Museum sends art home to customers

FRAMINGHAM (04/05/2004) - Founded by sea captains in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum has long displayed the rarities brought back from their far-flung travels. Now the recently renovated museum is working to make those objects of art more vivid for visitors--and to continue that experience after they leave.

Like museums the world over, the Salem, Mass., museum is using the Web to connect with customers in an online digital gallery called Artscape. The goal is to change how visitors, including the visually impaired, explore the museum's collection--among the nation's largest at 400,000 works of art, 400,000 rare books, 2 million rare photographs, 2 million pages of manuscript and 27 historic buildings. Artscape displays the entire collection online and allows museum visitors to create personal online galleries.

Artscape works in tandem with the museum's free audio tours. Using a telephone device, visitors can punch in the number associated with an object on display--a Chinese Moon Bed, for example--and listen to a curator's overview of the work. Insert the telephone into a cradle connected to a kiosk, and the kiosk asks the user for a name, password and e-mail address. The kiosks download this information and create bookmarks, at www.pem.org, of favorite objects.

Later, the museum sends an e-mail with a link to Artscape so that the recent visitor can browse more items related to the Chinese Moon Bed, such as a circa 1860 photo called Treasury Street, Canton, by Felice Beato.

John Grimes, the museum's deputy director of strategic initiatives, says Artscape is designed "to help people engage in the creative human experience, and give people tools for further inquiry and access." Users also can search video and audio clips, definitions and book excerpts.

Sam Quigley, president of the Museum Computer Network, says art museum curators "are aware of the public mandate for easy access via the Web to their collection," adding that he believes roughly two-thirds are working on Web-related projects for exhibited works. Built for US$75,000 with an Access database, Flash multimedia application and a Google search engine, Artscape enables what Joshua Duhl, a rich media analyst at IDC, says is the promise of online digital access--maintain interest so that visitors "get to hold onto the experience."

Since its 2003 launch, Artscape has added details that museum visitors can't get. Its online exhibit of Thomas Seymour furniture provides insight into the 19th century craftsman's workmanship that only handling the pieces could provide. (Security guards object to such attempts.) A feature set to debut this month describes objects for the visually impaired.

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