• Cait McQuade

Online exhibits versus bricks-and-mortar exhibits, part 2

In an earlier post, I started looking for similarities between exhibits installed in a building and online exhibits. I listed kinds of experiences we’ve provided in bricks-and-mortar exhibits that you might also find in online exhibits.


In general, I’m trying to figure out if the things I’ve learned about making good exhibits can translate to a new medium. Think about reading a novel and then watching a movie adaptation of it. It’s not at all the same experience. And yet, some things about telling a good story remain constant. Things having to do with plot and characters and suspense and point of view, for instance. My question is: are there things about exhibit storytelling that remain the same in a good exhibit, whether it’s online or in a building?

I went wandering around The Interwebs, “visiting” exhibits and comparing how they might resemble their bricks-and-mortar cousins. It turns out they have many similarities! You see some of them more often than others, though. I've given examples of each below.


Common similarities:

• A sense of beginning, some kind of welcome or introduction

• An advance organizer such as a map or a list of sections

• Layered text


Less common similarities

• Objects foregrounded over text

• Occasional AV or interactive

• Interpretive groupings of objects and text


As I compare physical and digital exhibits, I’m starting to think that this last characteristic—items grouped and interpreted together—might be an essential in defining something as an "exhibit." When online displays don’t group things, when they present a series of single images with text, they seem less “exhibity.” They're indistinguishable from a website, more like a slide show or a print article than an exhibit.

I’ll explore this possibility in another post.

Common similarities

Several of the things we find in traditional exhibits frequently appear online. They’re actually standards for good graphic and web design.



• A sense of beginning, some kind of welcome or introduction •



• An advance organizer such as a map or a list of sections •

This gives you a sense of the whole exhibit’s content, the overall story it tells, how many spaces or sections you’ll pass through.

Houston Museum of Natural Science

On websites, advance organizers sometimes translate into an ever-visible table of contents (as above) or “breadcrumb” headers, as below.

Web designers might be even more likely than traditional exhibit designers to provide advance organizers. Digital “space” offers a more random kind of access to exhibit content than does physical space. That is, web designers can allow visitors to immediately jump from place to place, without passing by other parts of the exhibit. One benefit of advance organizers is helping visitors--in both online and bricks-and-mortar shows--to identify which sections interest them most and to conserve their time and energy for those sections.


• Layered text • Different font sizes, styles, or colors, along with the relative position of text, signals that some text is more essential than other text, refers to specific topics, or has a particular function,

Less common similarities

Here are some typical characteristics of bricks-and-mortar exhibits that sometimes, but not always, appear online.



• Objects foregrounded over text •

artifacts or specimens have more prominence than any of the words around them


• Occasional AV or interactive •

Here and there, planners and designers might include things that move and make noise, or things that react interestingly to actions we take.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


• Interpretive groupings of objects and text • Multiple clues can signal that things have been sorted into groups: proximity of things in the group or a shared header and text (as below), color blocks or coding, pools of light, repeated or parallel text in labels.