Top 10 Virtual Museum Experiences of 2020

Every year I write a list of the top ten museum exhibits, but 2020 was different. I didn’t get to see any exhibits in person and neither have most of my colleagues. Craving some museum fun, I started to sift through and analyze virtual exhibits and I decided to write a blog series on best practices for virtual exhibits

However, I obviously couldn’t see every fabulous virtual exhibit, program, tour, Twitter feed, or website redesign of 2020! So, I reached out to a bunch of museum professionals and asked them to tell me about their favorite virtual experiences of the year.

The methodology for creating this list of top virtual experiences was hardly scientific, but it reflects the great enthusiasm that museum professionals have for their peers’ work. The list is based on a short survey that gave respondents the option to provide a quote about their favorite experience or to anonymously provide information about it. I posted the survey to Facebook groups for museum professionals, such as NAME and Museum Social Media Managers, and to my personal Twitter. 

I sorted through the submissions, reviewed the experiences, and selected ten using criteria based on my research into best practices for virtual exhibits. When interacting with each experience, I asked myself:

  1. Is the content interesting, well-researched, and well written? Does it include a diversity of perspectives?
  2. Is the user experience seamless and the user interface attractive?
  3. Are there opportunities for visitors to interact with, manipulate, and create new content?
  4. Does the experience encourage visitors to have social interactions with other visitors and museum staff?
  5. Is the experience accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds? 
  6. Is this experience exceptionally innovative and creative? Does it open up new possibilities for the museum field? 

Based on this selection process, here are the top ten virtual museum experiences of 2020…

1. Live Cams of Sea life & Twitter feed

Monterey Bay Aquarium

“With a light touch, the MBA social team has been able both to promote its mission and to provide a respite from the year’s stress–by sharing images of the ocean and its inhabitants.”  

Stephanie Brown, Program Coordinator, MA in Museum Studies, Johns Hopkins University” 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has ten live cams tuned in on different animals and a popular Twitter feed that allows visitors to engage with the museum at any time from anywhere. 

Content

Both the Live Cams and Twitter feed provide beautiful videos of sea life. Pithy interpretive descriptions of the videos give viewers a basic understanding of what they are looking at. 

UX/UI 

The Live Cams live on the Monterey Bay Aquarium website, which is intuitive to navigate and reasonably attractive. 

The Twitter feed has the advantage of using a popular platform that visitors are already familiar with, which means its pretty easy for most people to navigate. 

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content 

The Live Cams do not give visitors the opportunity to manipulate, create, or share content, but the Twitter feed provides ample opportunities for visitor-generated content. 

Social Interaction

The Live Cams do not give visitors the opportunity interact with other visitors or staff, but the Twitter feed provides ample opportunities for interaction between visitors and with staff. For example, the social media team invited visitors to guess the number of jellyfish in the Sea Nettle kreisel, which generated a large amount of interaction between visitors and the institution.

Accessibility

The experience included…

  • Ability to increase text size using browser zoom
  • Intuitive ordering of objects in space

The experience failed to provide…

  • Closed captioning for videos
  • Live captioning for videos
  • Alt text for images 
  • Audio description of images and video
  • Navigation options for people with low-vision or blindness

Innovativeness

This is a solid experience that follows an established precedent. That’s not a bad thing – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! 

2. The Queen and The Crown 

The Brooklyn Museum

“The look and feel is gorgeous, the nav intuitive and seamless, the content is detailed and timely and the use of music enhances the experience. Overall an A +”

Lynda Kelly, Director, LyndaKellyNetworks

“The Queen and The Crown” examines the history and art behind the garments from the Netflix series The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit.

Content

The exhibit tells a clear story through video, text, images, and an interactive virtual space. The text is well written and an appropriate length. The videos are illustrative and engaging. 

UX/UI 

The experience is easy to navigate and absolutely beautiful. 

However, I was disappointed that the curators chose to recreate a physical museum space as the virtual environment for this exhibit. Virtual worlds are an opportunity to really think outside the box. The developers could have created any space they wanted in order to highlight the costumes. 

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content 

The experience does not give visitors the opportunity to manipulate, create, or share content. What if visitors could upload a photo of themselves and “try on” the costumes? What if the museum invited visitors to upload videos talking about their associations with the costumes? There are so many options for making virtual worlds more participatory!

Social Interaction

The experience does not include any opportunities to interact with other visitors or staff. 

