Cultural Institutions Take on a [Second] Life of Their Own
Susan, Jennifer Hazan

Institutionalizing Second Life 
Real Life in Second Life
The in-world Communityty
A Brief History of Persistent Worlds
Museums in Second Life
Web 2.0, Web 3.0 and the Museum 
Second Life as an Experiential Space
· Experiencing a Tsunami
· Vincent’s Second Life 
· Raoul Wallenberg’s Office

Keywords: Second Life, Avatars, Persistent Worlds, 3D Environments, Online Communities, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, Museums, Social Networks, Video Streaming, Immersive, Remote Learning


In the summer of 2007, the New Scientist ran a three-part special report on Second Life[1], and around the same time, the virtual world hit the front page of Newsweek. With all this prestigious coverage, and so much public interest, it is now the time to sit down and do some serious research! It seems that Neal Stephenson's fictional vision of the Metaverse in his novel Snow Crash has now crossed over from being a fringe fantasy for pure escapists, to one of the best known persistent worlds[2] - worlds that never go away when you log out of the community and that continue to thrive even in your absence. This is a place where users log in throughout the day (or night) to interact with others in play, commerce, creativity and exploration. It is not simply that hundreds of respectable newspapers and magazines around the world are talking about Second Life. If we are to believe Adam Reuters, one of the reporters from AvaStar, a professional tabloid newspaper for the residents of Second Life, people are not just talking about this virtual simulation; they have already sent in the avatars! And, just as in real life these dedicated, imbedded reporters are submitting their copy directly from the field; only here, the field is in-world, and this world has a dynamic all its own. This is the vast grid of islands where commodity exchange, property acquisition, live performances, real time learning and a host of savory and not so savory activities take place 24 hours, 7 days a week. This is a world where anything can happen and probably does. This is the online world of Second Life.

Currently a typical Google search will return some 90,000 results for news articles about Second Life. It is not just Reuters who has set up its own island in-world— all the major broadcast companies are beginning to stake their own claims with their own sims (simulations). More than 250 universities, including Harvard and MIT, now operate distance-learning programs in Second Life and entire countries are moving in. Sweden just missed being the first country to set up an embassy in Second Life—it was beaten by Maldives, which actually staked the first claim. The first ever embassy is located in the "Diplomatic Quarter" of Second Life, where visitors can now go to talk to a virtual diplomat about visas, trade, and other issues. According to Wikipedia, Estonia, Malta, Macedonia and the Philippines are also planning to open virtual missions in this virtual world.[3].

Institutionalizing Second Life

So how does it work? An official from the Maldives mission in Geneva is represented by an avatar, a computer-generated character who comes in to the Maldivian, virtual Embassy during office hours to deal with the public in-world. In the case of the Swedish Embassy, the Swedish Institute

[4], a promotional organisation which works alongside the foreign ministry, will not be issuing residents either passports or visas, but it will explain to avatars how to get the necessary documents for their alter-egos in the real world. Since May 30, 2007, the Institute has been circulating information about Sweden, making their representatives available to meet the public during the office hours clearly posted on their “reception desk”.

Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt cutting the ribbon at the inauguration ceremony[5]

More interesting for our discussion however, is the collaboration taking place between the Swedish Institute and the National Museum in Stockholm, which is “loaning” some of its most famous works of art to the Second House of Sweden in Second Life. Why would such a prestigious national institution invest in these resources? According to the Swedish Institution's website:

Paintings and textiles offering links with Sweden and the museum's collections will now be placed in the virtual version of architect Gert Wing?rdh's new embassy building in Washington DC. The items to be shown in the virtual embassy are among the best-known works of art at National Museum. They reflect different epochs in the history of art and the museum's collections of Dutch and French painting from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

Taking up official residence in the new world is a logical extension of the country's national outreach policies and Sweden’s embassy in SL is, in fact modelled on another embassy; architect Gert Wing?rdh's new embassy building that is physically located in Washington DC. Based on the very same architectural concept—and even perhaps using the same CAD drawings—the building can be almost effortlessly relocated to the synthetic world. In addition to the virtual treasures from the National Museum, the Embassy also hosts a photography exhibit from Sweden and a comprehensive exhibition about the life of Raoul Wallenberg, arranged in cooperation with OSA Archivum, the Open Society's archives in Budapest.

