Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Virtual Exhibition Production: A Reference Guide

Wendy Thomas and Danielle Boily, Canadian Heritage Information Network



This paper explores the journey taken by several Canadian and French institutions in the development of a collaborative on-line exhibition: the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City, the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton and the Musée national des Arts et traditions populaires in Paris. Coordinated by the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), the Ministère de la Culture française and the Direction des musées de France these valuable experiences culled from this enterprise have been transformed into a concrete guide that can provide valuable aide to all who embark on a similar adventure.

The 1995 virtual exhibition project on the Internet, Christmas Traditions in France and Canada, marks the fifth anniversary of the Canada-France Agreement Regarding Co-operation and Exchanges in the Field of Museology. The project forms part of a continuing work on a dictionary of religious objects that resulted in the 1994 publication of a documentation guide entitled, Religious Objects : User's guide and Terminology.

Using new information technologies, partners from Canada and France met in cyberspace to develop this joint presentation about the evolution of rites and customs in our respective countries as well as the cultural context we share. This bilingual virtual exhibition was prepared during a five-month period in 1995 and launched in December 1995.

The Christmas Traditions in France and Canada project involved more than 20 professionals, two countries, five cities, two languages, two time zones, distributed information, and a deadline of six months to complete an on-line exhibition about Christmas traditions in Canada and France. Resources included e-mail, Internet, meetings, computer graphics, fax, and conference calls.


The religious theme was suitable for a test of the Internet medium because it is one of innumerable religious celebrations. The Christmas Traditions in France and Canada project was envisioned as the first in a series of virtual exhibitions on religious celebrations which, because of the possibilities offered by the Internet, could evolve and grow to include celebrations from other religions, thereby adding to the corpus of data. Christmas was chosen as the point of departure because of the common religious traditions of Canada and France for the past 350 years and because of the festive nature of Christmas.


When the project was first discussed early in 1995, there were few on-line exhibitions and guidelines for preparing one. CHIN has tested new technologies over the years, notably in automated collections management, but also as co-producers of CD-ROMs and a CD-I. The creation of an on-line exhibition grew naturally out of these earlier endeavours.

The project had several aims, the principal one being to gain an understanding of the limitations and potential of the medium. As the use of the Internet began to expand in museums, the Canada-France Agreement partners sought to explore the possibilities of technology-based resources that could enhance the ways in which museum professionals performed their jobs. By testing the medium's capacity to be modified or added to, for example, with celebrations from other religions, the team could break down the traditional walls of a museum to create a "24 hour/7 days a week available exhibition" that could meet different levels of interest and expertise found in the exhibition visitors. In contrast to an actual exhibition which would be dismantled or which could not be added to without sufficient physical space, the virtual exhibition holds limitless data. Thus the medium was perceived to be a medium which combined a museum exhibition and a catalogue, with the potential to make accessible objects in museum collections that are not usually available to the public. In addition, this tool allowed us to mount an exhibit in a 5 month period with a limited budget: this would not have been feasible in a physical exhibit context.

From the outset, the team planned to create a guide for others planning a similar museum collections-based project. The project was planned and produced as a prototype which was then evaluated by the producers and by exhibition visitors that included museum professionals, students, and cybernauts. The result has been the publication of an evaluation of this virtual exhibit which helped the creation of additional virtual exhibits, available on CHIN's server: http://www.chin.gc.ca


The experiences of those involved in the creation of the Christmas Traditions in France and in Canada virtual exhibition were recorded and subsequently evaluated in order to produce a guide on the production of virtual exhibitions which could be used by other institutions interested in the creation of similar projects, particularly those involving several collaborative and/or international partners.

A condensed version of the evaluation, Evaluating and Monitoring the Internet Site "Christmas Traditions in France and in Canada" version is now available on-line at the CHIN Web site (http://www.chin.gc.ca/Exhibitions/Virtual_Guide/indexa.html). The complete hard-copy publication* provides insight into projects of this nature (international and collaborative) in which museums and technology merge/meet to produce a visually and intellectually rich presentation that educates and entertains a large audience via the Internet.

The production team evaluated the process of creating the exhibition and the exhibition visitors evaluated the final product. The evaluation process comprised questionnaires and interviews. The lessons learned from the evaluation became the building blocks for the production guide. The evaluation and guidelines are discussed in three stages: planning, production, and post-production.

1. Planning:

The two factors that play a large role in determining the success of a project are, not too surprisingly, time and money. Given the budget constraints and the amount of time available for the Christmas project, much was achieved in a 5-month period. The positive feedback and the huge number of Web visitors during the 8-week period around Christmas attest to the popularity of the exhibition. It is, therefore, critical to the success of the project to plan the project and budget and to have enough time to seek adequate funding. It is understood, however, that it is not uncommon for projects to receive funding with a very short lead time, leaving little or no time for in-depth planning.


