The Digital Presence of Museums and the Implications for Collective Memory

Carla Everstijn, Kent State University, USA


This study examines the role cultural heritage professionals envision for their institutions’ digital presence, finding that far from being secondary to the physical institutions they represent, cultural heritage websites are experiences in and of themselves. Through digital-only resources and experiences, cultural heritage institutions are making possible a “visit” not replicable in the physical museum. Many galleries, libraries, archives, and museums are attempting to engage online visitors in a variety of ways, creating opportunities for user participation and personalization of their experience. In addition, because of their roles in managing, disseminating, and curating information, cultural heritage professionals are in the position through these online visits to influence the collective memory of society. What opportunities are cultural heritage professionals creating on these sites, and how are visitors engaging with them? This study presents the results of exploratory interviews with cultural heritage professionals about their expectations for user participation and how they envision their institutions’ digital presence. It includes a discussion of the implications for shaping the collective memory of society and directions for future research.

Keywords: digital cultural heritage, collective memory, museums, museum websites, museum professionals, user participation

Introduction and Perspective

Changes in technology and society in the last several decades have resulted in changes in visitor expectations regarding cultural heritage institutions.  Visitors expect to access cultural heritage information whenever they need it and from wherever they are (Cameron, 2003; Marty, 2008).  These changes have provided cultural heritage institutions with the challenges of digitizing their catalogues and collections, implementing websites and applications for mobile devices, and creating opportunities for visitors to engage with and even collaborate in their digital experiences.  Because of these developments, questions about human information behavior have arisen not only regarding how visitors engage with digital cultural heritage but also regarding how cultural heritage professionals are framing the digital experience for visitors.

As cultural heritage institutions expand their audience through their online presence and greater accessibility, their role in society—both locally and globally—is more important than ever.  Indeed, researchers exploring the significance of museums in society in recent decades have identified museums as impacting the formation of national and regional identity (McGee & Harrower, 2017; Smith, 2002; Stainforth, 2016b), public discourse and social change (Hafner, et al., 2007; King, et al., 2016; Rottenberg, 2002), and collective or shared memory (Hafner, et al., 2007; McGee & Harrower, 2017; Stainforth, 2016a). Because cultural heritage professionals make decisions about how to build and maintain their collections, which items to make accessible online, and what information to disseminate about them, cultural heritage institutions have the power to influence and even shape the collective memory of society.

Current Theoretical Considerations

One of the most significant theoretical trends in the literature concerning cultural heritage is the concept of collective memory.  The concept originated with Durkheim in the early twentieth century and was subsequently developed by Halbwachs (Darity, 2007). For Halbwachs, “memory” did not denote the individual subjective experience of what one remembered; rather, it was the influence of society, or the collective, on the individuals that comprised society. According to Halbwachs, memory is acquired in society, and it is also in society that people “recall, recognize, and localize their memories” (Halbwachs, 1992). He contrasted “collective memory” with “history” by defining history as the remembered past, no longer an important part of people’s lives. Collective memory, in contrast, is the active past that forms people’s identities. Assmann (1997) linked Halbwachs’ conception of collective memory to similar conceptions in other fields, such as collective psychology, historical consciousness, and mnemohistory.  Still other scholars prefer the term “social memory studies” to describe the body of work to which these concepts and ideas belong.  In addition, “collective memory” is often used interchangeably with “social memory” (Olick & Robbins, 1998).

Mnemohistory is perhaps the most relevant to Halbwachs’ conception of collective memory in its application to cultural heritage institutions.  Mnemohistory is “concerned not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered” (Assmann, 1997). This is important in looking at the interplay of the objects and information cultural heritage institutions make accessible to users online, and how users are participating in and even creating online content. Mnemohistory advocates for a theory of cultural transmission that views history as an active process of “meaning-making through time” (Assmann, 1997).  The process of meaning-making is dynamic and ongoing, allowing for iteration of meaning and interpretation without end. This conception of meaning-making meshes well with studies in cultural heritage informatics and museology that explore the meaning of objects and experiences to visitors, as well as the implications for society (e.g., Latham, 2007; Stainforth, 2016a, 2016b). Iterations of the meaning-making process occur for the individual, affecting his or her consciousness of self.  Taking this conception one step further, researchers assert that this also occurs at the group and even societal level, thus forming and shaping collective memory, which is itself dynamic and continuous (Hirst, et al., 2018; Wertsch & Roedinger, 2008).

Stainforth (2016a) noted that libraries, archives, and museums have traditionally been associated with retaining some form of collective memory.  In the last two decades, these institutions have been dubbed “memory institutions,” a term awarded because of their increasing connectedness through online networks and digital media. Studying the large-scale, collaborative online cultural heritage site Europeana, Stainforth discovered the significance of digital memory, which has found form in both virtual systems communicating through networks and as a means for information accumulation, storage, and retrieval. Dalbello (2004) noted the importance of studying how digital libraries are involved in the production of knowledge, because this will lead to understanding how memory institutions are shaping society’s record of cultural heritage. At the same time, opportunities for users to engage in and contribute to cultural heritage sites are opening. King, et al., (2016) noted that as users create and contribute content, they contribute to the construction of knowledge. This raises questions regarding sharing authority and ownership of the past.

