Online Exhibitions: A Philosophy of Design and Technological Implementation
Tinkler, Plumb Design Inc.
Museums fill an important need in our society; they provide a physical
location where the public can gather to come into contact with objects
that have cultural, intellectual, or scientific value. Through visiting
a museum, viewers become part of a historic or artistic domain in a
manner that intensifies their understanding of the objects on display.
It would be fair to argue that one of the most essential features of
a museum exhibition is that visitors are within touching distance of
the objects on display. This very fact poses a fundamental contradiction
to anyone creating a virtual museum exhibition targeted for the digital
domain. How does one create a virtual exhibition that approaches the
power inherent in the proximity to unique objects imbedded with meaning?
The answer, as anyone who has worked in this capacity can attest to,
is that creating a virtual exhibition that approaches the strength of
even a middling real-life exhibition is extremely difficult. And yet
it is possible, through thoughtful curation and insightful design, to
create a meaningful exhibition that, while lacking the physicality of
a true museum, reflects the essential mission of a museum as a cultural
Michael Freedman, Plumb Design Inc.
The function of a virtual representation of a museum should mirror
that of a physical museum. It should be a tool for sharing a museum's
valuable assets with the rest of the world. By assets, I mean more
than merely the artifacts that a museum possesses. A true museum is
more than a building that houses a collection of objects, it is an
institution that establishes and fosters a community. One of a museum's
greatest assets is its ability to control what the audience sees,
to set an agenda, to establish dialog, to provoke thought and discussion.
An effective museum web site should do the same. It should be an extension
of the institution, not merely an online information desk that provides
helpful information. Of course, any web site should provide schedules,
programs, contacts, and other practical information, but an effective
web site can also serve the community in many other ways.
First and most basically, a museum web site should act as resource
that supports the exhibitions currently on display in a museum. It
should generate interest, encourage people in the community to visit
the museum, and give them an idea of what they may see there. It should
act as a resource for people who have recently visited the museum
who want to acquire more knowledge about what they have just seen.
Second, a museum web site should be a research tool, a catalog of
the museum's holdings and an encyclopedia of information about and
related to the collection of the museum. It can point to outside references,
house research papers and allow the researcher to drill down into
all of the museum's accumulated knowledge. Third, it should act as
a community center. An effective web site can become a catalyst for
moderated debate and discussion by allowing its visitors to participate
in online forums, and by hosting guest lecturers that stimulate critical
discussion. A visit to a museum is not a solitary experience, nor
does a visit to the museum's site have to be. Fourth, and perhaps
most importantly, a museum's web site should become an extension of
the museum itself, and provide a virtual space for online exhibitions.
It can use the Internet as a medium in and of itself, providing thought
provoking exhibitions designed explicitly for the online experience.
These exhibitions should exploit the qualities of the digital medium,
and use them as opportunities to explore areas that would otherwise
be impossible in a physical museum environment.
It is important to note that a web site hosted by a Museum is not
in and of itself, an online exhibition. Like any exhibition, to be
successful, an online exhibition should do more than put collections
online; it should reveal the underlying relationships that transform
a random collection of objects into a meaningful exhibition. It must
be curated to create an educational and thought-provoking experience.
This paper seeks to explore what makes an effective online exhibition.
It will look at some of the tools available to online curators, and
will examine the opportunities and challenges each of them present
from the perspective of creating a compelling experience. Finally,
the paper will examine a case study, and look at "Revealing Things",
a recent online exhibit hosted by the Smithsonian Institution, to
show the practical application of the ideas discussed.
There are two fundamental ways in which an online exhibit differs
from a physical exhibit. Firstly, a computer will never be able to
replicate, or even closely simulate, the tactile experience a visitor
has in a museum when interfacing with an object. Secondly, visiting
a web site is a more solitary experience than visiting a museum. Visiting
even the most quiet, subdued museum is still a communal experience.
