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Archives & Museum Informatics

Lessons learned from Practical suggestions for good design

Michael Douma, Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement, USA


What makes a good online exhibit? Good content, a narrative theme, intuitive navigation, and inviting graphics. The online "exhibit" has recently emerged as a highly successful motif ó favored over the "virtual museum," and "online magazine" ó and is a vital component of any successful museum exhibit. But what, specifically, makes them good?


We have performed an extensive survey of current online exhibits, and have identified many common qualities which make them successful. Our efforts stem from development of the "WebExhibits Catalogue," <> a web portal that indexes high quality exhibits on the internet. Our catalogue links directly to exhibits within other sites, on topics including arts, sciences, and popular culture. We currently index over 650 exhibits and estimate that our survey includes the majority of all substantive English language exhibits. This index differs from other portals because it is focused exclusively on illustrated exhibits, not just references. Some of the exhibits are from large organizations like the National Gallery, National Geographic or PBS, while others are from smaller, little-known organizations.

We find that visitors respond very favorably to exhibits that offer a lot of narrative guidance judiciously mixed with easy navigation. Advances in bandwidth and interactive capabilities like JavaScript, Flash, streaming media, and DHTML, and database access allow online exhibits to be highly interactive. Despite these, advances, however, it is our experience that the most important quality of an exhibit (besides content) is ease of navigation. Attention to content and organization is more important than "cool graphics," and certainly more important than any animations or sounds. Visitors must immediately perceive the conceptual structure of the exhibit: what is available, and where information is located. Todayís web users are more likely to follow links if they can anticipate exactly what a link will bring.


The singular most important aspect of any exhibit is content ó both textual and visual. Most any topic can be interesting with the right approach. Consider, for example, why is your topic interesting? How does it apply to the lives of your visitors? Often it is more interesting why events occur than what actually happens. Provide some connection to your visitorís everyday lives or knowledge. Visitors enjoy details, esoteric facts, and analogies, as well as general explanations.

Writing style should be clear and casual, adding wit and humor where possible, as in James Lilekís Gallery of Forgettable Food <>. Where possible, you should have your text written by an expert in the field; copy writers tend to by lightweight. For example, University of Wisconsinís excellent Why Files series continually suffers because the text is a bit shallow. Nevertheless, their jovial, casual tone lends considerable interest, as in their exhibit on Avalanches <> which includes sections like "Canít get no support" and "Slide with pride."

Generally, depth of content is better than breadth. You should provide some overview, and then rapidly focus in on the details of a particular topic. Be sure to cover your topic deeply, exploring multiple aspects. For example, Annenburg/CPBís Cinema: How Are Hollywoodís Films Made? <> discusses many parts of the film making process including screenwriting, directing, acting, and editing.

It is also useful to include references and interesting links, especially because your audience will often be students or classes, who will want help getting started with further research. Note, that your references and links sections should not be a major section. Links to your bibliography should be a small text link at the bottom of every page.

Consider what kinds of views, both two and three dimensional are interesting. What visual element of your topic will be particularly captivating. Your visual content should be vital to your subject, with robust captions that are meaningful, not perfunctory. If you are collecting your images from a stock agency, you should attempt to combine substantive portions of your text with the images so they seem fully integrated. A good exhibit shares many qualities with a photo essay, like Time/Lifeís Country Doctor <>.

The importance of content is seen in exhibits that are so interesting and well organized that they are successful despite their poor aesthetic and lacking navigation. For example, Marshall Brainís How Stuff Works <> and University of Missouri-Kansas Cityís Famous American Trials <> both contain a wealth of well organized information.

Overall structure and approach

The designerís objective is to educate and entertain, thus creating a memorable experience that leaves the visitor with a new understanding or a new outlook. There many approaches to presenting information, often an unusual approach is the best. Just as a professor has to consider the best approach to teach a topic, so too should you consider your approach. Do you want to focus on case studies? Ask the visitor rhetorical questions? (never make questions mandatory) Explain broad concepts first? Or divide the topic into many narrow slices?

There are many elements that you can bring into your organization, and it is often good to design your exhibit so it can be navigated several different ways. By utilizing the flexible organizational possibilities with web design, you can differentiate your exhibit from the corporeal world of textbooks and museums. Use analogies as much as possible. Concentrate creative use of web technology on the most difficult part of your topic for your audience to make the topic more meaningful.

