The Louvre Museum in Paris holds one of the finest and most complete collections of antiquities. The broad collections related to Egyptian, Near Eastern and Mediterranean (Greek, Etruscan, and Roman) objects are of particular interest to ancient historians. The Louvre’s website offers useful access to selected objects in its collections, to information about the museum, and—perhaps most importantly from an educator’s point of view—to discussions about the how the Louvre acquired such impressive holdings.
I would ask students to begin with the interesting and detailed essay on the history of the museum and with the virtual tour, both offered on the website’s main navigation. It is important to emphasize that the website reflects the constraints, ideology, and history of a brick-and-mortar museum. Establishing the sense of museum as place is vital if students are to contextualize antiquities outside of their archaeological contexts.
The virtual tour is particularly impressive, utilizing QuickTime Virtual Reality movies to show the galleries themselves. I often ask students to imagine how their opinions of an object in a museum might change if it were displayed differently (e.g., more or less prominently or surrounded by different objects), and the Louvre’s virtual tour is perfect for an exercise like this. Indeed, I can imagine asking students to take images from the site and build their own virtual exhibits, collections, or museums. Discussion of how and why the students organized the same materials differently (or similarly) to the way the Louvre does could easily begin a unit on issues of periodization, “cultural heritage,” or the ethics of collecting.
The objects themselves are accessed through a list of individual collections, with selected works, history of the collection, and information about the galleries all provided. The selected works included clearly were chosen to emphasize the highlights of the museum’s collections rather than to illustrate either the range of objects that actually survive from antiquity or even the range of objects the Louvre actually holds.
Nevertheless, the objects are impressive and useful for illustrating material culture and for talking about museums and collecting in general. They are well imaged in multiple resolutions, and include the wall text and cataloging information that is provided with the pieces in the physical galleries. (The use of “wall text” as accompanying commentary is another reflection of the site’s “museum-ness.”) It is not clear whether the objects presented online rotate as the objects on display in the galleries change.
In addition to the selected works organized by collection, the site also offers access to the Louvre’s Atlas search engine that allows users to locate any of the roughly 29,000 works of art exhibited in the museum. Atlas searches the wall text and basic cataloging information as unstructured or semi-structured data using basic Boolean operations. This extremely useful tool has two drawbacks for American teachers: only selected works are imaged on the website, and the search and results are available only in French. Nevertheless, students can explore the full scope of the collections using Atlas and can also experience the subjectivity and difficulty of using automated search functions to locate information.