survey of household ownership and overall levels of usage of PC’s in the town was carried out. It was discovered that while the national average of home ownership of PC’s was 32%, the figure for Ennis was 75%, more than twice the national average. Studies also showed that the typical Ennis Internet user spends an average of three and a half hours per week connected to the internet, spending more time on line than people in other parts of Ireland, the United Kingdom, or the United States.

In 2001, Clare Museum received grant aid from the Heritage Council for the development of a museum web site. When the museum came under the management of Clare County Library Service a short time later, the IT section designed a web site for the museum that was to be hosted under the cultural services section of, where it joined web sites for the Arts Office, Heritage Officer and Clare County Archives . This was the environment into which the Minister for Arts, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and the Islands Sile de Valera TD launched the Clare Museum website in February 2002.

Description of the Site
The Clare Museum website is designed to be a user-friendly resource for schoolchildren, students, historians and the general public alike. It is maintained by the IT section of Clare County Library who perform this task free of charge. It should be emphasised that without this backup the Clare Museum web site would not be possible, as the museum lacks the in-house expertise necessary for maintenance purposes.

Visitors will find information stored under nine menu options on the museum homepage. The names of these sections - with their subheadings in Italics - are listed and described below:

About the Museum – History of the Building provides information on the prior use of the museum building as a school and details on how the building was developed into a museum. The National Context has information on Clare Museums place in the local authority museums sector in Ireland, designation under the National Cultural Institutions Act (1997) and the National Museum of Ireland’s long term loan. Visitor’s Book contains comments from the museum visitor’s book located in the gallery.

Visit Us – Information useful to the potential visitor under the subheadings of Opening Hours, Getting Here, Facilities for a Visit, Admission Charges and School Visits.

News and Events – Press Cuttings provides the museum with instant world wide publicity as it is filled with press releases about museum activities and published articles on artifacts in the collection. Many of the articles are linked to photographs of objects located elsewhere on the site. Events carry information on up coming exhibitions, lectures and launches.

Projects – Community and Partnership subsections provide the museum with an outlet informing the public of community and partnership based activities. Both of these areas are due to evolve significantly from 2005, as the museum develops to meet its social inclusion commitments. Collections list all photographed objects on the site typologically, thematically, and periodically, providing the museum with a means of displaying artifacts in a multiple of ways.

Riches of Clare – Introduction, Earth, Power, Faith, Water and Energy. The web site really comes into its own as a means of displaying artifacts and providing remote access to the Riches of Clare (the museum’s permanent exhibition), objects that are in storage, on exhibition off site or are otherwise not accessible to the public. In the Riches of Clare, artifacts are displayed using the themes of Earth, Power, Faith, Water and Energy. These same themes are used in the virtual exhibition of the website and photographs of 173 artifacts from the more than 500 objects displayed in the galleries are on line. It is therefore not a catalogue, like the excellent Limerick City Museum Online Catalogue which has an awesome 50,000 artifacts available on line, but a virtual exhibition complete with background information and interpretation .

About three-quarters of the objects in the permanent exhibition are on loan from the National Museum of Ireland, and with its kind permission, images of some archaeological material from the Irish Antiquities Division, taken by Valerie Dowling of the Photography Section, have been placed on the web site. It is an ongoing project that will take several years to complete and is funded from the museum budget. As with the Culture On-line initiative in the United Kingdom, the potential reward for providing access to the collections is immense. Finds from important excavated sites such as Poulnabrone, Parknabinnia, Cahercommaun and Roughan Hill have just recently been placed on line, providing exciting research material for school children, university students and historians.

The remaining artifacts on exhibition were collected locally or were inherited from the museum that once existed in the County Library in Ennis. These are mostly of local historical importance, though some such as the letters from Daniel O’Connell, Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell are important and interesting on a national level. John Kelly, an award-winning photographer with the Clare Champion newspaper, has photographed these objects for the web site.

Education: Teachers Guide and Worksheets. These sections contain background information and worksheets for teachers who are preparing to take their pupils to the museum. The worksheets are appropriate for three age groups and can be downloaded by a schoolteacher prior to a visit.

