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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers


Think Different: Combining Online Exhibitions And Offline Components To Gain New Understandings Of Museum Permanent Collections

Michael Freedman, Plumb Design, USA


The Web's use in general promotion, showcasing permanent and temporary exhibits, and providing access to catalogs of material is well documented. Less obvious is the power of the Web to show permanent exhibits in a new light. The development of provocative online exhibits can create compelling narratives by juxtaposing objects from the permanent collection that are not usually seen together. Curators and Web developers can work together to recontextualize objects and help audiences see them and experience them differently. In addition, multiple stories can be told within the online exhibit built from the permanent collection, leveraging existing material housed as digital assets. This approach not only creates new learning opportunities for visitors, but also represents a way to recoup prior investment in digital assets management and to create new exhibits in a time of downsized budgets. In this paper, we will first describe theoretical underpinnings for creating combined online/offline exhibits based on the permanent collection, and then provide high-level practical guidance for implementing such an application. Throughout the paper, we will provide case examples of completed projects and works in progress for nationally known museums.

Keywords: Online Exhibits, Permanent Collections, Collections Management, Material Culture, Narrative


The Web's use in general promotion, showcasing permanent and temporary exhibits, and providing access to catalogs of material is well documented. Less obvious is the power of the Web to show permanent exhibits in a new light. While engaging museum-goers with the permanent collection is always important, this capacity is perhaps even more valuable to museums in a time of reduced budgets for temporary exhibits. The development of provocative online exhibits can create compelling narratives by juxtaposing objects from the permanent collection that are not usually seen together. Curators and Web developers can work together to recontextualize objects and help audiences see them and experience them differently. In addition, multiple stories can be told within the online exhibit built from the permanent collection, leveraging existing material housed as digital assets. This approach not only creates new learning opportunities for visitors, but also represents a way to recoup prior investment in digital assets management. It is also a way to build patron knowledge and support of the broader collections of a museum.

For example, a history museum that exhibits various items of clothing from different periods in various places throughout the museum can create a Web-based exhibit that showcases changes in fashion over time. This exhibition, while virtual, can also directly connect to offline artifacts by providing users with a map of the museum to let them see the various objects from the collection in varying contexts. The visitor gains a new understanding of the collection, and has a reason to return to the museum to see and explore through additional items and narrative themes.

In this paper, we will first describe theoretical underpinnings for creating combined online/offline exhibits based on the permanent collection, and then provide high-level practical guidance for implementing such an application. Throughout the paper, we will provide case examples of completed projects and works in progress for nationally known museums.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Visitors As Self-Directed Learners In The Museum Experience

Today, museums are understood to be places where visitors seek and engage in a transformative learning process (Lord and Lord, 2001). This self-directed learning is sometimes called "free choice learning" (Falk and Dierking, 2000; Institute for Learning Innovation, 2003). What visitors learn is influenced by the context created by the exhibit and the artifacts themselves, and also by the interests and ideas each visitor brings to the process. As the relationship of museum/audience has evolved, the avenues and opportunities for a museum to serve as an educational force have also expanded. Many museum educators have adopted a focus that "prioritizes the experience and learning needs of the learner" (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 3). The result is the creation of formal and informal learning experiences that are more personally meaningful and relevant to museum visitors.

Online and interactive exhibits naturally feed into this philosophy, especially if crafted to have dynamic interfaces and user-driven choices. With guidance from the curatorial staff and design team, an online exhibit can support multiple contexts and can guide users to discover more individualized, personal meanings from previously static permanent collection holdings.

Contextual Learning Enhances Understanding Of Objects And Their Complexity

Current thinking in the study of material culture provides additional support for this approach, as individual objects are thought to have multiple meanings. Individual objects have shifting and ambiguous meanings; their significance is open to interpretation by the viewer and is highly sensitive to context (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000; Pearce, 1994; Gilbert and Stockmayer, 2001). The "contextual learning" that occurs in a museum, as described by Falk and Dierking (2000), combines a viewer's personal context, physical context, and sociocultural context over time. The time element is very important to a museum and to an online exhibit because it can support and explain how repeat visits or experiences can enhance viewer understanding.

