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Archives & Museum Informatics

Sharing the Experience: The Building of a Successful Online/On-site Exhibition

Scott Sayre, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, USA


In September of 1999 the Minneapolis Institute of Arts "MIA" opened an eight-week exhibition, "A Masterwork Restored" allowing the public to observe the process of restoring a 300-year-old painting. Unique to this exhibit was not only the visitors on-site access to the physical restoration of the 12' x 7' masterwork, but the opportunity for the public to view the "real time" progress of the project on the web. Conceived as an on-site/online project from the beginning, this was the first project of its type to be composed of collaborators from different departments and organizations within the museum. The resulting web program "Restoration Online" ( became one of the most popular projects to date. This paper will describe the process of developing this site, the factors that led to its success and the perspectives of the primary participants.

The re-hanging of the restored masterwork

History and Conception

Over the last decade The Minneapolis Institute of Art's Interactive Media Group (IMG) has produced over a dozen award winning educational multimedia programs for installation in the museumís galleries. With the development of the museumís web site in late 1993, the IMG explored the development of a wide variety of online educational units and resources for teachers and students. Through the internal and external recognition for these successful projects and the curator's personal interest utilizing interpretive technology, the Restoration Online project was born.

During a casual meeting in the spring of 1998 the Instituteís Paintings Curator Patrick Noon described an idea for a unique eight week exhibition focusing on the restoration of a very large 17th Century Italian altarpiece The Immaculate Conception with St. Francis of Assis and St. Anthony of Padua, by the artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. The painting had been in the museumís collection for over 30 years and was in serious need of both structural and cosmetic conservation. Because of the paintingís scale and the publicís interest in the process of art conservation, Noon was very interested in securing a gallery space in which the restoration could take place as an alternative to the smaller conservation laboratory. He was also interested in finding a way to utilize the museumís web site to promote and document the project. This concept was also of great interest to the IMG staff, as it would allow them to develop their first online exhibit tied directly to an ongoing on-site exhibition.

Exhibition Planning/Development

Soon after the Restoration projectís exhibit and gallery were approved, a number of exhibition planning meetings were held where the on-site and online aspects of the exhibit were introduced and discussed among the exhibition planning staff and conservators. During these initial meetings the online aspect of the project was still widely misunderstood. Most of the staff had little or no point of reference for such a project other than the online promotion of previous exhibitions. Since the needs of both the on-site and online components overlapped in a number of areas, strategies were developed to re-purpose and share information and graphic resources as efficiently as possible. Plans were made to coordinate the work of the designer developing the didactics for the gallery with the graphic requirements for the online component. Plans were also set in place for collecting and developing the curatorial and conservation information to be used in the exhibition.

Because the exhibition focused upon an ongoing, developing restoration process, the text and images for both the online and on-site exhibits needed to be designed to accurately interpret the events as efficiently as possible. Two methodologies were developed to address this need. The curator and conservators identified images and generated text describing the standard steps in painting restoration and the known history of the work of art itself. At the same time, more dynamic systems were developed for visually documenting the process and generating up-to-the-moment text throughout the duration of the exhibition. These systems depended heavily upon technologies that were not commonly used in on-site exhibitions.

Digital methods

A number of new tools and techniques were incorporated into the exhibit process allowing for the efficient, cost effective documentation of the ongoing process including digital still and video cameras, as well as a non-linear video editing system. The commercial quality digital still camera proved to be one of the most indispensable tools, allowing the MIA's staff photographers to shoot and "process" images on a ongoing basis. These digital images were transferred to, organized and archived on an internal shared server where both the IMG and the Design department could easily access them for gallery and online applications. An IMG Multimedia Specialist used an industrial quality, digital video camera to document the process as well as to conduct ongoing interviews with the curator and conservators throughout the duration of the exhibition. These video segments were then inserted into and appended onto a dynamically changing video program using the IMG's non-linear digital editing system. A computer-based "webcam" was also installed in a fixed position with the gallery space to provide documentation of the overall process. The high quality, low cost and efficiency of all of these digital systems provided for a uniquely flexible production environment that could respond any time an opportunity presented itself. Each time a portion the painting was changed or a discovery was made, detailed audio and visual documentation could be quickly generated.

Configuring the in-gallery "webcam"

The On-site Exhibit

The on-site exhibition took place in series of special exhibition galleries off of one of the museum's main corridors. The space consisted of a small introductory gallery, a larger exhibition space and a video viewing room.