Related to these issues is another important theoretical trend in the literature, participatory culture. Three recent studies addressed the question of what increasing user participation in cultural heritage may mean. In their study of the cultural value of digital engagement with heritage, an interdisciplinary group of researchers related experiences in digital heritage to “broader questions about public history and history from below,” noting that ownership of heritage has moved beyond traditional institutional bounds and that this raises questions about how societies understand and make use of the past (King, et al., 2016, p. 79). In a reflection on the relationship of cultural heritage to society, archaeologist Holtorf asserted that, as with culture, heritage must serve society in definable ways, and the meanings and interpretations people assign to objects have become more important than the physical substance of the objects (Holtorf, 2012). Citing examples of new ways that cultural heritage is being used in contemporary society, he concluded that there is a new cultural heritage that derives its authenticity from popular culture. As Simon’s work indicates, it is, therefore, important for both professionals and users of cultural heritage to understand and address the implications of increasing user participation (Simon, 2010, 2016). Participation may be light or shallow, such as a social media “like,” or deep or prolonged, such as uploading and curating a personal story (Acott, et al., 1998; McKercher, 2002).

In documenting user participation in a national collaborative cultural heritage project in Ireland, McGee and Harrower (2017) reflected that the project’s digital platform integrated user contributions and was, therefore, an example of creating a more pluralistic narrative of the past. This type of endeavor contributes to the shared memory of society. Shared memory, according to Margalit, differs from collective memory in that it not only brings individual memories together, but it also creates a dialogue between them in order to form a richer understanding of the past (Margalit, 2004).

These theoretical trends raise intriguing questions about the future of the digital environment in the broad terms of collective memory and participatory culture, and more specifically about the role of digital cultural heritage in contributing to mnemohistory and shared history.  For the purposes of this study, the broad term “collective or social memory” is used, with the understanding that the concepts discussed above carry implications for further study of the impact digital cultural heritage has in the lives of its users.  It is, therefore, important to turn to the literature on online cultural heritage sites to look at how users are participating in online culture heritage.


User Participation in Online Cultural Heritage

Despite the emphasis in the literature on the need for libraries, archives, and museums to adopt a user-centered approach, there are few studies of online museum participation, or of users of online cultural heritage sites in general.  This may be a reflection of two things:  traditional ownership of cultural heritage by institutions—and therefore institutional definition of what constitutes cultural heritage—and uncertainty about whether online cultural heritage sites have established functions sufficiently independent from those of physical entities. As conceptions of ownership of cultural heritage shift to reflect the increasing participation of users, the role of museum websites and online museums is expanding. Indeed, research by King, et al., (2016), Marty (2007) and Skov (2013) indicates that users view online cultural heritage sites as a necessary complement to physical libraries, archives, galleries, and museums.

Given the increase in the number of online cultural heritage sites and the greater accessibility of cultural heritage material online, what opportunities exist for users to contribute, and how are they participating in digital cultural heritage? A review of studies on user participation revealed two main categories of user participation in digital cultural heritage: participation through creation or co-creation of online content and participation in the design or testing of specific digital tools. Because content creation involves visitors making meaning of their experiences, studies about participation in content creation may pave the way forward for better understanding online visitor experiences, and therefore, provide museum professionals with valuable insight as to how to maximize the potential of their websites and applications for mobile devices. Such studies would also provide insight as to how collective memory, as a dynamic and continuous process, is affected by the content selected, and whether it is taking place more locally, nationally, or internationally.

Previous studies have examined user participation in social tagging (Vliet & Hekman, 2012), digital storytelling (McGee & Harrower, 2017; Vliet & Hekman, 2012), online sociability (Liew, 2015), and accessing 3-D artifacts on mobile devices (Alelis, et al., 2015). Taken together, these studies indicate that cultural heritage institutions are looking for new and creative ways to engage users in the digital environment.

Vliet and Hekman (2012) found that both social tagging and storytelling can contribute to information retrievability and promote user involvement. McGee and Harrower (2017) observed that collaborative public history projects can contribute to the development of more complex narratives of the past, and thus provide a more complete view of history with shared authority. They also can evoke new partnerships across the arts, culture, and society.

Liew (2015) proposed that the concept of online sociability is useful in developing a pathway toward the collaborative construction of digital cultural heritage. The pathway identifies the purpose, people, and policies in the contexts of before participation, during initial contact, throughout participation, and post-participation in the project. Liew’s pathway may be helpful to museum professionals who want to facilitate and sustain user engagement with online resources, and particularly for those who want to facilitate the desired conditions for deep or prolonged online participation.

Engagement with digital resources has become an increasing area of focus for museum professionals and systems designers. Alelis, et al., (2015) found that regardless of age, participants enjoyed experiencing museum objects through digital modalities and had emotional responses to them. Participants indicated that seeing the digital versions of the objects did not lessen their enjoyment of them when they saw them in the physical museum. Although the study did not address the use of online cultural heritage sites directly, its findings about user experiences of 3-D and AR objects indicate that further research needs to be done as to how online cultural heritage sites can maximize visitors’ experiences with objects in their online collections as well as the best practices for doing so.

