Digging the past

June 9, 1995

John Bonner reports on how a museum put the Stone Age on the Net.

Have you ever wanted to know how to make an axe from a lump of flint? You can find out while motoring along the information superhighway.

Newcastle University last week launched Britain's first complete museum exhibition on the Internet. The collection, "Flints and Stones - Real Life in Prehistory", opened last year to coincide with the opening of feature film The Flintstones. It was exhibited at the university's Museum of Antiquities and later in Middlesbrough. But the museum had not the staff to take it on tour.

So the university set up a research project which would open the exhibition to a potential audience of millions rather than the thousands who saw it in the flesh. The project was also aimed at examining the problems of putting the information contained in the exhibition's pictures and text on screen.

Copyright was the biggest headache, according to organiser Lindsay Allason-Jones. As a temporary exhibition it contained artefacts and images on loan from other museums and collections. Would the university have to pay royalty fees to the owners to use these materials? Fortunately, because it was an experiment all except one agreed to waive their rights.

Allason-Jones understands why some institutions might have thought twice before agreeing. "Reproduction fees on photographs are a very important part of a museum's income and once it goes out on the net it is very difficult to keep control," she says.

In theory anyone with a reasonable printer would be able to download any pictures from the screen and use them without paying reproduction fees. Allason-Jones hopes that the low resolution of the electronic images - at 70 dots per inch - should ensure that the pictures are not of publishable quality. But there is always the fear that in the future sophisticated software could be developed to enhance the quality of downloaded images.

The museum also faced artwork problems. "Exhibition designers put a lot of effort into choosing the right colour scheme - but what comes out at the other end is entirely dependent on the software in the receiver's computer. A carefully chosen pale-blue scene might appear in orange or green, so some of the illustrations could look pretty weird on some screens," she says.

The aim is to remain true to the spirit of the original exhibition. This explored all aspects of Stone Age life using a combination of traditional museum techniques with cartoons and even an actor dressed as Mesolithic shaman or priest.

Net surfers can choose at what level they want to dig into the past. A disembodied archaeologist or the shaman act as guides giving different perspectives of how knowledge of our ancestors was gathered or what it was like to live at the time. Users can skip between the parallel stories or follow up different elements such as food gathering or tool making. "They are not constrained by the linear nature of a conventional exhibition - you don't just walk down a corridor looking at the displays. On the screen you can go wherever you want," says Glyn Goodrick, also from the university archaeology department who is adapting the exhibition for the Internet.

The original exhibition was largely based on a book Late Stone Age Hunters of the British Isles written by Chris Smith, another archaeologist at the university. It tried to dispel some of the popular myths about stone age life - that it was always nasty, brutish and short. Or that cave dwellers flounced around in fur bikinis fighting dinosaurs like Raquel Welch in the 1960s film One Million Years BC. The reptiles had in reality died out aeons before.

The exhibition was the most successful in the museum's history, attracting serious scholars and children of all ages. "Most children only start to get interested in conventional archaeological exhibitions after about the age of eight. Much earlier and they can't see over the top of the cases," Allason-Jones said. But because of the cartoons and the interactive game playing element in the exhibition it attracted children as young as three.

Goodrick and his colleagues plan to extend the basic exhibition with more games and even video sequences once it gets off the ground next month. However, they will have to solve technical problems in getting the huge amounts of information contained in moving images out on the net fast enough to be of use to the reader.

The cost of putting the exhibition on the net has been met by a Pounds 100 prize awarded to the museum by British Telecom, matched by a Pounds 100 grant from the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. Costs have been kept low by the donations of exhibit material - if done commercially the copyright fees alone would have been about Pounds 3,000.

The museum also did not pay commercial rates for the expertise available in the university's computing and audio-visual departments. But it has kept a tally of what the true costs would have been and can advise other institutions wanting to put displays out on the Internet.

But would anyone who has seen the virtual exhibition bother to visit the museum and provide the revenue which keeps it going?

Also, would museums showing off their collections to a global audience be cutting their own throats?

Goodrick thinks not. "Being able to buy CDs doesn't stop people wanting to go to concerts," he says. But Allason-Jones is less sure and accepts that the effect on museum attendances is unpredictable.

In the meantime, anyone with access to the Net can find out for themselves what the exhibition is about when it goes on line. The secrets of how to make the tools needed to hunt down and kill a woolly mammoth are there for all to see. The idea that the latest computer technology can give lessons in the ancient art of flint knapping does not faze Goodrick. "Both flints and the stuff at the heart of a computer are lumps of silica so there is a connection after all," he says.

Further information from: e-mail m.o.antiquities @ newcastle. ac.uk.

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