• Cait McQuade

Online exhibits versus bricks-and-mortar exhibits, part 1

Updated: Aug 19, 2020


Online exhibits were proliferating even before the coronavirus swept everyone out of our museums, including staff. "Access!" we all trumpet when given the chance to lay out our interpreted collections on the internet. "Broader audiences! Repurposing! Multi channel!" It’s a no-brainer, really, to get the most use possible out of all the work we do to prepare interpretation, displays, text, graphics, object mounts, interactives, and programs.


As with many things in our profession, there’s no standard definition for “online exhibit.” No telling what kind of experience you’re in for when you click that link. It could be a video tour of a bricks-and-mortar gallery, a clickable table of contents, or a sequential set of webpages paved with images and text.


Except, there are some constants or near constants. Everything you see will be contained within a frame small enough to sit on your desk. Everything you see will be visible because it’s composed of glowing dots of light, not because light bounces off of it. You will move your body only slightly. You won’t need to refocus your vision for different distances. No strangers will join you or interrupt you. And you can instantly remove yourself from the exhibit at any moment.

Nonetheless, I’m dreaming about how an online exhibit might reproduce some of the experience that people have in an exhibit gallery. I’m not claiming that this mimicry is essential to a high-quality digital exhibit—each medium has its own strengths. But it’s an appealing exercise and I’m curious what I might learn.

Here are some qualities that might be translatable from an IRL exhibit (that’s “in real life,” though let’s not lose sight of the real experience of sitting in front of a glowing monitor). After entering a museum, imagine that you approach your intended exhibit destination and experience:

  • A sense of beginning, some kind of introduction, at least a title

  • An advance organizer: a map of the exhibit or a list of sections; this gives you a sense of the whole exhibit’s content, the story it tells, how many spaces or sections you’ll pass through

  • Vistas beyond your immediate surroundings, views toward cool things yet to be encountered

  • Objects foregrounded over text: the artifacts or specimens on display attract our notice more readily than any of the words around them

  • Big variations in scale: our own bodies help us measure the size of things around us, and there might be large differences between those sizes

  • Interpretive groupings of objects and text: multiple clues signal that things have been sorted into groups

  • Layered text: more clues signal that some text is more important or more generally applicable than other text

  • Occasional AV or interactive: here and there things that move and make noise, or things that react interestingly to actions we take

  • A sense of ending, some kind of conclusion, a farewell

  • And, finally, a gift shop!

I’ve been “visiting” online exhibits, trying to decide whether it’s reasonable or worthwhile to expect them to provide experiences like these. Why don’t you look around the internet, too? If you find an online exhibit that you like, what makes it work well for you? What makes an online exhibit “good”?

I’ll be back to reflect on what I discover in another post.