Viewing an online exhibition will always be a singular dialog between
the user and the computer. It is because of these differences that
I argue that an online exhibition should not just be a virtual representation
of a physical exhibit hall. An effective online exhibition exploits
the hyper-real qualities of digital media and uses them to create
a more compelling experience, rather than trying to mimic the structures
that have evolved for use in the physical world. An effective exhibition
views the limitations of the digital domain as opportunities rather
Although there are many differences between physical and online
exhibitions, there is still a lot that can be learned from physical
exhibition design. Like a physical exhibit, an effective online exhibition
is a choreography of the viewer's experience. The designer of a digital
exhibit must think about rhythm and movement in many of the same ways
that a physical exhibit designer organizes the rhythm and placement
of objects within a museum. But an online exhibition can be alive
and can actively encourage exploration; it can respond differently
to different viewers. If a visitor does not interact with the material,
the exhibition may act autonomously to bring an array of images and
sounds to the viewer's attention. If the visitor explores actively,
the exhibition may take a more passive role.
Like a physical exhibit, an effective exhibition does not rely on
one method to present information. An online exhibit should take advantage
of a variety of different technologies to provide a myriad of ways
for the user to interact with the material. Each section of an exhibition
can have its own pace, establishing a varied rhythm for the viewer
that helps to hold their interest. Some pieces of an exhibit should
be passive, allowing the user to explore an object or read related
information. Others parts should take an active role, and rely on
narrative to actively tell a story, or require the user to participate
in a focused way.
Although variety is an important quality that contributes to effective
exhibit design, it is always possible to go overboard. It is important
to create an environment within an exhibition that is as seamless
as possible. Establishing an overall theme and creating a mood makes
it easier for the viewer to connect the information presented in different
of parts of the exhibit and to make inferences about the meaning of
the overall exhibition. If there is too much disparity between the
look and feel of the different areas of an exhibit, it is likely that
the viewer will get disoriented and will view the experience as a
collection of random objects and not a meaningful experience. A seamless
experience encourages exploration at a number of levels: visually,
aurally, intellectually, and emotionally.
What is important is that the mood that you create for your exhibition
supports the overall idea that you are trying to communicate. Having
the right tools to make your exhibition is important, but no tool can
overcome the lack of a good idea, a strong overall organizational scheme,
and interesting subject material. There is only one constant in the
digital world, and that is that the innovative, cutting-edge technology
you are using today will be outdated tomorrow. The goal of an effective
exhibit is to create an experience whose meaning and impact is independent
of the technology used to implement it. Tools should be chosen that
are appropriate for the experience that you are trying to create. That
having been said, it is important to be familiar with as many tools
as possible, so that you can expand the arsenal that you have available
to you. A good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each
tool can help you evaluate which tool is appropriate for a given situation.
The more familiar you are with your tools, the more they will become
transparent to you and you audience. Here is a sampling of some of the
current tools available to online exhibit designers:
HTML is still one of the easiest and most effective ways to communicate
information. Unfortunately, because of bandwidth constraints, it is
difficult to give the viewer of an online exhibition a tactile sense
of objects in a collection. This fact makes "tombstones" and related
information a much more integral part of any online exhibition. Stories,
anecdotes, and other interesting information about objects can help
to make an online exhibition interesting. But reading on a screen
is hard, so it is important to break pages up into smaller segments.
In general, scrollbars should be avoided, as they tend to break the
seamlessness of an experience.
components on a page work together that would normally exist independently
of each other. It is far and away the most important tool in an exhibit
designer's arsenal, because it allows you to combine other tools in
ways that their designers could not have imagined.
Embedded Audio, MIDI & Beatnik
One advantage of the Web being a solitary experience is that you don't
have to give your visitors headphones in order to avoid annoying other
people. When used appropriately, audio can greatly enhance an online
exhibit. Background audio such as sample loops, MIDI, or Beatnik files
allows the designer to create a mood that can permeate an entire site.
Real Audio is perfect for narration, and WAV files are best for interaction
triggered sound. Not all sound has to be triggered by the user pressing
a "play" button. Sound could start and stop on its own accord, or
in response to a seemingly unrelated event. In general, try to integrate
the sound into the body of the exhibit. Avoid using the pre-packaged
"radio controls" that the browser or plug-in offers. These days, most
much greater control, and lets the user concentrate on the material,
not the technology.
