Our goal in developing the online exhibits in the WebExhibits Museum

is to provide you with an authoritative, accessible, and compelling resource.

With content selected, written, and guided by expert contributors and curators with a deep understanding of their subject matter, exhibits tackle complex topics. They make every effort to cover the breadth of a topic while appealing to your interests and making it relevant to your experience.

Like a physical museum, online exhibits present a perspective that’s a step back from headline-driven news and fast-paced television shows. However, unlike a physical museum, an online exhibit is available at your fingertips.

We began developing our first online exhibit in 1997, launched it online in 1999, and since then have transformed it to align with the ever-increasing potential of the online world. In the coming decade, the growing popularity of mobile and touch devices will continue to revolutionize the ways in which you access and interact with online information. WebExhibits and our parent organization, IDEA, have new exhibits in the pipeline. More importantly, we want to encourage other organizations to create online exhibits as well, and hope the following reflections about online exhibits, our tips for making exhibits, and exhibits’ educational benefits will encourage more organizations to create online exhibits.

What’s in store for the future?

Today, with a few clicks of the mouse, information on virtually any topic is at your fingertips. Over the past decade, experiences that were once only available in person are increasingly available online.

Apps, magazines, blogs, online shopping, entertainment, sports, and encyclopedias are blossoming on mobile devices. Likewise, the experience of museums and exhibits should be made available so that, anywhere and at any time, you can browse and search vital topics from science, culture, and the arts. The shape of computers and types of user interfaces are still evolving, but we are eager to adapt our exhibits for the future, so that anyone can carry a museum in their pocket.

How are exhibits different from anything else online?

Online exhibits incorporate many of the features of other web sites, but exhibits stand apart in how they frame information. Just as in a physical museum, the context provided by an exhibit’s curator is central to visitors’ online experiences. Without this context, the presentation is nothing more than a catalog of images and documents. In other words, it’s an archive, not an exhibit.

A true online exhibit not only promotes discovery and exploration, but it also provides quality information built on a breadth and depth of knowledge, employs a variety of tools that support multiple learning styles, and supports structured educational efforts.

Promoting discovery: Online exhibits are multidisciplinary, designed to engage you from your point of view while introducing you to new fields of study and perspectives. Moreover, web exhibits are open-ended, encouraging you to wander, and rounding out knowledge while encouraging further exploration. Well-designed exhibits allow you to experience a broad sweep across a topic, or to pause and delve more deeply into a particular topic or object. Exhibits also incorporate an aura of discovery, inviting you to create your own personalized journey through topics and reflect upon the information presented.

Telling stories and interpreting: It’s the process of curating and interpreting—in choosing which objects to show, in what order they’re presented, and by which other objects they’re surrounded—that helps you learn something new, puts the information in context, and makes sense of it, based on what you already know. The curator’s role is crucial since objects rarely speak for themselves—something you might notice if you’ve visited a museum in a foreign country and couldn’t read the labels and signs. The curation process plays a critical role, achieving a delicate and intangible balance by presenting objects with authority and expertise, but in an accessible and inviting way.

Deep content: Online exhibits can provide experiences and information that other web sites often lack. They tackle complex topics and make every effort to cover the breadth of a topic and to appeal to many audiences. This sets online exhibits apart from online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, news sites (such as Time magazine’s vast online archive), and web sites that supplement television shows, like those by PBS, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel. It also sets them apart from those news sites and blogs that increasingly use information graphics, videos, and interactive features, but which focus on incremental updates to society’s knowledge.

The various aspects of a web exhibit fit together seamlessly so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—with descriptions, narratives, maps, photos, videos, and audio clips joining together to create a rich, immersive experience. Exhibits combine deep research, attention to nuance and detail, respect for visitors, and thoughtful and thorough presentation methods. In this way, exhibits provide visitors with practical knowledge, motivation to change their behaviors, and intangible benefits from understanding science and culture more deeply. Exhibits on health or climate change, for example, can help people understand complex topics and learn how to change their habits for the better. Similarly, art exhibits can provide a non-intimidating way to explore famous works, while revealing hidden stories lurking on the canvas.