Upon entering the introductory gallery visitors had the opportunity to study a large reproduction of the unrestored painting, a panel describing the scope of the exhibition, a panel devoted to the history of the artist and the painting, and some preparatory sketches. Immediately off of the introductory gallery was a video viewing space containing benches and a 30" video monitor. The short video program shown in this space was designed to provide an up-to-date overview of the restoration process, including the paintingís deinstallation from the gallery, laboratory x-rays, and transport into the adjacent exhibition gallery. In addition, the program contained a general outline of the restoration process. This outline was designed from the onset to allow documentation of the actual process to be inserted into the program as the project restoration progressed. The video program was run on a repeating loop during public museum hours to present the prior steps in the process to current museum visitors and to provide more life to the exhibit for those visitors viewing the painting when the conservators were not present. This same video program was also made available through the project's web site and will be discussed in more detail in the online section of this paper.

Museum docent referring to the didactic panels in exhibition

The Central exhibition space was divided to provide public space as well as a partitioned work area for the conservators and the painting. Didactic text, graphic and photographic panels wrapped the walls of most of the public space. These didactics included an outline of the steps in the restoration process, schematic diagrams of the paintingís physical structure and x-rays of areas of damage and earlier restoration. One wall contained a set of numbered procedural panels designed with spaces reserved for images of the completed steps or phases in the restoration process. An iMac computer was installed on special counter with two chairs in one corner of the public area. This computer provided access to the online portion of the exhibition using a Netscape web browser running in kiosk mode. The computer served to both extend the available project information within the gallery as well as to market the fact that the ongoing project could be viewed and followed from any computer with internet access.

Young visitors using the "Restoration Online" internet kiosk

For most of the conservation treatment the painting was placed on a large movable easel in the center of the partitioned conservation space. Special lighting was installed and a power lift was used to assist the conservators in working on the huge painting. A small railing was installed to keep the visitors at a safe distance while allowing them to be close enough to view the detailed work of the conservators and ask them questions. Gallery benches were placed on the public side of the railing to allow visitors to sit comfortably while observing the progress of the restoration. Museum docents and volunteers were stationed in the gallery during heavy traffic periods to assist the conservators in answering the many questions posed by the visitors.

Conservators and the curator examining the painting

Both the conservators and the docents directed the public to the online portion of the exhibition as a way to access in-depth answers to commonly asked questions and to follow the project beyond the visitor's on-site gallery experience. Colorful bookmarks promoting the related online exhibition were made available throughout the exhibition. Demand for these bookmarks was so high that they needed to be reprinted three times during the length of the exhibition.

Designing Online Exhibit

The online exhibition was created with three goals in mind: 1) to provide an online version of the events and information for visitors who arenít able to attend the on-site exhibition; 2) to provide extended information about the painting, the subject of art conservation, and the restoration process; and 3) to document and archive the process for later reference and educational applications. In order to achieve these goals a great deal of preparation and planning needed to take place prior to the onset of the exhibition.

After reviewing all of the didactic materials to be produced for the gallery, interviews were scheduled with the two senior painting conservators Joan Gorman and David Marquis who would be executing the restoration. Both of these conservators work for the Upper Midwest Conservation Association (UMCA), a non-profit regional conservation laboratory located within the MIA's building. The focus of these interviews was to elaborate upon the physical history of the painting being restored and the details and a timeline for the conservation process. Interviews were also held with Paintings Curator Patrick Noon and Assistant Curator of Paintings Susan Canterbury to identify key resources related to the history of both the painting and the artist. The information gathered in these interviews was combined with existing didactic information to provide an overall structure for the online program. A prototype of the structure and design of the program was developed and then reviewed and approved by both the conservators and curators before proceeding with production of the final program. The resulting program was made up of five main sections: an intro or homepage; the Daily Log, Life of this Painting, and Frequently Asked Questions, What's Wrong with this Painting?.

The Project Homepage

The Restoration Online Homepage

The projects homepage was designed to serve a number of purposes: to introduce the overall project, to promote the on-site exhibition, to describe the importance of art conservation in the MIA's mission, and to provide basic information about the Upper Midwest Conservation Association. Users could choose to pull-up "live" webcam images of the painting being restored, view "before and after" images of other recently restored MIA paintings or link out to UMCA's web site to find out more about this independent association. Along the bottom of the homepage were links to the main sections of the site, represented by photographic icons of the conservators and curator.

