British Museum puts collection online

The British Museum website has been revamped, seamlessly merging the collection and the shop
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

Go to the British Museum website and you may notice a small change.

As of Wednesday, not only can you now look through the 260,000 exhibits currently on display at the museum but you will also find yourself asked whether you are interested in purchasing any of the related tourist souvenirs that are on sale too.

While there is nothing new about a museum trying to supplement its income by selling related merchandise to online visitors, what is different about the British Museum's site is that the two halves — the museum and the museum shop — now merge seamlessly online.

The idea is that, if you go to the museum's site to look at one of its historic artefacts, you can then buy some memento from the shop without moving anywhere.

"This was a major shift in thinking for a museum," said the British Museum's head of new media, Matthew Cock. "I don't know of any museum that has done this — that views the museum and the commercial site as one. In every other museum, they are kept entirely separate."

What makes the move even more unusual is that it has happened in one of the oldest museums in the country, established in 1753. "In those days, the public wasn't even allowed into the museum," said Cock.

The process of rebuilding the site to merge the museum and the commercial side took around a year and a half, Cock explained. But it is a process now that is beginning to pay dividends.

The principle is that, if you look around the site for details of the Rosetta Stone — one of the museum's most famous artefacts — then, as well as getting details of the stone, its history, related objects, articles and cultures, you will be able to look at souvenirs, books and the like.

"It is done in our normal style, and it will simply be one of a number of options," said Cock. "We had to be very careful to make it clear what you will be looking at."

Information analytics is the process whereby the information from the museum records (including pictures) and the original site is used to produce the metadata that can then be worked on to find the commonality between objects — such as a 19th century photograph of the Rosetta Stone and a souvenir print — for the site.

The museum has had a site for around 10 years now, Cock said, and it has been significantly worked on since it was founded. "This is the biggest reshaping of the site we have ever done," he said. But now that this work is complete, and the basis of the revamped site is on a sure footing, Cock says it is ready to become significantly more accessible.

"We [have begun] to explore ways in which the visually impaired can use the website and our other facilities," explained Cock. "We are also working on similar ideas for the hearing impaired. The site now is accessible enough for us to make it more accessible."

The online expansion of the site has been carried out with the help of a web-hosting platform from Vialtus Solutions, formerly Pipex Business. Vialtus provides a six-server hosting platform for the museum, including two data servers, two web servers, one search engine server and one internet security and acceleration (ISA) server.

The ISA server sits behind the web servers with caching rules, helping to ensure that the thousands of images can be stored for secure and rapid access on the public website.

While the first online batch from the museum's collection comprises 260,000 2D images of prints, drawings and other flat files, additional images, including images of 3D objects, will be uploaded over the next two years.

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