A digital exhibition is a selection of digital representations of items from your collection, brought together and interpreted “to transform some aspect of the visitor’s interests, attitudes or values affectively” (Lord, 2002) – that is to say in a way that makes visitors care and find them meaningful.
Digital exhibitions can strongly imitate properties of physical exhibition spaces (skeuomorphism) and support moving around a virtual floorplan or they can omit these properties altogether. They can incorporate fixed tours in which items are seen in a sequence or be completely open.
However, digital exhibition platforms or websites are often surprisingly poor at supporting other key properties of real contemporary exhibitions: the ability to look closely at objects, the ability to mix layers of interpretation or deploy interpretation for different audiences in the same space, the ability to deploy mixed media to create emotional responses.
Digital exhibitions can deliver relatively poor return on investment in terms of time spent in preparation vs audience attracted and this should be carefully considered. The use of established platforms can reduce development time but these platforms do not necessarily enjoy the significant ‘built in’ audience of social media and may use unfamiliar controls, design patterns and be inaccessible to users with disabilities. This means they should be used carefully and strategically.
There are a wide range of different platforms that can be used to curate a digital exhibition and when choosing the digital platform that is right for you think about:
- Who do you want to reach?
- The types of content that you have
- The technical ability required to use the platform
Within this guide you will find information on the approach to curating a digital exhibition by exploring three different platforms: Artsteps, Google Arts and Culture and Shorthand, focusing on approaching creating a digital exhibition for the first time and applying this to the example platforms. These platforms are offered as a suggested place to begin and to demonstrate that digital exhibitions can be very different depending on your platform choice. You may find other more relevant platforms through your own research.
Artsteps is a free web-based digital exhibition creator. It enables you to replicate a gallery or museum space online. Audiences can explore and navigate the digital space themselves or a guided tour can be created for the audience. It supports a range of content such as images, videos, audio and 3D objects. Artsteps experiences can be viewed via a desktop web browser or in virtual reality (VR). The platform will require some time investment to understand how to build experiences but it has been designed to be fairly straightforward and no coding is required. If you have ever played a simulation game like the Sims or a sandbox game like Minecraft you will find similarities in how you navigate and build your experience.
Google Arts and Culture
Google Arts & Culture is a non-profit initiative. They work with cultural institutions and artists around the world to create dynamic and interesting digital experiences. Their mission is to preserve and bring the world’s art and culture online so it’s accessible to anyone, anywhere. It requires filling in an application form and agreeing to Google’s terms and conditions.
Shorthand builds dynamic and responsive web experiences with a focus on storytelling and design. You can choose and adapt templates to create interesting digital stories without having to use code. Shorthand describes the content it makes as ‘immersive reading experiences’. This platform offers a free trial but to use it long term there will be a subscription cost.
Across the Digital Engagement Toolkit, we are looking at who engages with a particular platform by generation. You will find more detail on this within the platform finder. When looking at audience engagement by generation it is important to keep in mind it is not definitive of everyone’s behaviour. However, understanding the broad trend of a generation’s approach to a platform is useful to understand the audiences you are most likely to find there. For the purposes of this toolkit, we are using terminology that defines audiences with the following demographic terminology: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z.
Artsteps does not have an audience of its own but would be suitable for Gen Y and Gen Z as well as those familiar with video games and VR. You will need to plan how you support what you create through promotion on social media and any other existing digital channels that you use.
Google Arts and Culture has its own audience and many use it to search for new and engaging content based on their interests. However, you should not create for this platform and expect an audience to turn up just because it has been created.
Shorthand does not have an audience, it is just a tool for building a web experience and thus you will need to support whatever you do with a clear marketing strategy.
You should familiarise yourself with the platform you wish to use to build your digital exhibition. Find an online tutorial covering its basic navigation and features, YouTube is always a good place to start as many videos are designed for you to follow along. You will find links for our example platforms below:
Google Arts and Culture
If you would like to do further reading on approaching your digital exhibition you will find more insights within these resources:
British Council – How I created a digital exhibition
Museum Learning Hub – Creating virtual exhibitions
When approaching a new creative idea for the first time it can be useful to follow a clear creative process. Below is an example creative process split into four parts: Research, Play, Create, Test. In this section, you will find an explanation of this process and two approaches to storytelling for digital experiences; linear and nonlinear.