[6]. In addition to the permanent exhibitions, Second Sweden's diplomatic staff present a rich agenda of seminars, lectures and distance learning, all developed to amplify its public diplomacy agenda. Set in the elegantly designed island, the buildings and the gardens have been created by one of the leading SL designer companies, the Electric Sheep Company[7] and were modelled according the embassy's specifications.

The Second House of Sweden also boasts an exhibit on the life and work of renowned Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, with a beautifully annotated botanical garden. Visitors can fly around the plants and click on the labels to access the online knowledge base – – a celebration of three hundred years since Linnaeus's death. 


Teleport link to Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist's virtual botanical garden

The Swedish Institute’s policy of public diplomacy and cultural outreach is further extended through the display of the museums' collection on the SL walls. Institutions use exactly the same strategy on their websites. Essentially both locations present opportunities to mobilise the national collection; using exactly the same imagery, texts, and movies which are just as easily rendered in–world as they are online. Both online and in-world attributes are called upon to represent the cultural essence of the nation; selections from the national art collections, a wealth of information for the digital tourist—even the Swedish flag is highly prominent. But while we might merely glance at the electronic image of the flag on the website, we have to 'walk or fly' past the flag when we enter the in-world institution as it flutters in the SL wind in the company of the European flag and the flag of Second Life.



The Swedish Institute in Second Life

Just as the national collections of Sweden have made their way into Second Life, museums and other cultural institutions are staking their own claims there, too. This chapter explores how these new synthetic institutions realise their own virtual essence, and how avatars like you and me walk or fly around cultural institutions that are located in these evolving spaces.

Real Life in Second Life

This is a world where national borders could easily melt away, but surprisingly, as evident in the striking example of the Swedish initiative in Second Life, they often don't! Through my own travels through this persistent world, I am often disappointed when I discover that even though terra firmers (Second Life land developers) and in-world designers are free to create just about anything they can dream up—even when they are developing the strangest and most enchanting spaces—they tend to remodel life as we already know it. Attributes of cultural or national affiliation that we know from our own lives are unexpectedly familiar, and human-accommodating dimensions are typically in use in the space traversed by an avatar. For example, when seating is suspended above the ground, it hangs there mid-air; at just the right height for an average avatar to sit on with his feet touching the synthetic ground, exactly where the terra firmer placed it. There seems to be a general consensus amongst SL designers to make the world seem familiar. When an island representing a previous historical era is reconstructed in-world, such as Paris 1900[8], the script-writers behind the scenes disable the avatars’ ability to fly, in order to make the whole experience more convincing. (This said, there is a Second Life feature that is probably not that familiar to most of us from real life. In Paris 1900, avatars are offered a parachute so they can choose to jump off the Eiffel Tower, rather than take the elevator, or click on the teleport hotspot provided.) 

In another example of how Second Life often (and surprisingly) imitates first life—after all, jumping off the Eiffel tower, even without a parachute would not harm even the most fragile of avatars— is the way that the language you speak, similar to other online social spaces, is critical to your in-world experience. So much so that the different languages spoken by residents in this world tend to delineate social realities, bringing people together who not only are interested in the same things, but who also speak the same language – even when they are dancing, learning or shopping. As Second Life is essentially a US authored persistent world (the Linden Labs head office is located in San Francisco), in spite of the different languages spoken on the different islands, there is a tendency for residents to move over to the lingua franca, English, when they come across others who do not share their language. But, as in real life, it is a matter of time before each person finds their own community where they can speak their own language. New gated communities are now evolving in-world, retracing those very same linguistic pathways that are so familiar in a new kind of reality, a progression that simply makes sense in the virtual world. 

The in-world Community

As I have already indicated, the Swedes are leading the way in much of the current development; they have already built some impressive sims. One of the developers behind this is Johan Howard. His team has built a number of islands especially for Swedish speakers wherever they may be located in SL. These highly socially-driven spaces attract Swedes to the same kinds of activities they enjoy in RL—listening to music, dancing together, or simply wandering around the soon-to-be launched sim of Stockholm's Old City, Gamla Stan. Visitors to this historical city can get a 'massage', order 'pizza and beer' or simply hang out together by the port near the beautiful ships moored there. These spaces are intended for social interaction, and if the conversation (in-world typed chat or voice conversations through the built-in, Skype-like interface) takes place in a language that you can not understand, SL can be a highly exclusive place. 