Daily Log

The "Daily Log" section

One of the most dynamic sections of the site, the Daily Log, provided users with a virtual journal of the day-to-day progress of the project. The Daily Log contained photographic images, notes, video segments and a glossary which were generated on a daily basis by Multimedia Specialist Mike Dust, who was also producing the ongoing video documentation of the project. A customized set of templates was developed using Alaire's Cold Fusion software to facilitate the efficient maintenance and expansion of the Logs content. These templates aided in managing the "expanding book" metaphor with a minimal amount of additional markup. Each afternoon, Dust would review the days events with the conservators and browse the images shot by the MIA Photo Services department. He would then use the information and images to compose sometimes lengthy log entries describing first-hand the most recent progress and discoveries. Dust would also include links to the webcam and other sections of the site where he felt they to be helpful.

Whatís Wrong with this Painting

The "Whatís Wrong with this Painting" section

"What's Wrong with this Painting" presented viewers with detailed information on the painting's technical problems. The section was designed to look like a series of manila folders containing text, photos and illustrations. Documents such as condition reports and proposed treatment procedures which are normally not accessible to anyone other than conservators and curators were available (in an edited form) within these folders. Other folders contained x-rays of the painting, photos and descriptions of damaged areas, interactive schematic diagrams examining the physical construction of a painting and a glossary. Most of the information in this section was gleaned from interviews with the conservators and through interactive enhancements to the didactic gallery information.

Life of this Painting

The "Life of this Painting" section

Upon entering the "Life of this Painting" section, the user is presented with a timeline from the 16th century to the present . The timeline contains both text and imagery and is interactive. By clicking on centuries or decades, the user can walk through time exploring key events that hold a direct relationship to the painting being restored. The methodology is designed to expand the visitorís context for the restoration by highlighting items such as the life and travels of the artist and painting, technological developments in conservation and related art historical events. The paintingís curators and conservators generated the information contained within this section. Members of the IMG further enhanced this information through additional research.

Frequently Asked Questions

The "Frequently Asked Questions" section

The "Frequently Asked Questions" section was designed to serve as a catch all for the numerous questions posed by the public throughout the exhibition. The public was invited to submit new questions to the conservators via an online form. IMG staff members managed the process of collecting and posting the responses to these questions. In order to get a jump on the anticipated barrage of questions; members of the IMG staff surveyed friends and colleagues about questions they had about the conservation project in advance of the exhibition. The two dozen questions collected in this initial survey allowed the conservators and curators to answer the majority of the common questions before the exhibition began. The existence of these initial questions and related answers also gave online visitors a greater perception of on-going interaction between the museum and its public. Throughout the duration of the exhibition the conservators and docents found this section of the program indispensable for addressing repeat questions.

Public Response to the Exhibit

The publicís response to both the on-site and online restoration exhibits was overwhelmingly positive. The uniqueness of the exhibition and the warm and engaging personalities of conservators drew large with many repeat visitors. At times, weekends in particular, the number of interested visitors slowed the conservators progress with many questions and insightful discussion. Attendance was constant throughout the duration of the exhibition with from a half dozen to one hundred visitors observing the ongoing process at any one time.

Visitors observing the ongoing restoration in the gallery

After a number of discoveries, the most significant being the discovery of Castigliones's overpainted signature, a number of dedicated "groupies" emerged. The conservator's felt that the level of the publicís personal access to the project gave some visitors a special sense of ownership in the project. Gallery conversations showed that these enthusiastic visitors made regular visits to both the online exhibit as well as to the gallery. The "Daily Log" and webcam were found to be the most useful in remotely following the project.

User statistics for the MIA's web site ( in which the project site is located, increased dramatically over the duration of the project. From the date of the exhibits opening to its close, user session more than tripled to over 2000 users per day. The majority of these online visitors were accessing the Restoration Online exhibition.

Even within the exhibition gallery, many visitors spent time further exploring the project using the web kiosk. The kiosk had advantages over the print-based didactics since it offered a historical overview of the project from its beginning with dozens of detailed photographs and notes. Graphics and diagrams which were static on the gallery didactics were interactive in the online program.

A school group and docent visiting the exhibit

School children were particularly interested in the idea that the exhibit could be visited through the internet. Even though very few tour guides and teachers permitted students to use the kiosk in the gallery, many children responded enthusiastically when told about the web site. Most children left with a promotional bookmark in hand, some expressed excitement over the opportunity to visit the online exhibit at home with their parents.

The Conservator's experience

While the museum staff and many of the visitors had a significant amount of experience with both web and interactive multimedia educational programs, the UMCA painting conservators had very little of these experiences personally or professionally. They were accustomed to working in a quiet, private laboratory setting with little or no interaction with visiting public.