Organize by conceptual topic. In the Metropolitanís George Washington Crossing the Delaware <> the visitor examines various aspects of the painting, such as perspective, color, and motion. In the American Institute of Physicsí Einstein: Image and Impact <> parts of Einsteinís live are divided into comprehensive parts based on conceptual topics, not chronology. They clearly lists the topics of the front page. Another example is Annenburg/CPBís Garbage <> which took a seemingly large area of information, such as garbage, and organized it into specific topics that help the user to become interested in the exhibit. The topics are specific and their names are descriptive of what they represent. The front page has a good navigation and a good introduction. The content of the exhibit is interesting and well organized. The information is presented in the problem solution form, making the user to want to keep reading about the exhibit.

Organize by chronology. Sometimes an exhibit is best told in chronological sequence, with a timeline as the main navigation. In Mouseworksí Visible Embryo <> the stages of embryonic development are organized in sequence.

Organize by question/answer. An exhibit can focus on narrow questions. The Metropolitanís A Look at Chinese Paintings <> asks a series of thought-provoking questions, such as "Why didn't the artist use any color in this painting?" Another example of questions and answers is our Calendars through the Ages <> which has been very successful despite the visual paucity and lacking narration. Note, that you should not ask mandatory questions that require a correct answer, like a quiz. Visitors prefer to browse your exhibit and pose their own questions.

Organize by physical piece. A natural organization for physical topics it to address each piece, with a break-down diagram for navigation. This is expertly achieved in National Geographicís New York Underground <> which explains all the pipes and tunnels beneath the streets of the city. PBS also had a similar approach with Kaboom <> which explained the anatomy and history of fireworks. The user can click on the diagram that represents the concept in general, to learn about specific parts of the topic.

Organize by first-person account. National Geographicís The Underground Railroad <> tells the story of slave escaping from the South during the last century. Instead of simply arranging the facts in a text format, as textbook would, the exhibit personalizes the subject by submerging the viewer into an experience of a slave by making the user make the decisions that the run-away slaves also had to make. The exhibit has a component of education and entertainment in it. It elegantly inserts facts and information about historical figures into a narrative of a run-away slave.

Organize hierarchically. Start simple and get more complicated. For example, if you are explaining how a complex device works, start by explaining the basic principles and theory that govern the workings of the device. Give examples of similar, but simpler devices. Provide background information whenever possible.

Organize by pigeon hole. Present numerous little facts, and let the visitor synthesize them in their own mind. University of Pennsylvaniaís Wine <> makes extensive use of small sidebars that help the casual visitor to quickly learn a few facts about the history of wine.

Regardless of your approach, it is important to maintain a narrative thread that maintains continuity in the presentation of information. We will continually emphasize this need in this paper. The subtopics should flow from one to another. You are making an exhibit not an encyclopedia. The difference is that an exhibit has a flow. An encyclopedia is merely cross-referenced information. The text and concepts should have narrative direction, and the navigation must reinforce this direction with linear links. We see the need for linear direction in the Hermitageís site <> which has outstanding content and world-class (IBM) development, but no continuity. Their pages are all dead ends. Their clean and simple layout lacks excitement or narrative momentum, and does not "pull the user" though the exhibit. Thus we see that mere organization is not enough, narrative is needed too.

Know your audience

You must know and keep in mind the audience for whom the exhibit is designed. Although your internet audience typically varies from elementary school classes to undergraduates to grandmothers, it is often best to keep one primary audience in mind, with respect to your tone. Your visitors will be able to adjust to your approach and use those portions of your exhibit that most interest them. You do not want to mix jovial, dramatic, youthful and scholarly writing styles within your exhibit.

On the other hand, if you have a diverse audience, you should have wide variety of content to help all potential visitors. Realize that some visitors are not familiar with the subject at all, while others may be much more advanced in the subject, and will be looking for sophisticated information. When designing a exhibit for a diverse audience, make sure: 1) your writing style is clear and understandable to the general audience; 2) there is at least one sub page that gives an introduction about the subject for the novice user; 3) the page has good descriptions of its sub pages, so that a user can jump to their appropriate level, instead of scrolling through the pages that may be too simple or sophisticated for his/her level of knowledge.


The best exhibit designs result from extensive experience and evaluative testing. You should design your exhibits using your own intuition, while keeping your audience foremost in mind. During development, you should test your exhibit on real audiences. If possible, you may want to retain the services of a professional evaluator. It is often considered reasonable to spend 5-20% of your budget on evaluation.