Before you begin thinking about ideas for your chosen digital platform, ensure you have explored a wide range of existing content made on the platform.
It is important that you try the platform from an audience perspective, thinking particularly about the audience you are trying to reach. If you understand the platform as an audience member it will inform your decisions as a creator for that platform. Discover what is good about the platform and what it allows you to do. Also, think about what frustrates you about the platform as well as what fascinates and intrigues you. Investigate how others have used it and what ideas this sparks for you.
Below you will find a link to explore each platform and its content as well as a selected example of great content on the platform for inspiration.
Artsteps inspiration – Save The Children
Google Arts and Culture
Google Arts and Culture inspiration – Black Cultural Archives
Shorthand inspiration – A Journey into the Dark
You will need to familiarise yourself with all aspects of the creator mode of the platform. When you begin in a platform’s creator mode for the first time, you can start by adding random content; it doesn’t have to be what you plan to use. This is just about learning the mechanics and the visual nature of the platform. You might discover some things on purpose and others by accident. Both are useful to you as you navigate the platform. Get playful with this stage and then review your work regularly as if you were the audience.
Don’t try to upload all your content at once, build your exhibition slowly at first and discover what feels like too much or too little. You won’t be able to do everything you want and there will be a lot of trial and error. This is all part of the creation process and so try to enjoy making mistakes knowing there will be learning in them eventually.
It is also important to note, every digital platform will have its limitations. You have to embrace these creatively in how you design for the platform. This may mean that some content you want to include just doesn’t work on the platform. This could be due to sizing, file type or a whole host of other reasons. Therefore, you may need to adapt or consider if you have found the platform that is right for what you want to do.
For Artsteps you will need to learn navigation, uploading and positioning of your content. Familiarise yourself with working within a 3D digital space and the different sections of the creator mode. Watching YouTube tutorials is helpful as you can see how it is done from start to finish.
Google Arts and Culture requires an application process and conversations with the platform about what you plan to create. You will find from your research phase that there are a lot of different types of content on here from immersive web stories to Google Earth Voyages. Consider what creation you can do without external support and what the tools enable you to do. Utilise the support that Google offers.
Shorthand offers a free trial to enable you to play around with the features of this web builder. The most important part of utilising this trial period will be exploring if it enables you to achieve your desires. How do you find the functionality and how much time will it take for you to master creating for this platform? Does it give you the simplicity of creation that you have been looking for?
Once you feel you have mastered the platform features it is time to start creating your content.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, when approaching any form of digital exhibition or experience it’s best to begin at the end. Start by thinking about what outcome you want for your audience? What do you want them to have done? Learned? Understood? Felt?
Understanding your intent will help you to discover the drive or through-line of the story you want to tell. Are you raising a question? Or are you presenting a specific point of view or argument? Why are you telling this particular story and what do you want the audience to take from it? By having clarity on the intention behind your digital exhibition you will be able to curate a much richer experience.
Tip: It can be useful to form a statement of intent for the story you are telling. You can return to it throughout the creation process e.g. “Inspiring the voices of tomorrow by connecting them with the voices of the past”. Try to be as specific as you can.
An easy and familiar place to begin is to plan out on paper the structure of your exhibition. This rough sketch will allow your through-line to come to life. Think of this as your first draft of the look and feel of the exhibition. This will help you when you begin to input your content on the platform.
However, don’t let yourself become too tied to this paper plan. Instead, let your ideas develop and change from this initial draft when you begin to realise your ideas within the digital space. You may have an incredibly rich story on paper but if it isn’t easy to navigate and lacks visual quality, it could have a negative impact on the overall experience.
As you are building your initial draft structure it will be important to think about the voice or style for your digital exhibition. There may be an existing voice or style to the platform that you came across in your initial research. There may be benefits to utilising this voice or perhaps subverting it. However, it will be vital to ensure you discover your voice within the digital exhibition.
The voice or tone of the digital exhibition should have a relationship to the content you are displaying. Sometimes it can feel easier to detach the voice of the exhibition from its content but far richer storytelling will be found in embracing a clear relationship between the voice and the content.
Consider the relationship with the audience and think about who is telling the story. Is it you, the archivist? A character? A voice from the past? What does the voice of the exhibition think about what is on display?