Besides the obvious complexity surrounding an object (a china plate can at once be a functional item and a thing of beauty), the significance of an object is open to both individual and/or curator interpretation as well as the context in which it is presented. For instance, the plate may have sentimental value because it is "like Grandma's", or it may be displayed in a sociopolitical light if it is part of a Great Depression-era collection, or it may depict an Art-Deco pattern representative of its age (Pearce, 1994). In a static display, it can be difficult to present the visitor with all the relevant connections that a single item embodies.

With curatorial aide, objects in museums can become visual narratives that guide the viewer through a storyline. In theory, the more flexible these narratives are, the more meaningful they can be to each individual visitor. While it may be foolhardy to try to serve an individually crafted story to each patron, the ability to create multiple storylines and to support the multiple meanings around objects is a powerful concept. The possibility for using combined online and offline exhibits/stories can both foster education and create excitement for the museum visitor.

Online Exhibits: Making Connections Real

In the effort to make context and complexity of permanent collections more accessible and dynamic, online exhibits can be part of the solution. If the exhibit is crafted thoughtfully and with flexible information architecture, then many multiple meanings can be catalogued and accessed for the viewer. In addition, objects can be connected with other objects to create stories. The common traits and themes among items can be shown, tapping into the complexity of individual items and their interconnectedness to others.

To date solutions rely on the translation of the real museum environment into the virtual world. The web, however, is different—relational, freeform, multi-dimensional offering ways to enliven users about museum objects through the creation of serendipitous thematic possibilities. (Cameron, 2001:310)

The threat of information overload, though, is a real one. Insightful curation and good interface design are critical to creating an effective offline/online exhibit. The museum curator's role as editor and filter of its own museum holding and institutional knowledge is as critical as ever. Structured narratives, even simple ones, are needed to guide users to get the most out of a searchable browse interface and thematic online exhibits. Good information design can create user interfaces that balance the amount of information available with the best way to display the multiple choice and threads.

While often seen as separate skills or software packages, recent advances have fueled increased cross-over between collection management systems and interactive multimedia exhibition packages (Besser, 1997; Cameron, 2001; Dyson and Moran, 2000). Examples of this, which Cameron calls second generation and future generation online museum collections, can be seen in the exciting projects hosted by the world's major museums. Examples include The Smithsonian Institute's online projects, such as History Wired (www.historywired.si.edu); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org), and The HyperMuseum Collaboration of European Union Museums (www.hypermuseum.org). The promise of this concept, though, has yet to be extended to the hundreds of other smaller museum, science, and history center collections.

Nimble creation of context and narrative surrounding individual items can be crafted combining interactive interface design and collections management. Software applications such as Thinkmap® have made it possible to combine compelling narratives with robust, dynamic, database-driven collections systems (Andolsek and Freedman, 2001; Cameron, 2001). The Experience Music Project Digital Collection (www.emplive.com/digitalcollection/index.asp) and the Smithsonian Institute's "Revealing Things" Exhibit (www.si.edu/revealingthings/) both use Thinkmap to provide a dynamic interface in which context and narrative can be changed by the user. A visitor can search and browse these collections guided by connections among themes, objects and ideas that are integral to the museum's holdings.

Exploring Narrative in Offline and Online Exhibitions

Many museums have both elaborate permanent or semi-permanent exhibitions along with a rich collection of material that is not available to be shown to the general public. Permanent exhibitions typically will either showcase the most important artworks in a museum, or in the case of a history or science museum, provide a series of objects that together tell a meaningful story. These exhibits are often developed at great cost and become singular defining experiences for museum-goers. Although new objects may be added to the shows, the exhibitions often stand virtually unchanged for many years. We will briefly examine several aspects of the physical museum exhibits to discuss ways in which online exhibitions can enhance a visitor's experience of both the Web site and the physical museum.

Museums' Physical Exhibits are Structured to Relate a Narrative

Typical permanent collections are designed to tell a story through bringing a visitor in close proximity to a number of objects that are related in various ways (frequently chronologically or by geographical proximity). The manner in which a visitor walks through the exhibit determines the pace and structure of the story. Visitor may follow their interests examining objects that draw the eye, or may move from one item to the next, in order, examining each one. Good physical museum design allows museum-goers to gain insight from either path.