Accessibility

The experience includes…

  • Closed captioning for videos
  • Ability to increase text size using browser zoom
  • Intuitive ordering of objects in space

The experience fails to provide…

  • Alt text for images
  • Audio description of images and video
  • Navigation options for people with low-vision or blindness
  • Navigation options for keyboard-only users
  • High color contrast in all areas

Innovativeness

This exhibit is a solid experience that perfects an established precedent. It is the most attractive and user-friendly example of a physical space transformed into a virtual one that I have seen.

However, I was disappointed that this exhibit was not more participatory. Given the partnership with Netflix and the high-quality web design, I assume that this exhibit had a fairly significant budget. How could they have used these resources to empower visitors to manipulate, create, share, and discuss the content?

3. The Museo Moderno at Home

Museo Moderno de Arte of Buenos Aires

“The Museo de Arte Moderno created a unique, original theme-based [weekly program] during a 7 month lockdown that involved all audiences, including guests artists and teacher training sessions to ASD and blind people.”

Patricia Rigueira, Head of Education, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires

The Moderno’s curatorial, educational and publishing departments collaborated with a diversity of Argentinian artists and intellectuals to create experiences around a weekly theme. The themes addressed a wide range of issues from antiracism, to the role of museums in society, to staying home for the holidays. Every week, the museum published conversations with artists and intellectuals, one-on-one interviews, a selection of artworks and explanations of them, activities to do at home, and a list of recommended reading. 

According to the museum, “The Moderno wants to be a sounding board for thoughts about the current crisis on the understanding that it has a new role to perform, the role of gathering and sharing artists’ and academics’ thoughts from one minute to the next about these bewildering, end-of-cycle, inaugural times.”

Content

Only some of the content is translated into to English and my high school Spanish is extremely rusty. That being said, the little content I could engage with was intellectually stimulating and thorough. 

UX/UI 

Each week’s theme has its own page on the museum’s website with embedded videos and links to activities and further reading. The Spanish website is attractive and easy to use, but the English version of the website is a little wonky and missing much of the content.

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content

Visitors cannot directly contribute content to the website, but they are explicitly invited to create their own art inspired by the week’s theme and share their work on social media. For example, visitors were invited to build an imaginary vacation home and learn how to dance to 70’s funk music.

Social Interaction

Visitors cannot directly contribute content to the website, but they are explicitly invited to create their own art inspired by the week’s theme and share their work on social media.

Accessibility

The experience included…

The experience failed to provide…

  • Audio description of video
  • Alt text for images

Innovativeness

The Museo Moderno not only created an astounding amount of content, but also created much of the content specifically a digital medium, for example, Juliana Iriart’s beautiful video Radio de cuadros, and the Paladar negro spotify playlist. It is so important for museums to design virtual experiences with the digital medium in mind, but so few museums actually do this. 

4. Indigenous Language Representations

The Field Museum

“I loved the virtual presentation that was presented by J K Good Bear and her colleague. I also appreciated the presentations made by various employee panel where each presented and we were able to ask questions about moccasins and feathers.”

Ange June

“Indigenous Language Representations” was a Facebook Live event about the collaboration between Conservation technician J. Kae Good Bear, collections assistant Michelle Brownlee, and Field’s exhibits team to create exhibit labels in Diné (Navajo) and Ojibwe. The team placed the labels throughout the museum next to plants and animals from the areas where these languages are spoken.

Content

Good Bear and Brownlee spoke eloquently about their personal and professional relationships with the Diné and Ojibwe languages. It is honestly so refreshing to see a museum amplifying the voices of Native people! 

UX/UI 

The program used a popular platform that visitors are already familiar with, Facebook, which means it is easy for most visitors to use.

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content

The moderator encouraged visitors to submit questions for Good Bear and Brownlee to answer.

Social Interaction

Facebook allows visitors to comment on the video and respond to others’ comments. Visitors left comments for the museum and the staff responded. 

Accessibility

The experience provided…

  • Introductions in both Diné (Navajo) and Ojibwe

The experience failed to provide…

  • Audio description of images 
  • Closed captioning for videos

Innovativeness

Panel discussions have been a classic tactic for museums throughout the COVID-19 closures. However, the content of this panel was innovative; it not only amplified native voices, but also invited visitors behind the scenes to see how the museum develops exhibits.