This also leads to questions about the intentions of those behind the creation and content of cultural heritage websites. Given their role in defining, disseminating, and curating the digital experience for visitors, cultural heritage professionals are uniquely situated to impact the visitor experience of a greater number people than are able to visit the physical museum. Knowing that visitors want to feel, experience, and make meaning from their digital experiences, how do cultural heritage professionals conceptualize their institutions’ websites, and what role do they envision for the sites in shaping the collective memory of society?


Perspectives of Cultural Heritage Professionals

This study presents the results of a set of exploratory interviews conducted to answer the following research questions: What opportunities are cultural heritage professionals creating on their institutions’ websites, and do online visitors have unique opportunities not available in the physical museum? How do professionals see their institutions affecting the collective memory of society?

Method and Limitations

The researcher developed a structured interview to address these and related questions about the relation of the website to the museum’s mission and its physical space, as well as how the website shapes the online visitor experience. The term “website” was understood as that part of the museum accessible to visitors online. In order to compare the perspectives of online visitors with those of museum professionals involved in the creation of website content, the interview also included questions about the placement of resources and opportunities for personalization and participation on museum websites. These questions were similar to Marty’s (2008) questions about online opportunities for museum website visitors so as to compare the results. The complete set of interview questions developed for this study is in Appendix A.

Taking part in the interviews were five museum professionals from major cultural heritage institutions in Northeast Ohio, all of whom were directly involved in the content of their museums’ websites. All participants were employed in the digital communications departments of their museums. Two represented art museums, two represented social history museums, and one represented a science museum. Their time of employment at their institutions ranged from six months to over ten years. Four interviews were conducted face-to-face, and one took place by telephone. The interviews ranged from 30 to 45 minutes and were conducted in April and May 2018.

The present study has several limitations that create opportunities for future research. First, although the interviews were structured and allowed participants to answer in greater depth than in a scorable survey, the small sample size of cultural heritage professionals requires additional research to ascertain the “generalizability” of the findings. A larger sample is needed to determine whether the observations of the professionals interviewed here reflect the experiences of the majority of cultural heritage professionals working in the digital environment. Second, while the interviews were structured by a set of specific questions, the open-ended answers provided by participants were not quantifiable. It is, therefore, not possible to infer statistical significance from the information provided. Finally, because the interview participants were from five of the most-visited museums in Northeast Ohio, this may have led to bias. Future studies using surveys with quantifiable answers could replicate this study and be undertaken across cultural institutions of different sizes, cultures, and locations. It could also be expanded to include galleries, libraries, and archives that have established a multi-channel digital presence through their websites and social media.


The results of the study are organized around the major research questions posed to cultural heritage participants. Each participant was asked first how the museum’s website reflects the mission of the museum. All participants stated the importance of the museum maintaining a website, with one participant noting the importance of the website as both an artistic platform and a communicative tool. The participant also noted that the website serves more visitors than are able to visit the physical museum. This is an important issue facing museum professionals, as studies have shown that the number of online visitors is increasing and may even be exponentially higher than the number of visitors to the physical museum (Fantoni, et al., 2012; Marty, 2007).

All participants said that the museum’s website reflects the museum’s mission, and three participants noted the dual function of the website as a provider of both basic information for the physical museum (e.g., hours of operation, facilities, and directions) and content (about collections, exhibits, special events, and such). All participants emphasized the importance of the website in engaging visitors and providing an accurate depiction of what is available in the physical museum. Importantly, one participant emphasized the website’s function as a stand-alone experience, separate from the physical museum.

Resources. Every participant shared that above all, it is important for the website to be visually appealing. Important resources for visitors on the websites include images of items in the collection, collections data, research materials, and archived content. The onsite experience and links to social media were also cited as important resources for visitors. Two participants stated that the museum blogs are important resources. One participant stated that 80% of website content should be video and images. This is despite the recognition of the difficulty for many museums of finding a suitable multi-functional platform—one that houses collections and archives, but also manages financial transactions. The participant stated that videos are an essential part of the museum’s website, and the museum currently uses links from videos on the website to the museum’s channel on YouTube. Another participant who noted the difficulty in housing videos on the website expressed the desire to change platforms altogether. A third participant expressed the importance of archiving exhibits from the physical museum, especially if they are not permanent exhibits, and described the effort underway to archive past exhibits and make them accessible to visitors on the website. These activities are essential components for collective memory at several levels—the level of remembrance of the exhibit and the artist, the museum and its changing physical collection, and the place of the museum in local and international contexts.

