Virtual Museums: When Do They Become “Real”?
With the launch of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs), players were given the opportunity to build their own communities within the confines of virtual worlds created by the game developers. When Star Wars Galaxies was launched in June 2003, players were also given the opportunity to manipulate their environment. SWG Developers not only allowed players to place structures within the landscape of the game, but also gave them the opportunity to decorate the interiors of their buildings. It wasn’t long before players began to open their own museums. At first, the museums were nothing more than decorated houses containing developer-made paintings and objects. Eventually, however, the museums evolved and now there are quite a number that include interpretive labels, thematic exhibits, and more. While some of these museums are quite well known within their communities, they are virtually unknown by those who do not play the game.
That is not the case for the museums in another virtual community, however. The emergence of museums in the virtual world of Second Life has been the topic of much discussion in the museum community. Also launched in 2003, Second Life presents itself as a 3-D virtual world rather than a game. In the world of Second Life players can create just about anything they can imagine and add it to the environment including, of course, museums. Some of those museums have been replicas of real-life museums created by private individuals. Other museums in this virtual environment were created as initiatives of established real-world museums. But there are some museums in Second Life that only exist in that virtual landscape. The International Space Museum, one such museum, has spawned a real-life non-profit organization to support the work of the virtual museum.
All of this activity in virtual museums brings with it some interesting questions for members of the museum community. Are virtual museums “real” museums? And if they are, what are the implications for established real-life museums? This paper will examine a variety of museums in two virtual environments ― the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies and the virtual world of Second Life. It will apply established definitions of what is a museum and determine which of those virtual museums appear to meet the criteria. Finally, it will draw conclusions about the “realness” of virtual museums and the potential of these institutions for reaching new audiences.