In Defense of the Physical Exhibition. A plea to not “move” exhibitions online

Emma Thorne-Christy
Original paper on MuseumNext >

As an exhibition designer, my work during the COVID-19 pandemic has consisted of countless conversations with clients, colleagues, and collaborators about the possibility of “moving” exhibitions online. Every time the topic comes up, I cringe; I have spent the past eight years immersed in the world of creating physical exhibition environments, exploring what makes these narrative environments powerful and unlike other storytelling mediums. In moments of painful self-criticism common to the creative experience, I have challenged myself by asking whether my work was important, whether creating exhibitions was a true value-add to society. In grappling with this question, I have come to a strong, affirmative, deeply grounded conclusion that yes, exhibitions are an invaluable benefit to the community. So, after all this deliberating over the course of my career, the idea that translating physical exhibitions online would do the exhibition any justice is somewhat laughable to me, because what makes visiting a museum so special is experiencing it in real life, immersed in its physical environment.

In general, I am not a huge proponent of virtual reality, or many digital experiences in the gallery: why would I put in the effort of getting out of the house to play on an iPad, watch a TV screen, or put on VR goggles? I can do that at home in my pajamas. That said, I have been proven wrong on a handful of occasions by very well-curated digital artworks and exhibition components (such as Doug Aitken: Electric Earth at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-screen installation The Visitors at the Broad, and “La Música Habana,” a virtual reality film produced by Here Be Dragons at the Annenberg Space for Photography). However, overall I do not visit a museum eager to stare at a monitor or play around with the latest tech. I go for the physical experience, the tactile, immersive encounter of engaging a story three-dimensionally. So, when asked over Zoom calls if I think moving the exhibition I am designing for online is a good idea, I most often say “no.”

Here are three reasons why online exhibitions tend to fall short:

Online exhibitions lack a “stumble upon” nature

While exhibitions, like most storytelling mediums, are linear or progressive in nature, they allow visitors to wander freely. Take yourself back in time to when you were last at one of those large

“encyclopedic” museums such the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the National Gallery: walking down a hallway, you spot a brilliantly eye-catching mobile sculpture to your right, and are pulled by curiosity into the side gallery to study its movement. After staring at this work, you scan the room taking in the rest of your surroundings, and find a small piece in the corner that from far away looks like a framed dust bunny, but up close, reveals itself to be the most stunning and elaborate mini graphite drawing you have ever seen. If you had not been pulled into the side gallery by that original piece, you never would have seen this stunner. I have had similar experiences to this in the public libraries: I am scanning a bookshelf, trying to find the correct Dewey decimal number I found on the computer database for a book on feline coat management, and, in the process, end up finding a load of books I just have to read on feline dental hygiene. Exhibitions, libraries, and physical environments in general are full of visual eye candy, and in the process of observing our environment, we come into contact with objects we may not have come across otherwise. Websites, by contrast, are über simplified because they are designed to be experienced on a much smaller medium: a plane, and a plane that is probably smaller than the size of the window on your microwave door. Digital content designers must refine content in order for the information to be communicated effectively on a small device. Furthermore, by using algorithms, websites integrating search engine features are designed to show you more of what it thinks you want to see, based on what you told it you want to see. Integrating algorithms into museum online collections only further limits visitors’ scope of interests, reflecting back at them what they think they want to see, versus making them tromp through the Arts and Crafts Movement furniture gallery on the way to Ancient Egyptian Art, and in the process sparking a twelve year old’s lifelong obsession with wood working, something it may have taken decades for her to otherwise stumble upon.

Online exhibitions are easy to tune out

Entering a museum is an intentional act, whether you spend every Saturday wandering the galleries or are dragged there on a school fieldtrip. Tuning out at a museum is much harder than spacing out at home on your computer screen. Being physically in a museum forces a kind of awareness informed by the surroundings such as fellow visitors, noise levels, seating areas, wall color, and temperature. While you may choose to investigate the space through the screen of your Snapchat filter, humans are sensitive creatures, impacted by their environment. These surroundings are all crafted by the museum’s designers to influence the visitor experience, encourage curiosity, spark investigation and inspire connection. Experiencing an online exhibit from the comfort of your home comes with many distractions: from your mother-in-law interrupting your online tour to ask, yet again, where the meat thermometer is, to your hankering for just one more sliver of chocolate from the pantry. Being in a museum promotes heightened concentration because of the physical investment of occupying that space.

Online exhibitions are replicas, not originals

At their core, most museums are collecting institutions, collectors of originals. They preserve things, acting as capsules for rare and unique objects that otherwise may have been lost to time. While I may have a

poster of Monet’s waterlilies on my dorm room wall, this is not an adequate stand-in for the experience of viewing the original painting at the D’Orsay; there’s something very different about seeing art in person versus reprinted on glossy paper. Online exhibitions tend to feel flat because we are experiencing a reproduction of the object and doing so on a screen. Yes, there are VR experiences of 3-D scans of objects and galleries, but the cost of creating these replicas is often too steep for museum budgets and requires participants to have access to viewfinders in order to even approximate a truly immersive experience.

Exhibitions are just one of many media for telling stories in addition to books, films, interviews, podcasts, music and the performing arts, among others. What makes exhibitions stand out in this arena is their ability to physically immerse their audience. As I have outlined, this immersive environment has powerful impacts on one’s experience of the story on display. So, when someone proposes moving an exhibit online during COVID-19, my question is: why tell the story in digital space through the exhibit medium, when in the process it will lose its quintessential exhibit quality, its physicality? If it is urgent that the exhibition content be presented to the public during quarantine, I propose offering the narrative to other storytellers—such as musicians, filmmakers, writers, or audio engineers—and inviting them to use the power of their storytelling mediums to convey the quintessential ideas of the exhibit narrative, and wait until we can safely reopen to tell our version of the story in the way we know best: the physical exhibition.

Emma Thorne-Christy is an exhibition designer and activist artist based in Los Angeles, California. Emma works with museums, libraries, universities, and cultural centers to create informal and inspiring learning environments. Find out more here:

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