A sophisticated evaluation model might include a survey study. During each study, pre- and post-usage surveys can be administered to sample audience, such as a college-level class. Responses to the surveys can be analyzed to assess changes in visitorsí interests, attitudes, and knowledge of your topic, as a consequence of using your exhibit. Additionally, a focus-group study for each exhibit will inform our understanding about your usersí impressions of exhibit content, navigation schemes, and the exhibitís presentation design. Researchers will look for patterns in quantitative and qualitative data they collect, and can propose working hypotheses to explain the effective and ineffective aspects of each exhibit. Credibility of findings can be established through triangulation of methods. Both descriptive and explanatory findings should be noted.

Of course, you can do informal testing as well on your friends, family, and colleagues. It is vital to watch them use your exhibit to discover where your exhibit is inefficient.

There are several questions you will want to ask yourself. Some starting points include the following:

  • Action ó Does the exhibit stimulate your visitorís interest in the subject?
  • Appeal ó Is the exhibit interesting and entertaining? Is the content important and informative?
  • Comprehensibility ó Do users understand the information presented and its implications?
  • Credibility ó Do users see the exhibitís content as believable and accurate?
  • Learning Outcomes ó Do users acquire knowledge and information about your topic that they wouldnít be likely to obtain in any other manner? Do users attempt to apply the information acquired from your exhibit to other settings?
  • Personal Relevance ó Do users relate the exhibitís content and features to what they have experienced in their lives and personal interests?
  • Usability ó Are the exhibitís features and interface accessible, responsive, and accommodating to different learning, usage, and navigation styles?

Note, that we do not advocate design by committee, nor by focus groups ó in fact, an idiosyncratic design can be much more interesting to visitors. Nevertheless, you should test your exhibit to make sure all portions of it work as you intend.

Be multidisciplinary

Where possible, multidisciplinary approaches are both interesting and highly valuable. In our society today, our educational system produces scientists who have little familiarity with the humanities, and non-scientists with little understanding of scienceñthus perpetuating what C.P. Snow characterized, 40 years ago, as "The Two Cultures." It need not be that way, and it wasnít 200 years ago. Goethe, recognized today for his genius as a man of letters, himself considered his scientific work ó his theory of colors ó to be his major workÖand indeed he devoted 20 years of his life to it. It was about that time that a major division between the arts and sciences began. As the Industrial Revolution brought about an explosion of new knowledge, it became impossible for a single individual to be knowledgeable about everything.

Multimedia techniques can teach highly visual subjects, such as art, more effectively than they have ever been taught. This can be disseminated to enormous audiences over the Internet. In these important respects, the goals of interdisciplinary learning may be better realized online than in the classroom. Multimedia helps tackle many sides of an issue: Human drama. Art. Natural History. Music. Scientific examination.

Most topics have interesting facets that touch on different disciplines, and visitors are generally responsive to topics that bridge the disciplines. The Exploratoriumís Life along the Faultline <> touches on human drama, actual details of individual quakes, as well as general scientific earthquake information. One of our exhibits, Investigating Belliniís Feast of the Gods <> combines art historical information about Renaissance paintings with scientific examination of X-ray and infrared images.

Look and feel

There are an infinite possibilities for exhibit design, which is not the focus of this paper. Generally, however, try to be different. Keep in mind that regardless of your look, you should maintain consistency in your visual design, particularly with your navigational elements. Explore the possibilities of positive and negative space, background images, vibrant or subdued color schemes, symmetrical and asymmetrical layouts, and so on.

There are many online and print sources for design ideas. Notable sources include picks by Project Cool <> and Communication Arts <>.

In general, good web design benefits from good use of negative or white space. Open space works well in Clarke Robinsonís In transit <> with monochromatic palette in his photo essay of people on the bus in San Francisco. Nonvisual topics also benefit from white space, as in Lisa Kingís AllTold <> exhibit of stories. Vivid colors and clear layout make Edamuraís brief Green Tea of Shizuoko <> appealing.


How easy is your exhibit to use? Is it responsive and easy to navigate? Can visually impaired visitors read your text? Does your exhibit work for all typical computer configurations?

