Digital Exhibits: A Roundtable

As museums and historical institutions have increased their web presence, so too have we seen the rise of the digital exhibit. For public history graduate students, it’s almost impossible to escape a program without designing one of your own. Below, several past and current students of the Public History Program at Loyola University Chicago unpack the good and the bad of digital exhibits while adding some constructive suggestions along the way.

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It is obvious that entering a digital exhibit is different from crossing the threshold of a physical exhibit space. What makes this difference important to us as public historians is how people react to what is being presented. In contrast to entering a designed physical space, the “threshold” one crosses when entering a digital exhibit on a computer screen has the same sensory experience as buying books or looking up pictures of cats. It is just another “click” in a long line of “clicks.”

How then are digital curators supposed to indicate to the patron that this exhibit is a different experience from shopping or looking up funny pictures or any of the hundreds of other things people do at their computers? Paraphrasing Neil Postman from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), when we change the medium we change the message. The message of digital exhibits favors access over experience. I am not suggesting that digital exhibits are bad, but I would contend that no matter how well curated, researched, or executed, a digital exhibit will not have the same visceral impact as a physical exhibit. Not a bad experience, but a different one. Physical exhibits have their shortcomings too. One can’t walk up to the case and start flipping the pages of Yale’s Gutenberg Bible without security being called. Digital exhibits allow types of access that are not feasible in the physical world. Nonetheless, digital images do not have the same impact on a person’s understanding or imagination as the physical object itself. I think we must realize that digital exhibits have limitations — just like physical ones do –, and we must set our goals for digital exhibits accordingly. We cannot expect people to learn the same things from both, because they are just not the same experience.

–Rachel Lewis finished the Public History Masters Program at Loyola University Chicago in May 2013. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University. She is also the author of a digital exhibit about the Algona Nativity Scene.

Slanderous anonymous letters, election protests, and defaced fountains all made their way into “Practical Work: Chicago Woman’s Club Reformers, Criminal Women, and Delinquent Children, 1876-1920,” an online exhibit in which I investigated how the language of reform interacts with cultural narratives of violence and femininity. The project, sponsored by the Women and Leadership Archives (WLA) and the Carolyn Farrell, BVM, Professorship, included the creation of an online Omeka exhibit and a plan for publicity utilizing social media. Over the course of researching and constructing the online exhibit, I learned three critical lessons:

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1) Project Management is critical. A well-timed Project Management Workshop was instrumental in establishing the trajectory of “Practical Work.” By the end of my first week on the project, I developed a timeline and exhaustive list of tasks that kept me on track and helped me use my time intentionally in subsequent weeks. By producing a project plan early in the process, I was able to manage the expectations of all involved. Especially when multiple stakeholders and unpredictable digital components are involved, a thorough project plan can minimize potential catastrophe.

2) The label-writing process is long and laborious. Crafting clear, accessible language for the public remains one of the most challenging tasks of any exhibit, online or otherwise. “Practical Work” reminded me that a “big idea” is absolutely critical in unifying an exhibit’s content. It also convinced me that label writing simply takes a long time, regardless of knowledge or funding.

3) Social media networks don’t appear out of thin air. As I developed the social media plan for “Practical Work,” I came to appreciate the importance of cultivating an online audience over time. The most valuable audiences I could identify included people and communities with whom I consistently engage in online conversation over academic and popular topics. Institutions in particular should remember to intentionally develop audiences and engage with communities before and beyond a static exhibit.

–Rachel Boyle is a 3rd year PhD student in the Joint Public History/US History Program at Loyola University Chicago. She also created the online exhibit Practical Work: Chicago Woman’s Club Reformers, Criminal Women, and Delinquent Children, 1876-1920.

I think we can safely agree that the digital exhibit’s main strength lies in its ability to provide information access to more people than a physical exhibit can, via the magic of the internet. I want to interrogate, however, which people we’re actually talking about here. Who are our intended audiences in making digital exhibits? I’m certain we can count on fellow public historians to be like, “Here I am with my Sunday coffee and 2 hours to browse the internet…and I’ve really been meaning to check out that new digital exhibit from [insert cultural institution here].” But we’re a captive audience. I don’t think it’s useful, when creating digital exhibits, to target casual browsers—the internet’s equivalent of channel surfers. Nor do I find it useful to expect that digital exhibits will reel in “accidental” audiences who happened to stumble upon our online content. If an institution wants to target casual users, give them a pretty slideshow to click through, with little or no text to distract them. This model serves to promote collections and perhaps entice people to come to an institution to see the “real thing,” but it’s not very good public history.