Stockholm's Old City, Gamla Stan

The key to this synthetic world is social interaction. To make this successful, real time communication must take place not only in a shared language but, just as in RL, around a shared interest, whether it be gambling (now officially banned in SL[9]), hanging out in a caf? or pub, dancing in a medieval ballroom, or engaging in artistic creativity that can be sustained over time.

Communities, therefore, can be defined in many different ways. One art community that stands out as particularly robust, due to its intense and dedicated social commitment, is the Cetus Gallery District, a cultural (SL) site that was envisaged and built by Xander Ruttan through his company, Ruttan Development. Ruttan has attracted an international group of artists and art admirers to the Cetus Gallery District. Behind the Xander Ruttan avatar is Aaron Collins, who is known in the U.S. art world as a co-founder of a California-based nonprofit arts organization, a freelance arts and culture writer, and a former associate director of a prominent contemporary art gallery. Cetus mimics real-life urban arts communities such as those which often arise through the adaptive re-use of historical industrial areas such as New York's Chelsea, and the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon where Collins/Ruttan lived for 20 years. In Cetus, SL residents exhibit art in galleries, coffee houses, and loft residences. The community is fostered through the collaboration of the Cetus Gallery District Association, which provides communication and marketing support for artists and gallery owners in the district. Cetus is always abuzz with activities such as art openings, lectures, workshops, live concerts, social events, fashion shows, and community meetings.

Lecture in a gallery in the Cetus District

Collins looks forward to the day when he will be able to seamlessly integrate both the RL and SL communities. Ideally he would like to promote 'real' art in the synthetic world, interest other dealers, and even make sales through Second Life for his very real artists. Meanwhile, he invests his own time and energy in keeping this community alive, and is engaged, and dedicated to its galleries and communal activities. 

Other communities have sprung up through shared interests. The residents of the medieval SL town of Neufreistadt have created a self-governed community[10] with their own constitution[11] and community covenant[12]. This is an ambitious sim, modelled after a medieval Bavarian city with post-modern architectural elements. One of the goals of this community (in its own words) is to create a city which replaces orthogonality[13] with the organic and to bring together the medieval and modern. A similar attempt at reinitiating bygone communities is Colonia Nova which aims to reproduce the experience of living in and around a planned Roman city at the time when the Roman Empire had reached its height in nearly every measurable sense: “a Roma of the North”. You can follow this group's progress, and the development of similar members of the Confederation of Democratic Simulators (CDS), through the Second Life newspaper, the SL Herald[14]. Second Life is a draw for those who enjoy role-playing, with ample opportunities to experience what it must feel like to live in a different era, live in a gated community where residents speak your language, or just to re-enact activities that are very familiar from RL.

A Brief History of Persistent Worlds

Persistent worlds have been around for a long time. The first multi-participant, low-bandwidth MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon, Domain or Dimension) appeared in 1977 and were played on the PLATO system in the US. At Essex University, in the UK, similar systems became popular; they were known as "Multi-Undergrad Destroyer" or "Multiple Undergraduate Destroyer" systems. These communities continued to thrive throughout the 1980's in spite of their visual limitations in that their systems were strictly text based[15]. 

Maze War,[1] perhaps the world's first 3D multi-user networked game, arrived as long ago as 1974. In this game players were visualized as eyeball-shaped "avatars" that chased each other around in a maze.

Maze War screenshot, documented by Dan Croghan
playing the game in 1985 or 1986 at Xerox[16]

MOOs (MUD object oriented) environments made their entrance in the early 1990's. They connected to users using a client that used the Telnet protocol, again with a strictly text- driven interface. These persistent environments attracted dedicated participants to role play over long periods in highly persuasive worlds. Rooms and objects were called up from the shared database and players were identified by their online handles. 

Screenshot of PythonMOO, a text-based MOO environment [17]

One of the most popular MOO's was (and still is) Lambdamoo[18], where thousands of players from all over the world roamed around a multitude of 'rooms' created by the members themselves as a series of chat rooms, which were populated not just by people, but also by fantastic spaces and objects. According to the instructions available at the Lambdamoo help desk, when you first login you start in the Coat Closet, and if you follow the map you will easily be able to get oriented and find yourself in the Living Room, apparently located just off the Coat Closet. Each room has its own qualities and properties, and players quickly adapt to the directives in the specific room they enter. 