The budget should take into account on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, the cost of the following budget items, which may vary from one project to another.

.coordinator/cultural mediator

.the key role of the cultural mediator or coordinator is to build bridges between partners in both countries and act as a buffer between the technical, thematic and general scholarly requirements (storyboard and research limitations) and the intentions of the author-writers (including all points of view).
.scholarly project leader
.responsible for the content of the exhibition
.curators and assistants

.technical project leader

.planning the day-to-day allocation and sequencing of tasks as well as supervising the progress of the team for the entire duration of the technical production of the project. The leader should act as clearinghouse for all electronic files.
.scenario writer who has experience writing for the Web

.graphics designers

.It is a major advantage to have computer graphics designers on board from the start of the project. Their artistic and technical experience can contribute design ideas, help develop navigation routes and make decisions that will meet technical requirements. By being involved from the outset, they become imbued with the "spirit" with which the museum site was created and can thus contribute appropriate and effective graphics.
.photographers (including processing costs)

.digitization (or CD-Photo orders) technicians who specialize in images

.programming and production team

.committing the technical design of the project to paper makes it possible to determine guidelines, type of tree structure and program lines, exact sequencing of tasks as well as all the basic limitations and decisions that are necessary as a result.
.translations must be by people who know the research vocabulary well. This is an issue of scholarly accuracy that has an impact on the credibility of the partner museums.
.additional documentary and iconographic research

.unexpected contingencies

.the timetable must also allow for unexpected contingencies as well as for monitoring and authorizing work.
.monitoring and authorizing work
.Reproduction and performance rights, and copyright related to the images, song lyrics and musical scores, should not be overlooked when the project budget is set up.
.travel and accommodation expenses of partners and costs of communication (telephone, mail, fax and electronic mail).


It is essential to have access to outside expertise, especially from professionals in various areas of culture and publishing, to help identify future partners and skills while at the same time creating a support network for the project. Putting all the stakeholders in touch with one another creates a strong network of partners.

One of the first lessons is the importance of allowing sufficient time for the participants to become acquainted and develop the sense of being part of a team. Part of this process involves recognizing and accepting differing cultural perspectives and needs. The project needs sufficient time to reach scholarly agreement on the content before starting. It is this particular interaction that determines how the partners and the various scholarly and museological points of view will complement one another. Thus, prior to the project taking shape, the team welcomed the opportunity for discussion and dialogue. Given the logistics of the team as noted above, distributed in time and space, the communications technologies (conference calls, e-mail, fax) were essential elements that stimulated solid discussions not usually possible using traditional means (i.e. regular mail).

The team members responsible for the content of the Christmas project were experts in their fields but it was the first time that many of them had worked on a Web-based project and they came to the project with varying levels of experience in using the Internet. Some had surfed the Net, were familiar with search engines, and had a certain amount of awareness of Web aesthetics. Others were new to the Web and learned as the project developed. Their enthusiasm and interest motivated them to learn quickly. Giving each partner an Internet connection and training in e-mail and groupware tools enhances communication flow and effectiveness. Prior experience, including HTML, would ensure a familiarity with the technology that would foster an awareness of the possibilities and limitations of the Internet. Projects could thus be planned with realistic expectations and time frames.

Agreement among the various authors on the design of the exhibition and the target audience helps the team to write text in a more consistent style. The suggestion that hypertext links should be used may seem a good example to follow. Shorter texts can be used, even though the final assembly of all the contributions may require the addition of text to create links. Simple hypertext markup software is already available.

As participants pursued their exhibition planning, it became evident that Internet-based exhibitions offer a flexibility that encourages experimentation and dynamism. Participants in the project learned that writing for the Web offers different challenges and opportunities from preparing a traditional in-house exhibition. The Internet allows visitors to select the level of information they wish to consult, thereby offering something to audiences of all ages and experience. The challenge for the team members was to prepare layers of information that increased in complexity. The fact that the on-line exhibition could be linked to relevant and complementary information available at other Web sites further underlined the flexibility and possibilities of this new medium.

When planning a virtual exhibition, a number of factors normally considered in actual exhibitions become irrelevant: international boundaries, customs procedures for the movement of works of art, design of exhibition space, loan agreements, insurance policies, conservation work, transportation time for works of art, fixed hours of operation, and number of visitors that can be handled simultaneously. Internet-based exhibitions, complete with dozens or hundreds of images, can be achieved in a shorter period of time and at considerably less expense than an actual exhibition or than a CD-ROM. Given the absence of these constraints, the team had time for rigorous debate on the issues of cultural diversity in time and space in the history of the countries and cultures of the participants, and on the approach to the subject matter.


