Museums in my pocket
Google has partnered with the Israel Museum to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls and make them available online. These scrolls, dating back to the time of the birth of Christianity, had to be locked up in the museum due to their fragility. Till now only a few scholars and archaeologists were allowed to handle them, because they are almost turning into dust. Now they can be seen and studied by everyone, even on their mobile phones, without causing any harm to the original scrolls.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as: "A non-profitmaking, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment. "
The museums are "open to the public" only for limited hours a day, on limited days of the week, and only at the fixed locations. To see all the artefacts on display in all these museums, man would have to spend a lifetime and all his earnings to travel from country to country, city to city, and still would not be able to see all of them. Some objects would be locked away under high security, or lent to other museums on the day of his visit.
The word museum has come from the Greek word mouseion, 'Seat of the Muses', meant as a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation. Based on this view the oldest museum was the Museum of Alexandria founded by the Macedonian General and Biographer under Alexander, Ptolemy I Soter (367-282 B.C.) Alexandrian Museum was more of a library, and so was the building where inscriptions were housed in Mesopotamia in the 6th Cent. B.C.
The modern concept of the museum where cultural objects are housed could have originated from the time man settled down from a nomadic life to a permanent settled domestic life, when he began to collect objects of interest. He now had a place to keep them and pass onto his children. As inequality spread wider, those who had the power and the means, could enlarge their own collections, borrowing, buying and stealing from the less fortunate.
This trend continues even now, and it was practiced unashamedly during the occupation of the more civilized countries by the invaders from Europe. Today, if the western countries are to return all the items which they stole from the other countries, perhaps they would not have anything worth displaying. That is the pathetic situation where scholars from Sri Lanka and India have to go to the
London museum to research on our own history.
We should be able to study all the historic documents and cultural objects housed in the London Museum, seated at our own desk at home, and at no cost, or at the cost of the internet connection.
The situation is changing. It is only now that museums can be really open to the public, round the clock, round the year, with the rapid advancement of digital technology, communication facilities and the interest created among people to learn not only about their cultures, but also about the history and culture of other people around them.
Augmented Reality (AR) is another technology now catching up with Museums. Inside museums, a visitor can already “handle” objects via their iPads and smart- phones or see dinosaurs prancing through the gallery. Outside, they can use GPS-enabled devices to recognize their location and then populate a Civil War battlefield with video of 're-enactors', or perhaps compare the street view in front of their eyes with a 19th-century version drawn from historic photos in a museum’s collection. The disadvantage is that what we see and experience will be what someone else imagined, which may be very far from what had really happened in the past.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation online collection contains more than 800 artworks by over 300 artists from the Guggenheim’s overall permanent collection of over 7,000 artworks, and they keep adding. The University of California Museum of Paleontology already offers online access to their programs on the history of life on earth. The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, which went online in 1995, was opened in 1683 as the Ashmolean Museum, a gift from Elias Ashmole. The Future Museum is already here with the launching of the Museum with No Frontiers in 1995.
In the near future we would be able to access online all our ancient inscriptions and Sigiri Grafitti, to be read and studied by anyone anywhere on earth.
When all the objects on display in museums and all the descriptions are online, for worldwide access, geographical, political and social barriers would disappear. Several museums, including the Smithsonian, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the British Museum, have established positions for “Wikipedians in Residence.” The Wikipedians push museum data and images into the Wikipedia universe, as well as soliciting and managing content from the wiki-editing crowd. They are using 'crowdsourcing', to provide more and better service to the crowds themselves. This will soon spread to other museums, till someday all the museums will merge into one huge cultural center in the clouds. Then we could have all the museums in our pocket, the same way we would have our libraries.
Let us hope that our children should be able to visit, observe, study and learn all they want about our history, our past achievements and mistakes, on their tablets or mobiles.