Map of Lambdamoo [19]

Multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) have also been evolving over the last two decades. Lucas Arts came up with Habitat in 1985[20]. Palace[21] was launched by Time/Warner in 1995; it soon became a very popular chat environment with visual 2D avatars. Other worlds came and went, such as Worlds Chat and Microsoft Comic Chat, both launched in 1996, but what conceptually set the scene for Second Life (first launched in 2003) was the Metaverse described in Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash[22], which was first published in 1992. The book is a gripping drama set in the early 21st century in a futuristic west coat of America. 

In Snow Crash, we follow Hiroaki "Hiro", our hacker-hero and his teenage friend who calls herself Y.T. (short for Yours Truly) who eventually becomes his business partner. Our heroes set out together on their information-gathering mission to combat forces that are destroying both human and digital resources in the physical and online world of the Metaverse. The destruction wrought by the virus that attacks both machine and man causes a kind of snow-like screen that is reminiscent of a 70's TV with severe interference. This viral enemy is passed on between members of the different communities as an invocation of an early Sumerian culture that used a primordial language and caused people to babble or start "speaking in tongues". While the fairly complicated plot shifts back and forth from the real to the goggle-enhanced virtual streets of the Metaverse, it does describe a very persuasive virtual world that is as time consuming and as vital as the physical world the characters also live in.

After four years since the first appearance of these kinds of persistent worlds, we are beginning to see the ramifications of living in the online community of Second Life: a vibrant in-world economy, a spontaneous explosion of creativity as well as a set of and checks and balances, similar to the social interactions that drive real people in the physical world. Anyone with a propensity for anthropological or social investigations will have a heyday! Seemingly all works of life are represented in some way or another, reflective of real life experiences, yet modified with the built-in features that are available in SL. Phrases like 'getting orbited' (spammed or flamed in SL speak) and 'griefing' (a viral attack that is perpetrated in-world by viscous people with a goal to destroy) are the kinds of terms that any newbie will have to understand in order to survive in the virtual world. While the Second Life's, compulsory, introductory training takes place on special islands, dedicated to teaching new avatars how to walk, fly, pick things up and communicate, they do not prepare the newly initiated for some of the more negative sides of the world. As in real life, avatars tend to pick up these kinds of things on their own, but behind the scenes is an extensive network of blogs; both official SL blogs and the thousands of blogs maintained by the residents themselves.

Implosion of wheels generated by a bitter avatar during a grief attack

Avatars are busy at work and at play 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; often as many as 50,000 people are simultaneously logging in at any given moment. Courses are taught in real time in the hundreds of leading in-world universities[23], avatars are dancing the night away in the hundreds of nightclubs and ballrooms, and Linden dollars (the in-world currency), are being exchanged for land, clothes, vehicles, swimming pools and the virtual equivalent of just about anything that is available in real life (RL). 

Museums in Second Life

With all the activity taking place in Second Life, there still seems to be a need for museums. Some are transposed from a physical location; others emerge as in-world institutions that document processes that make sense only in Second Life, such as the Second Life Historical Museum on Phobos Island, which chronicles SL historical processes.

Wikipedia currently lists the following museums and galleries in Second Life:

Museums Region Coordinates*

The Aho Museum NMC Campus (69,123,26)
Crescent Moon Museum Taber (198,97,21)
The Second Louvre Museum Tompson (153,96,100)
Second Life Science Center Info Island II (114,201,25)
Museum of Flip Animation Sphinx (202,115,21)
SL Computer History Museum Info Island (225,51,23)
SL Historical Museum Phobos (216,166,32)
Bayside Beach Galleria - Museum Flyingroc Chung (72,124,35)
International Spaceflight Museum Spaceport Alpha (48,75,22)
Fort Malaya Malay History Museum Ocean Pines (135,155,22)
Star Trek Museum of Science Ocean Pines (37,215,25)
Tarot Card Museum Hantu (204,100,29)

* The hyperlinks are Second Life URLS (SURLS)--the coordinates of the museums on the Second Life grid.

Many of the in-world museums are not listed; one simply hears about them from others or flies into them by chance. News travels fast in Second Life, and like-minded people know how to use both in-world and online facilities to spread the word. Currently, one of the most popular new museums is the Second Louvre Museum, where self-proclaimed curator Kharis Forte has developed an impressive rendering of the physical museum, now transposed to Tompson Island. 

Second Louvre on Tompson Island

According to Forte's 'marble' signage at the main entrance:

Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artifacts and specimens which they hold in trust for society.”
The Museums Associations definition (adopted 1998)
Thank you everyone for your support and donations.
Check back frequently for news about the grand opening event!