Readability is centered on your fonts and colors. Text should be dark, or visitors can not print your pages. Moreover, dark text on light backgrounds is generally more readable than light on dark. Maintain a high contrast ratio with your text, as visitors have dramatically different gamma settings on their monitors, and varying visual acuity. Text must be large enough to read, and be legible on all platforms. The following combinations work well: Serif: Georgia, Times New Roman, Times, serif. Sans-serif: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, Geneva, Swiss, SunSans-Regular.

Your exhibit must load fast, for both broadband and modem visitors. All images should have height and width tags. Break tables where possible, especially after the top banner/header, so the browser can render the top of the page while loading the rest of the HTML. Optimize all images aggressively. Be sure that Flash/Shockwave sections are offered with sufficient load time warnings and plug-in requirement notification. Make pages with plug-ins gracefully backward compatible. Highly popular exhibit should host static content with providers like Akamai, especially during exhibit launches, and accelerate DNS lookups to local servers.

All pages should have some sort of instruction of what to do (e.g., "click a painting for info") unless it is incredibly obvious. You visitors should not have to figure out each page, and wonder what to do. You want to avoid visitor frustration and assure that they view all your content with giving up.

Image rollovers provide valuable user feedback and visual appeal, but you must never prevent your user from clicking while loading a rollover image. There are two solutions: 1) Preload your rollovers by creating an instance of an image object by setting a variable to new Image(). 2) Use the sophisticated JavaScript scripts used by Adobe GoLive which allow a user to click a hyperlinked image while a rollover image is loading. Use MouseOvers for user feedback or minimizing screen clutter. As in Intelís Bill Viola <> where rolling the cursor over an image displays its caption, and elsewhere <> for displaying subsections.

It must be obvious to your visitor what is hyperlinked and clickable. If using image maps, you may want to underline the links. If using cascading style sheets to not underline hyperlinks, make sure they are an obviously different color. If using graphical buttons, some sort of visual accentuation is still needed, labels alone are insufficient. Forms of accentuation include: separating the labels from each other (e.g., with lines or borders); accompanying them with some bullet-like graphics (often of triangular shape) or icons; and making the buttons appear bulged or raised above the surface. It is even okay to occasionally say "click a section above."

If you use animation in your design, make sure the animation looks like animation, and does not resemble your user interface cues like mouseOvers. We anticipate that the throbbing buttons in Appleís forthcoming OS X will become more commonplace over the next year.

Technical/development features

The internet is more than a distribution tool. The possibilities for interactive multimedia and database driven exhibits are increasing rapidly, and allow unique possibilities to touching your visitors.

Magnification. Allow visitors to magnify most of your images. Put a small magnifying glass icon at the bottom edge of an image with a phrase like "Click to enlarge." Write that message within the image, rahter than as ascii, to avoid confusion with non-graphical browsers. It is nice to put images in a new pop-up a new window, sized to the image. (Set the href to javascript: rather than using an onClick to avoid browser incompatibilities with early version 4 browsers.) You can keep the window on top (in your body tag, set the onblur to self.focus) so visitors do not loose it. IN new windows, keep the menu bar full, and include a "close window" link at the bottom. Discoveryís Captain Kid <> has a nice magnification icon.

Image navigation. Consider a robust image viewing system for paintings or photographs that allows the visitor to view many images and magnify them. Opera Primaziale Pisanaís Leaning Tower of Pisa <> includes a navigable collection of thousands of views of the tower for scholarly or casual examination. The Hermitageís Zoom Gallery <> uses a Java applet to let visitors zoom in on any region of a picture close enough to examine each careful brushstroke. We are developing a similar technology <> based on JavaScript and DHTML that will similarly allow visitors to zoom into Belliniís Feast of the Gods and pan around as if it were an online map.

Temporal models. Explain temporal phenomenon through embedded movies or animated gifs. Jim Williamsí Electric Ballerina <> has wire-frame animations to illustrate ballet steps and movements. Depending on the topic, you may also use time-lapse photography. Sometimes, discrete images are better related by morphing between frames for smooth transitions. Where appropriate, live and archived web cams can also be interesting because they seem particularly "real" to visitors, as in the National Museum of Natural Historyís Butterfly Cams <>. If you include video, use at least two methods, such as QuickTime and RealVideo, plus high and low bandwidth streams.

Multi-dimensional models. Explain multi-dimensional issues with models. Visitors can experience three dimensions by using virtual reality through QuickTimeVR, or animated "fly by" movies. Parametric models, such as a weather balloon enlarging as it rises, are very well explained by letting the visitor interact with a Shockwave/Flash movie. See Edward Tufteís book series on displaying information visually for inspiration.

