The first website was launched on 6th August 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Websites were text-only to begin with, but it wasn’t long before they started to use graphics. The Web Design Museum collects examples of designs from 1995 onwards.
You can browse by year, category, and style, as well as looking at timelines to see how the design of well-known websites such as Apple have changed over the years.
The Web Design Museum doesn’t have any museum websites yet, so I took a look at one example in the Internet Archive: the British Museum. Its site started at an academic domain (british-museum.ac.uk, now defunct) before moving to its current address.
Can a website be a museum by itself? Most museums have a website, but here I’m thinking of websites that call themselves museums without representing a physical museum. Defining a museum can be tricky, but the Museums Association’s 1998 definition is the one in current use in the UK, apart from Scotland:
Museums are for people to explore and learn from collections for understanding and inspiration. To do this, a museum collects, safeguards, researches, develops, makes accessible and interprets collections and associated information, which it holds in trust for society.
Although one might assume that a museum needs a building that can be visited by the public, there is nothing in this definition that says so explicitly. People can ‘explore and learn from collections’ while sitting at home browsing a museum’s website. So perhaps online museums, those that consist primarily of a website, could be rightly seen as museums. But it depends on which definition one adopts. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) 2007 definition takes a rather different approach:
A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.
Here the idea of an institution open to the public does suggest a place that people can visit, rather than a mere website, and this would probably be most people’s idea of a museum.
Recently I’ve encountered a few online museums that could be added to this list. The Prefab Museum was originally installed in a prefabricated house in South London. Following an arson attack the Museum has been mainly online, although it also travels around the UK. The Museum of Obsolete Media is the online home of an archive of obsolete media formats.
Both of these Museums have collections of objects, although the Prefab Museum is no longer open, and the Obsolete Media Museum is not open to the public at all. The World Carrot Museum is of a rather different kind: “The first virtual museum in the world entirely devoted to the history, evolution, science, sociology and art of Carrots”. These three online museums show the range of interests that can occupy those who make museums, whether only online or residing in a more traditional building.