Forte’s 'physical' layout follows the same floor plan as the real museum, but he names his galleries and curates their contents at whim. The Main Entrance Hall displays Starax’s Achilles, 2006, while his Sully Exhibition Hall shows Jefferson Psaltery’s Tango as well as other paintings and drawings. Teleporting up to Denon on the first floor, you find figure sculptures Starax, Costello, Fairymeadow, and Herbst, while on the second floor of Denon there is photography by D.J. Hacker. Denon's third floor presents 3D rendered art by WacRam Roy. In the Richelist galleries you will find abstract sculpture and photography.

For some this might be a perplexing visit. Professionals who work in the real Louvre might find it downright shocking. For while Forte has modelled his SL museum on the original in exquisite 3D; the collections displayed inside bear no resemblance to those that appear in Paris. Forte does, of course, leave us with the disclaimer:

This museum is in no way affiliated with the Musee du Louvre in Paris, France.
No claims or representation of being anything other than a museum of Second Life are being made. Please refer inquiries to Kharis Fortis.

While this rendering of the Parisian Louvre seems extraordinary, considering that the staff of the real museum had no part in the support or development of this museum, it is somewhat reminiscent of a previous rendering of the famous Louvre, some 13 years ago. In 1994, a 23-year-old student and computer science instructor named Nicolas Pioch at the ?cole Nationale Sup?rieure des T?l?communications (ENST), France decided that "more artistic stuff is needed on the Internet." He set out to develop his own Louvre online that would include a series of collections:

· Famous Paintings Exhibition
· The Medieval Art Exhibit
· Visit Paris Tour

Bringing together over 250 images and several dozen sound bites The Virtual Louvre was born in May 1994. At the CERN World Wide Web conference Pioch went on to win the much-coveted "Best Use of Multiple Media Award" for the design and construction of his extraordinary website. Only after he received the award was the French Ministry of Culture alerted to the website and instantly began legal proceedings against the perpetrator who had hijacked their intellectual property. Pioch responded to the ongoing legal battle with a series of postings on his website that tracked the lengthy court hearings. On 6 June 1994, he wrote:

I have renamed the Louvre exhibit for "Le WebLouvre". This is to please the bureaucrats of the French Ministry of Culture, since "Le Louvre" may be copyrighted. Please read "WebLouvre" each time it's written "Louvre" from now on, simply because I am hopelessly busy (as usual :) until June 20, and won't have time to change the naming everywhere.

As the battle continued to rage, Pioch was prompted yet again to change the name of his online museum. On 5 February 1995, he posted the following:

Time for a second name change to "WebMuseum" (see June 94) since the bureaucrats don't know what they want, after the Louvre "cultural service" (?) has menaced of legal action and sent threatening letters to my headmaster. I hope you appreciate.

Clearly this kind of online activity could not go on anymore without the pertinent authorities noticing; at least, not on the WWW. But I suspect that we are witnessing history repeating itself, with the legal rules of institutions and intellectual property not yet truly able to regulate creativity and innovation on Second Life.

Second Life is a compelling place for commercial ventures. To return to the Newsweek article[24], more than 45 multinational companies, including the likes of American Apparel, IBM, General Motors and Dell, are beginning to use the medium for customer service, sales and marketing. Where life is immersive, persuasive and, at times, highly lucrative, online real estate has become attractive.

This world is open to all kinds of traditional and perhaps not such traditional professions. Having stated earlier that SL often follows real life, here is an example of an online exhibition that may not be easily replicated in physical space. An island created by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)[25]—NOAA's Earth Research Lab—invites visitors to experience a series of interactive exhibits including walking through a US 3D weather map pulling in real time meteorological information.

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration real time weather map

The tiny avatar pictured above, and in several of the SL screenshots is my own avatar, Jennifer Freund, who represents me in the synthetic world on my behalf for in-world interviews and immersive activities. While most online conversation take place between avatar and avatar, conversations may also continue person to person through the integrated voice channel.

Second Life brings together both the strengths of the traditional museum and the social connectivity of Web 2.0 in what some people are now calling Web 3.0[26]. Museums work because they are able to make processes visible; processes that otherwise may be hidden, confusing, or elusive. Thematic exhibitions bring together similar or progressive ideas that are reflected in the material objects set in the gallery. Combining a series of objects — whether they are paintings, sculptures, fossils, butterflies, or Roman coins — illuminating their qualities and establishing each object in its own place in the storyline. The narrative becomes that more persuasive through the object's unassailable materiality and, as we move around the showcases the storyline is further reinforced by the embodied experience.

