Online exhibitions – do they work? Hm…


Posted on May 21, 2014 by

I recently undertook some research into ‘online exhibitions’ to see what was on offer out there in our wonderful world. What I found was quite enlightening.

The Tate (group of art galleries in the UK) has been experimenting over the last year or so with ‘Twitter tours’ of their exhibitions. In June 2013 one of their curators gave a tour of the Lowry and the painting of modern life exhibition. More recently, the gallery showed off their Matisse exhibition in the same way. See here. During both tours Tweeters were treated to an exclusive preview by using the hashtag #TateTour. The tours presented facts about the artists and their paintings as well as images and videos of the paintings in the gallery space. After the tours the curators invited questions from followers. I didn’t find this type of tour very engaging to be honest (and I think this is evident from the amount of people that asked questions?) but an interesting experiment nonetheless.


Image from here

Other ‘online exhibition tours’ – by far the most popular method used by organisations that I looked at – including one published by The Smithsonian American Art Museum here – provide exhibition slideshows on their host website. The Smithsonian example presents information about the artworks in the exhibition and asks viewers to share ‘personal stories’. Not interpretive, but at least there is a nod towards viewer engagement.


Image from here

The Louvre in Paris, France (probably with a fair bit of cash behind them – it was sponsored by Shiseido) takes viewers through their permanent galleries via a ‘virtual tour’ which enables you to select artworks/artefacts to find out more (information). Very flashy, very expensive, but not very exciting.


Image from here

Then I came across The Canadian Museum of History’s Canada at Play online exhibition about toys and games. See it here.  The exhibition enables viewers to explore different themed ‘rooms’, close-up images of artefacts, images from the library and archive, downloadable catalogues, and archive audio, all of which is accompanied by accessible – and I would go as far to say almost interpretive – text. I spent ages looking at this online exhibition.


Image from here

So what did my research reveal?

I’m not sure many organisations know what their online exhibitions are trying to achieve. Most seem just out to provide content for the sake of it. Also, they don’t seem to have considered who their online audience is and as a result the content is pure information (in some cases the curatorial information is all that you get, e.g. size of artwork/artefact, who needs to know this??). Lastly, save for the Canada at Play exhibition (which I did like), there wasn’t much of an attempt to make the online exhibitions interpretive. Which perhaps is fine for those who already have an interest in the artworks/artefacts/subject matter, but what about the rest of the world?

Some might argue that interpretation is not really interpretation unless it involves the visitor interacting with ‘the real thing’. Without that ‘authentic experience’ then the audience is just taking in information. But I disagree for the most part. Sure, there really is no substitute for standing in front of the Mona Lisa, but what if circumstances don’t allow you? The web is opening up the world to us and it is often the first step of the ‘visitor journey’. If we give someone a great online experience of the Mona Lisa, then perhaps they might decide that they simply must save up and get themselves to France to see the ‘real thing’. And when they get there, they will perhaps understand or appreciate it more because of their initial online experience. If circumstances are prohibitive, then hey let’s have a go at giving them the best experience of the Mona Lisa we can. But – and I stress this ‘but’ – we need to understand more about who is using our online content. As far as I’m concerned, if you are displaying something to an audience then you have to deliver this display in a format that is right for them and if it is intended to engage them then it has to be interpretive. In this an interpretive plan for an ‘online exhibition’ is just as necessary as it is for a site, museum or gallery.

Do you know of any great online exhibitions? Please email me:

Lisa Keys

Lisa is a Committee Trustee for the Association of Heritage Interpretation

The Association for Heritage Interpretation is a key forum for anyone interested in interpretation – the art of helping people explore and appreciate our world.
AHI believes that interpretation enriches our lives through engaging emotions, enhancing experiences and deepening understanding of places, people, events and objects from the past and present.
AHI aims to promote excellence in the practice and provision of interpretation and to gain wider recognition of interpretation as a professional activity.

Response to Online exhibitions – do they work? Hm…

  1. Joan

    I really like on-line exhibitions for research, both for my own work and for the kids’ school projects. A lot of the ones I use have strong links to the curriculum, e.g. the exhibit.

    I agree that they are mostly informational, but they maybe serve a different purpose. A real-life exhibition provokes my interest so that I want to find out more. An on-line version is a great way to meet that need for more information, with more photos, stories, audio and visual material than I would want in an actual museum. It’s true that they could use a more interpretive style and still have lots of information.

  2. Ann Marie Chapman

    Hands down, the BEST exhibition (if you can call it that) is the Caves of Lascaux tour: The ambient music, the detailed exploration of the wall paintings, and the immersive experience of the tour/exhibition have no equal (in my mind). I tour the caves in French (even thought I can’t read it!) just to add to the experience. For me, it is nothing less than magical.

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