5. Compass to Now|Here 

6018 North

In the spirit of full disclosure – I nominated this one. It was my personal favorite virtual museum experience of 2020! 

“Compass to Now|Here” was a synchronous virtual workshop about finding community in the shifting social geography of pandemic time. The workshop was run by a diverse group of talented artists: Silvia Gonzalez, Joseph Josue Mora, and Patricia Nguyen. The artists showed participants how to make a ‘zine, offering specific prompts for how to fill each page. They encouraged attendees to respond to the prompts using both words and images. The workshop is now available for self-guided study on 6018 North’s website.

Content

Although the concept for the program was a bit esoteric, the artists clearly communicated instructions and prompts to participants. The activity was well thought-out, fun, and challenged participants to reflect deeply on their lives. 

UX/UI 

The experience used Zoom, which was easy to navigate. 

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content 

The experience was entirely based around participant-generated content

Social Interaction

The artists encouraged participants to share their ‘zines with the group. However, there wasn’t sufficient time for participants to discuss the work or process with each other. 

Accessibility

The experience included…

  • Closed captioning for videos

The experience failed to provide…

  • Audio description of video and images
  • Live captioning for video
  • Alternative prompts for people with low-vision, blindness, or fine-motor impairments that would allow them to fully participate in the activity

Innovativeness

I have never attended another experience like this one. It was so participatory, reflective, and socially conscious. The facilitators were diverse and brilliant. 

6. Animal Crossing Art Generator 

The Getty

This is remarkably cool. A museum that knows how to stay relevant in these times. Bravo, @GettyMuseum

Eric Monacelli, Director of Production, Marvel Games

The Art Generator allows gamers to select a painting from the Getty collection and transform it into a pattern that they can use in Animal Crossing. Gamers can display the paintings wherever they want on their virtual islands, including in their museum’s art gallery.

Content

There is nothing like a beautiful painting to spruce up your virtual world. 

UX/UI 

By taking advantage of a pre-existing program, the Getty created an experience with great UX/UI and had to build very little of it themselves.  

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content 

Users choose their paintings and where to put them on their island. 

Social Interaction

Users can visit each other’s islands, look at the paintings, and chat about them. Users have also been posting images of their islands with the paintings on Twitter. 

Accessibility

The experience includes…

  • Ability to navigate the virtual world using only sound
  • Intuitive controls
  • Customizability
  • Intuitive ordering of objects in space

The experience fails to provide…

  • Menu to adjust brightness or sound level
  • Alt text for images
  • Audio description of images
  • Ability to easily increase size of text and objects
  • Both visual and sound cues for events and actions

Innovativeness

The Getty actually did what everyone keeps saying museums should do – bring the museum to where people already are. 

7. First in the Fight

People’s History Museum

“First in the Fight” is a virtual exhibit hosted entirely on a Twitter thread that explores the history of the Manchester suffragette banner. 

Content

The exhibit tells a clear and interesting story through pithy text and detailed images. But, in true Twitter form, it leaves you wanting a bit more meat. 

UX/UI 

By taking advantage of a pre-existing platform, the People’s History Museum created an experience with great UX/UI and did not have to build anything themselves.  

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content

Anyone on Twitter can reply to or retweet sections of the exhibit. 

Social Interaction

The museum is very responsive to followers’ questions and comments on the exhibit. Followers also engage with each other about the content.

Accessibility

The experience includes…

  • Ability to increase text size using browser zoom
  • Intuitive ordering of objects in space

The experience fails to provide…

  • Alt text for images 
  • Audio description of images and video

Innovativeness

The museum calls this a virtual exhibit, but it doesn’t look any different from a regular Twitter thread. While this still falls under the definition of a virtual exhibit, I wonder how they could push their Twitter exhibits to feel more distinct from regular Twitter threads.

8. Let’s Play

MA Museum Studies Students at the UCL Institute of Archaeology

“I spent a lot of time reviewing it as part of the masters programme and appreciate the work put into it. I also feel it’s a good interactive exhibition.”

Rebeca Bird-Lima, Assistant, Co-op

“Let’s Play” is a virtual exhibit that explores why we play games. The exhibit includes a printable activity book that invites visitors to play games with their friends and family. 

Content

The exhibit tells a clear story through text and images. The text is well written, but sometimes a bit too long, particularly in the interactive map section. 