The prospect of executing a large-scale restoration of a major painting in public was provided enough unusual challenges, never mind having a computer kiosk in the gallery with them. And while they were very cooperative in providing extensive amounts of information for the online portion of exhibit, both were concerned that the media would not be flexible enough to document all the unpredictable twists and turns in the treatment process.

Conservators discussing their work with the curator

Once the conservators had viewed the prototype for the online program, both began to see the possibilities this new technology provided for illuminating an important yet predominately unknown technical aspect of the museumís operations. As conservator Joan Gorman states "... we felt ownership in the site to a degree. Here was the project, the information we imparted to you (IMG) - but wow! It was interesting, visually compelling, fun even." And as the project continued to unfold their concerns related to the flexibility of the technology diminished. During one phase of the project the painting had to be taken off view for a number of days to be spray varnished. In this instance the technology proved to be unexpectedly flexible as the webcam allowed gallery visitors to remotely view the painting as it was worked on in the well ventilated conservation laboratory.

Throughout the duration of the gallery exhibition the conservators grew more and more enthusiastic about the site. They were amazed by what they saw as the "overwhelming response of the public to the web site" and the technologiesí ability to make information, like the discovery of the artists signature, available to the world almost instantaneously. At times when the painting was face down or difficult to view, the conservators found it useful to direct visitors to the kiosk to see what was currently not visible in the gallery.

By the conclusion of the gallery exhibition both conservators had been in their own words "converted" by the educational potential of the web. Gorman summarized "... the web is a wonderful tool, accessible to a very wide audience, an extension of the project (and long after the project was complete), and a good marketing device. To this day I refer people to the site to see our work. It affords an informed, easy to use means of accessing a complicated subject like conservation. In a very real way, the web site de-mystifies conservation, one of my great goals as a conservator."

Both conservators see the field of conservation as slow to embrace new technologies, particularly for educational purposes. The positive response they have received from their colleagues over the online aspect of the project may begin to change that. The "Restoration Online" site was featured on the front page of the American Institute for Conservationís web site. With this type of professional recognition and the positive aspects of the project's visibility, the field is positioned for change.

After the Exhibition

As the exhibition drew to a close and the newly restored painting was rehung many UMCA and MIA staff members began to debate what would become of the online project. The museumís docents and education staff had become quite fond of the web site as a means to explain the "behind the scenes" process of art conservation. The museum's web site statistics were at an all time high. The Restoration Online site was finally flushed out to the point where it could tell and illustrate the entire process of restoring a painting from beginning to end. An entire educational program had been dynamically created in real-time. Was this the end or just the beginning?

With this continued interest mind, a proposal was made to the Museumís Director Evan Maurer to permanently install the "Restoration Online" program in the museumís permanent collection galleries. An existing media space in close proximity to the restored painting was freed-up to accommodate the final program. Didactics from the exhibition gallery where the painting was restored were reinstalled in the media space and a panel was written to describe the programís connection to the nearby painting. To complete the connection, an extended label was written for the painting which described its recent restoration and directed visitors to the educational program.

Meanwhile, on the museumís web site, the Restoration Online program was given a permanent position as an online exhibition. The program continues to attract a great deal of attention and in February, 2000 was reviewed as a wonderful web site for children on the Surfing the Net with Kids ( web magazine.


The "A Masterwork Restored" exhibition and the "Restoration Online" web site were both highly successful. Part of the reason for this was the subject matter itself. Art museums rarely find opportunities to present live, production related exhibits, something the general public is often starved for in museums full of static objects. The first goal of extending project through an online resource proved to be crucial to the projectís success as subject matter was presented through interactive online materials contributed the popularity of the project.

Beyond the subject matter itself, the tandem formatting of online and on-site exhibitions mutually benefit from their own cross marketing. The projectís initial goal of providing an online version of events and information for visitors who werenít able to attend the on-site exhibition was expanded as on-site visitors went to the web to keep up on the project while online visitors become interested in the real thing and were drawn to the museum.

The third and final goal set for the online project was to document and archive the restoration process for later reference and educational application. This goal was achieved immediately when the program was permanently installed in the museumís galleries.

Unfortunately, static online exhibitions related to static on-site exhibitions are less able to compete with the continuing intrigue of more dynamic ones. Online, on-site or both, the success of this project begs the question "Why donít art museums do these types of exhibitions more often?" And the answer is "We should."