Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?

This post is the first in a series on virtual exhibits. Here are the links to the other posts in the series (in case you want to check them out)!

  1. Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?
  2. What is a virtual exhibit?
  3. Who is going to visit your virtual exhibit?
  4. For virtual exhibits, the medium is the message.
  5. Personalizing Virtual Exhibits to Your Visitors.
  6. Giving Visitors Control Over Virtual Content
  7. Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook
  8. Virtual Exhibit Case Study: Making Friends around American History

*BONUS POST: Top 10 Virtual Experiences of 2020*

I was recently scrolling through #museums instagram, when I came across this illustration by M. Chiara Ciaccheri of

Ciaccheri’s illustration perfectly captures the experience of most virtual exhibits in contrast to physical exhibits. Most in-person exhibits are multisensory choose-your-own-adventure social experiences. Most virtual exhibits are scrolling through a static webpage. Boring! But, virtual exhibits don’t have to be so terrible. Most are just poorly designed.

Museums are undergoing a metamorphosis.

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. 

Connect to visitors

 Many museums rushed to create virtual exhibits in order to connect with their visitors during COVID closures. It is important to connect with visitors virtually during closures because  many visitors turn to museums to help them process these types of world-shattering events. As NEMA director Dan Yaeger stated, “In crises of the past…museums have offered a place of solace…[visitors] come to museums similarly to how they go to church. They find a place of meaning, a place of solace. We can’t do that right now….[this is] the best we can do right now.” (Yaeger, 2020) 

Additionally, connecting with visitors during closures helps ensure future visitation. Museum data wizard Colleen Dillenschneider observed, “for every one visit lost due to an unplanned closure, the net annual impact on market potential averages a decline of 1.25 visitors” (Dillenschneider, 2016). People who intended to visit on one date don’t come at a later date.Closures don’t only impact visitation at the time of closure, they also impact future visitation because “recommendations and social sharing from those who would have visited are lost” (Dillenschneider, 2016). It’s particularly deadly for word of mouth investments.

Virtual exhibits are only one of many ways to connect with visitors around museum content during closures. Great social media campaigns, like the Shedd Penguin Video, excite people around the globe about a museum. Participants in zoom or outdoor programs, particularly more intimate ones, feel emotionally connected to a museum and its staff. Therefore, if a museum’s primary goal is to connect visitors to the museum during closures, a virtual exhibit may not be the best option.

Attract New Visitors

During normal times, museums use virtual exhibits to encourage people to visit their physical spaces. People who visit a museum’s website are more likely to visit the physical museum and inactive visitors are even more connected to the internet than historic visitors. Inactive visitors, who make up 16% of the U.S. market, share demographic qualities with historic visitors but haven’t visited a cultural institution in the past 2 years (Dillenschneider, 2017). By creating great online digital exhibits, a museum can connect with inactive visitors online and attract them to visit.

Build Your Reputation

People from all over the world recognize the Louvre’s iconic glass pyramid and know it’s a great museum, even if they have never been to Paris. Because of its reputation, it’s image is plastered all over the internet. Because its image is everywhere, it has a great reputation. 

In the modern age, digital engagement is a key part of building a reputation and brand. As part of a comprehensive digital strategy, great virtual exhibits can help build a museum’s reputation. Reputation is one of the top reasons people visit a cultural institution (Dillenschneider, 2017).

Save Money

Building and maintaining exhibits in palace-like museum facilities is a costly endeavor. Therefore, creating digital exhibits can be less expensive than creating physical ones. For example, the International Museum of Women started out as a “museum without walls” holding traditional temporary exhibits, but moved totally online in 2005, when it became clear that it would be too expensive to purchase a permanent location.

However, great design usually has a commensurate price tag, so a great digital exhibit may not save money. It depends on the individual museum’s situation.

More Accessible

Digital exhibits are often more accessible than physical ones. They are open 24/7, 365 days a year and available from anywhere. Even when museums are open during the COVID19 pandemic, there are high-risk populations who cannot come to the museum. 

