What is a “virtual exhibit?”

This post is the second in a series on virtual exhibits. Click here to view the first post, “Should museums invest in virtual exhibits.” 

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. 

 So, I took a step back and asked myself, what is a regular exhibit? And, perhaps more importantly, what are exhibits trying to accomplish?

Exhibits are (currently) the main reason people go to museums. They share content (ex. paintings, archaeological artifacts, geological facts, etc.) with visitors through media (ex. graphics, films, digital interactives etc.) and display tools (ex. cases, mounts, screens, etc.).

Exhibit display tools and media are designed to engage visitors in the content and with each other through contemplation, comprehension, discovery, and hands-on interaction. Contemplation, when visitors observe content and consider it in isolation from other content, is most frequently found in art museums. History and science museums usually aim at comprehension, using display tools and media to relate objects to each other and their context. In traditional natural history museums, exhibits aim to engage visitors through discovery, when visitors look at different things without a ton of context and consider the relationship between them. Hands-on interaction, commonly found in science centers and children’s museums, is when visitors manipulate content themselves. 

 In short, exhibits are the combination of media and physical display tools that interpret content by stimulating contemplation, comprehension, discovery, and/or hands-on interaction.

Once I felt confident I had a handle on the definition of exhibit, I moved to defining “virtual,” “cyber,” and “digital.”

According to Merriam Webster, virtual means , “a) being on or simulated on a computer or computer network…occurring or existing primarily online, b) of, relating to, or existing within a virtual reality.” 

Professor and game researcher Richard A. Bartle, provides additional color to the definition, “Real: that which is.  Imaginary: that which isn’t. Virtual: That which isn’t, having the form and effect of that which is” (Bartle, 2004, 1).

After also examining the definitions of “cyber” and “digital,” I think “virtual” is a better way to describe virtual exhibits because it not only captures the computer/online aspect of these exhibits, but also the attempt to create a non-physical space where visitors can engage. 

Based on the definitions of “exhibit” and “virtual,” I developed the following definition of “virtual exhibit” 

Virtual exhibits are digital media that interpret content by stimulating contemplation, comprehension, discovery, and/or interaction.

This definition casts a wide net, including everything from text and photo-based websites to Zoom tours to 3D digital twins. However, it excludes collections databases, mixed reality, and augmented reality, which instinctively felt like different animals to me. Collections databases lack the interpretation that is so central to defining exhibits, while exhibits lack the comprehensive view of collections provided by databases. Mixed reality and augmented reality are just as tied to physical spaces as to digital and online ones, so they deserve their own separate consideration. 

Few! Now that I know what the %$@#%# we’re talking about, now I can move on to discussing how we should make virtual exhibits.

This post is the second in a series on virtual exhibitsJoin our mailing list to get the rest in your inbox!

Sources (click on a source to view)

Ahmad, Shamsidar, Mohamed Yusoff Abbas, Mohd. Zafrullah Mohd. Taib, and Mawar Masri. “Museum Exhibition Design: Communication of Meaning and the Shaping of Knowledge.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 153 (2014): 254-65. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.10.059.

Bartle, Richard A. Designing Virtual Worlds. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Pub., 2004.

Bitgood, Stephen. “The Anatomy of An Exhibit .” Visitor Behavior VII, no. 4 (1992): 4–15.

Bonis, Bill, Spyros Vosinaki, Ioannis Andreou, and Themis Panayiotopoulos. “Adaptive Virtual Exhibitions.” DESIDOC Journal of Library & Information Technology 33, no. 3 (2013): 183–98. https://doi.org/10.14429/djlit.33.4604.

Desvallées, André, and François Mairess, eds. “Museum + Exhibition.” EVE Museology. ICOM, August 31, 2015. https://evmuseography.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/1514/.

Döpker, A., Brockmann, T., & Stieglitz, S. “Use Cases for Gamification in Virtual Museums.” Proceedings of the Jahrestagung der Gesellschaft für Informatik (2013): 2308–2321.

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, 2020, 283–99. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-37191-3_15.

Jefferson, Rebecca J.W, Loudres Santamaría-Wheeler, and Laurie N Taylor. “Turning ‘Views’ into ‘Visits’: How Online Exhibits Can Encourage Collection Awareness and Usage.” The Association of College & Research Libraries Conference, 2013. https://doi.org/http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/Jefferson_etal_Turning.pdf.

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647775.2015.1118644.

Perry, Sara, Maria Roussou, Maria Economou, Hilary Young, and Laia Pujol. “Moving beyond the Virtual Museum: Engaging Visitors Emotionally.” 2017 23rd International Conference on Virtual System & Multimedia (VSMM), 2017. https://doi.org/10.1109/vsmm.2017.8346276.

Singer, Isabel. “What’s a Museum?” American Perceptionalism, August 2019. https://itsallhowyourememberit.wordpress.com/2019/08/13/whats-a-museum/.

“Virtual.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed August 5, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/virtual?utm_campaign=sd.

Photo Credits (in order of use)

Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

Photo by Tobias on Unsplash

Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Photo by Brooke Cagle on UnsplashPhoto by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash


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