Audio. Often, audio will enhance your exhibit, or is an integral element, for musical topics. Images, sounds, animation and video help the viewer to perceive the subject from different angles. They make the exhibit much more interesting and useful than a textbook. If using audio, you must always have a means of turning off the audio. Therefore embedded midi or wavs are much less desirable than streaming audio with user controls like RealAudio or Quicktime. Note that if you use long audio loops (e.g., in Flash), you should signal when the loop is over so that users know it is good time to continue.

Search capability. If your exhibit contains well over 50 pages, you may benefit from search capabilities, with a robust natural language capable, relevant ranking and boolean aware search. Leading packages for small sites include Thunderstone, Webglimpse, SWISH-E, MondoSearch, PLWeb, and Phantom. Search engines for large sites, over 100,000 pages, require a significant financial investment for installation and ongoing maintenance. Leaders include AltaVista Search, Ultraseek, Verity, FAST Search, Webinator, Excalibur Retrievalware, along with the free open-source engines ht://Dig, PLWeb and Isearch and Microsoft Site Server. If you index pdf files, try to add the file size to the search results listing to warn visitors that the file is a much larger download than an HTML file.

DHTML. Dynamic HTML can be remarkable powerful for creating interactivity and narrative without plug-ins. For example, the National Gallery of Artís Manet, The Railway <> dissects Manetís painting into pieces by superimposing versions of the picture to accentual different portions of the scene.

A meaningful home page

Your home page should have meaningful content and context, not just a mood setting splash screen. The home page should include several sentences introducing the topic, with navigational links to your subtopics that match the type links used elsewhere in your exhibit.

The home page should clearly state the purpose and context of the exhibit, if it is not immediately obvious, and give an indication of the depth to which the exhibit explores your topic. In Howard Hughes Medical Instituteís Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling the World <> the visitor immediately knows what will be available in the exhibit. It is supplied with a graphic that attracts the userís attention. The exhibit is broken down into comprehensive parts with brief descriptions. Careís Madagascar Virtual Field Trip <> clearly introduces their exhibit with an excellent home page that introduces the story, navigation, and feel of the exhibit.

Do not ask visitors to choose a version of your exhibit, depending on their browser, it is a fumbling way to start. Instead use backward compatible JavaScript, or CGI variable to automatically detect the browser type. Macromedia AfterShock provides elegant backward compatible code for Flash/Shockwave. If people have a newer technology installed, use it, and place a link on the bottom of the page, such as "Disable Flash animation."


How will your visitorís navigate your exhibit? We recommend combining elements of three paradigms: linear, nonlinear, and hierarchical.

Linear navigation allows the visitor to follow a conceptual thread throughout your exhibit by using some combination of "next" and "previous," or simply "continue" links. It is helpful to also say where the link is going, for example "Continue: learn more about Monetís cataracts." Compare how much more interesting an exhibit is with linear navigation: In the National Gallery of Artís Alfred Stieglitz <>, their layout is lovely, but the visitor has to choose what links to click to navigate. On the other hand, their Manet, The Railway <> the exhibit immediately places the user at the beginning of a linear story, with nonlinear navigation in the top left corner. Another example from American Museum of Natural Historyís Epidemic: The World of Infectious Disease <> uses the word "continue" in combination with an iconized arrow providing an ideal combination. Again, the need for linear direction is clearly seen in Britannicaís voluminous Normandy <> which has vast content, but no overall narrative. If you are careful, if may also be successful to have more than one narrative thread weave throughout your site, with different themes, such as "history" and "biographies."

Nonlinear navigation is the hallmark of the word wide web ó it is the ability to jump from page to page in a manner impossible in the corporeal world of everyday life. Nonlinear navigation facilitates casual and impulsive browsing, and is efficient for cross-referencing. The need for nonlinear navigation is acutely seen in Women of the Westís There Are No Renters Here <> photo essay. Their layout is very similar to the National Gallery exhibit above, but their lack of hyperlinks and section headings constrains the visitor. Successful nonlinear navigation is used by Discoveryís Humpbacks of Madagascar <> where section heads are always present. Another helpful device is the JavaScript enhanced URL pop-up menu. Pop-up menus should display a "Go" button on non-JavaScript browsers. Good exhibits liberally fill the text with many cross-referencing hyperlinks, and frame the exhibit with consistent section headings.