Web 2.0, Web 3.0 and the Museum

Interfaces that use Web 1.0 -- and even to some extent Web 2.0 -- provide us with rich information, and even allow us to respond by uploading our own micro-content into spaces with strange names such as Flickr, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. The social tools that characterize Web 2.0 are more a paradigm shift in the way we use the Internet, rather than simply a new set of standards or services. Web 2.0 offers opportunities for the folk (you and me) to forge new horizontal connections with colleagues, friends, fans and business partners who share a commonality that breaches traditional borders. Through different kinds of Web 2.0 services, we are now able to publish our own bookmarks, upload our favorite images, share our special music and video collections—even open up our online diaries—allowing others to sift, search and use our micro-content while at the same time we get to access theirs. A whole wealth of personalized content that emerges from Web 2.0 has been evolving since the early 00’s, when the exponential growth of blogs, wikis and wiki-like tools enabled you and me not only to read other people's content, but to generate and publish our own micro-data on just about anything we may wish to write about. There has never before been so much micro-content publicly available. Before the Internet there had never been any kind of dissemination mechanism that could acquire such a vast quantity of data and maintain it in a public vessel.

We are now beginning to hear about Web 3.0, which not only refers to the Semantic web but also to the immersive experiences of persistent worlds. In the context of the online museum, this offers an even richer kind of experience, where visitors may access the information they seek at the click of a mouse, by wandering around the 3D space and interacting with the exhibits. In this way, although NOAA's real-time weather map provides exactly the same information that is available in the print and electronic media, it does so in a fresh and engaging way that is both highly persuasive and delightfully playful. Second Life developers have much to learn from museum professionals, as museum professionals have much to learn from Second Life developers.

Second Life as an Experiential Space

Experiencing a Tsunami

In a separate NOAA exhibit, visitors can 'experience' the effects of a tsunami, both beneath the water, watching the underwater warning beacons, and on the beach, watching the tide pull out at an alarming speed. They can then watch the enormous wave roll up to the beach and crash over the unfortunate avatar. Even though this is only a screen size simulation, the effect is highly persuasive with a sensation of being trapped inside the massive wave and a feeling of distress as you watch the beachside homes flooded by the sea water. Both of these interactive exhibits were created by the San Francisco-based Second Life design company Aimee Weber Studios, who present these kinds of natural processes in new ways with tremendous success.

Waiting for the massive wave to roll over you in the National
Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration tsunami in-world interactive exhibit

As visitors watches the water recede into the ocean, the animation continues to reveal the effects of a tsunami as the water-drenched homes become visible once again. Witnessing the simulation of the havoc wrought on the beachfront, we are able to grasp how much damage a single tidal wave can actually cause. In this brief yet dramatic three minutes, the entire life cycle of a tsunami is demonstrated. While all of us have heard of a tsunami and have probably watched the spectacular film footage of natural disasters on TV, probably only a few of us actually understand the mechanisms of these natural phenomena. The NOAA simulation easily demonstrates these kinds of phenomena using interactives which are immersive and very compelling. Not only natural processes but also abstract, scientific principles and microscopic, or nano-sized activities can be described with the protagonist—you and me—taking on the central role in a truly pedagogic experience.

Vincent’s Second Life

The next example of an in-world museum is the Virtual Starry Night island of Vincent's Second Life. The Dutch company Tressis[27], headed by the in-world designer Milan Brynner (otherwise know in RL as Fred Bos), has created this extraordinary permanent exhibition. It presents 70 Van Gogh masterpieces that are located in museums all round the ‘real’ world by using a warren of in-world galleries especially created to present the Dutch master painter. 

Visitors follow the blue line around the galleries, reading the labels either with a friend, or in the company of one the island's real life guides, friendly and informed avatars who greet you as you land. In addition to the collections displayed in the pod-like galleries, the island also offers visitors the opportunity to 'step into' the artworks in 3D form. 

Van Gogh's famous Night Caf? in a 3D rendering

Visitors can sit in Van Gogh's famous Caf?; cross the bridge that is so convincing to anyone familiar with his works. They can then choose to enter the Yellow House that contains an exhibit of the artist Gauguin, who lived briefly with Van Gogh in Arles in the south of France, or move off around the other exhibits. The island also houses a mini-exhibit of 'Vincent's Flowers' behind the square, where a selection of Van Gogh's flower paintings are located. Right next to this display you discover the entrance of the 3D version of The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles where avatars can wander around and enjoy not only the impasto brushwork of the famous artist, but also sense how it must have felt to be in van Gogh's shoes as he wandered around these spaces and described these places in his paintings.