QuickTime VR and PhotoVista
QuickTime VR and PhotoVista can perform two functions. First, they
allow the viewer to rotate an object around an axis, and view it in
three dimensions. Second, they can place the viewer in the center
of a virtual sphere, allowing the user to pan in any direction, creating
an interesting pseudo-virtual-reality experience. These tools are
good for allowing the user to explore a small artifact like a piece
of jewelry, or experience an immense space like the inside of the
Pantheon. They are both fairly bandwidth intensive and should be used
sparingly. Both formats allow the designer to place hotspots that
either link to other pages, or transport you to a different view.
external events, or to use external events such as audio narration
to trigger a QuickTime VR or PhotoVista display to rotate to a particular
Internet Imaging Protocol
Internet Imaging Protocol (IIP) is not getting a lot of press, but
it holds a lot of promise for the Museum community. It allows the
user to download a high-resolution image in small pieces rather than
all at once. This means that a user can get an overall view of an
artifact and then zoom to near-infinite resolution, downloading only
the information that they need. This technology, when used appropriately,
could, for instance, allow visitors to zoom into a Van Gogh painting
on the Web and study the exquisite detail of his brushwork. Unfortunately,
IIP is not quite ready for primetime. A plug-in is required, generally
the interfaces are quite clunky, and there are no API's that allow
QuickTime VR or FlashPix, IIP could turn out to be quite promising.
introduced. It allows the designer to manipulate all aspects of an
HTML document in real time. The possibilities that Dynamic HTML has
introduced are limitless. The designer can create layers that appear,
move, and disappear based on user interaction or precise timing. Because
the pages are still HTML, they can be created "on the fly" using a
database or a server-side script. This means that the experience can
be dynamically altered for each individual user. An item in the exhibition
may not only look differently, for example, if a user has seen this
item before, but it can behave differently.
Shockwave Flash is unique in that it allows the designer to create
low-bandwidth, "high energy" pieces that download very fast, but have
an almost theatrical quality. Flash is great for narrative pieces,
because it allows you to create very long sequences that can be fast
to download while having an enormous experiential value. You can integrate
trigger any event that may happen elsewhere on the page.
Shockwave for Director
In the same family as Flash, is Shockwave for Director, which is best
at creating stand-alone games, puzzles and other educational pieces.
Shockwave files are larger than Flash files, but you can do almost
anything you can imagine using Director. One downside to Shockwave
and Flash is that they are static files. Changing the behavior or
content within a piece is difficult, and requires "re-building" them.
Pieces that are dynamically generated or altered by multiple users
are possible to create, but other technologies like Java may be more
appropriate for complex network oriented tasks.
If you can dream it, you can do it in Java. On the positive side,
since Java is a full-fledged programming language, theoretically,
anything is possible. Most browsers support it, so your users don't
have to download any plug-ins. On the negative side, since Java is
a full-fledged programming language, in order to develop anything
custom-made, you need to have access to experienced programmers to
really make it worthwhile. Java also suffers from being a relatively
young technology. It is not always consistent, reliable, or as cross-platform
as advertised, but if you are willing to spend the time, Java can
really pay off.
This is just a small sampling of the technologies that are available
to the on-line exhibit designer today. There are countless other tools
out there, and new technologies are coming to market every day. What
is important to remember, is that every tool, no matter how new and
cutting-edge, should enrich the viewer's experience. Again, the goal
of an effective exhibit is to create an experience whose meaning and
impact is independent of the technology used to implement it.
Case Study: Revealing Things
The Smithsonian Institution wanted to develop an online exhibition devoted
to material culture that combined objects from the Smithsonian collection
with everyday objects contributed by visitors. The prototype solution,
which I had the privilege of working on, is entitled "Revealing Things",
and it will launch in early March 1998. It is instructive to examine
both the challenges presented and the solutions offered by the Smithsonian
team, because they are on the cutting edge of on-line exhibition design.
The goal of the exhibition was to convey to the visitor that everyday
objects are more than the sum of their function and use; everyday
objects are important signifiers of cultural and personal meaning.
