A Second Life for your Museum: The use of 3D collaborative virtual environments by museums
Museums have been exploring the use of collaborative virtual environments (CVE) for more than a decade, often in the form of proprietary virtual worlds built for select audiences such as teachers and students. Since launching in 2003, the online virtual community of Second Life (www.secondlife.com) has attracted over 800,000 dedicated “citizens” who are laying the foundations for widespread adoption of CVE.
In many ways, the growth of CVE mirrors the growth of the Web, as new functionalities and technologies transition from small scale prototypes constructed by researchers at great expense to large scale, rapidly growing mainstream products available to the general public. These products are not only used by many people, but are co-created by them. With the Web this was a matter of using hypertext to create websites, initially derived from various genres of print media, and soon evolving their own genres. In the case of CVE like Second Life (SL) users can create 3D artifacts, buildings, and social spaces where people interact. The social nature of Second Life is a critical component of understanding how it is, can, and should be used.
Already we see a range of museum-like activities occurring in Second Life. Physical museums are establishing a virtual presence. But also SL citizens are creating their own spaces – sometimes explicitly called museums, sometimes just having museum-like qualities. These experiments in a new medium can tell us a lot about what we should try to build next, as well as how we might want to inform and re-merge with our physical resources. SL museums can be about historical re-enactment, such as dressing up and walking around Ancient Rome with other citizens acting in character – a variant on Real Life (RL) re-enactments. There are SL museums containing digitizations of RL artifacts. There are other museums of ‘born digital’ artifacts created in SL which these museums collect, preserve and curate. There are outdoor sculpture parks. There are places that are more like art galleries, or venues to support Warhol-like art happenings. There are labels, lectures, tours, audio guides, docents, even museum shops.
The museum community has learned a great deal about reaching audiences in online and virtual environments. How does what we have learned apply in these new virtual spaces? What can the museum community contribute to the development of Second Life educational initiatives? What do we have to learn from avatar audiences and how do we measure and evaluate our success? What are the limitations and risks involved in representing your museum in these new spaces? How do RL museums work with citizen-created SL museum installations? This paper will present a census of current museum and museum-like activities in Second Life and related virtual communities. Drawing on the experience and lessons learned from past museum virtual environments, non-museum collaborative spaces, and recent research on learning in multiplayer online games, we will provide a guide for museums interested in establishing a virtual presence in Second Life.