Van Gogh's room in Arles, 1899 [SL 2007]

While both the Caf? and the other outdoor plazas are beautifully rendered, the highlight of the island, in my opinion, is the ability to 'step inside' one of the most famous paintings, Van Gogh's room in Arles. As you step into the room through the picture frame, the avatar perspective offers a completely fresh view of the proportions and qualities of this luminous artwork. The furniture and objects around the room come alive and you can almost reach out and touch the fabric of Van Gogh's life as you wander in and around his room.

As with all good museums, no visit is complete without a trip to the gift shop. In Vincent's Second Life, in the small shop located on the first floor of the Yellow Caf?, visitors can purchase a T-shirt for their avatar to wear or their very own Van Gogh flower display to decorate their in-world home or office. The prices are very modest and are expressed in Linden Dollars.

The Tressis Virtual Starry Night teams promise to continue to develop these kinds of experiences, and to expand presentations and educational services in the months to come, bringing other 'Dutch Masters', such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, to Second Life. They also suggest that for the best viewing experience, avatars are advised to keep the island’s default 'night view' on. (The other three possible views available to avatars are sunset, sunrise and noon).

Raoul Wallenberg’s Office

The last example in this chapter is one of most captivating experiences that I have come across in Second Life, and for this we have to come full circle, back to the Swedish Institute. As mentioned above, the Institute presents an in-house exhibition on Raoul Wallenberg[28]. When I interviewed Stefan Geens, the Director of the project, alternatively known as Belmeloro DiPrima Geens, for this chapter, he took me to a corner of the Institute's vast foyer where we found a modest plaque outside that said “Humanitarian Affairs, Raoul Wallenberg”.


Belmeloro DiPrima/Stefan Geens inside Wallenberg's office

A door opened into a darkened office where we listened to an enactment of Wallenberg dictating a report on January 16, 1945, his last day of freedom, from the Budapest office where he was posted as a Swedish diplomat. In this chilling narrative, spoken by an actor in English with a Swedish accent, he talks about his rescue efforts and his uncertain fate. The audio recording is streamed from the SL location, and it is almost as if Wallenberg is present with you in the office. The effect is persuasive enough to produce goose bumps. All objects in the room are interactive, and some link to in-world note cards that describe every item in the office. Other links in the office take us beyond the walls of the Institute to their website, where we can find such objects as a digital photograph of the kind of protection passport that Wallenberg himself dispensed. The original of the passport belongs to the Jewish Museum in Stockholm; the digital photograph belongs to photographer Karl Gabor in Stockholm.

One of the prominent in-world artifacts found in the room is Raoul Wallenberg's own telephone book and diary. The provenance and explanation of the diary is documented by The Jewish Museum in the Stockholm Archives, as we learn from the notecard provided:

In October 1989, the Soviet Foreign Ministry and the KGB invited representatives of the Wallenberg family to Moscow to hand them over several items once belonging to Raoul: his diplomatic passport, telephone book, cigarette case, pocket diary, prison register card, motor registration certificate and some foreign currency.

Wallenberg's pocket diary contained information on all his contacts, meetings and appointments with people from both sides in Budapest: the German and Hungarian authorities and the Hungarian antifascist resistance. It was this pocket diary that probably confirmed many of the Soviets' multiple suspicions with regard to Wallenberg.

The skillful integration of sound streaming, animations, and interactive objects create a highly compelling sense of total immersion. Once we relinquish our sense of presence and allow ourselves to 'enter into' this persuasive environment, we are not simply learning about Wallenberg, we are experiencing the historical moment in perhaps the same way as we would in the theatre, or in a realization by actors in a physical, historical space. In spite of the fact that we come to this location online, the benchmark for this kind of online interaction can not be a traditional web experience; rather it should be compared to similar kinds of experiential enactments that we usually come across only in physical spaces. 

On their own blog[29], posted on October 22nd, 2007, in a discussion on user metrics, the Second House of Sweden succinctly makes this point:

The experience of visiting the Second House of Sweden is best compared to visiting a real space, because that is what it is trying to emulate. How many visitors does a real-world cultural center get in a day? What is the cost involved in servicing these visitors? What would the cost be to bring visitors from far-flung places, where there are no such cultural centers, to a real-world cultural center? When these kinds of questions are asked, building a virtual embassy makes eminent sense.

