Digital Democracy: In Praise of Online Museum Exhibitions

The two graduate courses I am taking during my final semester of classes in the Museum Studies program have delightfully conversed with one another throughout the last 11 weeks. In History of Exhibitions, we have explored the entire timeline of the development of the exhibition concept, from the European Salons to the Venice Biennale and Art Basil. In Museums and Digital Technology, we have taken a multi-directional look at how museums integrate (or do not integrate) technology into their identities.

This week, as History of Exhibitions reaches the 2010s and the age of functional museum websites and social media, the subject matter of the two courses converge. I have been fascinated at the melding of each class’s subject matter in my mind into a joint argument for various tenets of modern museum practice each week, but this week more than ever, I feel the overwhelming sense of a common purpose in both courses. It excites and inspires me to see the historiography of exhibitions rejoice at the opportunities for preservation, memory-making, and documentation available with digital technology. In particular, a paper by Reesa Greenberg from the Tate set my heart aflutter.

In her writings, Greenberg suggests that the benefits of documenting and publishing documentation of exhibitions online, whether through museum websites or via other means that will be discussed later, far outweigh the consequences. She posits that increasing the accessibility of exhibitions by sharing them online will only serve to break down barriers visitors in other countries or in different time periods may experience in accessing exhibitions about which they might otherwise be inclined to learn.

She also mentions that the transparency of putting all available exhibition materials online could even lead to a break in the cycle of remembering and non-remembering that occurs when none of the visitors in attendance for a landmark exhibition remain, and interested parties of later generations call for its re-creation. Proper documentation and publication of exhibition photographs, objects, videos, and audio recordings online could allow for more authentic examinations of exhibitions that cannot in reality be repeated, as the historical cultural context that gave rise to the exhibition in the first place can never be replicated or re-enacted accurately.

In celebration of museums embracing the idea of putting their exhibition histories online, here are several examples of transformative and innovative online exhibitions that are important and influential in that they allow for anyone, anywhere to gain knowledge of the subject matter, see supporting photographic evidence, and immerse themselves in the exhibit’s layout, atmosphere and visitorship through the consumption of video and sound.

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Photograph of Rosa Parks, courtesy of the National Museum of Women’s History

The National Museum of Women’s History may not be a place you’ve heard of or
considered visiting, and that would be perfectly normal – it doesn’t exist, after all. That is, not in brick and mortar form. An act of congress was recently passed which will allow the process of research, design and construction, once President Obama signs off. In the meantime, however, there is already a wealth of information available on the museum’s subject matter online through its various
online exhibitions. It would seem that lack of funding has prevented these exhibitions from being technologically innovative beyond the fact that they exist solely online, but the content and photographs are informative and educational, nonetheless. Timeliness is an additional benefit of a solely digital museum (at this point in its development) which may potentially allow for a museum-curated conversation about the 2016 presidential election sooner rather than later.

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Photo of Picasso works in the Cubism & Abstract Art exhibition, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has recently put its entire exhibition history online, to the delight of digital museum practice stakeholders the world over. The beauty of this online history lies not only in the fact that the catalogue and exhibition photographs can now be easily explored; the exhibition ephemera, including press releases, programs, posters, and other exhibition development materials not previously accessible through surface level web browsing or google search, are oftentimes also available for online viewing.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has taken a multi-sensory approach to their online exhibition catalogue. While exploring the museum’s recent Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, for example, one could choose to view the exhibit’s photographs (at least those deemed acceptable through unfiltered internet viewing) and objects, as well as read the description of the exhibition and learn its curatorial intent. You could also, however, choose to watch a brief video combining high definition slow pans of the exhibition spaces (visitors included!) and an informative interaction with a curator who points out her favorite piece.

These institutions have all found ways to collapse the barriers of time, space and visitor ability through their online exhibition spaces. Each institution provides online pathways to education, exhibition experience, and the creation of a memory around that exhibition that allows for a deeper understanding of the subject matter’s context and content. Collapsing barriers to access is a practice that equalizes, and equalization is a foundational principle of democracy. As I prepare to enter the museum field in the next year, I can’t imagine anything more inspiring and motivating than watching institutions strive to make themselves more available to all peoples through the employment of democratic principles.

Featured image courtesy of the National Museum of Women’s History

4 thoughts on “Digital Democracy: In Praise of Online Museum Exhibitions

  1. One of the most fascinating elements to play with through digital archiving is the ability to jump through time. The online exhibitions in your examples communicate both moments in time as well as simple information open to interpretation. In other words, maybe here is the true cyclical nature of birth and rebirth of objects that belong to collections. One of the best articulations of this thought is by Jean Baudrillard in the “The System of Objects”:
    “What man gets from objects is not a guarantee of life after death but the possibility, from the present moment onwards, of continually experiencing the unfolding of his existence in a controlled, cyclical mode, symbolically transcending a real existence the irreversibility of whose progression he is powerless to affect”
    I think the digital life of objects just guaranteed the plasticity of its identity.

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    1. Absolutely, and what a beautiful thing for museums and other collecting institutions to explore! No longer are objects confined to one role or one category. Through the use of metadata and tagging, as well as digital exhibitions that have the ability to collapse time, a typewriter, for example, can become a physical embodiment of education, propaganda, colonialism, the industrial revolution, the First Amendment, westernization, communication, evolution, and many more concepts and movements.

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