Museums in the digital space — some reflections on online exhibitions

A sample of current online exhibits displayed through Google Arts & Culture.

In the past year I have frequently come across the term online or digital exhibition, for rich museum content presented online. Is the surge of the terms (not statistically confirmed but rather a hunch) a result of more museums taking to online arenas for outreach? Is it a result of museums gradually embracing digital in collections, curatorial and exhibitions departments, beyond putting collections online, managing a museum website and establishing a social media presence? Or is it a sign of museums not completely grasping what the museum without walls actually means — looking for a quick fix?

I recently posted a tweet:

What do you think about the term “digital exhibition” or “online exhibition”? It seems to be used ever so often as we lack other terms for editorial content. Even more now that more museums understand the importance of relevant content online. What are your thoughts?

As always the wonderful international museum community following hashtags such as #musetech, #museweb and #museumnext were eager to discuss the term. The comments ranged from being very critical towards the terms, to arguing for their usefulness.

The idea of an exhibition online is of course not new and represents such things as curating collections online through editorial content, mirroring a physical exhibition or launching an online only experience. Some responses to my tweet helped frame why the terms have emerged — and as a reminder, this post and the Twitter thread is not an extensive examination of what has been written throughout the years on the topic, but rather a spontaneous, short and insightful conversation involving people with long experience in the field.

The commenting tweets I humbly have taken the liberty to quote are short and quick responses, but they do frame a contemporary attitude towards the terms and indicate that there is a lack of consensus in the field about the definition of digital/online exhibition, as well as questions about whether this is a strategic path forward for museums, or not.

Why online exhibitions?

So let’s look back at why we ended up with the terms, some thoughts from the field:

A comment from @mia_out:

There was a hope that ‘online exhibitions’ would be a thing, for quite a long time (and it’s understandably hard to let go), back in the days when tech meant optimism

And another from Aron Ambrosiani

…I think we ended up with ”digital exhibitions” because on our physical sites, the exhibitions are at the core, surrounded by supporting areas like entrances, shops, restaurants etc. So we mean ”core content” rather than their physical manifestation

This might explain the relatively recent effort to implement the term digital exhibition was made by the Athena Plus project who published a guide to making “digital exhibitions” in 2015, : “Digital exhibitions offer a great opportunity to GLAM institutions to put a selection of digitized cultural objects in the spotlight and create manifold narratives around them. The combination of different types of media objects, such as images, texts, video and sound files as well as the possibility to make accessible cultural content from memory institutions from all over the world to virtual visitors are just two advantages digital exhibitions have.”

Here the possibility to curate museum content to a large audience is the main argument for creating exhibitions online.

And in the even more recent ViMM* Manifesto for Digital Cultural Heritage Digital/Online exhibitions are actually seen as a natural part of museum operations.

In the recent Twitter conversation some people also emphasised that the terms came about as a way to communicate and to promote online projects to senior management. Perhaps it was also a way to justify spending time and money on online content that was not in an obvious way returning on investment by increasing physical visits.

Today the term has been embraced by quite a few museums displaying “online exhibitions” on their websites. Google Arts offer “Online exhibits” There are even a development of digital only museums, such as the Virtual Museum of Canada.

When briefly browsing through various online exhibitions they often come across as pure editorial content, very similar to what many news sites deliver in terms of long form content. They are often text heavy with a different design than for example blog posts (read: parallax effects etc.), some display objects straight from the online collections, and perhaps not surprisingly none offer an emotional awe-evoking experience that might be expected from a museum exhibition. They all suffer from the limits and challenges that come with producing online experiences.

It is easy to agree with @kristykokegei’s criticism:

[The terms digital and online exhibition] …are symptoms of what has been wrong with our approach to online/digital in GLAMs for the past 10–20 yrs — ie uncritically adapting our analogue practices to the online/digital realm.

Words matter

This in my opinion and to some extent uncritical adoption of the terms digital or online exhibition is perhaps the greatest reason why we need to discuss them. There is a need for some consensus around the terms, what we mean by claiming we produce online exhibitions. Because words matter.

We do need common terms to produce new museum experiences — as I have written about in a previous blog post. This is essential for getting buy in from management as well as the teams working on the project. If new rich content is being produced for online purposes museums need to promote it, in order to drive visitors. Online content that no one takes part of will not pave the way for increased budgets.

And as @Henkel_Matthias puts it:

…terminology is important — because it supports brand building… branding is crucial in order to be unmistakable and unique. This ultimately helps our audience to find their way around.

