This post is the sixth post in a series on virtual exhibits. Here are the other posts (in case you want to check them out!):
- Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?
- What is a virtual exhibit?
- Who is going to visit your virtual exhibit?
- For virtual exhibits, the medium is the message.
- Personalizing Virtual Exhibits to Your Visitors.
- Giving Visitors Control Over Virtual Content
- Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook
- Virtual Exhibit Case Study: Making Friends around American History
On the internet, we expect to be able to voice our own opinions and control our own content. As Adam Koszary, the social media editor at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, observed, “museums have become used to being masters of their own spaces, but on the internet we need to embrace the fact that we are one voice among many” (Kozary, 2020).
In order to effectively engage online audiences long term, virtual exhibits need to become more participatory.
In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.”
- “Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other.”
- “Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit.”
- “Connect means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors’ conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question” (Simon, 2017).
To date, most virtual exhibits have tried to carry museums’ institutional authority into the digital space. They position the museum as the expert that delivers content to visitors. As a result, the most virtual exhibits offer little interactivity.
Participatory virtual exhibits allow visitors to create new content and share their creations with other visitors. This makes exhibits more engaging and helps visitors connect to the content.
Below the Surface is my favorite example of a virtual exhibit that gives visitors the opportunity to create and share content.
The exhibit explores the history of the River Amstel, a central commercial and transportation hub through Amsterdam for hundreds of years. When Amsterdam set out to build the North/South metro line, the city pumped the River Amstel dry, providing an unprecedented opportunity to conduct an archaeological survey of Amsterdam’s rich urban history. The city installed a physical exhibit of the archaeologists’ discoveries in the Rokin Metro Station and created an accompanying virtual exhibit as a continuation of the experience. Visitors to the virtual exhibit’s homepage can take a tour of the Rokin Metro Station exhibit, create their own display with the objects, or remix another visitor’s display.
When visitors make their own display, they start on an object overview page where they see a seemingly random assortment of objects organized by time. At the top of the page, visitors see objects from the present and scroll down to see older objects. The action of scrolling down to move back in time connects them to the process of archaeology. Archaeologists start at the top of the ground at the present and dig down to find artifacts from the past. The deeper they dig, the farther back in time they go. The artifacts they find from a given epoch may not at first appear to have a connection. It is the archaeologists job to examine the objects and hypothesize a story about how they ended up together in this location.
When visitors see an object that intrigues them, they can click on it to visit it’s page and see its metadata.
For some objects, visitors can view the object in the context of it’s physical display in the Rokin Station or even see a map of where the object was found on the Rokin.
On the object page, visitors can select whether to add the artifact to their display (Simon’s “take home”). When a visitor selects an object, it is placed in the visitor’s collection with their other selections. The visitor then arranges the objects with text (Simon’s “create” and “remix”) and publishes their creations for other visitors to see (Simon’s “redistribute”).
Here are some of my favorite visitor arrangements:
I took a stab at making a display. Screwing around with these artifacts invited me to develop my own unique relationship with the objects and content. I felt like I had my own piece of Amsterdam. I found objects that spoke to me and my identity. I am a bit obsessed with historical ceramics, so I collected a lot of them for my display. I also arranged the objects in a way that demonstrates what I enjoy and value. One of the things I miss most from before the pandemic is having tea parties with my friends, so I made myself a little tea party.
After creating my display, I found that I was more interested in the objects and their backstories than I had been after just taking a virtual tour of the Rokin Metro Station exhibit. I started reading the metadata of the objects in my display more carefully and googling things that I found intriguing.
After I made my display, I wanted to chat with other visitors about the process and content. I wanted to ask them questions about their displays. As incredible as Below the Surface is, it lacks the final ingredient to make it a participatory exhibit: connection.
How could the creators of Below the Surface have designed opportunities for connection? Maybe they could have included a comment function or a like function. Perhaps they could have created forums about different concepts or artifacts? Would a chat function have been useful?
In short, how do you design virtual spaces for social interaction? The next installment of this series on virtual exhibits will explore this question! Stay tuned!
This post is the sixth post 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)
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Yeh, Shea-Tinn, Jeff Rynhart, Thomas Dressler, and Fernando Reyes. “3D Adaptive Virtual Exhibit for the University of Denver Digital Collections.” Code4Lib Journal, July 15, 2015. https://journal.code4lib.org/articles/10653.
Photo Credits (in order of use)
Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vondsten, October 16, 2020
Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vondst/NZV1.00014CER007?index=8862, October 16, 2020
Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vitrine/concept, October 16, 2020
Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vondst/NZR2.00377CER022, October 16, 2020
Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vitrine/da44a49209, October 16, 2020
Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vitrine/221b5d1ba0, October 16, 2020
Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vitrine/7940415835, October 16, 2020