Thinking about digital exhibits

This week’s readings encompassed the idea of digital exhibits. If nothing else, I now think that anyone working on digital exhibits should have on hand a copy of the Curator article “Digital Storytelling in Museums” by Wyman, Smith, Myers and Godfrey, as well as the evaluation section from Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.

For this post, I am going to take Conn’s title question, Do Museums Still Need Objects? and ask it of digital exhibits. Do digital exhibits need objects? Yes, I think so. However, I also think it’s important to define what we mean by an object. Digital exhibits don’t have vitrines to fill; Most of the time you’re dealing with a two-dimensional representation of any three-dimensional artifact you want to include, unless you’re willing to use fancy code or use a video (not always a bad choice). On the other hand, a decent quality digital image of a document or artwork might make it easier for visitors to see the details or read the very tiny handwriting than it would be in a traditional exhibit. Moreover, we also have video, audio, map, infrared scan, and other sorts of objects to use in a digital exhibit. You could undoubtedly make a digital exhibit without any historical ‘objects,’ but I suspect in that case you’d end up generating your own images or video, which are objects of a sort in their own way. I, for one, think the historical object can still be useful in a digital exhibit.

How do we display these objects? Museums in the nineteenth and early twentieth century tended towards the Large Case Full of Similar Items, still visible today in places like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (which I have visited). Then there is the more modern approach of selecting one representative object from the institution’s collection of many. Personally, I prefer the latter, not because I like the idea of a representative object but because the Cases of Similar Items rarely had a label which described why the museum had put the object out in the first place. When visiting a museum and looking at objects, I want to know about the context of the item (the why) as much as I do the basic facts about the object itself (the what). What excites me about the potential of digital exhibits is that the limitations of a physical museum no longer apply, allowing you to combine the two styles if you so chose.

Silver Teapot made in London, England, 1798-1799. Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
Silver Teapot made in London, England, 1798-1799. Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

Let’s say, for example, you have an exhibit about the life of a household in late 18th century England (My first graduate school class was “Gender and Material Culture in 18th Century Britain). The section on Taking Tea might have the image of a tea table, a tea service, some prints depicting taking tea, and text regarding the tea table as the domain of women, concerns about tea parties as promoting gossip, and so forth. In this exhibit, you have your representative tea pot. You could link the image of the teapot to its catalog record, assuming you owned the object or you had a record for it with the right information. You could also put a text beneath its caption saying “More Teapots?”

Silver tea urn, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1719-1720. National Museums Scotland.

From the item record or from the exhibit page, you could then link to your online catalog (again, assuming we’re at an institution with a collection) showing all the teapots, tea urns, and tea containers in your collection. You have now provided the visitor with the unique representative object, the context, and the option to view the digital equivalent of the Large Case of Similar Objects.

My thinking on all of this is heavily influenced by my work with Omeka, using it on my own and for a project as part of my research assistantship. In Omeka, items have their own page in addition to their presence in an exhibit, and the two descriptions can be as similar or as different as you want. I have far less experience designing games, and I honestly think that game-exhibits are extremely tricky to do well, online or in person. They too easily become all about the game, and lose the historical context/content, or get bogged down in Lessons To Be Learned, and aren’t any fun to play. Producing a good digital exhibit requires balancing a number of factors, and I don’t know that I’m currently prepared to think about adding gameplay into the mix.


2 Replies to “Thinking about digital exhibits”

  1. Megan – I too believe that museums still need objects and think that your application of why this is true of digital museum exhibits is fitting. Not only are you not limited by the constraints of space and labels, being able to add more and different information through Omeka, but you can also allow the visitors to do a host of other things with the objects to engage with them. You mentioned zoom and transcription tools, but objects could also be displayed in a 3D way where they can be spun and seen from all sides, or presented as linked to several collections, showing the many contexts of an object given your interests. Is the site you intend to build with your project going to be similar to this kind of online exhibit?

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