Since the COVID pandemic began earlier this year, museums have been faced with major challenges: the vast majority have closed their doors, events have been canceled and projects delayed, and we have no idea how long all of this is going to last. Even in reopening, industry predictions are that visitor numbers will suffer due to capacity restrictions and a general concern about crowded indoor spaces.
We have all seen articles about cultural institutions scrambling to respond. Some are trying out creative approaches, like Times Square Arts reacting to empty billboards in Times Square by flooding them with messages in support of essential workers or the Lisser Art Museum opening up their phone lines to chat with the public about artworks in their collection. Most common, however, has been a move to convert physical exhibitions into digital ones. So far, the results have been mixed.
Above: Digital billboard by Christine Sun Kim. Photo by Maria Baranova. Courtesy of Times Square Arts.
Despite having worked in and for museums for the entirety of my career, starting almost 20 years ago when I was in-house at the Smithsonian, I’m not one to declare the primacy of the in-museum experience. Great digital exhibitions can and do exist, and will need to exist post-pandemic as well. Here are a few suggestions on how to be successful:
Do not attempt to replicate the in-person experience
It’s a natural move to try and replicate the conventions and tropes of one medium in another. New technologies tend to borrow conventions from older tech, like the digital “folders” and “desktops” on computers, carryovers from the analog office.
Faced with the lockdown, many museums have rushed to release digital walkthroughs of their exhibitions. I understand the impulse, but the results are not encouraging. The viewer “moves” through space in spurts, the image resolution is mediocre, details like wall text are difficult to read, and scale loses all meaning. Powerful technology, bad user experience. Not only do these attempts at 1:1 physical-to-digital translation tend to miss the nuances of what makes physical exhibitions work, they ignore the potential and native qualities of the new medium. Those efforts, and the way some museums have rushed to make the transition, were recently criticized by Emma Thorne-Christy in her piece for MuseumNext, “In Defense of the Physical Exhibition A plea to not ‘move’ exhibitions online, and on that point, Thorne-Christy’s critique rings true.
Embrace the unique attributes of digital channels
Above: A series of tweets from the unofficial Jenny Holzer account on Twitter.
Without an in-person experience, look at what makes digital channels great and utilize those unique qualities. Every channel is different, and that’s the benefit of this approach. However, it’s the exhibition designer’s responsibility to find what makes each channel special and take advantage of those aspects. Here are a few examples.
Twitter is probably not a great place for an essay, but it might be perfect for sharing a collection of haikus. The (unofficial) Jenny Holzer account tweets out brief selections from Holzer’s Truisms and Inflammatory Essays. How does Twitter allow for short pieces of information to reach new audiences, and what sort of information is suited to that medium?
In-person performances typically require an audience to be in the same space, looking toward a single stage. Performances over Zoom can utilize performers located in different cities, or include multiple camera angles on a single space. What else might be possible over Zoom that would have never worked in-person, and what new work will be written specifically for this new channel?
Exhibitions are usually thought of as static finished products, presented by an institution to the masses. An exhibition designed as a wiki would be an ever-evolving collaboration with every visitor, from novices to experts. What new insights might be made on a wiki, what connections would a curator miss that an expert in another subject might now have an opportunity to reveal?
Augmented reality can bring interactive objects anywhere. Imagine a version of Tatzu Nishi’s War and peace and in between as an AR app, placing a full-scale equestrian statue in your own living room. Acute Art has started to offer this with their app, which allows users to drop AR-sculptures by Olafur Eliasson into any space. What might be a unique benefit of AR’s ability to bring museum objects into people’s homes?
Focus on educational and experiential outcomes
Rather than focusing on the coolest new tech, start your process by focusing on your goals for an exhibition’s educational and experiential outcomes. Not everything needs to be in VR, AR, or gamified, though any of those approaches might be right for certain exhibitions.
