A virtual museum is a digital entity that draws on the characteristics of a museum, in order to complement, enhance, or augment the museum experience through personalization, interactivity, and richness of content. Virtual museums can perform as the digital footprint of a physical museum, or can act independently, while maintaining the authoritative status as bestowed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in its definition of a museum. In tandem with the ICOM mission of a physical museum, the virtual museum is also committed to public access; to both the knowledge systems embedded in the collections and the systematic, and coherent organization of their display, as well as to their long-term preservation.
As with a traditional museum, a virtual museum can be designed around specific objects (such as an art museum or a natural history museum), or can consist of online exhibitions created from primary or secondary resources (as, for example in a science museum). Moreover, a virtual museum can refer to the mobile or World Wide Web offerings of traditional museums (e.g., displaying digital representations of its collections or exhibits); or can be born digital content such as, 3D environments, net art, virtual reality and digital art. Often, discussed in conjunction with other cultural institutions, a museum by definition, is essentially separate from its sister institutions such as a library or an archive. Virtual museums are usually, but not exclusively delivered electronically when they are denoted as online museums, hypermuseum, digital museum, cybermuseums or web museums.
Off-line pioneers (CD-ROM and digital media before 2000)
The following museums were created with digital technology before the web gained any form of popularity or mass usability. CD-ROM and postal mail distribution made these museums available world-wide, before web browsers, fast connections and ubiquitous web usage.
The Australian new media artist Jeffrey Shaw created the world’s first Virtual Museum  in 1991. As presented in 1992 at Ars Electronica, it also incorporated pioneering AR features.
The Virtual Museum, Apple Computer. Released as a CD-ROM in 1992, and distributed free worldwide to 1000 schools, universities and museums, The Virtual Museum was an interactive, electronic museum where users moved from room to room, and selected any exhibit in a room for more detailed examination. The exhibits in the museum were educational, encompassing topics such as medicine, plant growth, the environment, and space. To facilitate interaction with the museum, a new method for navigating through a prerendered 3D space, and interacting with objects in that space had been developed, called 'virtual navigation'. Virtual navigation employed real-time video decompression for the display of, and interaction with, high-quality computer animation. In addition, a representation for 3D objects in animated sequences was used which permitted pixel-accurate, frame-accurate object picking, so that a viewer was able to select any 3D object to trigger movement within the 3D space, to examine an exhibit in animated form, or to play a digital movie or soundtrack. The use of precomputed video permitted 3D navigation in a realistic-looking space, without requiring special-purpose graphics hardware. This was designed as a project to showcase new techniques in computer graphics at the time, particularly to push the envelope of what QuickTime was capable of, as it was still in beta. This project was the grandfather of QuickTime VR, which made sense given Eric Chen's role in the project. The Virtual Museum was a product of Apple Computer, Inc.'s 3D graphics group and was created by Gavin Miller, Eric Hoffert, Shenchang Eric Chen, Elizabeth Patterson, Dean Blackketter, Steve Rubin, Sally Applin, Derrick Yim and Jim Hanan under the leadership of Frank Crow.
Guggenheim Virtual Museum. In 1999, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation released an experimental interactive virtual museum, conceived by the American design office Asymptote Architecture and based on VRML technology, to provide a virtual hub for the various venues of the foundation around the world, as well as to host exhibitions of cyberart.
Online pioneers (web-based sites established before 2000)
The following online museums were pioneers. In the period, web pages were simpler, bandwidth was slower, the concepts of the online museum were still developing, and there were limited multimedia technologies available within web browsers. Some online museums began in non-website electronic forms and not all were established by existing physical museums. Many online museums have become significant sources of scholarly information, including extensive citations within Wikipedia.
ibiblio – founded 1992. An online exhibition with the backing of the Library of Congress, ibiblio hosted EXPO Ticket Office with exhibits including a Vatican Exhibit and even a virtual "restaurant" and "post office". This looks very simplistic now, but was novel in 1991.
Museum of Computer Art (MOCA) – Founded 1993. Directed by Don Archer, a non-profit corporation under charter from the Department of Education of New York State (US). MOCA was awarded .museum top-level domain (TLD) status by the Museum Domain Management Association (MuseDoma) in 2002 and is now hosted on the Web.
WebMuseum, Paris – founded online in 1994 as the WebLouvre, before being required to change its name. A pioneering virtual or online museum, it was created by Nicholas Pioch with images digitized from books and other public-domain sources. It is now hosted by ibiblio.
