Web Collections Pose Question: What Is a Museum?

An item from the portraits collection of the Museum of Fred. i i

"Because the identities of the subjects in these portraits are a mystery," writes Fred Beshid of the paintings at his online museum, "they become portraits of humanity instead of individuals." Courtesy of the Museum of Fred hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Museum of Fred
An item from the portraits collection of the Museum of Fred.

"Because the identities of the subjects in these portraits are a mystery," writes Fred Beshid of the paintings at his online museum, "they become portraits of humanity instead of individuals."

Courtesy of the Museum of Fred

Lower airfares and high gas prices are encouraging families to leave the car behind at vacation time. That means fewer visitors for many of the country's smaller museums, forcing them to close their doors and display their items online.

The American Dime Museum in Baltimore, which collects curiosities and sideshow artifacts, was forced to close when operating expenses went up and funding was unavailable. For now, its collection is mainly viewable only by appointment and online, until it reopens on a limited schedule in August.

Museums themselves are the exhibit-worthy items at the Museum of Online Museums (MOOM), a Web site based in Chicago and curated by Jim Coudal and Kevin Guilfoile. Giulfoile and Coudal's collection includes sites devoted to airsickness bags, antique mouse- and rat-traps and a MOOM favorite, the Gallery of Skate Park IDs.

"[The Gallery of Skate Park IDs] is another collection that could only really exist online," Guilfoile says. "Nobody would go to an actual physical museum of skate park IDs, but I just find it incredibly fascinating."

The proliferation of online exhibits has led some to ponder what actually defines a museum. Wilson O'Donnell, director of the museology program at the University of Washington in Seattle, says the use of the word "museum" doesn't fit when it comes to Web sites. Calling an online museum a museum, he says, is like calling Wikipedia an encyclopedia.

Merriam-Webster provides two definitions for the word museum: "an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value," and "a place where objects are exhibited."

Coudal of MOOM likes the latter definition. "The choosing to display is what makes a museum, [and] the taste of the curator" he says. "The curation makes the museum."

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