Acquisitions: Recent Acquisitions and How to Donate an Artifact. The research and reserve collection at Clare Museum is small but growing as artifacts are being donated at a steady rate. Obviously these donations cannot be accommodated in the permanent exhibition, but again they are photographed for inclusion under the Recent Acquisitions section. Due to the high profile of the Internet in the locality, the promise of placing photographs of recently acquired artifacts on line often helps to placate donors who don’t always appreciate that it may not be possible or appropriate to place their donation on display in the permanent exhibition. At the time of writing, some 97 objects have been photographed under this section.

How to Donate an Artifact is self-explanatory, and carries a link to the museum acquisitions policy.

Other Facilities – Meeting Room\Lecture Areas, Tourist Information and Video Conferences all provide the museum with the capability to showoff rooms that are available to community groups to rent at a small fee.

Friends of the Museum – Introduction, Benefits and Membership. The Friends of the Museum section indicates the intention to establish such a programme in the future.

Remote Access
Remote access to the collections brings benefits to both the museum and the cyber visitor. All of the artifacts on the web site are captioned, thus providing the visitor with information on the relevant object, but in greater detail than they would find in many museum showcases. The Internet provides greater flexibility in terms of captioning and research, as this form of information technology presents the museum with the ability to extend and update captions easily as new information comes to light.

The enhanced ability of the museum to provide additional information on its collections is due in part to the web site being fully integrated into the library site. The host already contains information on the culture, archaeology, history and topography of County Clare, and is added too on a weekly basis. With over 100 PC’s with free Internet access in the 14 branch libraries in the county, Clare has the highest concentration of free Internet PC’s per head of population in the country. The homepage for each of these is the library site, resulting in everyone using free Internet access being presented with a direct link to the museum site when they sit down to access the Internet. In addition to the menu, a ‘Search this Web Site’ function allows the visitor to access the museum collections by searching.

The Clare Library web site is highly successful. In 2003, 120,000 hours were booked on the Internet in library branches, giving 120,000 visitors access to the museum site. Since 1998, the site has received over 1.2 million visits from 112 countries and territories around the world. The vast majority of web site visits come from Ireland, Europe and the United States with some 19,000 plus cyber visits to the Clare Museum site since it went live in January 2002 .

By exploiting the rich resources of the World Wide Web with links between the artifacts and other web sites, the museum has the ability to easily present a fuller picture of the photographed object and the world in which it originated. Links have also been made between the museum web site and relevant web sites around the world in an effort to attract visitors and promote the museum.

With a ratio of one Internet-enabled PC to every nine students in Ennis schools, the challenge for the museum was to find a way of using the website to help promote the collections as educational resources for the community . Following consultation with the Clare Education Centre it was decided to run monthly quizzes based on the captions that accompany the artifacts displayed on the site. The quiz is put together by the curator and promoted to primary schools by the Clare Education Centre. Students answer the questions, which are placed on the Clare Education Centre web site, by visiting the museum site from their school PC . With prizes awarded to the winner of the quiz, the initiative has proven very successful with schoolchildren, providing them with a method of learning local history that is educational and entertaining while simultaneously improving their IT skills.

The virtual exhibition experienced by pupils entering the quiz also promotes the museum and its “actual” exhibition to schoolchildren, and entry to the quiz by a class is often followed by a physical visit to the museum. There is also a high level of participation from schools located in rural parts of the county where resources are far more limited. Oddly enough, most months there are higher levels of participation from small rural schools than from their Ennis counterparts. This is a welcome development as it is unlikely the museum with its present level of resources would have the ability to make itself as relevant as an educational resource on a countywide basis without the web site. It is also surprising, as these schools are outside the Information Age Town with all the advantages that brings to schools in Ennis. Throughout the county this form of interactive outreach with the opportunity to win a prize has projected a very positive and fashionable image of the museum to local children.