Goals. Participants expressed a range of goals for the museum websites, from driving admission to providing a transformative experience for visitors. One participant noted the importance of providing an intuitive experience of the website, where information can be found quickly and easily. Another participant stated that the museum website should be visually arresting and relate well to the physical museum collection. Similarly, a third participant said that the website should interact with the physical collection and inform visitors about exhibits and events. A fourth participant stated that the website should be an experience in and of itself. This contrasted with the perspective of the participant who stated that the website is the “workhorse” of the museum, providing information to bring visitors in to the physical museum. This variation in perspective may be, in part, a reflection of differences in the museums’ audiences and collections. For example, the participant noted many online visitors are teachers and school children looking for information for planning their visit or doing school projects. The website-as-workhorse perspective makes sense when the website is conceived of as a marketing or communicative tool to drive visitors to the physical museum, and when basic information is available on the website that enables visitors to purchase tickets, obtain directions, and find information about amenities. However, this perspective also reveals a narrow vision for the museum’s digital presence and does not acknowledge its potential for contributing to collective memory.

Relation to physical museum. When asked if the website should offer the same information, resources, and activities as are available in the physical museum, participants indicated that the websites offer more or different information and resources than are available in-house. This insight is significant in light of the findings of a previous study of online visitors that found over 62% agreed or strongly agreed that these aspects of the websites should be the same (Marty, 2008, p. 90). That museum websites today offer more or different information, resources, and activities than are available in the physical museum may reflect developments in technology that have taken place in the ten years since the previous study was conducted, as well as the recognition that museum websites provide opportunities to engage visitors in new and unique ways. It also indicates the recognition among museum professionals that the digital presence has the potential to be an experience in and of itself—not a replacement for the physical museum, but a separate experience that can be meaningful for those visitors who may not be able to come to the physical museum.

The cultural heritage professionals interviewed for the present study cited as examples of more or different information and resources the greater depth of content available online about items in the collections, as well as the opportunity to create related content that links to items. Two participants stated that different resources are available online than in-house. Examples included online-only access to videos and archival resources. In fact, in the case of archival resources for two museums, the only way to access them is online. Similarly, for another museum, information and resources pertaining to past exhibits are only available online, given budgetary and space constraints, which prohibit the museum from making the information available in the physical museum. Such constraints have forced museums to look at online options, which have created new opportunities to shape collective memory. In terms of activities available online, most professionals noted the importance of the opportunity to find basic information. They also emphasized the opportunities for visitors to link to social media through the websites. Four museums provide links to their social media accounts on their websites. All five museums have Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts, four also have Instagram accounts, and one has a Snapchat account.

Online participation. In answer to the question whether the website offers unique online experiences that cannot be duplicated in the physical museum, all participants believe the websites provide unique experiences that cannot duplicated in the physical museums. This is another area in which museums appear to be meeting the needs of online visitors, as indicated by previous research showing that over 75% of online visitors believe museums should be doing this (Marty, 2008). For example, one cultural heritage professional stated that the website allows visitors to experience the stories in the museum differently, in part because of the greater depth and breadth of content on the website. Another participant noted the video trailers for exhibits and online-only collection of images as unique digital experiences. Other participants mentioned the digitized collections and past exhibit information that are available only online.

When asked if the website offers visitors ways to personalize or participate in their experience, three participants mentioned opportunities using social media. All five museums offer online visitors the opportunity to participate in social media through comments to museum posts, creating their own posts, and uploading photos or other images. Two museums have blogs to which online visitors may contribute. One museum offers visitors to the physical museum the opportunity to create videos of their favorite museum objects, which are posted by the museum on its social media feeds. Another museum offers in-house visitors the opportunity to create short videos that become part of the website and social media collections. The videos are also played as part of a longer compilation video in the physical museum. All of these types of contributions are ways in which the museums appear to be welcoming contributions to collective memory into their digital spaces and are offering deeper and more prolonged ways to participate. However, all five participants emphasized the memory of the museum and most did not connect it to a more expansive conception of collective memory that would include, for example, events of local or national significance. In addition, although several participants indicated they were aware of the content of visitor contributions, they did not express awareness of how such contributions might shape or interpret collective memory in the community or beyond.

On the museum websites, only one museum offers viewers a way to change the appearance of the site as a way to personalize their experience. This is done by clicking on various parts of the museum’s pages to change the page appearance. Customizable interfaces, such as virtual tours, and storage of personalized information appear to remain aspects of the virtual visitor experience of the future, despite previous research that shows two-thirds and just under half of online visitors, respectively, would like these features to be available (Marty, 2008). Additional research is needed to determine the levels and types of participation that would mutually benefit online cultural heritage institutions and their visitors.

Visitor experience. In looking at the issue of whether it is possible for the museum website to substitute for a visit to the physical museum, participants stated that only the logistical information on the website is the same. This includes such information as the museum’s hours of operation and ticket information. Significantly, when viewing artifacts or parts of the collection online, all participants stated that the website could not substitute for a visit to the physical museum. This meshes with previous findings regarding online visitors’ views of the experience. Marty (2008) found that nearly two-thirds of online visitors do not think that the online experience of artifacts or parts of the collection can substitute for the physical experience.

Two participants stated that the visit to the physical museum is a fundamentally different experience than the online experience. One participant noted that visitors have a more enriching experience in the physical museum, and another noted that the on-site experience cannot be replicated on the website. That participant elaborated by stating that the website offers the opportunity to view items in the collection close-up and in the context of more information about objects. However, the participant also stated that there is no substitute for seeing the item in person.

