3. Restoring the n-dimensionality of exhibits

Museums by their nature decontextualise their exhibits, the context frequently reconstituted minimally by the card adjacent to the glass case. Yet every exhibit is inherently an n-dimensional object having a history, perhaps a maker, a place and culture of origin, and so forth. What is it made of? what was it used for, by whom, when, and why?

Early in Literary Machines, his personal account of the Xanadu hypertext project, Ted Nelson draws attention to what he calls ‘the true structure of information’:

"What you store should be the true and basic structure of the information you are dealing with … When you work on something at a computer screen, you should see that thing by itself, with no intrusion or distraction by the system. What the thing is — its natural structure to the user — is what you should see and work on: nothing less, nothing more, nothing else. … The question in computerizing anything should be what is the true structure? Having answered that, you design a system that stores and shows that true structure."

The relevance of this for the construction of multimedia and distributed hypermedia third generation museums should be clear: typically, the 'virtual museum' is presented as a set of annotated images directly derived from the coffee-table book, in turn derived from the real museum, itself an unreal environment for the presentation of decontextualised realia. The new media offer us the opportunity to build new digital museums, exhibitory environments in their own right, enfranchised from the physical constraints of buildings, geographical location, and ownership. The digital museum will restore the exhibit to its environment, just as it will restore to the exhibit its multi-dimensional facets of interest, allowing the user to explore 'what the thing is — its natural structure to the user', unencombered by the props and plinths characteristic of the 'look-don't-touch' ethos of first-generation museums.


Nelson, Literary Machines, 1993, p.2/6; his italics)