Ideally, after experiencing "Revealing Things", visitors will begin
to interpret the messages and meanings that everyday objects communicate,
and ultimately will gain an increased awareness of the objects that
Saussure said that a sign was two-parted: the signifier and the
signified. The signifier and the signified have an arbitrary, culturally
specific relationship. A non-arbitrary relationship between the signifier
and the signified is symbolic. Objects are signs or signifiers of
meaning when viewed in contrast to other objects. He said, "Nothing
has meaning in itself and relationships are all important."
If we accept Saussure's hypothesis, a full understanding of any
artifact can only be accomplished by absorbing and comprehending the
culture in which that object was made and used. Thus, meaning is attached
to an artifact by understanding it as a node in a larger context.
In a physical exhibit, the curator would have to deconstruct the
meaning of every object in order to classify it and determine its
position in the exhibition. In a physical exhibit, for example, a
pair of jeans worn to a rock-and-roll concert either can be placed
with other articles of clothing, or with other objects associated
with the music of the time. Our goal was to take advantage of the
possibilities of the digital medium in order to present the multi-dimensional
nature of the relationships between objects, history, and personal
meaning. Our solution was not a deconstruction in response to the
complexity of the information, but rather a reconstruction of the
complex network of meaning that surrounds every object in the collection.
The exhibit uses a Java-based technology called Thinkmap to create
a dynamic interface that demonstrates the underlying connections among
the objects. Thinkmap animates data, displaying the underlying connections
between discrete items. The relationships between items in a Thinkmap
database are not absolute and over-determined, but dynamic and subjectively
conditioned by the viewer. Information-publishers who use Thinkmap
can create a series of flexible rules that define object behavior.
These rules ultimately determine the display's look-and-feel. The
Thinkmap interface we created enables visitors to choose their path
through the exhibition. A visitor examining a lantern made by a Japanese-American
in the Manzanar Relocation Center during World War II, for example,
could pick a number of different methods to view other objects. She
could study objects from the same period (the table setting from a
dinner given during Pearl Harbor), "decorative objects" (a tiffany
vase), or objects whose stories have similar themes (a cookie mold
made by Arab-American immigrants). This flexibility allows visitors
to follow their interests and enables curators to display objects
in a variety of contexts. In a museum, objects can be in only one
place at one time. In Revealing Things, objects are dynamically positioned
depending on the preference of the user. The curator becomes a guide,
building the underlying structure. The visitor designs the exhibition.
Just as a person can walk through a museum, choosing objects that
interest her, a user of Revealing Things can pick a few objects and
delve deeper into those that she finds particularly attractive.
Each object in the collection is presented in a different way. Most
objects are presented using a single page of HTML that starts off
with a story or anecdote. Audio is used to reenforce important parts
of the narrative and helps to draw users into the second-level pages
that delve deeper into the object's meaning. Other objects are presented
using Flash movies that tell a story or provide historical background.
In the final exhibition, there will be QuickTime VR or PhotoVista
views of artifacts, as well as Shockwave games and puzzles to encourage
user interaction. The ultimate goal is to present a variety of experiences,
to establish a rhythm of passive and active periods for the viewer.
The result not only serves to link disparate objects in novel ways,
but also entices people into the exhibit to explore. The interface,
written in Java, is always moving, and encourages people to click
and explore. What could have been a static exhibition becomes an expandable,
lively, interactive, learning platform, where visitors are engaged
in seeing and contributing to their own learning experience.
A Museum's online presence should reflect the role the Museum plays
in the community. Part of that role is providing thought-provoking experiences
for the visitor, whether they are physical or virtual. No matter how
advanced on-line technology becomes, creating a virtual exhibition that
approaches the intimacy of a real-life exhibition will always be extremely
difficult. Successful online exhibitions require thoughtful curation,
insightful design, and a healthy knowledge of the tools and technologies
available. But, even though many digital technologies are in their infancy,
it is possible to create a meaningful exhibition that, while lacking
the physicality of a true museum, reflects the essential mission of
a museum as a cultural institution. A good exhibition, physical or virtual,
provides a place where viewers become part of a historic or artistic
domain in a manner that intensifies their understanding of the objects
on display. All successful online exhibitions exploit the qualities
of the digital medium, and use them as opportunities to explore areas
that would otherwise be impossible in a physical museum environment.
Last modified: March 16, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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