Giving Visitors Control Over Virtual Exhibit Content

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!):

  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*

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 exhibitsJoin our mailing list to get the rest in your inbox!

Sources (click on a source to access it)

“A Brief History of Personalization: Past, Present, Future.” TNOOZ and Boxer, June 2015. 

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. 

Arkenberg, Chris, Heather Rangel, and David Jarvis. “Rebuilding a Stronger Digital Society.” Deloitte Insights. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

“Authentication Versus Data Access.” Authentication Versus Data Access – Facebook Login – Documentation – Facebook for Developers. Facebook. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

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

“Below the Surface.” Below the Surface – Archeologische vondsten Noord/Zuidlijn Amsterdam. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

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

Byrd-McDevitt, Lori. “The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources.” MCN, September 18, 2020. 

Cudworth, Ann L. Extending Virtual Worlds: Advanced Design for Virtual Environments. New York: CRC Press, 2017. 

“Digital Footprint.” Digital Footprint Definition. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

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. 

Jakobsson, Mikael. “Virtual Worlds & Social Interaction Design,” 2006. 

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. 

Komianos, Vasileios, and Konstantinos Oikonomou. “Adaptive Exhibition Topologies for Personalized Virtual Museums.” IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering 364 (2018): 012011. 

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

MacDonald, Craig. “Assessing the User Experience (UX) of Online Museum Collections: Perspectives from Design and Museum Professionals.” Museums and the Web 2015. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

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. 

Shayna Hodkin, Swayy. “The Internet of Me: Creating a Personalized Web Experience,” August 7, 2015.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Published by Museum 2.0, 2017. 

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.

Photo Credits (in order of use)

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from, October 16, 2020

Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from, October 16, 2020

Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from, October 16, 2020

Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from, October 16, 2020

Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from, October 16, 2020

Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from, October 16, 2020

Isabel Singer, Screen Shot from, October 16, 2020

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels


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