Juxtaposition of Objects Tells a Story

A museum designer will typically place objects next to each other to create a narrative. For example, in an exhibit on the Civil War, a visitor may see uniforms from both the Union and the Confederate army side by side. The juxtaposition of the more formal Union garb with the clothing of a Confederate army solider immediately gives insight into what is a fairly profound concept about the Civil War. From the juxtaposition of just two items, a user learns about the manufacturing capacity, wealth, and organizational distinctions between the two sides.

Obviously, in comparison to the Web, items in a physical collection are static. Once the curator has placed an object in proximity with another object, it will remain in one place. To go back to our Civil War example, the two uniforms can be used to tell the story of the distinctions between the two opposing forces during the Civil War, but would have to be taken out of the permanent collection to be used for a new exhibit on the History of Warfare.

Online Interfaces to Collections Management

Web designers have taken a number of approaches to showcasing permanent exhibitions online. Typically, museum Web sites either showcase already existing exhibits or enable unrestrained exploration through the museum collection. For special exhibitions, major museums sometimes produce full interactive online features, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo (www.metmuseum.org/explore/Marco/index.html). We will discuss these common approaches and suggest two new ways to interface permanent collections online: the multiple narrative approach and ongoing online storylines or narrative capsules.

Ongoing Highlights

The first approach is to create a few pages that market either a special exhibition or a featured artist/artifact that encourages Web site visitors to visit the museum. Most museum Web sites have some form of ongoing highlights that are accessible from the home page, although some museums provide more material and background activities related to the featured items than do others. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York features a new item daily (www.metmuseum.org), while the Brooklyn Museum of Art (www.brooklynart.org) and many others simply list the ongoing, past and upcoming exhibitions. This type of presentation has two primary advantages. Most museums already have marketing material that describes exhibits. This marketing material can be repurposed for the Web without a tremendous amount of effort. Because only a subset of the collection is actually displayed, the effort involved in securing licenses for online promotion is significantly reduced.

Full Searchable/Browseable Catalog

The second approach allows visitors to the Web site to look at all of the items in a permanent exhibition, perhaps through stepping through a well designed exhibition or through a search interface to a collections management tool. Though it is costly and time-consuming, many major museums have invested in putting access to their collections online. This approach also has a number of advantages. A visitor has access to many or all of the items in a collection, and can explore by following his or her interests. A fully searchable catalogue is especially useful to researchers and archivists. Since the collection is nearly complete, scholars can find information and images without the necessity of traveling.

Some museums have created guided tours online through a themed subset of their digital collections. There is a wide range of complexity in these online, curated tours. The Getty (www.getty.edu/art/collections/), for instance, takes a relatively simple approach, allowing viewers to search the collection by several themes, including animals, people, and culture. Yet these broad themes are not always effective search tools. The themed search for a specific animal may yields over 100 items, many of which do not clearly display an animal. (The animal may be hidden in the pattern of a dish, for example.) Rather than enhance the viewer's experience, this type of interface may prove frustrating. At the other end of the range, The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents an ambitious and elaborate Timeline of Art History (www.metmuseum.org/toah/) which gives narrative structure and browse capability among many of the items in the collection. The Met exhibit is stunning, but it represents a very expensive and time-consuming endeavor. It would be impractical for a smaller museum to undertake such a project.

The Multiple Narrative Approach

There is a middle ground between these approaches, one that can create a more satisfying experience for museum patrons and curators.

At Plumb Design, we have often taken another approach: to create an exhibit that can be browsed in multiple ways by users. In other words, we structure the online experience to support many individualized stories, or multiple narratives. By using Thinkmap and other techniques, we let Web site visitors explore themes and personal interests that are evoked by objects. These themes determine the objects that are juxtaposed, and through the information architecture and taxonomy, a myriad of different paths through an exhibit is possible.

Thinkmap Allows for Browsing Approach to Large Collections

There are a number of advantages to a Thinkmap approach to online exhibition. Thinkmap provides a relational structure through which large amounts of data, or museum objects, can be searched and browsed. New items can be added without a requirement to redesign an exhibition. New exhibits can be designed simply through emphasizing different taxonomy facets or themes.