Imagine a visitor who wants to understand a Jackson Pollock painting. What do you want that visitor to learn? Maybe you want to teach them about action painting, in which case you may want to also show them Pollock’s process as captured through Hans Namuth’s iconic photography. Maybe you want to explore the social and historical roots of abstract expressionism, in which case you might want to include video or audio content about life in the 1940’s. Maybe you want to explore Pollock’s marriage to Lee Krasner, in which case you could show one of her paintings alongside one of the many essays exploring their relationship. Maybe you want to acknowledge Pollock’s struggles with mental health, and connect that to contemporary resources for support in your city. None of those goals are achieved by digital exhibition walkthrough experience that museums have defaulted to. Even an in-person visit might not be able to tackle all of those lenses as well as a digital-first experience.
Focus on the user
Above: Black Stork in a Landscape, ca. 1780. Image: Nintendo via The Met
With so many possible lenses of interpretation, particularly in a digital-first experience, how do you decide what to focus on? Look at the audience, and develop personas. Be aware, personas aren’t perfect. They can reflect institutional and personal bias. Despite their faults, they can help to frame important questions and embed purpose and intent into projects and products. Are you building this experience for 8th graders, college students, experts, novices…? If you have multiple audiences, that’s okay, but come up with a fictional character to represent each one, and imagine how they will experience your exhibition.
Our audience informs how we tell stories, but also what channels we might want to use to share the content. An 8th grader might take more from an interactive Snapchat filter than a 2000-word essay. Do you have an audience of avid gamers? Consider how you can tell the story of this exhibition in Minecraft, and even what stories you could tell in Minecraft that you could not tell in a physical space. Rather than thinking, “This is the form that exhibitions take,” tailor the content and the channel to the visitors you want to reach and then play to the strengths of that channel.
Go even further, asking: What would the audience perceive as a valuable experience? What do they normally pay for, and is there a way for your exhibition to partner with or compete with other players in that space? Although it’s not the same as being there, The Met saw that their audience was spending lockdown playing Animal Crossing and made over 400,000 images from their collection available in-game.
Get excited for the potential of weaving digital content into physical space
Above: The THF Connect app’s AR features in use at The Henry Ford
Eventually, museums are going to reopen. However, that is no reason to go back to the way things were. Let’s start planning for the opportunities that come when we bring the best digital content into the traditional exhibition space.
For the sake of safety and comfort, more museums will need to make their audio guides available on visitor mobile devices. At that point, why stick to just audio? Apps or websites can include supplemental links and video materials, going far beyond what traditional wall text and audio guides offer. Thinking back to the Pollock painting, a visitor could look at the painting, then use an app to discover different lenses through which to explore the work more deeply, picking the option most interesting to them.
Inside the museum, AR can be used to explore the collection in ways never before possible. The Henry Ford’s augmented reality app lets visitors safely look inside the classic cars on display, allowing visitors to appreciate the engineering and history of the vehicles, rather than just their exteriors.
The same app can extend the experience, creating excitement pre-visit and providing additional content for post-visit deep dives into new areas of interest, action, and engagement. It may even not involve an on-site visit. Maybe the magic needs to happen only on off-site mediums. The Henry Ford’s app has an interactive AR feature that works whether you are at the museum or in your own home. If the visitor is truly engaging their relationship with our stories, content, and each other, maybe that is alright.
Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, her iconic sugar sphinx, was a very physical experience, but the work was also heavily documented, re-interpreted, and augmented digitally. Over 15,000 photos of the sculpture were pulled from social media to create a collaborative digital version of the work that could be viewed online. Creative Time, the organization that commissioned A Subtlety, also published a series of related essays about the sugar industry. After the sculpture was taken down and the exhibition closed, Walker released a film documenting how other people documented A Subtlety, adding yet another lens through which to interpret the project. The supplementary digital materials, and Walker’s film, encouraged physical and digital audience engagement and deepened understanding of a complex work.
Digital technology, used in ways that suit the audience and lean on its strengths, can be interwoven with physical exhibitions to build experiences that make physical exhibitions even more exciting and informative.
Fear not, physical exhibition designers. The aim of digital exhibition technology is not to supplant physical exhibitions. Digital-first and digitally augmented exhibitions are one more way of doing things, more tools in the toolkit. Used haphazardly, these tools can make a mess of things, just like anything else. With a conscientious approach however, digital exhibition technologies can be used to build learning environments that are just not possible with a purely physical exhibition design.