The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford – opened 1683, online 21 August 1995. Now the History of Science Museum, it was the earliest physical museum to inaugurate a programme of virtual exhibitions with detailed collections-based content and high-resolution images of paintings, books, instruments and other artworks and artefacts. Located in the oldest surviving purpose-built museum building in the world, it was able to initiate a website relatively early because of the networking facilities and expertise available in the university environment, pages created by staff-member Giles Hudson. The site was mounted on Oxford University's 'Sable' UNIX mainframe, occupied 150MB and GIFs were used as not all browsers supported JPEGs at the time.
WebExhibits – founded 1999, online 1999. WebExhibits is an interactive, web-based museum that encourages visitors to think about and explore scientific and cultural phenomena in new ways. Exhibits include "Investigating Bellini's Feast of the Gods," "Causes of Color," "Color Vision & Art," Pigments through the Ages," "Butter," "Van Gogh's Letters," and "Poetry through the Ages," "Calendars through the Ages," and "Daylight Saving Time."
Ljubljana: Open-Air Museum – founded 1993, online 1996. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, was presented as a huge museum where streets were the exhibitions of the architecture and building interiors were museum rooms. The method of the presentation was interactive maps and interactive virtual reality panoramas. The aim of the project was to create "3D like" virtual visit of the museum and replacing and documenting the "reality" exhibition after it was discontinued in its original "reality form". After 1996, the project was extended to "Virtual museums of Slovenia", covering all museums in the country, totalling over 106 museum exhibitions. Further development of the "Virtual museum" developed to project City View documenting natural and cultural heritage of the country with over 10,000 locations added by 2006.
The Thylacine Museum – online 1999. The Thylacine Museum is an online scientific and educational resource aimed at promoting a greater awareness and understanding of the biology, behaviour and history of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus).
Most physical museums now have an online presence with varying degrees of online information. At one end of the spectrum, museums may provide simple contact and background information plus a list of exhibitions (brochure museums). On the other end of the spectrum, there are museums that exist only online, or those that have a physical building but offer extensive online exhibits, interactive online features, multimedia, and searchable or browsable collections (content museums, learning museums, virtual museums).
The following are a few other museums online:
Carnamah Historical Society is an Australian historical society whose Virtual Museum: to be known and distinguished as Carnamah won a Museums and Galleries National Award in 2014.
International Museum of Women is an online-only museum that does not have a physical building and instead offers online exhibitions about women's issues globally as well as an online community. Online exhibitions include "Imagining Ourselves" (launched 2006) about women's identity, "Women, Power and Politics" (2008), and "Economica: Women and the Global Economy" (2009).
International New Media Gallery (INMG) is an online museum specialising in moving image and screen-based art. The INMG is dedicated to exploring current debates and topics in art history: touching on areas such as migration, war, environmental activism and the internet itself. The gallery publishes extensive academic catalogues alongside its exhibitions. It also hosts spaces for discussion and debate, both online and offline.
Museum With No Frontiers is a virtual museum set up by MWNF and launched in 2005. It is a real museum, including a Collection, Exhibitions and a Database, and is the result of international cooperation between museums and cultural heritage organisations, based on the MWNF methodology. So far, three thematic museums have been completed: Discover Islamic Art (www.discoverislamicart.org) (online since 2005, Database of 2,113 objects and monuments from 22 countries, 19 Virtual Exhibitions); Discover Baroque Art (discoverbaroqueart.org) (online since 2010, Database of 588 objects and monuments from 7 countries, 9 Virtual Exhibitions), and Sharing History (sharinghistory.org) (focusing on Arab-Ottoman-European relations between 1815 and 1918, online since 2015, Database of 2,636 objects and monuments from 22 countries, 10 Virtual Exhibitions).
Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, India, launched its digital museum, one of the first in the country, in December 2020, taking its collection, exhibitions and programming online. MAP's mission is to take art and culture into the heart of the community, making the arts accessible for all. Through the digital museum, MAP is reaching out to and educating audiences all over the world about Indian visual culture.