In addition to regular search and Thinkmap-based browsing, there are opportunities for guided search and additional curation. In the EMP Digital Collection, for instance, a viewer can use the "Gallery Views" option while visiting the museum to find the physical location of similar objects. Or the "EMP Suggests" feature provides expert advice and guidance to jump-start or re-engage visitors in themes and ideas they may not have come up with on their own. Allowing considerable flexibility, the EMP Suggests feature can be tied in with local regional events or current happenings in music, such as the Grammy Awards.

The Ongoing Online Exhibition: Navigating The Collection One Story At A Time

One of the exciting characteristics of Thinkmap is that it can create a wealth of interesting narratives at will. Hundreds of potential storylines can be explored and tracked in depth, with immediate results. The connections and narratives are not random, but determined by the wealth of information in the collection and in the taxonomy of the items.

Another approach, which can achieve the same goals, is to tease out individual narratives that can be followed one at a time. On a regular basis (monthly, semi-monthly), a museum can publish new online exhibitions that are designed to provide additional insight into permanent collections

Working in partnership with the Atlanta History Center, Plumb Design is currently using this methodology and technology to create ongoing narrative exhibitions online. With the system, Atlanta History Center curators and other experts can create narrative pathways through the permanent collection material and present the storylines online as regular features. A more journalistic approach to the material than typical exhibits, the online narratives will encompass a gradual release of relevant themes on a timely basis. It is Thinkmap-type exploration in slow motion. (A status report on the Atlanta History Center project will be presented at the March 2003 conference.)

Plumb Design specializes in creating easy-to-use administration tools and graphical displays that can transform digital assets into effective online experiences. These interfaces make it possible for a curator to browse the collection, create a meaningful narrative from items in it, and make publication-ready the online material in a systematic and timely way.

An effective online exhibit can be built if a museum has only three key elements:

1.      a good understanding of the collection,
2.      a way of generating extremely high-quality digital images, and

3.      a good story to engage visitors.

Every museum has at least one curator or librarian with vast knowledge of the collection. Digital images, fueled by advances in digital photography, are becoming more affordable. Connecting these in-house assets with a good narrative is the first step in creating the capacity for multiple narratives to entice and engage museum visitors.

These ongoing online exhibits are different from traditional exhibitions precisely because of their impermanence. Museums can offer their online visitors provocative juxtapositions of objects and can encourage the type of creative experimentation that might not be possible in a high-stakes and expensive permanent exhibition. We encourage our customers to look for themes that are topical and incite debate.

It is important to note that these online exhibits are meant to be used in conjunction with a visit to the actual museum. Visitors are provided with maps that highlight where discussed items are located. Guests planning a visit to a museum can print out a provocative, narrative based guide to objects that are displayed, and revisit their favorite permanent exhibits in a new light.

In addition, these exhibits can bring to the fore items that are not on display in the museum, but that are in the Museum's collection. Kiosks in the museum can also be used to generate personalized maps or to provide a way for patrons to see relevant collection items not on display. Learning Guides can be generated so that patrons can study in-depth stories behind a theme, a particular item, or an aspect of an exhibit that it not fully explored in the physical display.

As current events change, these ongoing exhibits can be extremely topical. Artifacts that are relevant to a specific current event can be brought into an online exhibit in a way not possible for a physical exhibit. An online exhibit at the Atlanta History Center might compare the life of a soldier in several different periods, including present-day stories, such as stories from local National Reservists who have been called to duty. Some of the material may be located in the permanent exhibit on the Civil War, some in the exhibit on the History of Atlanta, and some in the museum collection storage.

Unlike the constraints of a costly physical exhibit, these online features allow more experimentation. A particular storyline can be an opportunity to take risks with the material and to try unusual juxtapositions and stories related to artifacts. The choice of narrative themes can also be shaped by patron interaction. Popular online narratives can spark new stories, and give curators an idea about the level of community interest in a particular subject.