The digitization parameters should be decided at the outset in the interests of uniform image quality. Decisions should be made quickly about image resolution, about whether full-screen images are to be used, about the size of the blow-ups and the image files, as well as about the number of images per screen. These decisions, along with whether the digitization will be done in-house or contracted out, will have an impact on the costs and the final product. At the time of the evaluation, the majority of cybernauts were using a standard 35 cm (14 inch) screen. Images should be digitized and adjusted for the current standard, unless a zoom function can be provided to show details. To speed up downloading time, a small thumbnail image that displays quickly could be created, from which full-screen enlargements can be called up.

2. Production:


-Provide for two or three face-to-face meetings at strategic points during the project.


It is essential to provide for a temporary work in-progress site, available only to partners, so that each party can see the work as it develops, approve it or make suggestions in full knowledge of what is going on.

When technical tasks are shared by two countries or institutions, two stand-alone and matching work sites can help to make the project a success. However, remote work techniques and groupware are making multidisciplinary work and file exchange increasingly easy.

(Style and Tone of Text)

Texts are often written by museum curators or researchers for an institutional site. They are designed to convey scholarly information and often adopt the neutral style of scholarly publications. They should be reworked afterwards in collaboration with a museum educator and a specialist in writing for the Web rather than by the museum-authors. Scholarly texts, which tend to resemble traditional museum catalogues, can be adapted to the "look and feel" of the Web environment given the appropriate amount of time and funding. Comments from Web visitors reveal a saturation threshold that precludes lengthy texts that have a formal, scholarly tone in favour of a personal tone and an emphasis on images.Visitors appreciated hypertext links from the introductory paragraph to subsequent paragraphs.The scenario should integrate scholarly textual and iconographic material as well as suggestions for ways to navigate through it.

By working with the graphic artist, the cultural mediator, and the producer from the start, the texts can be produced to reach the audience effectively.


HTML limitations required simple lines and primary colours, while computer graphic elements added clarity and highlighted the text. Icons should be readily identifiable original images or images from original documents.

Opinions of the site visitors were divided and demonstrated that the graphics presentation will not find universal appeal. Several visitors commented that the Christmas colours and the graphics were simplistic, while others described them as appropriate. Generally, visitors looked for graphics that were less decorative and more meaningful.


These are images that serve as links between pictures or text. Image captions should be laid out on the text page beside the miniature pictures to which they correspond or should be integrated into the text of the scenario in such a way that the text/image link is made immediately explicit. Visitors expressed their desire for captions that provided details on the origin of objects, collections, the medium, etc.


Hypertext is a word or group of words that serve as links between texts or images. In multimedia applications, writing must be divided into sections and simple ideas must be expressed in single sentences requiring brevity and precision. If there are many lines of text, the reader should be able to return to previous pages without having to go back to the Home Page.


The production team learned from site visitors that images should be of high quality and plentiful and should be the focus of the exhibition, with texts playing a supporting role. Most users remember mainly the images after their visit. Full-screen displays, however, require patience while the user waits for the images to download. The annotations and captions may contain hypertext links and/or allow access to other images that can be viewed on-site or in "virtual reserves".

An important lesson learned concerning images and preparing the texts during the course of the project was to allow sufficient time early in the project to select the images. The corollary is that sufficient time must be allowed for the research. It is crucial to complete the selection of images at an early stage because of the time needed to settle rights agreements, to digitize the images, to create the captions, and to design the screens and create the links. Image digitization should be carried out as quickly as possible before programming begins: the final choice of which images to include with texts cannot really be made without knowing how the image will look on-screen when it is the size of a postage stamp. A database makes it possible for available images to be identified and indexed together with all their captions, from which the scholarly committee can then make selections.

One should allow for two months of intensive iconographic research in order to document 150 to 200 images. The results depend, however, on expertise in the subject, the sites to be used, the number of museums, the work of the scholarly project manager, as well as the time needed to obtain images and the authorization to use them. Iconographic and content research should be carried out simultaneously because this can be very time consuming. The use of thumbnails is important because of the speed of downloading.

Living traditions will require on-site reports, hence the need to provide cameras, video recorders and even sound recording equipment. During iconographic research or the photo shoot, thought should be given to choosing objects that might serve as graphic window-dressing for the site after the pictures have been cropped, set up and keyed.