Voice style examples: playful, informative, opinionated, humorous, cheeky, admiring, cautionary, chatty, critical, earnest, gentle, grim, joyful, optimistic, outraged, satirical, subjective, thoughtful, witty.
Tip: If you aren’t confident in building a voice for the work you could work in collaboration with a writer who is experienced in writing for the audience you are trying to reach.
Sometimes it can feel like the more information you provide the richer the experience. However, this will not be the case for most digital platforms and you will want to examine the visual story you are telling as much as what you are writing about. There are very few digital platforms that support a text-heavy approach and many audiences will be put off when there is ‘too much’ to read.
A good practice for exhibitions is to set a word count and stick to it. This will help you filter your content and give clarity. In a physical setting an intro panel, with more general info, might be 150-200 words, section panels linked to this might be 130-150 words, with more specific info, and subsequent object labels 50-60 words to give a greater understanding of the item. These word counts are presented as a real world reference; your digital exhibition word count may be different depending on the platform and your intent.
Here are some creative questions for each platform to consider
- Are you allowing your audience to explore on their own or is your content clearer within a fixed tour.
- Could you offer your audience either option or does that make the platform more difficult to navigate?
Google Arts and Culture:
- Is your content about displaying your archive as a tour or experience or do you have a particular cultural story you feel the world needs to hear?
- What is an immersive reading experience in the context of an archive?
- How do you use the platform’s visual features to present both a deeply rich narrative and present engaging visual story?
- How does your shorthand experience go beyond a flat blog?
Once you have embraced Research, Play and Create you should have an initial prototype to test. Testing is an important part of the creation process, especially on digital platforms that need to be navigated. By presenting your digital exhibition to a sample audience you can discover where the flaws are and any moments where content may not be as clear as you intended.
When it comes to testing, it’s best to test early; you don’t have to have a fully realised product to test it, especially if your first test audience is colleagues, family and friends. You should also think about ways in which you can test your content with people who are not within the archive sector or those who have not engaged with an archive before.
With the feedback you have received, it’s now time to redraft and finalise the content. Consider the audience feedback and your intent as you create your final version ready to share with your desired audience.
The testing phase for each platform will be similar but here are some things to think about for each platform
- Do your audience find it difficult to navigate and what can you do to support their navigation?
- Should your exhibit start with a short tutorial? Check all the different content types work as you imagined and discover if your audience had any technical difficulties.
Google Arts and Culture:
- Getting the balance right between the amount of text utilised will be important. Does your audience leave the experience wanting more?
- Should that depth be included in your content or will it sit better somewhere else?
- How will your audience find this content?
- When might they want to read immersive content like this and where might they imagine themselves when they read it – commuting or at home?
- How does your audience location dictate the tone and style of how you present the content? You could also consider building the short experience in two different templates and see which your audience responds better to as an initial test.
When creating a digital experience there are a lot of different narrative forms and platforms to choose from, which can seem a little overwhelming. This guide focuses on two different narrative types – linear and nonlinear – that offer you options for where to begin. Sometimes a platform may dictate the narrative form your exhibition adopts. However, where you have freedom of choice, it can be useful to explore different approaches.
In a linear narrative, the audience would be guided through the experience and each section of an exhibit would be directly related to the next. The archive would create a “guide” or character to be the narrator of the exhibition and this voice would talk directly to the audience.
- A wider majority of the audience will be familiar with this style.
- Much greater control over what an audience takes away from the experience.
- Less playful.
- More chance of creating a ‘flat’ experience rather than a dynamic one.
Linear digital experience
Let’s take the archive’s original statement of intent and explore it within this form.
The archive’s intent:
Inspiring the voices of tomorrow by connecting them with the voices of the past
The through-line is:
Amplifying the voices that made changes to the local area
The voice is:
Kind, informative and inspiring
The archive decides to select items from their archive related to how the location surrounding the archive has changed and the people who changed it. The digital exhibition will be led by a narrator who represents the archive and talks directly to the audience and it will include written and audio content.
The narrator guides the audience through the exhibit explaining why each of the items has been selected and their importance to the history of the local area. There is an exploration of how the person(s) or organisation created social change, with a focus on how they changed the local landscape or local history.
Best example platform for a linear narrative: Shorthand or Google Arts and Culture
A nonlinear narrative allows your audience to be in control of what they engage with and the order they consume the content. There is no beginning, middle and end to the experience but instead, information is explored and navigated through user choice. Nonlinear narratives offer opportunities for gamification, interaction and playfulness in how you present your ideas.