Practical Issues

Plumb Design works with our customers to develop a workflow for implementing these online exhibits, which are analogous to publications or newsletters. In addition, we provide a technology and design for the ongoing delivery of such exhibitions. We feel that there are a number of essential elements in any such system to ensure that it is used and maintained.

In order to achieve effective online/offline strategy based on the permanent collection you need:

  • On-going commitment from the museum
  • A system for developing online exhibits
  • A good story: multiple narratives and learner-directed experiences must be a valued part of the museum's mission

Commitment from the Museum

For such a system to work, the museum must make a commitment in staffing to support the ongoing need for content and creativity. Typically, for online exhibitions we advise clients to pick a schedule and scope that is achievable and that leads to success. Typically we recommend one person to own the process and to work with curators from different departments to assign" upcoming editions". The creation of multiple narratives requires sustained commitment to develop stories and online modules over time.

A system for developing online exhibits

From a technical perspective, we design a system for publishing, archiving, and searching these exhibits. The system includes an administration tool that can be used by writers and editors to test-drive exhibitions before publication. The exhibits are stored in a database where they can be accessed, even after the actual Web site has been taken down.

The actual system requirements are not large. The digital collection can evolve and grow with each new online exhibit; a full classification system and catalog of every collection item is not necessary prior to beginning an online exhibit. It is helpful, obviously, for curators to bring their own personal knowledge of the collection to bear on the effort. Curators can choose themes and stories that well match both the holdings of the permanent collection and the needs and interests of museum patrons.

There are also some advantages in utilizing the power of collections management tools such as Willoughby and Gallery Systems. By integrating these tools, curators and editors can quickly draw imagery and information from the museum's collection management system to be used online. This can improve data integrity and save time in the publication process.

A good story

The value of the narrative itself cannot be underestimated. A good story matters. In order to attract and create interest, the museum Web site must have compelling content, both stories and artifacts. Curators and other experts must make the editorial choices and create the stories that will both interweave the artifacts and connect to the community. A commitment to the value of multiple narratives and learner-directed experiences ideally will be part of the broader mission of the museum. "Contextualizing objects according to ideas rather than physical or functional taxonomies...represents a significant paradigm shift." (Cameron, 2001)

As Cameron and others have noted, this is new and potentially challenging area for museums. It is also a fruitful and exciting way for museums to build membership and patron loyalty. As the museum supports this new relationship between patrons and the permanent collection, curators can balance the "visceral thrill" of being with objects with more in-depth information that is housed in the collections system. Online narratives can allow for broader interpretationsand deeper understandingsof the collection, within the constraints of today's budgeting.

Conclusion: Online/Offline Exhibits as an Exciting, Cost-Effective Model

As online exhibits and digital collections management have evolved, so can their curatorial power. The significant investment made by museums in these systems can be recouped as they support the generation of cost-effective exhibits. New thematic ideas, current events, and individual visitor interests can all be more readily tapped and developed into combined online/offline experiences. Flexible, relatively quick new programs and exhibits can generate visitor interest and patron loyalty to the permanent collection, even in times of downsized exhibit budgets.

"[There is] No substitute for looking....the demand for the original work will increase rather than decrease, following repeated exposure at an institutionally authorized site on the World Wide Web." (Jones-Garmil, 1997: 19)

Museums are in the position to use the World Wide Web not only as a traditional marketing tool but also to build loyalty, to generate interest, and to deepen the learning experiences of patrons. An effective interface to the permanent collection can fuel multiple repeat visits to a museum over the years, both on- and offline.


Andolsek, Diane and Michael Freedman (2001) Artifact as inspiration: using existing collections and management systems to inform and create new narrative structures. Paper presented at the Museums and the Web 2001 Conference, 14-17 March 2001. http:/www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/andolsek/andolsek.html.

Besser, Howard (1997). The transformation of the museum and the way it's perceived. In: K. Jones-Garmil, ed. The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms. American Association of Museums: Washington, D.C.

Cameron, Fiona (2001) Wired collections—the next generation. Museum Management and Curatorship. Vol. 19 (3): 309-312.

Dyson, Mary C. and Kevin Moran (2000). Informing the Design of Web Interfaces to Museum Collections. Museum Management and Curatorship. Vol. 18 (4): 391-406.

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