Sharing and reuse of museum objects in learning environments

Vincenza Ferrara, Italy , Andrea Macchia, Italy, Sonia Sapia, Italy, Francesco Lella, Italy

Keywords: cultural heritage collection, learning, open data, annotation

I. Introduction

In recent years many projects have developed online catalogues and repositories to manage and promote cultural heritage. After the massive digitalization of cultural heritage, open data modality suggests that we rethink access to digital resources of museums and their use and reuse in different environments such as learning and tourism. Museums are rethinking who they are and what they can do to partner with schools and others to encourage interest and curiosity from citizens, teachers and students. Indeed the online accessibility of cultural materials and their sharing through technology can provide the use and reuse in particular of museum information for developing learning, educational content and tourism applications, with full respect for copyright and related rights, with the aim of deploying museum community content as a means to enhance visit experience. While the information system for managing digital collections facilitates administration and  accessibility by internal staff or researchers, this modality may not be useful for teachers and pupils or the public. Furthermore, not all information concerning museum objects can be shared. For these reasons the need arose for technology that increases content related to cultural or scientific objects useful to the general public in order to improve knowledge dissemination related to cultural institutions and their heritage.

Linked open data (LOD) technology has suggested an opportunity to organize and promote heterogeneous content within different catalogues (Berners-Lee, 2011). This way of managing data provides the dissemination of cultural content in different contexts. In fact, LOD has taken on more specific roles and functions in relation to territory and visitors (Falk, 2009). In this context in 2010 The museums of Sapienza University launched a project to develop a linked data repository to enhance teaching and learning activities. The new platform aims to promote cooperation between museum staff and teachers to integrate cultural heritage information and educational materials to promote and disseminate cultural heritage. These museums are part of the European Digital Library project (Haslhofer, 2011). In 2012 the “Museum information for science teaching towards a Learning Management System” project, supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, began. The project’s aim was to solve critical issues around the language used to share museum object content within an education environment. The MusEd platform was developed and annotation tool integrated in it to allow museum staff to develop cultural heritage content, and teachers and students to capture open metadata for planning lessons and improve their learning. The open data access, sharing museum resources and annotation tools were provided to encourage teachers and students to access and to know their cultural heritage. After being given access to a reserved area of the MusEd website, teachers and students could find the information material online within the virtual paths offered by the Museums and track down useful objects to use the content in a customized e-lesson, a container of explanatory panels and virtual museum objects relating to the subject matter. With the aid of specific software, each teacher is able to create a hypertext with the support of images and information from the museums’ catalogues. After the lesson, the teachers bring students to the museums so they will see objects that have already got to know, placed within the hypertext. In this way the students can implement the associative and experiential activities for the improvement of their cognitive abilities and their curiosity. The museum object becomes a tool for teaching and educational environments will be created to improve engagement and student learning. At the same time, through annotation tools teachers and students are able to integrate information of museum objects with content related to school subject so different information can increase digital museum resources.

2. Use and re-use of museum objects in teaching

How to use and make accessible cultural heritage is an essential part of the Digital Agenda for Europe. Several activities are already stimulating the re-use of cultural heritage in order to demonstrate the social and economic value of cultural content. The online accessibility of cultural material will make it possible for citizens throughout Europe to access and use it for leisure, studies or work. Moreover, the digitised material can be reused – for both commercial and non-commercial purposes – for uses such as developing learning and educational content, documentaries, tourism applications, games, animations and design tools, provided that this is done with full respect for copyright and rights (EU Commission, 2011).

Many projects have developed open data applications and tools in this context so museums’ object metadata is available for reuse in different fields such as teaching, tourism and the creative industries. An international debate on use and reuse of digital resources is ongoing in order to provide specific reference to the cultural heritage field. Many curators are asking how they can rethink their relationship with the school and how to use technology to stimulate the interest of teachers and students to scientific and cultural heritage. New paths and laboratories have been built by curators within museums and teaching spaces have been earmarked on museums’ websites. Virtual educational areas provide games, customization paths and learning objects (LO) and educational services. Meanwhile, technologies that are used by museums to promote and disseminate cultural heritage to schools allow:

  • For planning new training
  • To provide online engaging content to students
  • To develop cross-disciplinary lessons

Teachers create lessons using different contents, tools and Interactive Whiteboard to explain multimedia products in the classroom. In recent years, many institutions have also provided open data for cultural heritage for making lessons.

In 2010 the same research group designed an application to allow teachers to build a personalized path through web access to the PMS catalogue (the repository of Sapienza University museums) and to download images and information on museum objects (Ferrara, 2012) to be used in the production of multimedia lessons. Different modes and content have been provided in a reserved area for teachers to make online lessons integrating museum objects, such as the Canadian Museum experience (Canadian Museums, 2014), lessons related to the course of study, interactive games, personalized virtual tours, developing a network of cultural heritage object repositories for educational purposes. A recent application is Rijskstudio, an innovative digital application that makes a large part of the museum’s collection available to all, absolutely free of charge (Georgels, 2013) or the open data content of The J. Paul Getty Trust (Getty, 2014).

