Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?

Author: Isabel Singer –Exhibit Developer at Luci Creative and the Chairperson of the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group Steering Committee.

Posts on a series of articles on virtual exhibitions

Museums have always been primarily physical spaces. However, as the wave of COVID closures continues to sweep across the world, museums need to find more ways to connect with visitors at home. In response, an increasingly large number of museums have been creating virtual exhibits. 

Unfortunately, most virtual exhibits are not serving visitors, as evidenced by the fact that online exhibits are the least popular part of museum websites (Doukianou et al, 2020, 3). It is incredibly challenging to make a good virtual exhibit because the scholarship on them is in its infancy and there are no tried-and-true best practices to rely on. As Thomas Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, stated, “This will be a time of reckoning and reflection for museums trying to substantiate their footing in the digital world. For all the feverish diversity of content now on offer, the digital platform is often facile, superficial, and undiscriminating” (Kozari, 2020).

Since virtual exhibits aren’t serving visitors, should museums even be making them? Museums should create experiences that align with their goals. So, let’s take a step back and consider the goals that online exhibits can fulfill. 

Continuation of the article on Singer’s blog

What is a “virtual exhibit?”

What makes a virtual exhibit different from a website? Or, from an online collections database? Does a Zoom tour of a physical exhibit count? What about a 3D digital twin? Do these distinctions even matter? 

As I dived into my research on virtual exhibits, I quickly realized most scholars create their own definition of “virtual,” “digital,” or “cyber” exhibits to suit their research goals. Some scholars define them as any representations of collections objects in digital spaces (Bonis et. al.,2013, 183; Perry, 2017,1), while other scholars also include mixed reality and augmented reality applications that engage physical objects in physical spaces through digital means (Döpker, 2013, 2308) A few scholars defined virtual exhibits based on their purposes: marketing, relaying collections information, or contextualizing collections (Doukianou et. al., 2020, 3). 

While I don’t think there’s much use in wordsmithing definitions, I do think it’s important for museum practitioners to have a general consensus about what we mean when we say “virtual exhibit.” If we can’t agree on what we’re talking about, or, more importantly, what it needs to accomplish, it’s going to be pretty hard for us to agree on how we should do it. 

Continuation of the article on Singer’s blog

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