However if we use terminology which is not strategically thought through we risk undermining the development of the museum outside the walls.

As @kristykokegei puts it:

Those terms … constrain how our teams think about digital content and about doing core mission work online … A package term runs the risk of constraining how content and approaches evolve in the future as we respond to audience needs.

Issues with defining online content

For museums to actually extend the museum experience online beyond the walls, or deliver online only experiences there is a need to define what will be delivered, for all the reasons mentioned above.

However, simply applying the notion of an analog exhibition to the online space causes concerns, partly because of the common expectation that exhibitions have a physical aspect. Exhibitions as museums and audiences know them allow visitors to navigate in the physical space. The audience becomes physically a part of the room and is relating to the environment with their bodies. This simply doesn’t translate to the online world.

As @aronambrosiani puts it:

if you can’t walk around in it, it’s not an exhibition.

And as @derivadow comments:

I’ve not seen any digital exhibition that replicates the attributes of an exhibition. TBH I’m not sure such a thing can exist. Just coz a museum produces it doesn’t make it an exhibition anymore than a publisher doing an exhibition would be making a 3D article.

@mia_out adds to the discussion pointing straight at the problem with ‘digital’/’online’ exhibitions:

Exhibitions are physical branching experiences; ‘online exhibitions’ are usually linear essays illustrated with images or AV.

So calling for more discussions is certainly in place:

The more we can dissect and more closely identify what and why a digital project does, the better off we are…

says @phivk

Distinguishing between online and onsite

Apart from defining what a digital/online exhibition is there is also the issue of distinguishing between digital and physical spaces which some commented on in the Twitter thread. Audiences of today don’t distinguish between online/digital and physical worlds. These worlds offer different types of experiences but they are still one and the same, the real world.

This suggests, as Kristy Kokegei stated above, that adding the prefix ‘online’ or ‘digital’ to an exhibition by default copies analog thinking to the online world ruling out the possibilities of making the most out of the specific affordances of digital and online.

There are differences though both have to be part of the same experience, and we need to discuss what this means for museums. How do we use each platform or arena? What is the value of the physical space?

The museum as a magic circle

Someone who is regularly pushing the museum field forward is Seb Chan, CXO at ACMI, Australia. He recently wrote:

“Despite the efforts to create a ‘museum without walls’… and the (still largely unrealised) potential of a distributed, internationalist museum ‘collection of collections’ promised by the web (digital colonialism aside), museum redevelopments and the building of new museum buildings — museums with walls — continue apace.

If all these new buildings are being made and museums are looking to deliver renewed missions and purpose beyond their (new) walls, then it requires museum workers to be clear about the purpose of our public facing physical spaces, as distinct from our offsite and online activities.”
https://medium.com/@sebchan/on-immersion-interactivity-via-mw2019-ac72d9c700bd

Museums have unique opportunities to deliver physical experiences that extend beyond the walls, before and after the physical visit, or even replace the visit to the museum. The surge of online exhibitions indicate a pursuit of relevant and valuable online experiences, which in turn calls for discussions around public offers made by museums and how to make the most out of both physical and online spaces.

As the critics of the terms suggest, each platform for delivery, each touch point, have unique affordances. Making the most out of each to deliver unique and memorable experiences requires a diverse range of skills and competencies, and a clear vision of how these work together as a whole.

Museum experiences being delivered both within and outside the museum walls, across physical and online platforms, and across the public ecosystem, allow for museums to become magic circles” (again quoting Seb Chan) where magic happens.

What can visitors expect when entering that magic circle? Perhaps a range of different interconnected experiences where educational programme activities, (physical) exhibitions or experiences, long form editorial content, online events, gaming experiences, competitions, study rooms, maker spaces, engaging conversations online, behind the scenes visits, interactive video, direct access to collections, tools for contributing to digital heritage, etc. that are seamlessly delivered throughout the public ecosystem of the museum to create magic and spark curiosity.

The task is then for marketers and communicators to embrace this magic circle and engage audiences to come step inside.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

* ViMM is a Coordination and Support Action, funded under the European Union (EU) Horizon 2020 programme from 2016–19 in order to define and support high quality policies, strategic and day-to day decision making, the utilisation of breakthrough technological developments and to nurture an evidence-based view of growth and development impacted by Digital Cultural Heritage (DCH) and virtual museums (VM) in particular.