Hierarchical navigation is the presentation of a navigational tree, or layered history of the visitorís current location in your exhibit. An example being: "Home > Paintings > Renaissance > Bellini" at the top of each page which allow the visitor to move backward. Another common approach is simply to make all section headings visible at all time, as in National Geographicís Coffee <> where the section heading is noted in red, allowing the visitor to move laterally to other subsections. New hierarchical navigations are becoming possible that represent the entire document structure to be quickly navigated using DHTML. Hierarchical navigation both shows the visitor where they are, and helps them go to other pages.

It is important that your visitor always know where they are. In you have a navigational banner, you should clearly mark the section visitors are in. The navigation should not be hidden, rather you should choose a navigation that is intertwined with the organization, that way the navigation is also providing a conceptual context. In Joseph Mooreís The first 9 months <> there are interesting animations and screen transitions, but the central visual theme are numerals representing each phase in a babyís development, and the navigation in a central design element (exhibit requires Flash). Likewise, in Howard Shatzís photography exhibit <> thumbnails for each photograph are assembled as a collage, and are visual focus on the page. Corbisí Ansel Adams <> effectively uses frames and rollovers for navigation.

Another very useful technique is to note the number of pages in a section, with links to each page in text, and the current page number noted some way. PBSís American Photography, <> has pretty little numbers in boxes, which are elegant and effective. University of Wisconsinís Why Files <> places "There are 1 2 3 4 5 6 pages in this feature." on the bottom of each page. Kodakís Digital Innovators <> uses unnumbered little squares for navigation.

There are some topics which are performance art, wherein the presentation of the content is more interesting than the actual information. In this case, authors generally wish to diverge dramatically from normal navigational paradigms, but they maintain a narrative theme, and usually have instructions on the screen, like "click the heart." Interesting examples are found in Bennetonís Colors <http://>. Rarely, navigational oddities can help convey your message, as in United States Holocaust Memorial Museumís Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto <http://> where hiding the navigation reinforces their message about the "hidden" history. Occasionally, totally new navigational schemes are acceptable, if you design it with the userís needs in mind. Recent navigational oddities include Bård Edlundís home page <> in February 2000 (it changes often) who achieves a simple elegance with animated gifs that accentuation his navigational elements.

Do not apply corporeal metaphors from "physical museums" to your design. Virtual museum tours are rarely interesting. It is confusing to label your sections as "room 1" "room 2" "information kiosk" etc. Rather, use names like "Early Impressionists" "Late Impressionists" and "Help."


Judicious use of icons can be helpful parts of your navigational scheme. As discussed above, an arrow icon can help a "continue" link considerably, augmenting the meaning in a nonverbal way. Similarly, a magnifying glass helps a "zoom" link, and the now ubiquitous "shopping cart" icon is helpful. If you are spawning new windows for help screen or magnifying images, an icon made of overlapping squares is quite effective to indicate that a new window will appear. Icons are not useful when they are unfamiliar, however, and you should not rely on unusual icons for navigation. There are very few icons that are wholly obvious. Generally text labels are better.

Icons should be used when the visual clue augments the textual message. For example, a department store might pair a tuxedo icon with the word "menís wear" to suggests formal attire. Likewise, Cooper-Hewittís Design for Daily Life <> used photographs as icons, and the pairing of an embroidered silk vest with the words "dress" instantly conveys that the section is be about highly formal dress for 18th century gentlemen.

Examples of useless icons include Chemistry Societyís Networkís Visual Interpretations of the Table of Elements, with an incomprehensible navigation page <> which practically hides the exhibitís core attraction of novel views of the periodic table extruded as landscapes <http://>. Other examples of meaningless icons in otherwise outstanding exhibits include PBSís The Greeks <>, National Geographicís Millennium <>, and nonobvious next/previous arrows the French Cultural Ministryís Chauvet-Pont-d'arc Cave <>.

Sometimes icons are needed. In American Museum of Natural Historyís Siberian Expedition: Wrangel Island <> they have an enlargable map, with the phrase "Click on map to see detail" which is unintuitive in context, and would be much better replaced with an icon.

The user likes to interact and to be in control

Visitors should be able to anticipate where a link where lead, and have an immediate sense of the type of content it will provide. This way, visitors are not disappointed and they are more likely to explore.