Fully aware of the potency of the combined Second Sweden experience, the exhibitions, the building, the office hours, the enactment, and even the flag, the blog explains:

Several metrics support our conclusion that the embassy makes for a good proxy for a real-world Swedish cultural experience:

We already know that the users of Second Life are technologically savvy, curious, and future-oriented—that’s sort of a prerequisite for being in Second Life, and it is exactly the target group we believe is most receptive to the message that Sweden is a modern, tolerant, nature-loving country.


This brief flight around Second Life has endeavoured to introduce the reader to the multitude of rich activities that are currently taking place in cultural institutions in Second Life. With a focus on museums in SL, I have tried to demonstrate not only the differences between the kinds of activities that are going on, but also the subtle differences that are emerging between similar places such as online embassies. In addition, while there is a sense of settling the Wild West (in that this is new, untested terrain), there are strikingly familiar kinds of experiences emerging in a world that could just as easily have allowed people and places to be totally redefined.

In a comparison between the WWW and Second Life, there appears also to be a sense of history repeating itself as institutions, business and communities locate their functions in the synthetic world. The example of Second Louvre demonstrates the ways that official institutions are deeply concerned about how their brand is mobilised in alternate spaces, and I am curious to see whether the official, Parisian-based cultural institution will pursue the in-world curator, Kharis Forte, with the same vengeance as they did Nicolas Pioch 13 years ago. There are many issues for in-world residents yet to be resolved, for instance, the intellectual property rights of avatars who create clothing or accessories for sale, or the rights of those terra firmers whose work can so easily be duplicated (stolen) by others; or lost in a rollback by the proprietors, Linden Labs, when they upgrade the grid of islands from one version to the next.

At this time, Second Life is enjoying a wealth of media coverage, which offers snapshots of the different kinds of possibilities that the world offers—the fantasy environments and the role-playing, as well as the ability to teleport from island to island, to parachute off the Eiffel Tower, or to listen to a report by Raoul Wallenberg. A more in-depth view of the emerging communities reveals the different ways that like-minded people tend to cluster around the same interests and common values, with a shared language perhaps being the most important social feature that includes or excludes participation; in just the same way as the earlier text-based MOOs and MUDs had done of previous decades.

New iterations of the museum are now appearing; there is much to observe, and much to research. For those whose interest lies in the electronic museum, exponential growth clearly lies ahead. For researchers whose interest lies in people-watching, there is much to explore. But for those who have been watching online developments of cultural spaces over the years it might be useful to remember that while the web tends to document life, Second Life tends to model life. With Web 1.0 museum and other cultural websites, the experience can be described mostly as passive, while the active participation of Web 2.0 interfaces has become far more participatory and interactive. The immersive nature of Sl interactions in Web 3.0 environments, means that people, or at least their avatars, find opportunities to actively participate in the in-world social interaction through moving into and around the buildings and landscapes modelled in 3D and pro-actively building their own spaces and activities with the tools provided in-world. However, I would argue that in spite of the ability to roll back life as we once knew it, we tend to see how the same social norms and surprisingly familiar social interactions take place between people and continue to govern the way people work, learn, shop and play.

Dr. Susan Hazan



[6] The Open Society Archives -- OSA -- is an archives and a center for research and education. Its collections and activities relate to the period after the Second World War, mainly The Cold War, The history of the formerly communist countries, Human rights, and War crimes.


[9] According to Eric Reuters, one of the numerous reporters from the official Reuters Second Life blog, there is currently a vast network of illicit speakeasies that have sprung up to replace the casinos now banned from SL. Virtual speakeasies defy Second Life gambling ban, Tue Aug 14, 2007, <>.



[13]The term 'orthogonality' refers to the 3D visualisation of space; in this case the accepted  perspective for avatars moving or flying around in the 3D space. In this sim, the organic quality of the landscape produces a persuasive immersive environment, which is modeled here as a Medieval village.












[28] According to the Swedish Institute, Raoul Wallenberg is known for his outstanding and daring operations to save Jews in Budapest during the latter half of 1944, and for being arrested and taken prisoner by the Russians in January 1945, never to return. His work and fate occupied the media, political leaders, historians and Jewish leaders in the West for decades.