The rise of online-only exhibitions

As museums start to experiment with online-only exhibitions, Yolanda Zappaterra looks at the empowering potential of Web-based media to turn visitors into virtual curators, while offering access to material often hidden from the public eye

Only a decade ago, galleries and museums had barely begun to realise the potential of the Internet and digital technology. Few had grasped how it could help shape and deliver the information, experience and interpretation necessary to creating a great exhibition. Things have come a long way since then, with many museums not only offering an online component to conventional exhibitions but also curating standalone exhibitions that only exist online.

One recent example is the Imperial War Museum’s Through My Eyes: Stories of Conflict, Belonging and Identity, which examines the relationship between 20th-century conflicts and identity.

Designed by London design consultancy Howell Wong Costello, the site uses filmed interviews and audio testimonies alongside photographs, documents, artwork and other items from the museum’s vast collection.

Together they create a compelling narrative that rewards exploration and repeated visits and feels like a rich, multi-layered journey, something that the consultancy worked hard to create. ‘We tried to encourage exploration,’ says HWC creative director and founding partner Tim Wong. ‘The process should be intriguing yet simple enough so people feel comfortable roaming within the exhibition.’

The result is an exhibition that has multi-entry points but doesn’t leave you feeling you might be missing pieces or stories by clicking around, largely due to a stylish ‘one page per story’ approach where associated assets appear on top of each other, rather than link off to other pages.

It’s a cogent example of the Web’s ability to interpret and display archival material that may be difficult to exhibit in a gallery. It also demonstrates the differences – and similarities – in the curatorial approach towards gallery and online exhibitions.

Professor Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London Group which has created a number of online exhibitions, says, ‘The intellectual approach and research structure is common to both online exhibitions and “real” exhibitions.

‘But visitors can interact much more with online exhibitions, and often feel freer to do so. Users can leave messages, and a dialogue with a curator can even be set up. You lose the immediacy of physical contact and the visceral experience, but the pay-off is the opportunity to play with an object, rotate it, focus on detail or zoom in on something.’

Samantha Heywood, project director at the IWM, agrees. ‘Through My Eyes is curated in the same way as a gallery-based exhibition, with the same strong rationale that serves to organise the content and influence how it is interpreted, and the same strong narrative, with intriguing stories and objects,’ she explains.

And James Bowden of GR/DD, which has delivered a number of digital projects for the British Library and will be creating the forthcoming Design a Ring website for the Victoria & Albert Museum, sees another important difference. ‘An online exhibition has a great deal of potential for community-based activities such as forums, tagging favourite items, voting and content sharing,’ he says. ‘An online exhibition’s content can evolve. It is not fixed. It is fluid and can be altered by the website’s users. This is very exciting.’

Bowden believes user-led direction will best ensure immersive, memorable experiences for visitors, and urges designers to get users involved by creating online exhibitions where user-content and activity is an integral part of the content which shapes the exhibition. ‘This encourages user call back, builds an online community, creates momentum and keeps people interested,’ he says.

James Bull, founding member and executive creative director of Moving Brands, which recently won a D&AD award for its digital work on the London College of Fashion graduate Portfolio exhibition, adds, ‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that immersion has anything to do with richness in terms of interaction – it doesn’t matter how much film, animation, interaction, Flash, crazy navigation or mood you add, the interaction shouldn’t be beyond the curated work or irrelevant to it.’

It’s obvious from the success of such online exhibitions, and ever more powerful user immersion and input, that this is an area that will continue to develop in exciting ways.

But what issues should designers be thinking about now? ‘I feel one of the great opportunities for online exhibitions is to deal with controversy in a way that maybe you would be more careful about in a physical exhibition,’ says Lohman.

Bull, meanwhile, urges designers to take a considered approach, and feels that the true potential of the Web exhibition remains to be discovered. ‘It’s a question of where the technology will go and what it will allow us to do – and how people really want to experience curated content online, he says.

‘The current trend is for users to become their own curators, and for content to be available across multiple platforms – be it YouTube, Vimeo, or Flickr. I think this empowerment to curate and comment online changes the way we think about curated content,’ he concludes.

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