(Exhibition Navigation)

Having a variety of ways to access the same content enhances broad access to the information. Partners should plan the most effective way to combine multiple points of entry and different methodologies (e.g. theme, time period, image, specific topics or keywords).

(Structuring the Documentary Database)

Although users thought that the hierarchy was well constructed and understandable, they usually returned to the Home Page to continue browsing. They would have liked to see the hypertext words in a menu.

3. Post-Production:

Publicity in traditional media (daily newspapers, trade magazines, radio or television broadcasts, museum events: such as a virtual exhibition launch, a link to a real-life exhibition etc...) is critical since the Internet is still relatively underdeveloped and under used.


Has the virtual exhibition been a success? Did it achieve its objectives? The project achieved many of its aims and the producers learned from the experience, to the benefit of the museum community.

The international team worked successfully together: it created the exhibition and became more experienced in working with the medium, indicating that a similar result would occur with others. The team members gained the experience in combining their different methodologies and found that the medium allowed for these differences. What might have clashed in a print medium became, in the virtual exhibition, points of entry for site visitors who were thereby offered ways into the project that met their particular points of view.

The theme, presented with many images, allowed visitors to navigate through layers of information to meet their interests and needs, thus attracting a wide range of age groups and interests.

Positive feedback from around the world demonstrated that the exhibition was highly popular. The CHIN Web server experienced a huge increase in hits - up to 2 million - for the 8-week period around Christmas of 1997. The Christmas Traditions in France and Canada virtual exhibition was designed to appeal to everyone. The project was a success in the sense that users did not identify a special audience. Everyone felt they were included and thought that the site had something of interest for all audiences. The inclusion of different cultures is also an important feature, especially on the Internet, which is an international network. The cultural curiosity of cybernauts may well prevail.

(Text/Image Links)

The Internet requires interactivity as well as a dynamic relationship between the object that is delivering a message and the concentrated text that is expressed in very few lines. The medium allows for audience interaction and visitors should be given the opportunity to add to the exhibition, or create their own. Additional time and resources would have allowed for components such as interactivity, additions to site, creation of links to other Web sites, and sound and video, and for more in-depth research into the theme and into determining the target audience.


Users expressed a desire to hear Christmas songs and music and to that end visited the pages on Christmas songs and carols. Users pointed out, furthermore, that sound and excerpts from interviews were dynamic elements that could lighten the daunting effect of too much text, which can make the experience more like reading a dictionary.

(The Christmas Theme)

User interest waxed and waned depending on the time of year they chose to visit the site. The number of potential users is tied to the marketing strategy. Using a film clip on the Internet, advertising in newspapers, specialized magazines and other media can reach potential users.


The wording of the title expresses what the field of information is and the approach being taken. It means that users do not have to waste time looking for a piece of information that is not there.

The new technologies permit a much broader, global distribution than the conventional in-house exhibition, video, or CD-ROM. A Web site can be visited at any hour of the day, in any time zone and from any computer that has an Internet connection. Visitors can find the exhibition through various means, including knowing the URL, following links from related sites, or using a search engine.

With on-line questionnaires and e-mail boxes, visitor feedback is immediate. Given the response time and the user-friendly programming, the virtual exhibit can be modified, either by adding or deleting data or by modifying existing information.


A virtual exhibition site, like a museum, should make its collection and knowledge accessible to the general public as well as specialist audiences. The site may also encourage people to visit the museum because they can learn about the museum and the activities it provides.

Based on the experience of the production team and on the results of the evaluation, elements of a good virtual exhibition include:

- providing an opportunity to visit museum exhibitions more than once;

- allowing for surprise and wonder, and promoting dreaming and creation;

- giving an overall impression of the site on the Home Page;

- updating the site on a regular basis to attract visitors and keep them coming back;

- using source material provided by the medium to enhance meaning;

- displaying images that can be used on the Internet;

- designing the project like a research tool;

- providing access to normally inaccessible documents;

- ensuring research projects have international dissemination;

- "hooking" visitors by making browsing pleasant;

- touching users' emotions;

- providing the opportunity to prepare people for a visit to a museum

(Christmas Tree)

It is thus desirable to:

- create a Home Page index, and

- lay out the Home Page graphics on a page-screen in such a way that users do not have to scroll down the page to access the suggested themes.

The exhibition planning raised important questions about the nature of an exhibition: are virtual exhibitions "real" exhibitions or are they a hybrid of traditional and multimedia? The team sees these questions as part of a developing discourse that as yet has no solid answers.

*Publication available at CHIN: service@chin.gc.ca (free of charge while supply lasts). Return to text.

Last modified: March 19, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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