Virtual Museum Exhibits

I was struck by several of the points made by the authors of the readings this week, specifically in the area of public history and public history institutions creating virtual exhibits. In my “Issues and Problems” class last year we talked about this often, and whether traditional historic institutions should feel threatened by the rise in popularity their own “virtual exhibits.” Could these virtual exhibits detract actual visitors, in favor of the “well I can just see that online” argument? If some one in this day and age sees something on a website that interests them, would this make them more or less likely to make the trek to see it in person?

In at least two of our readings, the authors argue that in some cases, these web exhibits have the advantage over the more traditional museum exhibit. In “Interchange” Stephen Mintz sees this advantage in that, “virtual exhibitions can allow users to magnify objects for closer scrutiny…in addition, there is no issue of “flow”; one can spend as much time as one wishes with an object.” Oftentimes these virtual exhibits can accomplish what traditional museums struggle with in their static states, creating “nonlinear” and easily accessible exhibits that engage their audience. Cohen and Rosenzweig write that, “online museum exhibits… transcend the barriers of time…, distance…, and space… that have often frustrated museum curators.”

Through my experiences, these virtual exhibits appear to aid in promoting exhibits found at a museum. As Taylor writes in “Interchanges,” “… digital technology can never emulate the experience of being physically present with an object from the past.” Virtual and physical exhibits do not need to be mutually exclusive of one another. In a recent interview found through the AHA blog, the Secretary of the Smithsonian’s G. Wayne Clough, he discusses his e-book’s take on this new way to connect to the public. Clough believes that the Smithsonian must give up its role as the “Voice of God” in favor of having public input about the collections to digitize, and allow them to have a hand in interpretation as well. The digital world gives public history institutions better ways to connect with their audience, and create valuable learning experiences. It is an irrefutable fact that an institution cannot survive in this day and age without the proper web presence, public historians should plan exhibits on the basis of what material will translate well both in person and also on the web in order to maximize their audience’s understanding and accessibility.

An example of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s “Souvenir Nation” online exhibit, that serves as a companion to the one located in DC.

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