When designing a nonlinear exhibition consider the most important, relevant or exciting snapshots to include. A great way to do this is to choose a theme for your digital exhibition and then allow your audience to piece together the stories.
- Gives your audience agency.
- Forces you to ensure each piece in your exhibition can be understood as a stand-alone item and make sense out of context.
- More opportunity for audience interaction and gamification which can be more engaging for digital natives and those looking for more than a simple narrative.
- Greater ability to include relevant content and present varying voices and points of view.
- You will need to do vigorous testing to ensure that the fragmentation of a story does not leave it feeling incomplete.
- Potential for less depth on a particular topic.
Nonlinear digital experience
Let’s look at an example experience using a statement of intent and exploring it within a nonlinear context for an archive:
The archive’s intent:
Inspiring the voices of tomorrow by connecting them with the voices of the past
The through-line is:
Connected voices that made social change
The voice is:
The archive decides to take relevant items from their collection they think can be voiced, particularly content related to rebellions, strikes or riots. Their idea is that the audience meets voices from history who spoke up or made social change through their words or actions. They do not make a distinction between small and large change, just that the person(s) or organisation can be seen to have made a difference.
Where possible they convert long text into audio for a more immersive experience of written content but also include a transcript of each audio. Wherever video is used they ensure subtitles are provided, offering better accessibility and giving the audience a choice about how they experience the content. The archive ensures they have strong imagery for each of the subjects and collections they are choosing to voice within their exhibition.
The archive’s idea is that audiences navigate freely through the content. Their intention is by the end of exploring the content the audience will realise all the subjects they met made a change to the local area in big ways and small ways.
Best example platform for a nonlinear narrative: Artsteps or Google Arts and Culture.
Text to speech
You can turn text into speech with these online AI software:
Resemble.AI (paid for service)
You can use Instagram’s Layout app to collate photographs into interesting designs, the app is available on most smartphones. Similarly, you can create interesting graphics and designs using Canva or Adobe Spark. As well as convert and resize different media.
Adobe Creative Cloud Express (formerly Adobe Spark)
How to measure impact
It will be important to consider what a platform offers in terms of measuring engagement. You should be able to find details on this within the platform’s help section or you could consider contacting them directly, especially if your platform of choice charges for their service.
A simple option to measure impact could be to consider embedding your digital exhibition on a unique page within your own website; this should enable you to measure the number of people that have visited that particular page. If a platform offers the ability to embed you will find details about this on their help page or consider searching for a YouTube tutorial.
Alternatively, you could make your exhibition space ticketed and only release the link to people who sign up for tickets. This will enable you to capture user data through a third party ticketing system and gain insight into the impact of your digital engagement.
You will also be able to gain insights into the reach of your digital engagement via any social media you do around the project and see how many people have clicked the link through a platform like Facebook.
Accessibility features will vary depending on the platform you are using and you should consider finding the help section or contacting the platform to discover what they offer. However, there are ways in which you can support access to your digital space regardless of what platform you are using. These include:
- Through audio description and ensuring text throughout the exhibit is clearly visible.
- Ensure the content you create for this exhibition is also available in other formats such as an audio-only version or a blog page on your website.
This guide gives a thorough insight into website accessibility, covering principles, tools, techniques and approaches:
National Lottery Heritage Fund – An introduction to online accessibility
Below are a list of links digital exhibitions to take a look at:
100 Archives North reveals the history of the North through archive collections and allows users to create and share their own story of Northern England through creating their own exhibition.
The Cato Street Conspiracy bicentenary digital exhibition explores the bicentenary of the attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The exhibitions uses different ways to present content including VR as a way to engage people of all ages in Westminster’s history.
Through Their Eyes is a digital exhibition focused on a local Berkshire perspective on the Second World War to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
From Smithsonian Magazine, a compilation of virtual experiences produced by cultural institutions around the world.
Digital Pathways – Resource portal. This portal has aggregated useful resources from different organisations on a multitude of digital topics. Guides relating to aspects of digital engagement are included.
Swedish National Heritage Board – Open GLAM now! . This is a webinar series looking at how GLAM institutions can open up their collections with the help of digital data and media.