UX/UI  

Overall the UX/UI leaves a lot to be desired. The website is not intuitive to navigate. The look of the website is inspired by old video games, which is thematically appropriate, but not terribly attractive. The font size on the panels associated with specific objects was so small that I could barely read it.

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content

In the printable activity packet, visitors are challenged to reimagine popular games from across time and cultures. However, there are no opportunities to control content within the exhibit itself. 

Social Interaction

The printable activities encourage social interaction, but there are not opportunities to interact with other visitors to the virtual exhibit online. 

Accessibility

The experience includes…

  • Ability to increase text size using browser zoom

The experience fails to provide…

  • Closed captioning for videos
  • Meaningful and intuitive organization of information
  • Alt text for images 
  • Audio description of images and video
  • Navigation options for people with low-vision or blindness
  • Navigation options for keyboard-only users
  • High color contrast in all areas

Innovativeness

It is clear the students were trying to implement cutting-edge practices in the museum field, but they were limited by their technological skills. The printable activities demonstrate a desire to create opportunities for visitors to interact with the content and with others. Imagine if the students could have integrated those printable activities into the website. They would have had a virtual space where you could play games with visitors from around the world. 

Now, how can we convince some web developers to help them pro bono…

9. Great British Art Quiz

Art UK and The Guardian

Love this art quiz!

Spiral Stripe Art

The Guardian partnered with Art UK, an online repository of British art, to produce daily quizzes during August 2020. Every day focused on the collections of a different English institution. 

Content

The quizzes are full of fun facts about British art. Nothing groundbreaking, but all interesting. 

UX/UI  

The quizzes are easy to navigate and complete, but the UI is not particularly attractive. 

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content

The quizzes are inherently interactive, but there aren’t opportunities for visitors to make content and contribute it. It would have been fairly simple to give visitors a bit more control. For instance, what if visitors could have submitted questions for the quizzes?

Social Interaction

The experience does not include any opportunities to interact with other visitors or staff. 

Accessibility

The experience includes…

  • Ability to increase text size using browser zoom

The experience fails to provide…

  • Alt text for images
  • Audio description of images 
  • Navigation options for Keyboard-only users
  • High color contrast in all areas

Innovativeness

The British love their quizzes – there’s nothing new or interesting about that. But, this isn’t a bad thing. Once again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! 

10. Curator Allison Glenn’s Virtual Tour of All Things Being Equal 

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

“Allison’s delivery is relaxed, engaging, personal, and informative. She filmed herself, using her phone, and the quality of her tour is exceptional. Sadly, we had to close the museum just a few weeks after opening this exhibition, so Allison brought it to life again, so people could experience it virtually.”

Robin Groesbeck, Director, Exhibitions & Interpretation, Crystal Bridges Museum of Art

“All Things Being Equal” is a survey of the artist Hank Willis Thomas’ career. Curator Allison Glenn gave a tour of the “All Things Being Equal” exhibit using her iphone and posted it to Youtube. 

Content

Hank Willis Thomas has had a fascinating career so far. He makes beautiful art that addresses pressing contemporary social issues. Glenn’s analysis of Thomas’ work is accessible and interesting. Her delivery is approachable (and also kind of soothing…it almost triggers ASMR). 

UX/UI  

The tour is hosted on a popular platform that visitors are already familiar with, Youtube, which means it is easy for most visitors to use. Glenn speaks clearly and slowly throughout the video, although the sound mixing is often awkward. The video quality is acceptable and Glenn is a deft camerawoman, providing clear shots of every artwork from multiple angles. 

Opportunities for Visitors to Control Content

There aren’t opportunities for visitors to make content and contribute it.

Social Interaction

Youtube allows visitors to comment on the video and respond to others’ comments. Visitors left questions in the comments for staff members, but they did not respond. 

Accessibility

The experience included…

  • Closed captioning for videos

The experience failed to provide…

  • Audio description of images 

Innovativeness

Video tours of physical spaces has been a classic tactic for museums throughout the COVID-19 closures. Unfortunately, visitors do not want virtual tours.

If you liked this post…

Join the American Perceptionalism Email List – Get great articles about museums straight to your email. On average, I send one email per month.

Follow me on Twitter @441isabel  – I tweet a ton of great articles about museums all over the world!

Connect with me on Linkedin – I’m always looking to meet more awesome museum professionals.

One thought on “Top 10 Virtual Museum Experiences of 2020

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: