Online exhibits address the educational needs of a broader audience

while simultaneously offering accessibility options

to suit a variety of physical and intellectual needs.

Key educational advantages include:

Demonstrating breadth and depth: Traditional museum exhibits provide selective text geared towards an eighth-grade reading level. Given the cost of altering or updating exhibits, an exhibit script is limited in scope and accessibility. Conversely, web-based exhibits provide several levels of detail, suitable for visitors of multiple knowledge levels. Those with little knowledge can gain a quick overview, while those with advanced knowledge can follow additional links in order to delve deeper into topics of interest.

Employing tools that appeal to multiple audiences: Online exhibits engage visitors from various walks of life and with multiple learning styles. They are highly engaging, with a mix of thought-provoking writing and multimedia. They elicit interaction with challenging questions, virtual experiments, hands-on activities, and focused discourse. Online exhibits also encourage browsing, while always ensuring that visitors know where they are and their options for further exploration.

Accessibility: For visitors, the greatest advantage of online exhibits is that they’re easily accessible. Anyone with Internet access can tap into an online exhibit, whenever and wherever it’s convenient. An online exhibit enables the visitor to have a personal experience, taking their time to browse the content and use interactive features. They aren’t harried by other visitors or docents, and don’t feel the need to "see it all" in one visit. Unlike a physical museum—which typically charges an admission fee, has set hours of operation, and requires a special effort to visit—an online museum is free of charge and open 24/7, every day of the year. Since online exhibits are accessible from home or school, visitors have convenient, immediate, and repeated access. Presenting information in this way can inspire visitors to engage in a range of hands-on activities that will spur learning and change behavior (such as studying the biodiversity in their backyard, or encouraging more recycling).

Supporting structured educational efforts: Web exhibits support structured learning by integrating the exhibits with auxiliary teacher’s guides. This enables educators at middle schools, high schools, and universities to incorporate relevant sections of exhibits into their curricula.

Interactive: Compared to a physical museum, an online museum offers many more options for interactivity. While science and history museums often have hands-on interactive exhibits (such as making bubbles or playing with liquid nitrogen), online visitors can interact with models, information graphics, and simulations that would be unsafe or impossible in a physical exhibit. Since online exhibits are viewed on a computer or mobile device, they can contain any type of multimedia or interactivity that can be programmed.

Whom does an online exhibit serve?

Physical museums host a variety of audiences, from passionate and informed visitors, to couples breezing through on a weekend outing, to families introducing their kids to a cultural institution for the first time.

Web exhibits and physical museums share two primary types of audiences. One is adults who are inherently interested in the topic covered, or who enjoy learning in general. Since online exhibits are multidisciplinary, they maximize the chances that part of an exhibit will catch a visitor’s interest and pull him or her in.

Students are the other key group that typically uses an exhibit. Just as physical museums often provide ancillary material to teachers via their web sites, online exhibits provide comprehensive teacher’s guides. Since teachers are busy and are not necessarily experts in a given topic, teacher’s guides give them everything they need to know, including a summary of how and why the exhibit complements several types of classes, backgrounders, relevant educational standards, and detailed lesson plans of various durations.

Online, we have two additional audiences. One could be called "random searchers"—those who arrive via a search engine. They may be looking for information on the topic the exhibit covers, or may have typed a keyword query that matches a subject buried deep within the exhibit. Often these individuals just want to find what they are seeking and go, although some stick around to browse and learn.

Another audience consists of social bookmark referrals—people who arrived by following a link on a social bookmarking or networking site that a friend or connection had recommended. In this case, the visitor might not have a pre-existing interest in the topic, but if the exhibit catches their fancy and seems relevant once they arrive, they may stay and explore.

For additional research, see:

  • Museums and the Web archives - Archives & Museum Informatics organizes an annual international conference devoted exclusively to Museums and the Web. MW is the largest international conference devoted to the exploration of art, science, and natural and cultural heritage online. Browse and search the MW Papers Bibliography on-line.
  • Exhibit Files - A community site for exhibit designers and developers, Exhibit Files is a community and shared collection of scientific exhibition records and reviews. It emphasizes physical exhibits, with some online exhibits. You can browse case studies and reviews of exhibits and exhibitions.