National Portal and Digital Repository for Museums of India is designed and developed by Human-Centred Design and Computing Group of Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), India in collaboration and with funding support from Ministry of Culture, Government of India. The National Portal for Museums of India was formally launched on 21 October 2014. The portal offers search & retrieval and integrated access to digitized collections of 10 national museums namely National Museum of India, New Delhi; Allahabad Museum, Allahabad; Indian Museum, Kolkata; National Gallery of Modern Arts (NGMA), New Delhi; National Gallery of Modern Arts (NGMA), Mumbai; National Gallery of Modern Arts (NGMA), Bengaluru; Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) Museum, Goa; Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) Museum, Nagarjunakonda; Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad and Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata. All participating museums are using JATAN: Virtual Museum Builder, a software developed by C-DAC for the purpose of standardization. The National Portal for Museums of India also won Special Mention Grand Jury Manthan Award in e-Culture, Heritage & Tourism category in 2015.
St George's Museum, founded in Walkley near Sheffield in 1875 by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and later dispersed, has been recreated as a virtual museum by the "Ruskin at Walkley" project.
Tucson Gay Museum is an online-only archives museum that for security as a minority group archives museum does not use a public accessed physical building and instead offers online exhibitions about Arizona LGBTQIA+ history.
UK'sCulture24 is an online guide to public museums, galleries, libraries, archives, heritage sites and science centres in the United Kingdom.
Virtual Museum of Canada is Canada's national virtual museum. With over 2,500 Canadian museums, the VMC brings together Canada's museums regardless of size or geographical location.
Virtual Museum of Soviet Repression in Belarus presents recordings of audio- and video-recollections of witnesses of Soviet repression in Belarus. The museum is operated by historians and other scientists from Belarus, based on a private initiative. It started collection of materials in 2007 and is operable since 2014.
The digitalization of museums is a task that has combined efforts, budgets and research from many museums, cultural associations and governments around the world. For the last few years, there have been projects related to Information Society Technologies dealing with: preservation of cultural heritage, restoration and learning resources. Some examples of contributions in the field of digital and virtual museography: Euromuse.net (EU), DigiCULT (EU), Musings, Digital Museums Projects. European Community has founded various projects to support this filed, like V-Must, the Virtual Museum Transnational Network that aims to provide the heritage sector with the tools and support to develop Virtual Museums that are educational, enjoyable, long-lasting and easy to maintain. A notable example of research work on digitizing information to replenish museum collections can be the conversion into digital format of information archived in display holograms.
In 2017, Virtual Multimodal Museum continues to explore the core concept of the virtual museum where the Working group 1.1 is actively working towards re-defining the definition of the virtual museum in order to keep up with current research.
An international conference in the field of museums and their websites is the annual Museums and the Web conference.
In 2004, Roy Hawkey of King's College London reported that "Virtual visitors to museum websites already out-number physical (on-site) visitors, and many of these are engaged in dedicated learning".
In establishing virtuality and promoting cultural development, the goal is not merely to reproduce existing objects, but to actualize new ones. Information and communication technologies are not merely tools for processing data and making it available, but can be a force and stimulus for cultural development.
There are several types of interactive environments. One is to re-create 3D space with visual representations of the museum by a 3D architectural metaphor, which provides a sense of place using various spatial references. They usually use 3D modelling, VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) and now X3D(successor to VRML) for viewing. There have been introduced various kinds of imaging techniques for building virtual museums, such as infrared reflectography, X-ray imaging, 3D laser scanning, IBMR (Image Based Rendering and Modeling) techniques. In the case of EU-funded projects, the ViHAP3D, a new virtual reality system for scanning museum artifacts, has been developed by EU researchers. Another interactive three-dimensional spatial environment is QTVR. Being a pre-rendered, fixed environment it is more restricted in regards to moving freely around in 3D space but the image quality can be superior to that of real-time rendered environments. This was especially the case in the mid-1990s when computing power and online speeds were limited.
Museums have a variety of top-level domain names. In the United States, many are .org. Some are .gov, or governmental domains for other countries. A few are .edu in the US, either as part of a larger educational institution, or grandfathered in when .edu regulations changed (e.g., as with the Exploratorium). The .museum domain name is used by some museums, as organized by MuseDoma, but is not widely used.
Prospects of development
Depending on the scientific position of the researchers, industry or instrumental use, virtual museums are regarded and used in different ways. For example, as a kind of creative activity; an innovative educational tool; a fashion or advertising project; а room with multimedia capabilities; the representation of the traditional Museum on the Internet; a gadget; the publication; website; type of communication; the electronic catalogue, etc.
^Rabosh, E. V.; Balbekin, N. S.; Petrov, N. V. (2023). "Technologies for analog-to-digital conversion of information archived in display holograms: I. discussion". Journal of the Optical Society of America A. 40 (4): B47–B56. doi:10.1364/JOSAA.478498. PMID37132986. S2CID257410008.