How are exhibits different from anything else online?
Online exhibits incorporate many of the features of other web sites, but exhibits stand apart in how they frame information. Just as in a physical museum, the context provided by an exhibit’s curator is central to visitors’ online experiences. Without this context, the presentation is nothing more than a catalog of images and documents. In other words, it’s an archive, not an exhibit.
A true online exhibit not only promotes discovery and exploration, but it also provides quality information built on a breadth and depth of knowledge, employs a variety of tools that support multiple learning styles, and supports structured educational efforts.
Promoting discovery: Online exhibits are multidisciplinary, designed to engage you from your point of view while introducing you to new fields of study and perspectives. Moreover, web exhibits are open-ended, encouraging you to wander, and rounding out knowledge while encouraging further exploration. Well-designed exhibits allow you to experience a broad sweep across a topic, or to pause and delve more deeply into a particular topic or object. Exhibits also incorporate an aura of discovery, inviting you to create your own personalized journey through topics and reflect upon the information presented.
Telling stories and interpreting: It’s the process of curating and interpreting—in choosing which objects to show, in what order they’re presented, and by which other objects they’re surrounded—that helps you learn something new, puts the information in context, and makes sense of it, based on what you already know. The curator’s role is crucial since objects rarely speak for themselves—something you might notice if you’ve visited a museum in a foreign country and couldn’t read the labels and signs. The curation process plays a critical role, achieving a delicate and intangible balance by presenting objects with authority and expertise, but in an accessible and inviting way.
Deep content: Online exhibits can provide experiences and information that other web sites often lack. They tackle complex topics and make every effort to cover the breadth of a topic and to appeal to many audiences. This sets online exhibits apart from online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, news sites (such as Time magazine’s vast online archive), and web sites that supplement television shows, like those by PBS, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel. It also sets them apart from those news sites and blogs that increasingly use information graphics, videos, and interactive features, but which focus on incremental updates to society’s knowledge.
The various aspects of a web exhibit fit together seamlessly so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—with descriptions, narratives, maps, photos, videos, and audio clips joining together to create a rich, immersive experience. Exhibits combine deep research, attention to nuance and detail, respect for visitors, and thoughtful and thorough presentation methods. In this way, exhibits provide visitors with practical knowledge, motivation to change their behaviors, and intangible benefits from understanding science and culture more deeply. Exhibits on health or climate change, for example, can help people understand complex topics and learn how to change their habits for the better. Similarly, art exhibits can provide a non-intimidating way to explore famous works, while revealing hidden stories lurking on the canvas.