(this is a repost from benschmidt.org/dighist13/ for Ben Schmidt’s graduate seminar in digital history at Northeastern)
I think that Abigail brought up some important issues involving exhibits and virtual exhibits. I would just like to take a moment to briefly respond to her post and to take a look some of the benefits of a virtual exhibit versus a physical exhibit. I am not saying that virtual exhibits are better or more useful than physical exhibits, but rather that they have certain advantages over physical exhibits in displaying certain types of content. Physical exhibits have their own advantages over virtual exhibits, but this post is going to focus on virtual exhibits.
First, to respond to Abigail’s post, I think she is right that virtual exhibits can aid in the exploration and experience of physical exhibits. I think it is important to begin an exploration of virtual and physical exhibits by showing how they are similar and connected. Seeing virtual exhibits as a tool or an extension of a physical exhibit is an excellent middle ground that simultaneously shows the usefulness of virtual exhibits and paints the virtual exhibit as non-threatening to the physical exhibit medium. This seems careful and calculated in initial debates, perhaps as a means to ameliorate the concerns of traditional exhibit builders, museum workers, archivists, and other related professions. However, I believe that there are certain advantages to creating virtual exhibits, not as a supplement to physical exhibits, but as an independent project. Michael Frisch, in “Interchange,” states that new approaches to public history and exhibit building need to be “brought in to ventilate the indeed stuffy confines of traditional museum exhibits” (469). While this statement might be a bit harsh on physical exhibits, it does bring up an excellent point: virtual exhibits have certain advantages over physical exhibits. There are some things that virtual exhibits can do that physical exhibits cannot (the reverse is true too).
First, virtual exhibits provide a better and more effective means of displaying born-digital content. How do you display a series of tweets, podcasts, and blog posts? These are sources whose initial format is digital. How would you display a tweet in a physical exhibit? Would you just display a transcription? Would you display it as a linear conversation? To me it seems like the physical medium limits our ability to display born-digital content. There is an interactivity and connectivity between tweets that must be displayed. There are responses to and comments on podcasts that are just as useful/interesting as the original podcast. In addition to blog posts, we might want to analyze the comments and reposts. Virtual exhibits also run into some problems with displaying born-digital content, but it seems to me that digital content is best observed in a digital format rather than a physical setting. In this case, the physical exhibit is one level of abstraction too removed from the original format of the born-digital material.
Second, virtual exhibits allow us (and the user) more freedom to manipulate objects in the collection. We can zoom in or adapt an image of an ancient Greek amphora from a virtual exhibit. We can use digital tools to analyze the pigments or cracks in the gloss. In a physical exhibit, you would be lucky if they even allow you to take a picture of the vase—let alone touch it. Virtual exhibits, therefore, not only allow the user a greater freedom to manipulate exhibit objects, but also create a greater degree of user/viewer interactivity that physical exhibits do not allow.
Moreover, the digital medium allows us to design our exhibits to be more multimodal or hypertextual. An excellent example of this is the Knotted Line, an interactive, multimodal, and very hypertextual Scalar project. It provides an extreme example of how different a virtual exhibit can be from a physical exhibit. Physical exhibits can be multimodal as well, but virtual exhibits allow us a greater degree of layering. Think of how physical exhibits are usually designed. They are usually arranged very linearly. You start at one object and you work your way through the exhibit in a fairly ordered fashion. Sometimes, you even follow numbers or arrows from one item to another. You might read a letter, then watch a video, then see a painting, then hear a song, but the pathway is still pretty set. This is where digital exhibits have an advantage. Even if there is a primary path you expect users to follow for your exhibit, the digital medium allows us to easily to establish alternative pathways between items through hyperlinks, tags, and keyword searches. Moreover, users can create their own pathways and experiences through exploring a virtual exhibit in their own way. A user might want to see every video in your exhibit from a specific day on a specific topic. Another user might want to see every object that mentions a particular person. In a physical exhibit, a person might need to walk all over the exhibit, scrutinizing each item to see if it mentions that one person they are interested in. In a virtual exhibit, a person might be able to do this with just a few clicks of the mouse or a simple keyword search.
Finally, a virtual exhibit is not as limited as a physical exhibit in the amount of objects it can display. Physical exhibits are limited by a finite amount of space, whereas virtual exhibits are not (except server capabilities, but regardless, virtual exhibits can display a lot more items than physical ones). Imagine an Ancient Egypt exhibit at a large museum. The items displayed only represent a sampling of the total number of objects the museum has from or concerning Ancient Egypt. In a virtual exhibit you can display everything, not just a sample.
These are just some of the advantages of the virtual exhibit compared to the physical exhibit, but I am not saying that virtual exhibits are superior to physical exhibits. Physical exhibits definitely have certain advantages over virtual exhibits as well. However, one should not dismiss virtual exhibits as secondary to physical exhibits. Virtual exhibits can be a superior medium of display depending on the purpose and scope of your project. The choice between a physical exhibit and a virtual exhibit (or both) is very dependent on the goal or purpose of your exhibit. Choosing between a physical and virtual exhibit depends on what you are displaying, how you want to display it, and how much material you want to display. If you are attempting to create a hypertextual, multimodal, and interactive exhibit of a massive collection of born-digital content, you might want to consider a displaying it in a digital format.