Another participant stated that there are layers of experience provided in the physical museum that are not evident online, such as the placement of objects in relation to one another. Perhaps most significantly, one participant pointed out that there is no substitute for the visit to the physical museum, but that the website is not secondary. This participant provided the example of the interaction between the website and social media, describing the interaction of visitors with and about the museum on social media as another type of visit. This insight reveals the recognition that the reach of the museum goes well beyond the museum’s physical locality, and as the museum’s digital presence increases, so does its potential to influence collective memory.

Visitor expectations. When participants were asked what they thought visitors’ expectations are of the museum’s website (versus a physical visit), they responded that online visitors typically expect a website that is easy to navigate, click friendly, and visually appealing. Interactive components should be responsive and quick. Participants also indicated that visitors expect to find two categories of information. The first category is basic information about the physical museum. As one participant stated, visitors expect to find all the information to make their visit to the physical museum possible, such as ticket information, hours of operation, directions, parking, and other logistical information. Visitors also expect to find information about special shows and exhibits.

The second type of information online visitors expect to find is content that will engage, entertain, and educate them. Participants thought online visitors seeking information about collections and exhibits expect relevant content presented in a visually entertaining way. One participant said visitors expect to see “an image-driven, lively site.” Another participant said online visitors expect “to dive down deep into the heart of the museum.”  The website defines or shapes the online visitor’s experience of the museum by providing “a way in” to the physical museum; online visitors can explore their interests in depth and plan what they would like to see during a physical visit. The website allows them to do this in an interesting way. Participants hope that online visitors remember they visited the museum’s website and want to visit the site again. One participant hopes that what online visitors remember about their visit is that the museum is important and relevant. As the digital world increases in importance in people’s lives, cultural heritage professionals’ views of their institutions’ role in shaping collective memory appear to be expanding, although further research is needed to explore this in greater depth.

Best practices. When asked about best practices for museum website design or implementation, participants cited two sources as helpful, but identified no single set of practices or guidelines as the standard. One participant stated that the website Museums and the Web ( is very helpful, whereas another participant expressed awareness that the museum’s IT department uses design standards but did not know which standards. Three participants did not name any specific guideline or practice standard.

When asked how the museum evaluates its website presence and use, participants cited both analytical tools and anecdotal sources. All participants stated that they track click-through rates on the website pages. Four participants stated that they use Google Analytics, although the intervals at which they look at the data varied from monthly to biennially. The professionals using Google Analytics have access to statistics regarding website traffic, return visitors, page ranking, and referral source data. One participant also looks at the keywords online visitors use to ascertain demographic data. Other evaluative sources include feedback from visitors, scholars, and colleagues. Two participants stated that occasionally scholars contact them to offer information or corrections about website content, and another participant stated that peer benchmarking helps the museum evaluate its web presence and website use relative to other museums. Other sources for evaluation include telephone calls, email, and social media feedback from both online and in-person visitors.

Collective memory. As part of the culture of Northeast Ohio and American museums more broadly, participants see the museum affecting collective or social memory in several ways. Two participants mentioned the issue of responsibility in the context of the website. One mentioned the responsibility of the website to be an accurate reflection of an institution that has figured prominently in people’s lives for over 100 years. As such, the website needs to reflect the whole institution. This indicated a view of collective memory centering on the museum, albeit all parts of the museum across 100 years of history. Another participant explained that the museum’s website is under revision because it is not meeting its responsibility of reminding online visitors of previous exhibits, which are not recollected in the physical collection. Because the artists featured in the museum represent the vanguard of change for art, archiving their exhibits is critical to collective memory. As the participant stated, “We have a responsibility to the current moment to recognize that it will be the future moment of the past.” The museum’s new website will provide access to a greater number of archived exhibits to facilitate the collective memory of the artists’ work and stake their place in cultural history. This indicated an expansive view of collective memory in emphasizing multiple aspects of time and place—the transition of present to past, and from the walls of the physical museum to virtual space—as well as in envisioning the importance of staking the artists’ place in history, thereby influencing collective memory in potentially broader ways.

Another way that participants see the museums affecting collective or social memory is through engaging people in their programs and exhibits. Reflecting on the museum as part of regional and national culture, one participant stated that the museum’s emphasis on engaging people in their programs locally, regionally, nationally, and even internationally makes the museum’s story accessible and memorable to many people, and the website is an important part of making this happen. Another participant wants people to be aware that “we are stewards of history,” and this includes museum staff as well as increasing user contributions. Current projects incorporate user participation by providing opportunities for visitors to share their own memories of objects or events, both digitally and in the physical museum. Projects also link items in the collection with special exhibits, events, and past records of memory. The museum is increasing its effort to tie in-house events and online exhibits to local historical moments so that the museum may increase its active involvement in the region. This will serve to make the museum a part of collective memory, as well as provide professionals with the opportunities to see how events are interpreted and shaped by the communities their institutions serve.


