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Online access to the arts: list of virtual museums and databases

March 13, 2011

Adobe's virtual museum

Since the early 1990s, CD-ROMs and then internet were recognized as useful ways to catalogue and share access to the collections in the world’s museums. As technology progresses, the possibilities for virtual access continue to evolve. With one foot in museum education and the other in research, online access to museum collections now takes different forms: from the most basic static catalogue-style image and text (for general visitors), detailed catalogues (for scholars), graphics-heavy browsing features, virtual tours of real spaces, and online exhibitions that don’t exist elsewhere.

Here is a very partial working list of websites ranging from virtual museums to some of the best online catalogues.

Online exhibitions and virtual collections

Speculum screenshot

Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae provides users access to high-resolution digital versions of sixteenth-centyr prints of Rome using zoomify technology. The database was ideated by Prof. Rebecca Zorach and was one part of a three-part project that included a physical exhibition and a catalogue. Users are invited to develop itineraries and email them for addition into the website.

The Brilliant Line is an exhibit from the Rhode Island School of Design that permits very close observation of Early Modern prints to explore their physical manufacture. Very slow loading time in Flash.

Adobe Museum of Digital Media is the first truly virtual museum designed as a physical but semi-impossible structure (by Italian architect Filippo Innocenti) and curated by Tom Eccles with exhibitions designed for this virtual space.  As Adobe makes Flash, they use it, and again here it is very slow to load.

RAI’s impossible exhibitions collect Italian masterpieces “virtually” in real spaces using high resolution photographs. The effect is basically a photomontage

Virtual museum tours

The Louvre offers 3-D tours of its real spaces as well as imaginary exhibitions mounted just for the web.

Google Art Project (Feb 2011) allows you to explore some of the world’s major museums with street-view technology.

One of the best virtual tours I’ve ever seen is of Naples’ MADRE museum.

And of course everyone loves seeing the Sistine Chapel on the computer screen but did you know you can also hang out in the archives?

Libraries and Archives

National Archives UK ( provides photos and textual descriptions of priceless objects like the Magna Carta and Shakespeare’s will, making them accessible to scholars and the general public.

British Library London ( ), similarly to the national archives, makes their most precious manuscripts available online. In recent years they’ve improved their technology to include “flip through” style access.

Most national archives in Europe provide a section of their treasures online, such as the one for the Netherlands (find a list from UNESCO). Italian state archives are pretty far behind but thanks to the Mellon Foundation and other granting agencies in the USA, the Medici Archive Project makes the Medici-related materials in Florence’s state archive available online.

Physical museum databases & research projects online

The Louvre’s databases is one of the most complete collections of individual databases dedicated to specialized areas in the museum and it’s very scholarly. Each has a structure made necessary by the type of object (prints and drawings, for example, is treated separately). Scholars who go to the Louvre in person are given access to the museums’s archives with boxes of supplementary material about each object, not all of which is online but it’s often mentioned in the bibliography.

It’s hard to know under what category to place the National Gallery of London’s Raphael Project that gives online access not only to zoomable images of each work but to imagery taken during restoration and study, such as xrays, UV light, as well as a complete bibliography and loan history.

Guggenheim's online catalogue

The Guggenheim has a searchable database of selected artworks from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. The site currently contains over 700 artworks by nearly 300 artists from the Guggenheim’s overall permanent collection of over 7,000 artworks. Invites exploration by proposing 2 featured works and browse by artwork type, but catalogue entries are just text and image. [PHOTO]

British Museum’sexplore” feature provides attractive material for the casual browser as well as full catalogue information and professiona high-res photo purchase options for the scholar.

The National Gallery in Washington DC’s website is pretty old and basic, but the information contained in their collection area is always very reliable, and in some cases is connected to exhibition mini-sites.

The Art Institute of Chicago and the Victoria and Albert Museum also have really good online catalogues.

Physical museum collectives

The Virtual Museum of Canada (, begun in 2001, is really more a single space and software that highlights many museums in Canada and provides them with system through which to upload “virtual exhibits”. A good idea for a big country with many small museums who might not have strong websites.

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