To remedy this, I propose that instead of conceptualizing these online creations as “digital exhibits,” we think of them as “online resources.” The difference lies in the intended use and in the intended audience. Exhibits are fun. They’re visceral. They’re there to inspire curiosity, to entertain, to display and to educate. Digital exhibits are linear attempts to re-create the museum experience. Online resources, however, embrace their 2-D nature. They capitalize on their (hyper) textuality and make available rich, quality (probably long-form) scholarship for free. They’re essays + media, available online to everyone. Online resources are primarily about education. They’re well-written secondary sources. They represent a higher quality public history product geared towards audiences that are interested in gaining deeper understanding of a topic.

In addition to providing textual content, online resources are uniquely poised to offer researchers a variety of digitized primary sources for examination and analysis. Scanned documents, historical photographs, photographs of objects, and audio-visual materials can all be juxtaposed conveniently with the text for user engagement. And perhaps when viewed in a more deeply contextualized setting, rather than standing up and reading a label with limited copy in a museum, users will find deeper understanding and meaning from the materials.

Are casual users likely to click through and read 1,000 words of historical writing about a given topic? Probably not. But I’m suggesting that we re-think our goals in creating online content. In a world plagued by Wikipedia citations and click-through galleries with little-to-no interpretive content, online resources can be valuable secondary sources for history students, scholars, and researchers alike.

–Kristin Emery graduated from the Public History Masters Program at Loyola University Chicago in May 2013.

In May, several historians from the Loyola History Department participated in a Large Project Planning and Management Workshop offered through the Digital Humanities Summer Institute.  The three day seminar emphasized the importance of: 1) creating and executing a project plan; 2) time and task management; and, 3) communication and reporting.  While employing project management theory and practices has helped me become a better public historian, perhaps the most important concept I encountered was that of “scope creep.”

If project scope is broadly defined as the work that needs to be accomplished to deliver a product, scope creep is the incremental growth and uncontrolled changes in said scope.  If the project’s resources are increased along with the scope, the derogatory “scope creep” term is not applied.  But what if you have a tight budget, no additional staff to draw on, and limited hours to devote?

Rachel Boyle discussed the importance of project management as a time and task management tool above, but when discussing public history projects, and particularly digital exhibitions, scope is key.  When is the project complete?  How much is too much?

I spent 12 to 14 hours a day for the better part of two weeks crafting an Omeka exhibition.  I waded through metadata, settings, menus, and plugins.  I refreshed my “public site” after every minuscule change in an effort to ensure proper text/image spacing.  And, I uploaded content, ridiculous quantities of it.  Without a budget or staff, I threw the only resource I had at the project – time.  Valuable end of the semester hours were sacrificed to accommodate a burgeoning scope.  The final site featured 3 interconnected Omeka exhibits, 12 sections, 35 pages, and an archive with 120 items.

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You’ll be happy to know that the exhibition went live, scope issues and all, according to schedule.  Nine months later, however, the exhibit taunts me.  I need to find time to reorganize, edit, and update.  Most importantly, I need to reassess the scope.

Learn from my mistakes, I beg of you.  Before starting your next digital exhibition project, define your scope and avoid the dreaded creep.  Consider the following:

  • What platform am I using and how large of a collection can it support?
  • What collection items are essential to the narrative and big idea?
  • How much time is too much for:
    • Conducting research?
    • Entering of collections data?
    • Designing your site?
    • Crafting a cogent argument?
  • What is my audience looking for?

–Laura Johns graduated from the Public History Masters Program at Loyola University Chicago in May 2013. She is the creator of the digital exhibit The Civil War and Chicago.

This past summer I partnered with the Women and Leadership Archives here in Chicago to bring their Mundelein College Collection to the digital history stage. Mundelein College, the last all-women’s college in Illinois that bit the dust in 1991 when it was subsumed by Loyola University Chicago, left behind a rich audiovisual record. From video to thousands of photographs, a large oral history collection to other rich visual sources such as student newspapers, the Mundelein College Collection pretty much has it all. So, you can imagine my excitement when I was tasked with showcasing these primary sources in what would seem like their perfect home: the internet.

See, in my opinion, digital exhibits should be the perfect medium for audiovisual materials. The social media world centers on sharing the audiovisual: Just look at Youtube, Instagram, Spotify, and a host of other online applications. Yet somehow, digital exhibit software has not caught up to its peers. The main problem? Digital exhibits, in their very design, privilege text over source material. Exhibit labels appear in large text centered on the page, while photos, oral history excerpts, or video clips must be viewed through multiple clicks on a separate page entirely.

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Sure, if you can afford the fancy upgrades and web designers, a digital exhibit can do almost anything under the sun. But not all institutions have the funds in their back pockets to afford these additional costs while also paying a hired hand to curate the exhibit content itself. Software designers should look to their digital peers for ideas on how best to display audiovisual content. That way, history institutions can appeal to the online audiences that are already engaging with digital content while continuing to open access to their in-house collections.

–Anne E. Cullen graduated from the Public History Masters Program at Loyola University Chicago in May 2013. Her digital exhibit, Activist Mundelein: Civic Engagement at a 20th Century Women’s College, is forthcoming.

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