Online Exhibits: Some Thoughts on Process

One thing that has become clear from my recent perusal of some different digitization projects by museums and archives is that “online exhibitions” of text, images, and objects should not be created equal. While digitizing documents and images and making them available in a repository or in a curated online exhibition can be very successful, museums in particular need to think more carefully about whether it is worth digitizing the objects in their collection. After all, what museum professionals and visitors have long understood is that there is something about sharing the same physical space as an artifact that gives it power; it’s what draws audiences to museums in the first place.

With that in mind, I have been thinking about the process of developing an online exhibition that does not merely offer a recreation of physical galleries, but that takes advantage of technology to do something new. Having looked at the Mütter Museum’s Online Exhibition offerings and considering what is successful about them, I can share some thoughts.

onlineFirst, the project must be well-conceived and its purpose well understood. What void would a digital display of materials fill? Who is the audience? It’s not worth the expenditure of money and staff time if the exhibit doesn’t add much to the museum’s current offerings. The Mütter’s digital exhibitions, such as this one on astrology and medicine, seem designed to highlight a few documents and images from their collections along a certain theme that would be too small for a physical gallery but that is appropriate for their website.

Second, where do the images in the exhibition come from? For a curator based at a museum, perhaps just from your own collections; but for an independent researcher or a scholar looking to draw materials from various sources, it is important to make sure that you can get the rights to use the materials you want (or that you are comfortable with the risk of not having the rights, as we discussed in class the other day).

Third, how will the logistics of the project get done, and how much will that cost? That includes the cost of scanning or photographing materials; building an infrastructure for an exhibition; publicizing it; and perhaps maintaining it into the future. Particularly for small, underfunded institutions whose audiences are mostly local, it is important to weigh whether a digital exhibition is more valuable than, say, more public programs.

With so many museums suffering from a lack of funding, it is crucial to consider what online exhibits can offer that make them a worthwhile expenditure, and whether the institution has the technical and social media savvy to make them pay off.

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