The web site is also proving to be a useful outreach in other ways. Viewers of the museum temporary exhibitions in the branch libraries in Shannon and Kilkee, where space restrictions limit the size of captions, are invited to avail of the free Internet access provided in order to find additional information on the exhibits. Again, during the summer months quizzes are provided and these have been particularly popular in Kilkee where children on holiday at the resort take part in the quiz when inclement weather restricts outdoor activity. In addition, immigrant groups learning English use the web site as an introduction to the museum prior to a visit, helping individuals focus on specific areas of local history, which are easy to grasp linguistically and culturally.

Remote access has also resulted in donations to the museum collections, sometimes from abroad. In late 2001, a letter written by a Clare-born anti-treaty IRA volunteer Patrick Hennessy to his brothers in arms on the eve of his execution during the Civil War in 1923, was donated to the museum by a Dublin family. In due course the letter was photographed, captioned and placed on the museum web site. In April 2002, an American carrying out research on the Internet in Brooklyn, New York came across the Hennessy letter and realised she also had in her possession a different letter written by Hennessy on the eve of his execution, this time to his sweetheart. Contact with the museum was made, and a short time later the New York letter was donated to the museum collection. It is now possible to read both letters on line and compare and contrast their contents and style as the writer addresses his two different passions for the final time. In a further installment to the tale, a relative of Patrick Hennessy in Australia recently contacted the museum with news of yet another “last letter”, again prompted by accessing the existing letters on the Clare Museum web site.

The visitor and the museum benefit from the ability the web site presents to view the finer detail of an artifact, a facility that is difficult to provide to the public if using traditional showcases in a museum. When viewing an image, the viewer can download an enlarged version by simply clicking on the photograph on the computer screen. This capability allows the visitor to read documents or to examine the complex decoration of a chalice. As demonstrated with the Hennessy letters or those National Museum artifacts that are photographed, it also provides the public with access to the collections from their own homes, offices, schools or universities without having to visit the building or put an artifact at risk through handling.

Although no scientific analysis of visitors to the museum site is available, some measure of success can be garnered from the number of hits the web site has received, measured by the counter on the home page.

From monitoring the counter it is clear that most of the activity on the web site comes from schools availing of the monthly quizzes based on the virtual exhibition. Other visitors undoubtedly access the site via the free Internet access at branch libraries throughout the county, while occasional email inquiries from the Irish Diaspora interested in the history of the county from which their ancestors came, hint at another source of interest. The overwhelming evidence suggests however, that the site is most effective when targeted and constantly promoted to specific groups within the community who have access to the Internet.

The challenge going forward is to increase interest among a general population that boasts such high Internet penetration. This will be achieved over time, as the museum raises its profile generally and with the on-going evolution of the web site. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the education work the museum has engaged in with local schools is raising awareness of the web site amongst the future citizens of Ennis and Clare. While every effort will continue to promote the site to the adults of today, these adults of tomorrow will be used to accessing the site regularly and will therefore be understandably easier to reach in cyberspace than the present generation.

The Clare Museum web site is of great benefit, as with this facility the museum is never closed. The collection is no longer restricted within the building, but is available throughout the town of Ennis, the County of Clare and beyond. It is a tool that effectively carries out some of the functions of an education\outreach officer, which the museum does not have at this time.

Many Irish museums, like Bill Clinton’s cat, have a web page dedicated to them. While web pages are very useful, many public sector museums could increase access to their collections by more effectively harnessing the World Wide Web. In-house technical back up, while desirable, is not always necessary. Co-operation with a host site, or the IT section of a local library or local authority can also allow a museum to fully exploit the advantages that this medium has to offer.

John Rattigan is Curator of Clare Museum.

Behaviour and Attitudes Marketing Research, Ennis Residents Survey, 2001

Deegan, G., ‘A Town Logs on to the Information Age’, The Irish Times, Dublin, Friday 24 September, 1999

Ennis Information Age Town, A Connected Community, Eircom, 2000, p27

Mc Donnell, F., ‘Patrick Hennessy Letters’, Clare Champion, Ennis, Friday, November 8, 2002

Smith, C., “Access Education and E-Culture: the Future for Museums” Museum Ireland, Vol 11, 2001, p6.

Web sites:

Clare Library

Clare Museum

Clare Education Centre


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