See notes about the educational benefits of an exhibit. »

What is the genesis of an online exhibit?

Originally, museums grew out of "curiosity cabinets"—collections of fascinating objects that were often a mishmash, including everything from pottery to bones to sculptures. Over centuries, they developed into the modern interpretive museum exhibit, where collections are wrapped in a narrative, making museums a valuable source of new knowledge and inspiration for the general public and educators. More recently, museums have drawn on interactive exhibits that help people experience and understand topics in novel ways.

Online exhibits are a modern form of these museum exhibits, created for today’s information age. Like physical museums, online exhibits present material that, for the most part, is timeless. Like history books or textbooks, they present a perspective that takes a step back from headline-driven news and fast-paced television shows. But exhibits use a variety of media—including objects, video, audio, and text—and can be interactive, providing a richer, more engaging experience than a typical book.

In the U.S., museums and other centers for learning—including zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens—draw more than a billion visitors a year, or about four visits each year for every man, woman, and child. Four out of five visits are to museums and centers that focus on science and nature, showing the great interest that people have in experiencing and learning about the natural world around them.

In recent years, the number of visitors to physical museums has been falling, and the museum-going population that visits physical museums is aging. Yet, at the same time, the number of online visits to these institutions is rising. At a time when the public’s trust in traditional sources of information—like the media and the government—continues to erode, trust in museums remains high.

What’s lost online?

Online exhibits lack the raw sense of wonder and awe generated by large objects and displays like dinosaur bones or planetariums, or the thrill of seeing the Mona Lisa or a moon rock. The tangible physicality of exhibits and models that move are absent in an online exhibit, as is the opportunity to interact with other visitors in person. An online exhibit utilizes only two of the five senses—sight and hearing—while a physical exhibit has the capability to also engage touch, smell, and taste.

Online exhibits are a good investment

Online exhibits can reach many visitors, with a good chance of having a substantial impact. Time, geography, and cost constraints prevent many potential visitors from attending physical exhibitions; with online exhibits these limitations disappear.

In terms of overall reach, online exhibits can be radically more cost-effective than physical exhibits. For example, at WebExhibits, an average exhibit draws in half a million visitors each year. If a substantial online exhibit with a $500k budget draws half a million visitors a year, over a decade it will serve 5 million visitors at an average cost of a few cents per visitor—a fraction of a percent of the cost associated with serving a visitor at a physical museum. Additionally, if an exhibit is especially popular and attracts more visitors, the additional cost of providing access to the exhibit is negligible.

Online exhibits are also cost-effective because housing an exhibit requires no physical space, and the process of exhibit development can be done virtually.

Traditionally, museums have lured visitors with collections of artifacts they can’t see elsewhere—whether paintings, sculptures, antiques, oddities, armor, or stuffed elephants. While much of the cost inherent in physical museums goes to the preservation of important objects and artifacts, these museums will always be limited by the capacity of a physical space. Operating budgets for major museums are on the order of $50 to $150 million each year. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History had a 2008 budget of $67 million, for example—about $9 per visitor. The American Association of Museums estimates that U.S. museums spend about $23 per visitor on average. In the UK, for each visitor, the British Museum spends $17, and the Tate Modern spends $18.50.

Another advantage of having exhibits online is that advertising and promotional costs can be lower, as social media can help propel awareness and draw visitors to online exhibits. They can also be shared via social bookmarking tools, such as those on Facebook, which broadens the audience further. In addition, online exhibits can incorporate much more content than a physical museum because they are not constrained by physical space. Further, online exhibits can participate with online communities, enabling them to solicit user-generated content and, as a result, present unique contributions and views.

See notes about the serving your audience. »