Exhibits should be designed so that the user can easily navigate between different topics of the homepage. Even though a web page may have a suggested path that the user should follow while exploring the exhibit, ultimately it should be the user who decides which links to go to first and last. The traveling between the sub pages should be easy. Do now spawn your content into a new specially sized window, it is annoying, as in Kodakís American Mile Markers <>. Within-page anchors are confusing because the visitor is expecting a new page, and may wonder why they are on the same page still.

Interactive games and quizzes testing the userís progress in exploring the subject area are sometimes desirable, assuming that the games and the quizzes are optional for the users. Some users might become quite annoyed if they are forced to play games and quizzes, and may never come back to the exhibit.

Small niceties

There are several nice touches you can add to your exhibit ó similar to adding "cup-holders" to a new automobileñto enhance visitorsí experience.

External links should be clearly identified so that people know they will go to another exhibit. This is a particularly important to differentiate within-exhibit cross references from referrals to other exhibits. If you use an external-link cgi to track referrals, do not display a legal notice.

Make favicon.ico files in your root directory so that IE users who bookmark your exhibit get a pretty custom bookmark icon.

Add desktop pictures that visitors can place on their desktop with large, interesting images from the exhibit. Choose pictures that will work well when covered with many icons and windows. Images should be offered as jpegs in two sizes: 800 x 600, and 1024 x 768. This is a useful way to leave a lasting memory for your visitors, and to reinforce the "brand" of your organization. If you choose to write your organizationís name or exhibit on the desktop picture, we recommend you use subtle transparent typography.

Use shortcut URLs to access your exhibit. For example, visitors can reach Kodakís exhibits by typing, for example <> which immediately redirects the visitor to <>. This is particularly useful if you are using an internal proxy and rewriting module on your web server to map remote servers into the local namespace, and you need to have long URLs.

Page URLs or the main exhibit URL should be at the bottom of each page, so that visitors can return to your exhibit by using a hard copy. You can write that shortcut on the bottom of each page so if people print the exhibit, they can come back easily.

The <Title> should be useful both in search engines and when people look at their bookmarks or back/history button. Note that to avoid spamming, search engines increasingly weight title matches, so they are more important than a few years ago.

JavaScript enhance all URL pop-up menus. If JavaScript is enabled, do not display a "Go" button.

Include a thorough bibliography and links. An annotated bibliography is desired, and if permissible, links straight to a bookstore like Amazon (or multiple bookstores) is convenient both for purchasing books, and for accessing book information like ISBN numbers for libraries. If there is useful information on the internet, a links page is always useful, especially for classes which will use your exhibit as part of their research. It is best to have detailed descriptions of the exhibits you link to, so visitors know the quality of the exhibits and what sort of information they will provide. Suggested style for your description may be found at our exhibit, the WebExhibits Catalogue <>.

Create a mailing list to notify visitors of future exhibits you produce. Two leading packages are ListServ and Lyris, we particularly like the automatic unsubscribe abilities of Lyris.

Localize your content in a few different languages, such as English, Spanish, and French, using templates with php/Zend or jsp to allow ready interchange of text, while keeping your images and layout the same.

HTML coding approaches

Given the great diversity in screen sizes, a liquid layout that adjusts to the window size is desirable. Fixed width layouts should not be set too wide. Also, be sure the right side of the screen is attractive.

Frames are generally disliked by users because they are slow to load, near impossible to bookmark (or be indexed by search engines), and they are rarely sized correctly for smaller-than-average and large-than-average screens. If you must use frames for scrolling content within the browser window, strongly consider rebuilding the entire frameset with a target="_top" for most pages so that bookmarks will function. Although the pages will load slower this way, bookmarks will work.


The suggestions presented in this paper are based on our observation of thousands of online exhibits, and reflect the state of the art in early 2000. In the coming years, we expect both wireless internet and broadband to spread widely. Soon, the majority of your visitors will have full screen streaming video and CD-quality surround sound. When traveling, your visitors will frequently use portable "WAP" devices with low resolution screens. Technologies for serving broadband and wireless content are already readily available and should be used soon. By looking forward with your application design, you can create exhibits that function well for modem, broadband, and wireless users, thus bringing memorable and engaging information to ever widening audiences.


The author wishes to thank the following for the insights and suggestions they have offered related to critique of exhibits: Stella Fayer, Alistair Fraser, Michael Henchman, Arthur Johnson, David Krantz, and Craig Ventimiglia.