Review of the Asian Civilizations Museum’s Online Exhibitions

While studying abroad as an undergraduate in 2007, I had the pleasure of visiting the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. The rich interpretation and impressive collections on display (not to mention the air conditioning) kept this newcomer to Southeast Asia in the building for the greater part of a day and left me well-primed well for the months to follow in Malaysia. After years of training and working in public history, museums, and other allied fields as a graduate student, I have been longing to return to that institution with the new perspectives engendered by those experiences. I would need to fly over 9,300 miles to visit the permanent gallery, but several of the museum’s past special exhibitions are available online. Visitors can currently explore the following on virtual 3D tours augmented with artifact images label text: “Land of the Morning: The Philippines and its People,” “Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals,” and “Congo River: Arts of Central Africa.” The link to a fourth exhibition, titled “Terracotta Warriors” is currently broken. These exhibitions provide a rich, albeit imperfect sampling of the world class museum’s offerings.In terms of design and structure, the online exhibitions follow the same model: a guided but unconstrained tour of a 3D virtual representation of a former physical exhibition. Each opens with a brief introductory page containing a sentence stating the exhibition’s content and an image. The virtual tour interface is located in the center of the browser window and is formatted for lower resolution monitors; the tour looks rather small on a high resolution monitor (i.e. 17 inch 1080p). Links to a map, a list of artifacts hyperlinked to their image and label text, and straightforward instructions for how to use the tour. All of these elements are highly useful except for the map, which outlines the preferred tour route but does not label the exhibition sections topically.

Visitors may navigate the 3D environment freely by clicking on arrows. This is a welcome format compared to the linear structure unnecessarily constraining most digital exhibition. Clicking on display cases brings the user to an image of case items with group label text. Clicking on individual items brings the user to a larger image of the item and label text. While visually pleasing and informative, the user is not free to explore a high resolution image of the item, nor can (s)he view it from multiple angles. These limitations are excusable, given server constraints, but comprise a missed opportunity.

The artifact images and label text are top notch across the three exhibits; they place the item or group of items in context while highlighting dynamic cultural elements and history. “Land of the Morning” and “Congo River” also include rich panel text both to introduce the visitor to the exhibitions and to various sections within them. “Treasury of the World” omits this critical contextual, big picture text, critically hampering that exhibition’s ability to convey more than the attributes of its atomized artifacts. What is more frustrating is that the panels containing that text are in plain site on the tour, but are illegible at the resolution they are rendered. I assume that this shortcoming was recognized after publishing the exhibition and resolved when designing the other two.

Despite shortcomings, these exhibitions as a whole increase access to a world-class museum and do a great deal to inform the visitor. Their design and interface is simple, yet powerful and facilitate a mediated, yet open-ended user experience. It also allows the ephemeral special exhibit to live on digitally and to continue informing the public of Asian (and Congolese) cultures and histories to visitors around the world. I eagerly await the addition of other special exhibits to the Asian Civilizations Museum’s online program and hope staff will add sections from its vast permanent exhibition.

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