Virtual Exhibit Case Study: Making Friends around American History

This post is the eighth post in a series on virtual exhibits. Here are the previous 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*

The last blog post in this series on virtual exhibits explored the theory behind designing social virtual spaces. Now, let’s get our hands dirty with the practice. 

As I mentioned in my last post, I haven’t found an example of an existing virtual museum exhibit that promotes social connection effectively. So, I decided to run through the development process for one. While this example is oversimplified, I hope it will provide guideposts for practitioners working to meld the best of museum exhibits, social media, and virtual worlds. 

Imagine we’re building a virtual exhibit around The Smithsonian’s History of American in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin, a distinguished member of the Smithsonian’s leadership team. I’d start by asking, “what is significant about these objects? What should visitors know about them? What should they feel about them?” In other words, I’d start by trying to determine the Big Idea of my exhibit (If you aren’t familiar with the Big Idea, go read Beverly Serrell’s Exhibit Labels right now).

Kurin wrote The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects to encapsulate a collection that allows Americans to People come to the Smithsonian museums to “Understand their own experiences in light of the struggles and triumphs that have collectively defined the nation.” Along with a star-spangled team, Kurin selected objects “that could act as signposts for larger ideas, achievements, and issues that have defined us as Americans over time.” He sought out objects that presented a diversity of perspectives, time periods, and had “a good, interesting, or poignant story to tell about the American experience” (Kurin, 4-6). 

 In summary, Kurin selected these objects to highlight because they probe what it means to be an American. Maybe there’s the Big Idea: this collection of 101 objects probes what it means to be an American

Next, I’d ask myself, how might visitors explore the Big Idea through constructing a user profile (something like a Facebook or Linkedin profile)? Maybe I’d ask them to finish sentences like “I hope America will…” or “Because I am an American, I…” Or, Perhaps I’d have them provide demographic information that describes their American experience: whether they live in a city or rural area, what state they’re from, the political party they feel most closely aligned with. I could also invite them to create an image library, prompting them to pull ten or so photos from the collection that they think best represent the American experience. 

Then, I’d consider, “how might the visitors’ avatars help them explore the Big Idea?” Maybe visitors would be asked to make an avatar that looks like “an ideal American.” Or, maybe visitors choose from a library of famous Americans and choose an avatar that they feel represents America. If it were me, I think I might select John Brown (#CivilWarNerd):

Next, I’d focus on crafting opportunities for social interaction. I’d ask myself, “how might I make this virtual exhibit participatory?” As a reminder, Nina Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content” (Simon, 2017). So, What content could visitors create? And, how could visitors interact around this content?

Maybe they could use the objects they selected for their profile to make a virtual scrapbook page. They’re page could be entered in a virtual scrapbook version of The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects after Kurin’s page about the artifact. Then, visitors could read through each others’ scrapbook pages and comment. Or, visitors could make funky collages using the objects, like in Below the Surface, which other visitors could comment on.

Or, perhaps visitors could enter an object chatroom where they would be prompted to answer questions about why they selected one specific object. They could read answers from other visitors who selected the same object, then engage in conversation about their different motivations.

Finally, I’d float my idea with some potential users. While it is ideal to use rigorous user research methodologies, user research can be as simple as calling up some friends who don’t work in museums and asking them to give their honest opinion about your ideas. Ask them, would you visit this exhibit? Do you think you’d enjoy it? Why or why not? 

It’s a lot easier to imagine creating a participatory virtual exhibit in a blog post than to actually make one. My blog post doesn’t have to address budgets, schedules, collaboration with web designers, resistance from luddite managers, and the other thousands of obstacles that museum professionals face every day. However, I am a firm believer that the first step towards making something a reality is to imagine it.

At the end of The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon invites museum professionals to,

“Imagine a place…where people discuss the objects on display with friends and strangers, sharing diverse stories and interpretations. A place where people are invited on an ongoing basis to contribute, to collaborate, to co-create, and to co-opt the experiences and content in a designed, intentional environment. A place where communities and staff members measure impact together. A place that gets better the more people use it.”

Now, imagine this space is virtual. How can we make it a reality?

This post is the eighth in a series on virtual exhibitsJoin our mailing list to get more content in your inbox!

Sources (click on a source to access it)

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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. 

Gleave, Eric, Howard T Welser, Thomas M Lento, and Marc A Smith. “A Conceptual and Operational Definition of ‘Social Role’ in Online Community.” 2009 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2009. 

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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. 

Kreijns, Karel, Paul A. Kirschner, and Wim Jochems. “Identifying the Pitfalls for Social Interaction in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Environments: a Review of the Research.” Computers in Human Behavior 19, no. 3 (2003): 335–53. 

Kurin, Richard. The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013. 

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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. 

Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

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 Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Photo by Inga Seliverstova from Pexels

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash


Photo by pure julia on UnsplashPhoto by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Photo by fauxels from Pexels


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