3. The Project

The project aims to test a new approach to bring cultural and scientific heritage in the classroom. This experience can help teachers to make curriculum related to e-books using non-traditional content, integrating digital cultural heritage resources. The project partners are the museums of Sapienza University (Herbarium, Museum of Mineralogy, Chemistry Museum and Museum of History of Medicine), “Via Val Maggia” and another four primary and secondary schools of Rome, and the Digilab Research Centre of Sapienza University.

The results of previous projects have pointed out critical issues around the language and terminology adopted by museum staff and in the limited information related to school courses that is shared by online catalogues. To solve this problem, the research group has applied technologies that can provide opportunities to rethink the increase and presentation of content. An annotation tool to increase digital object descriptions by museum staff, teachers and students was developed.

In this way the website will be useful to promote a virtual learning environment based on collaborative work to share content and LO among many schools. The aim of the project was to develope a framework that allows a user-centered approach for developing different means of access to digital resources and (re)use of them, including:

  1. access to linked a open data repository
  2. annotation of cultural objects
  3. creation of personalized paths related to interesting topics chosen by users
  4. exporting procedure for metadata as xml files and images of objects for reuse in educational environments
  5. hypermedia lesson plans using the CMS Scuola tool in order to provide opportunities to integrate content previously downloaded from the Mused Platform with formal educational content
  6. uploading lessons onto platform by users for sharing with all.

The MusEd Platform collects the metadata of cultural heritage objects extracted from  museum catalogues involved in the project and from the Europeana Digital Library extracted through the Sparql utililty. The metadata, by encoding, is imported like the XML files in MusEd through a mapping process. The MusEd database allows the maintenance of essential data such as object name, description, museum membership and image. Each inserted object provides two links: one to the original card, another to the museum that made it available. The annotation tool allows to staff to add the name of the object in Italian and a description of it related to interesting topics for teaching. This additional information can improve the search and accessibility of cultural heritage content by users. For example: the object “Laurus nobilis L.” card guaranteed by the “Herbarium“, has joined the common Italian name “Alloro” and a notation which extends the information of the description: family and genus of the plant, form, uses and properties. Cards and catalogues are available on the MusEd usable to any visitor who can look up and see what interests them; teachers and students logged in the project have an opportunity to create their own catalogues structuring specific paths in which they’re going to insert the objects of their interest; they have also the option to add other descriptions visible to all using the annotation tool.

A personalized access tool to the Repository has been designed to allow teachers to build a reserved area to store the content and images related to the museum objects chosen. This digital content may be used to describe teaching topics through multimedia lessons.

The personalized catalogue is stored in xml format based on the RDF model. Teachers will be able to download this file onto their computer and also capture images of chosen objects. The xml file includes metadata based on Linked Open Data technology to allow access to object information, museum websites, and images by Hypermedia lesson. For re-using downloaded metadata and images, the tool ASD (Accessible Site Developer) Scuola, developed by Sapienza University, automatically builds a hypertext from content and is accessible via the web.

In this way, teachers will be able to explain the lesson with museum object images and information re-contextualized. For example, a teacher can reuse an ancient pot from the Museum of the Near East in a lesson on ancient cooking, so the teacher will be able to adopt a methodology to connect ancient time with everyday life. (Figure 1)


Figure 1 webpage of a lesson

4. Results and evaluation

Part of the project was an evaluation of the methodology and tools used to assess the impact on learning levels of students. A questionnaire was designed and administered to students. The results of the questionnaires of students who have used the technology approach have showed increased learning compared to students of control groups. Museum staff have observed that students in classes using the technology showed greater involvement and asked questions that deepened their understanding rather than out of mere curiosity during the visit. Access to the platform (WEB MusEd, 2014) allows users to experience the annotation tool and to look at the lessons made by the teachers related to the museum objects used. Results and hypertext of the project made by teachers are available via the web on the MusEd platform.

A new communication strategy applied to the theory for learning and technologies can help to develop a better relationship between the environment and the educational museum. The project results have shown how digital resources and technology tools can be used as teaching materials to build a new learning environment. The impact assessment in relationship to learning can be a useful element to think or rethink future developments and implementations of the platform. The proposed teaching framework can also be considered a useful platform for the re-use of digital resources in the context of permanent training and cultural tourism. The next steps are planning to implement the annotation tool to allow users to add other content such as videos, 3D models and so on. This idea will allow encourage museum visits and improve the relationship between museum and learning environment.


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Falk J. , “Identity and the museum visitor experience”, Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2009

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EU Commission Recommendation. “On the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation”, 2011, Consulted May 2014

Ferrara V., Macchia A., Sapia S.  (2013). Reusing cultural heritage digital resources in teaching. In: (a cura di): Alonzo C. Addison,Livio De Luca, Gabriele Guidi, Sofia Pescarin, Proceedings of 2013 Digital Heritage International Congress. vol. 2, p. 409-412, IEEE, CFP1308W-USB, ISBN: 978-1-4799-3169-9, Marseille, France, 28 Oct – 1 Nov 2013

Canada Museum – Teaching Center  Consulted May 2014

Gorgels P. , “Rijksstudio: Make Your Own Masterpiece!” Museum & Web  Consulted May 2014

J.Paul Getty Trust “Open Content Program” Consulted May 2014

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Cite as:
V. Ferrara, A. Macchia, S. Sapia and F. Lella, Sharing and reuse of museum objects in learning environments. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published May 25, 2014. Consulted .

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