It can also be easier to layer some universal design components onto digital exhibits than physical ones. A simple toggle can turn on audio descriptions of visuals, for people with blindness or limited vision. Captions automatically generated by Youtube can be switched on in embedded videos for hearing impaired folks.

Present a Greater Diversity of Objects

In a physical museum, you can only display as many objects as you have space for within an exhibit. In a good digital exhibit, a user-friendly UX and UI can invite visitors to view as many objects as interest them.

Physical exhibits are also limited to real objects available in a museum’s physical collection, through the arduous process of acquisition, or the complex procedures of getting a loan. In a digital exhibit, you need rights to an image or 3D scan, which is often simpler to acquire. You can even create reproductions of destroyed or imagined artifacts that look just as real as photographs of physical objects (though what is real anyway…).

Working through museums’ time of digital “reckoning and reflection” is daunting, but it’s also incredibly exciting. We’re navigating uncharted territory and we have the license to innovate, experiment, make mistakes, and learn from them. 

My advice (take it or leave it) – don’t get caught up in needing to create a “digital exhibit.” Get caught up in imagining something your visitors want that intersects with your mission, whether that’s a digital exhibit, a zoom lecture, a mixtape, a hilarious tweet, or something else entirely. Define clear goals for digital engagement, use those goals as a north star throughout the development process, and something of value to visitors is likely to come out of the trial and error.

This post is the first in a series on virtual exhibits. Join our mailing list to get the rest in your inbox!

Sources (click on a source to access it)

Ables, Kelsey. “This Smithsonian Exhibit Says Something Powerful about Native American, Even through Your Screen.” Washington Post, April 3, 2020.

Ciaccheri, M. Chiara. “Do Virtual Tours in Museums Meet the Real Needs of the Public?” Medium, May 15, 2020.

Dilenschneider, Colleen. “The Surprising Reason Why Organizations Underestimate Attendance Loss During Closures (DATA).” Know Your Own Bone. IMPACTS Research and Development, January 27, 2016.

Dilenschneider, Colleen. “The Key To Reaching New Audiences For Cultural Organizations (DATA).” Know Your Own Bone. IMPACTS Research and Development, December 15, 2017,

Doukianou, Stella, Damon Daylamani-Zad, and Ioannis Paraskevopoulos. “Beyond Virtual Museums: Adopting Serious Games and Extended Reality (XR) for User-Centred Cultural Experiences.” Visual Computing for Cultural Heritage Springer Series on Cultural Computing, May 2020, 283–99.

Hahn, Young-Ae. “HvMuseum: A Participatory Online Museum of Everyday Artifacts for Cultural Awareness.” Communications in Computer and Information Science HCI International 2011 – Posters’ Extended Abstracts, 2011, 214–17.

Katz, James E., and Daniel Halpern. “Can Virtual Museums Motivate Students? Toward a Constructivist Learning Approach.” Journal of Science Education and Technology 24, no. 6 (2015): 776–88.

Kalfatovic, Martin R. Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: a Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2002.

Koszary, Adam. “Has the Digital Museum Finally Come of Age?” Apollo Magazine. Apollo Magazine, May 4, 2020.

Mateos-Rusillo, Santos, and Arnau Gifreu-Castells. “Museums and Online Exhibitions: a Model for Analysing and Charting Existing Types.” Museum Management and Curatorship 32, no. 1 (2016): 40–49.

Quigley, Aisling, “Striving to Persist: Museum Digital Exhibition and Digital Catalogue Production. Doctoral Dissertation,” University of Pittsburgh. 2019.

Whitney, Katherine. “Going Virtual to Engage a Global Museum Community.” Journal of Museum Education 36, no. 3 (2011): 289–96.

Yaeger, Dan, “COVID and Chaos: How Museums are Navigating the Crisis,” Webinar, May 12, 2020. 

Photo Credits (in order of use)

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

M. Chiara Ciaccheri of

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Photo by Ryan Stefan on Unsplash

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Photo by Chris Nguyen on Unsplash

Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash


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