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Quirky Collections Featured at  the Museum of Online Museums - 2004-07-07

Technology meets the arts. Many of the world's best-known museums have websites to showcase their collections. And increasingly, the Internet is home to quirky, personal, virtual museums that exist only in cyberspace.

With so many online museums, it's about time we had a guide to help us find the most interesting exhibits. And so we do: it's the Museum of Online Museums, the brainchild of Jim Coudal and his Chicago design firm, Coudal Partners.

"We came across many oddball and not-so-oddball collections of individual items," he said. "Everything from beer can collections to a gallery of old Christmas lights to foreign groceries museum to Bollywood posters."

The Museum of Online Museums (MoOM) does include links to many of the world's great institutions such as the Smithsonian here in Washington and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

But what's really special here are the quirky collections that reflect the whimsy and curiosity of passionate individuals. Many of these online museums are very international in scope.

I liked the colorful barber shop signs from West Africa, for instance, and the movie posters from Mexico. And it goes on: Obsolete computers. Railroad diner menus. Clever American ads for Germany's clever Volkswagen microbus. Chopsticks. Gas masks. Toasters. Safety razors.

"I think that people are collectors by nature," said Jim Coudal. "And the web allows people who collect things that translate visually to be proud of their collection. In other words, 'there may be other collections of cigarette lighters in the world, but there's none better than mine' is sort of the feeling."

Although Jim Coudal says the Museum of Online Museums didn't begin with any specific commercial intent, he and his colleagues soon came up with a product - it's a packaging system for compact disks and DVDs - that they thought would appeal to the kind of people that were interested in the MoOM.

"In some ways, we have followed a different model for e-commerce on the web," he said. "The old model is to build a product and go in search of an audience. We sort of turned that on [its head, and we built an audience and then tried to figure out what sort of product they would want."

These online museums highlight some of the advantages of the Internet: it's a way for like-minded people to connect with others who share a passion, and you can build a website for a lot less than it would cost you to build a museum.