Discussion and Conclusions

The results of this study indicate that cultural heritage professionals have developed a distinct awareness of the importance of establishing and maintaining a dynamic digital presence that incorporates user participation in the visitor experience. Previous research has found that museum websites and physical museums complement each other, and users expect to use them for different purposes (King, et al., 2016; Marty, 2008; and Skov, 2013). The cultural heritage professionals interviewed for this study corroborated these findings and offered the unique perspective of the content creators for cultural heritage sites. They shared that the museum’s digital presence is, indeed, intended to complement the physical museum, and they also revealed that website content is intended for visitors to achieve different purposes than the physical museums. Most noteworthy, the professionals interviewed for this study revealed that museum websites are not secondary to physical museums. Cultural heritage professionals are utilizing a visitor-centered approach to create unique digital experiences for visitors that are available only online.

Although the professionals interviewed for this study emphasized that visiting the website cannot substitute for a visit to the physical museum, they recognize the need to create stand-alone opportunities for visitors on their websites. These opportunities are geared to engage visitors to come to the physical museum, but they are also geared to visitors who, for geographic or other reasons, are not able to visit the physical museum. Through digital-only resources and experiences, cultural heritage institutions are making possible a “visit” not replicable in the physical museum. Far from being secondary to the physical institutions they reflect, cultural heritage websites are experiences in and of themselves.

Previous research has also noted changes across time in users’ digital cultural heritage information needs, as well as predictions of future changes as technology and society continue to change. Users’ needs continue to grow in sophistication. The cultural heritage professionals interviewed for this study clearly recognize this. They emphasized not only the aesthetics and usability of their institutions’ websites, but also the importance of establishing a multi-channel digital presence that goes beyond the website to a variety of social media. Extending the digital presence of the museums in these ways indicates an important finding: not only have cultural heritage institutions embraced digital tools, they have built numerous bridges to the digital world and become actors and participants in their own right. Indeed, the multi-channel digital presence of today’s cultural heritage institution has become an integral part of the visitor experience. Far from being the static authorities they may have been in the past, today’s cultural heritage institutions are engaged in ongoing and dynamic digital dialogues with visitors. They are engaging visitors through a variety of ways to participate, ranging from light or shallow to prolonged or deep opportunities. All of these opportunities are contributing to the collective memory of society.

Because of their roles in managing, disseminating, and curating information, cultural heritage professionals are in the position to influence both the participatory culture and collective memory of society. As Halbwachs noted, “Every collective memory requires the support of a group delimited in space and time.” (Rossington & Whitehead, 2007, p. 143). As one such group, today’s cultural heritage professionals shape tomorrow’s collective memory through the digital content they choose and the forums for visitor participation they select. This study found that cultural heritage institutions are shaping collective memory in unique ways, through offering digital-only experiences that incorporate user contributions and dialogue. In addition, through their digital presence, cultural heritage institutions have the ability to reach more users locally, nationally, and internationally than are able to visit the physical museums. Cultural heritage professionals are also layering digital experiences for visitors. Evidence of this includes the effort to layer basic information with more complex information about objects, collections, and experiences, as well as to provide digital-only experiences.

Through influencing collective memory, cultural heritage professionals ultimately impact the societal processes of remembering and forgetting. As previous memory scholarship explains, to remember is:

 . . . to anchor, preserve and fix as much as it is to connect, to make dynamic and to create. It is also performative, curious and inventive, and its function is to remind us not to forget as well as to be tolerant of otherness (Worcman & Garde-Hansen, 2016).

Cultural heritage institutions and their visitors are interacting with one another in complex ways in the digital realm to shape the collective memory of society. Future studies are needed to establish how the virtual visit is taking place across a broad range of cultural heritage institutions, as well as how participants describe their experiences of digital cultural heritage and remembrance.



Acott, T.G., LaTrobe, H.L., & S.H. Howard. (1998). “An evaluation of deep ecotourism and shallow ecotourism.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 6, 238-253.

Alelis, G., Bobrowicz, A., & C.S. Ang. (2015). “Comparison of engagement and emotional responses of older and younger adults interacting with 3-D cultural heritage artefacts on personal devices.” Behaviour & Information Technology 34, 1064-1078.

Assmann, J. (1997). Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bailey-Ross, C., Gray, S., Ashby, J., Terras, M., Hudson-Smith, A., & C. Warwick. (2017). “Engaging the museum space: Mobilizing visitor engagement with digital content creation.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 32, 689-708.

Barbieri, L., Bruno, F., & M. Muzzupappa. (2017). “Virtual museum system evaluation through user studies.” Journal of Cultural Heritage 26, 101-108.

Cameron, F. (2003). “Digital futures I: Museum collections, digital technologies, and the cultural construction of knowledge.”Curator 46, 325-340.

Cameron, F., & S. Kenderdine. (Eds.). (2007). Theorizing digital cultural heritage: A critical discourse. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chadwick, J.C., & P. Boverie. (1999). “A survey of characteristics and patterns of behavior in visitors to a museum web site.” Museums and the Web 1999: Proceedings. New Orleans: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1999. Last updated August 15, 2013. Consulted May 1, 2018. Available at:

D’Angelo, A.L. (2017). “Museums without walls: SmartHistory and the Google Art Project—A mission possible prophecy.” (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). New York:  Columbia University.

