A Relevant Surrogate? Interrogating the Digital Exhibit as a Form

Kristin Emery and Rachel Boyle are longtime friends, colleagues, and collaborators in the humanities who frequently reflect and strategize together. Here they grapple with the value of digital exhibits by considering their potential educational value, intended audiences, and the realities of online habits.

Rachel: I’ll be blunt: What is the point of a digital exhibit? Is it just unsuccessfully shoving an analog idea (physical exhibits) into a digital space? If I am looking for a cultural activity out on the city I might stop by a gallery exhibition, but if I have downtime on my computer or phone, there is no way that I will purposefully explore a digital exhibit. I might try to learn something new by going down a Wikipedia hole, settling in for a #longread, or following a social media thread, but I have never once sought out a digital exhibit. And I’ve proudly curated several! Hence the crisis—why am I building something I would never seek out myself?

Kristin: When I took the first iteration of Kyle Roberts’s “Digital Media for Public History” class at Loyola University Chicago in 2012, we spent the first several class sessions on the “digital versus analog” debate. A 3-D model of the Lourve could never replace the experience of going to the museum; but at least it gives those who may never be able to actually visit a chance to experience the museum in part. Digitized collection items can be viewed with the help of enhancing software that might allow for more complete analysis. You get the picture. We also talked in those early sessions about the concept of hypertextuality (lol that is literally an example of hypertextuality) and the exciting opportunities for digital exhibits to use the concept to break down the constraining linear nature of physical exhibits.

But here we are, six years later (practically an eon in internet time), and your question remains: what’s the point of a digital exhibit? I think that as of now, yes, they’re very nearly all examples of poorly translating physical exhibits into digital spaces. Another question I think we need to ask is, who are they for? Just like you, I–someone who works in the cultural sector, who went to school specifically to learn how to make history exhibits–would never spend casual browsing time looking at digital exhibits. The only times I’ve used them has been when I am doing research of my own, and even in those cases, it’s been sort of as a way to gain overviews or access to digitized versions of collection materials that I wanted to use for my own purposes. But most digital exhibits are not designed for graduate students. They’re made with The Public [with a capital P] in mind.

Rachel: Ah, The Public. Who is this elusive “Public?” Online and conference discourse has been very critical of vague terms like “public,” “community,” and “audience” lately. Public historians prefer “stakeholder,” because it has the connotation of investment or a shared goal. Indeed, digital exhibits can be a tool of collaboration; for example, I am currently working on a digital exhibit in which multiple organizations are contributing content. Yet in my experience very little work is done to specifically identify the intended viewers of the digital exhibit. There’s this idea of throwing an exhibit into cyberspace and people will come to it, without the understanding that the visitors are still very real people who should be intentionally engaged, not just expected to arrive at the exhibit for a recreation or educational recreational activity.

Kristin: Exactly to your point, The Public doesn’t turn to their phones or other digital devices when looking for cultural activity. And I want to linger for a moment on that phrase: “cultural activity.” What defines “cultural activity”? Is it the consumption of culture? Experiencing it? Does it include, as you suggested earlier, learning something new? I think that we, as residents in the so-called Information Age, expect to consume different kinds of content in specific ways. Browsing through a physical exhibit, noticing a particularly enticing object or image around a corner and wandering over despite skipping several interpretive labels in the meantime, the experience of consuming an exhibit becomes more than just looking at objects and reading about them to learn something. It’s immersive and non-linear, it’s free-range content consumption. I think there’s certainly an element of entertainment, or that dreaded museum-world portmanteau edutainment, at play in all of this. As much as cultural workers want to believe in a public who desire and strive for the noble end of self-edification, the public is waiting for something interesting enough to drag their eyes away from cat videos.

Janelle Monae Cover Story on Hypebeast
Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek on nytimes.com

Rachel: Yes! The visual browsing experience is key. Janelle Monae’s recent cover story on Hypebeast and the New York Times’ Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek are two examples that immediately come to mind as compelling visual experiences that convey a substantial amount of information. Even in text-heavy formats like Twitter or Wikipedia, I want the ability to navigate information in an aesthetically-pleasing way. And of course image-heavy platforms like Instagram or Pinterest rely on visuals as an entry point or the whole of an interpretive message. I think that the digital humanities projects I most admire break free of old language and old strategies to engage with the realities of contemporary digital practices. Is it possible that “exhibit” is not even useful in the digital realm?

Kristin: I think that as didactic tools, digital exhibits provide something. For students (of all stages), they can be a useful way to access collections and information. But I really think cultural institutions need to be honest with themselves when they determine expectations for use of these digital resources. I will add that another colleague I brought this up with had an interesting answer, which is documenting physical exhibits once they have come down. So, having it as a sort of archive of exhibitions an institution has mounted in the past.

Some further questions I have include, what kinds of conversations are taking place in the Digital Humanities and Museums fields around this topic? Is the sense that digital exhibits aren’t all they’ve cracked up to be one that is more widely spread? How are cultural workers thinking about their users and are they adjusting the goals of these kinds of resources during the development stage? How can we redefine digital exhibits to make them something better than anemic surrogates for the exhibit-going experience?


Kristin Emery is a Public Historian by training and a library administrator (but not a librarian) by trade. Hobbies include: humanistic fiction, botanical identification, distance running, and defining herself by lists of her interests. She haunts the internet as @publickristory.