The Online Contextualization of Museum Exhibits

Curator's Note

The website for a museum exhibition is a valuable tool in helping to orient and attract the visitor, but it generally represents only a sneak peek at the actual show, and includes, as a teaser, only a few of the (best) works on display. Is there a point, however, when this online experience ceases to be merely a “sneak peek” and ends up revealing too much? Within the quintessentially subjective, sensory-based realms of artistic appreciation, can museum websites ever be guilty of artistic TMI: just too much information?

The clip on the left represents a video tour of the official website of Talk to Me, a recent design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The show, which ran from July to November 2011, is centered on the communication between humans and technologies, and presents an intriguing array of interactive technologies, innovative interfaces and postmodern design projects.

However, the exhibition’s corresponding website left little to be discovered upon an actual visit. Interestingly, the website chooses to spotlight not only a few selected works, but all of the 194 designs that make up the exhibition. Each individual exhibit has a separate page, which includes a written description of the work, and a series of videos and images that explicate and contextualize it. These multimedia elements are missing from the actual museum space, although, given the interactive nature of these exhibits, they are integral to the understanding and appreciation of each artwork. In this way, the website allows the visitor to better understand and assess the artworks, by seeing them “in action”: the images and video demos are able to contextualize these projects in a way that a conventional museum exhibition cannot; within the gallery walls, these dynamic objects are frozen, silent, and seem stuck – a lifeless simulacrum of a larger conceptual impetus. 

Since the website is so excellent and comprehensive, I wonder if, in a sense, it displaces the localized experience of seeing this exhibition in person. Can it unwittingly dissuade museum-goers from paying it a visit by revealing too much? Or, for those that do decide to follow up and visit the MOMA, does the physical, localized experience feel like a disappointment? Can an art lover and museum aficionado forgive themselves for thinking, even for a brief little moment, that the online experience was more fulfilling than the real thing?


This is a very interesting post, Ioana, and fits well with Laura's discussion of the Google Art Project's "visitor tour" a few days ago. Both case studies explore the possibility of the virtual experience acting as augmenting a real-world experience. A concept that she proposed centered on the idea of these tours acting as a guide for future tourists to evaluate physically traveling to these far off locations and see these exhibits for real. But what if, as you suggest, the "real" experience is seen as less fullfilling than the virtual due to the unique properties that the virtual provides? (especially if the virtual tour covers everything the exhibit has to offer and more).

The question that comes to my mind then is how do we determine what is a good balance in these situations? Whereas a tour like the one you describe will be unbelievably useful once the exhibition is no longer on display in the real world, the potential that such completeness can detract from visiting the museum during the exhibit's lifetime can potentially be a problem. Balance seems to be an issue that has come up frequently throughout this week - both for existing exhibits and for those no longer available. What I find interesting is that the MOMA exhibit seems to contain too much materials within its virtual space, whereas the Star Trek Experience Virtual Tour does not contain enough of the specifics beyond the panoramic recreations of the site's locations. If that tour contained the amount of detail available in the MOMA example, it would be unbelievably exciting.

So do you think that this comprehensive virtual tour might take on a different role for visitors in the future when they no longer have the opportunity to visit the real installation (assuming it remains online)? And do you think that this might be something museums might be doing more of in the years to come?

I think you are very right in summarizing the concerns I outline in this piece. Like Laura so aptly discusses it, the subject of virtual art experiences is a touchy one, and certainly ripe for debate. In writing my text above, I found myself being very conscious about the way I present my concerns regarding the role of the physical, localized museum experience versus its online surrogate, because I certainly do not want to suggest that the latter should (or can) ever come to replace the former. Rather, my preliminary conclusion - which I must admit is based to a large extent on my own experiences in this realm – is that it all depends on the nature of the exhibition. And in the case of this particular exhibition – given its technological and multimedia nature – the companion website did a much better job of showcasing how the exhibits actually work; for me, after a meticulous exploration of the site, the subsequent museum visit was a disappointment.

In a sense, these online experiences allow for different points of access into the artwork, and can be thus considered as a democratizing effort for wider engagement – even though, of course, this engagement is still affected by the participation gap (Jenkins, 2006) in terms of both access and cultural capital. Nevertheless, I am feeling hopeful about the educational potential of such initiatives, and, as I wrote to Laura too, I am intrigued about the social aspect of online museum experiences, and the conversations that such tools can facilitate.

I think you and I were grappling with very similar issues! It's certainly amazing how expansive the exhibit you featured is and whether there is, as you say, TMI. It's also fascinating to think about what this movement to online exhibit space means for the museum as a broader institution. You mention its democratizing potential in your reply to Ian and I wonder if the creation of online exhibits is simply another wave of the museum's desire to be current and maintain its promise to democratize knowledge. Museums have embraced interactive technology before with the same promise in mind, from tech as simple as guided personal tours to more flashy touch screen displays. While these online exhibits don't necessarily change the physical character of the museum, they can change the museum experience for those able to access them beforehand. You definitely touch on who those accessing it might be and how that can change their expectations and desires to go. Considering the breath of the MOMA exhibit you featured, I would not be surprised if many felt the same as you!

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.