Dalbello, M. (2004). “Institutional shaping of cultural memory: Digital library as environment for textual transmission.” Library Quarterly 74, 265-298.

Darity, W. (Ed.). (2007). International encyclopedia of the social sciences (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA.

Falk, J.H., & L.D. Dierking. (2016). The museum experience revisited. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fantoni, S.F., Stein, R. & G. Bowman. (2012). “Exploring the relationship between visitor motivation and engagement in online museum audiences.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (Eds.). Museums and the Web 2012: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Available at:

Frommholz, I., Graves, D., Liu, H., Kumar, A., & G. Brady, G. (2014). “Great War stories told by the people—Crowdsourced cultural heritage in digital museums.” IEEE/ACM Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, 419-420.

Garcia-Madariaga, J., Virto, N.R., & F.B. Lopez. (2017). “The influence of museums’ websites on users’ intentions.” Esic Market Economics and Business Journal 48, 369-392.

Genoways, H.  (Ed.). (2006). Museum philosophy for the twenty-first century. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Giaccardi, E. (Ed.). (2012). Heritage and social media: Understanding heritage in a participatory culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Goldman, K.H., & D.T. Schaller. (2004). “Exploring motivational factors and visitor satisfaction in on-line museum visits.” Museums and the Web 2004: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives and Museum Informatics, 2004. Last updated October 28, 2010. Consulted May 1, 2018. Available at:

Graus, D., Odijk, D., & M. de Rijke. (2017). “The birth of collective memories: Analyzing emerging entities in text streams.” arXiv 1, 1-37.

Hafner, D., Rigsby, B., & A. Allen. (2007). “Museums and Memory as Agents of Social Change.” International Journal of the Humanities 5, 87-94.

Halbwachs, M. (1992). On collective memory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hirst, W., Yamashiro, J.K., & A. Comin. (2018). “Collective memory from a psychological perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22, 438-451.

Holtorf, C. (2011). “The changing contribution of cultural heritage to society.” Museum International 63, 8-16.

Jailani, A.K., Kusakabe, S., & K. Araki. (2015). “Adaptive context-awareness model for cultural heritage information based on user needs.” 2015 IIAI 4th International Congress on Advanced Applied Informatics, 339-342. Available at: doi: 10.1109/IIAI-AAI.2015.287

Kelly, L. (2016). “The (post) digital museum visitor: What has (almost) twenty years of museum audience research revealed?” MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Los Angeles: Archives and Museum Informatics, 2016. Published February 16, 2016. Consulted May 1, 2018. Available at:

King, L., Stark, J.F., & P. Cooke. (2016). “Experiencing the digital world: The cultural value of digital engagement with heritage.” Heritage & Society 9, 76-101.

Kravchyna, V., & S.K. Hastings. (2002). “Informational value of museum websites.” First Monday 7. Available at:

Latham, K. (2007). “The poetry of the museum.” Museums Management & Curatorship 22, 247-263.

Liew, C. L. (2006). “Online cultural heritage exhibitions: a survey of strategic issues.” Program 4, 372-388. Available at: doi: 10.1108/00330330610707944

Liew, C.L. (2015). “Collaborative construction of digital cultural heritage: A synthesis of research on online sociability determinants.” D-Lib Magazine 21. Available at: doi: 10.1045/november2015-liew

Margalit, A. (2004). The ethics of memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marty, P.F. (2007). “Museum websites and museum visitors: Before and after the museum visit.” Museum Management & Curatorship 22, 337-360.

Marty, P.F. (2008). “Museum websites and museum visitors: Digital museum resources and their use.” Museum Management and Curatorship 23, 81-99.

Marty, P.F. (2011). “My lost museum: User expectations and motivations for creating personal digital collections on museum websites.” Library & Information Science Research 33, 211-219.

McKercher, B. (2002). “Towards a classification of cultural tourists.” International Journal of Tourism Research 4, 29-38.

McGee, C., & N. Harrower. (2017). “Inspiring Ireland: Building digital history, making shared memory.” Eire-Ireland 52, 303-320.

Mulholland, P., & T. Collins. (2002). “Using digital narratives to support the collaborative learning and exploration of cultural heritage.” Database and Expert Systems Applications, 2002: Proceedings of the 13th International Workshop on Database and Expert Systems Applications, 527-531. Available at: doi: 10.1109/DEXA.2002/1045951

Olick, J. K., & J. Robbins. (1998). “Social memory studies: From collective memory to the historical sociology of mnemonic practices.” Annual Review of Sociology 24, 105–140.

Pallud, J. (2009). A user-centered perspective on information technologies in museums. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.

Pallud, J., & D.W. Straub. (2014). “Effective website design for experience-influenced environments: The case of high culture museums.” Information & Management 51, 359–373.

Panciroli, C., Russo, V., & A. Macauda.  (2017). “When technology meets art: Museum paths between real and virtual.” Proceedings 1, 1-14. Available at: doi: 10.3390/proceedings1090913

Rizvic, S., Djapo, N., Alispahic, F., Hadzihalilovic, B, Cengic, F.F., Imamovic, A., Okanovic, V., & I. Boskovic. (2017). “Guidelines for interactive digital storytelling presentations of cultural heritage.” 9th International Conference on Virtual Worlds and Games for Serious Applications (VS-Games), 253-259.

Rossington, M., & A. Whitehead. (2007). (Eds). Theories of memory: A reader. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rottenberg, B.L. (2002). “Museums, information and the public sphere.” Museum International 54, 21-28.

Simon, N. (2010). The participatory museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museums 2.0.

Simon, N. (2016). The art of relevance. Santa Cruz, CA: Museums 2.0.

Skov, M. (2013). “Hobby-related information-seeking behaviour of highly dedicated online museum visitors.” Information Research 18, paper 597.

Smith, B. (2002). “Digital heritage and cultural content in Europe.” Museum International 54, 41-51.

Soren, B.J. (2005). “Best practices in creating quality online experiences for museum users. Museum Management and Curatorship 20, 131-148. Available at: doi:10.1016/j.musmancur.2005.03.001

Stainforth, E. (2016a). Defining the problem of tomorrow’s memory: The time of cultural heritage in the digital age. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Leeds, Leeds, UK.

Stainforth, E. (2016b). “From museum to memory institution: the politics of European culture online.” Museum & Society 14, 323-337.

Sylaiou, S., Mania, K., Karoulis, A., & M. White. (2010). “Exploring the relationship between presence and enjoyment in a virtual museum.” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 68, 243-253.

Szabo, V., Lacedelli, S.Z., & G. Pompanin. (2017). “From landscape to cities: A participatory approach to the creation of digital cultural heritage.” International Information & Library Review 49, 115-123. Available at: doi: 10.1080/10572317.2017.1314141

Vliet, H. V., & H. Hekman. (2012). “Enhancing user involvement with digital cultural heritage: The usage of social tagging and storytelling.” First Monday 17. Available at: doi: 10.5210/fm.v17i5.3922

Wang, Y., Stash, N., Sambeek, R., & Y. Schuurmans. (2009). “Cultivating personalized museum tours online and on-site.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 34, 139-153.

Wertsch, J.V., & H.L. Roedinger III. (2008). “Collective memory: Conceptual foundations and theoretical approaches.” Memory 16, 318-326.

Worcman, K., & J. Garde-Hansen. (2016). Social memory technology: Theory, practice, action. New York: Routledge.

Wyman, B., Smith, S., Meyers, D., & M. Godfrey. (2011). “Digital storytelling in museums: Observations and best practices.” Curator 54, 461-468.

Zahidi, Z., Lim, Y.P., & P.C. Woods. (2014). “Understanding the user experience (UX) factors that influence user satisfaction in digital culture heritage online collections for non-expert users.” 2014 Science and Information Conference (SAI), 57-63. London: IEEE. doi:  Available at:



APPENDIX A: Interview Questions


Previous studies have found that online visitors are already making museum websites an important part of their daily lives (Marty, 2008).  Online visitors are likely to make frequent visits to museums and museum websites, including visits to websites independent of planning or returning from museum visits.  Visitors differentiate what they do on the websites versus visits to physical museums.  I am interested in learning your views on the museum’s website and its relation to the museum and its mission, as well as the website’s role in shaping collective memory.

Interview Questions

  1. How does the museum’s website reflect the mission of the museum?
  2. From your perspective, how important is it for a museum to have a museum website?
  3. What priority do you place on digitizing or making available on the website the following kinds of resources: Online images of artifacts/collections data, Online tours of galleries/interactive exhibits, Online educational activities/learning resources, Online research materials/archives, Other?
  4. What are the goals of the museum’s website?
  5. Are there best practices for museum website design or implementation that you used in developing the museum’s website? If so, what guidelines were helpful?
  6. Do you believe that the museum should offer the same information, resources, and activities on its website as are available in-house?
  7. Does the museum website offer unique online experiences that cannot be duplicated in the physical museum? Could you provide a few examples of such unique online experiences?
  8. Does/Will the website offer visitors a way to personalize their experience, such as customizable virtual tours, storing personal information, or creating their own digital collection?
  9. Do you think these types of experiences are important in museum websites?
  10. Does/Will the website offer visitors a way to participate in their experience, such as tagging or storytelling?
  11. Do you think these types of experiences are important in museum websites?
  12. If yes to (9) above, who is responsible for approving or editing the content?
  13. When looking for information, is it possible for the website to substitute for a visit to the physical museum?
  14. When viewing artifacts or parts of the collection online, is it possible for the website to substitute for a visit to the physical museum?
  15. What do you think visitors’ expectations are of the museum’s website (versus a physical visit)?
  16. How does the museum website define or shape the online visitor’s experience of the museum?
  17. What do you hope visitors to the museum website remember from their visit?
  18. As part of the culture of Northeast Ohio and American museums more broadly, how do you see the museum affecting collective or social memory? Does the website support this?
  19. How does the museum evaluate its website presence and use? Does the museum collect data on museum website use, such as visitor data, exhibit hits, and so forth?


Cite as:
Everstijn, Carla. "The Digital Presence of Museums and the Implications for Collective Memory." MW19: MW 2019. Published January 26, 2019. Consulted .