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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Experience, Learning, and Research: Coordinating the Multiple Roles of On-line Exhibitions

Bart Marable, Terra Incognita, USA


On-line exhibitions are complex undertakings that serve the needs of diverse audiences. Users range from general interest visitors with little knowledge of the subject, to teachers looking for supporting materials for classrooms, to amateur scholars using the site as a research tool. With effective coordination, the same on-line exhibition can support these multiple roles. Three elements are important for this coordination: layered content, multiple points of entry, and connecting storylines. Layered content divides the exhibition content into several distinct tiers. Multiple points of entry give direct access to these distinct layers of content. And third, connecting storylines allow visitors to follow a theme or topic between the tiers. On-line exhibition organizers can use this multiple-tier approach to produce better-coordinated on-line content that meets the ever-increasing expectations of ever-more sophisticated audiences.

Keywords: coordination, layered content, multiple points of entry, connecting storylines, multiple-tier approach

"[I]t is possible to make many, if not most, exhibits so that they can each individually be appreciated and enjoyed on a variety of levels."

Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium (McLean, 2001)

While early exhibit Web sites were marketing tools intended merely to promote attendance of the "real" exhibit, in recent years exhibit organizers have developed increased interest in and appreciation for the potential of full-fledged on-line exhibitions. They are now seen as vitally important tools not only for increasing awareness of the real-world exhibition, but also for increasing the exhibit's reach and (in the case of temporary exhibitions) its lifespan. And, in a growing number of cases, on-line-only exhibitions are now being mounted, without a corresponding physical presence.

Who visits these on-line exhibitions, and what are they looking for? Like their real-world counterparts, on-line visitors come from a very broad spectrum of society, and they come for a variety of reasons. Some visitors come knowing very little about the exhibit's topic, while others may consider themselves experts in the subject. Some like having the freedom to pick and choose topics to explore, while others like having a clear path to follow. Some visitors are visually oriented, while others like reading. Some are looking for the answer to a specific question. Others are just looking for an enjoyable experience. In other words, on-line exhibits attract visitors from all different backgrounds, each with different interests and capabilities.

With so many different audiences, on-line exhibit organizers often struggle with the shape and approach of their on-line project. Should it be an immersive learning experience like a physical exhibit, where visitors explore themes and objects carefully selected and organized by the curators? Or, at the other extreme, should it let the visitor play the part of curator, empowering him to search for objects and draw his own conclusions? Should it be organized by theme? By object? By time period?

I believe that with effective coordination, the same on-line exhibition can support multiple roles. In this paper, I will examine a model for planning and designing on-line exhibitions that can meet the needs of these diverse audiences. First I will explore the background and components of this integrated exhibit model, explaining the reasons behind its development. Then, I will examine three projects that have used this model, and deconstruct the ways that the model has been applied in each on-line exhibit's content, structure, and design.

The Integrated On-line Exhibit Model

diagram of the integreated model

Fig. 1: The Integrated On-line Exhibit Model

The Integrated On-line Exhibit Model (Fig. 1) is the result of our studio's work with numerous large-scale on-line museum exhibitions. It has evolved both from our attempts to translate traditional exhibit design techniques to this new medium, and from our discovery of methods unique to the on-line environment. At the core of the model is the belief that on-line exhibitions can harness the shape-shifting power of interactive media to take multiple (yet coordinated) forms. The model has three important elements: layered content, multiple points of entry, and connecting storylines. Layered content divides the exhibition content into distinct tiers. Multiple points of entry give access to these distinct layers of content. And third, connecting storylines allow visitors to follow a theme or topic between the tiers.

Layered Content

The first element of the model is layered content. This approach involves dividing the exhibition into multiple sections based on several criteria: the needs of different visitors, content detail and organization, the level of curatorial voice, and issues of content growth and management. The number, format and approach of these levels will vary from project to project, but there are some general conclusions that may be drawn.

First, these layers fall along a format spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, the site takes the form of an entertaining, immersive, linear experience that is low on content but high on emotional engagement. At the other end of the spectrum, the site becomes a powerful research application, completely non-linear, structured by the visitor, and ever growing in its content.

Second, the same content may be used in more than one layer, but its use might be very different in each one. For example, an artifact might be used simultaneously in an orientation program, as a part of a thematic exhibit, and as a record in a database. As a part of the orientation program, it might build emotional interest in the story. In the thematic exhibit, it might support a curatorial point. As a database record, it might be examined as an individual object.

In order for the model to work, the exhibit needs at least two layers, and preferably three. Below, I will outline three typical levels, moving along the format spectrum from "research application" to "immersive experience".

Level one: Research

The first level, and the foundation of the model, is made up of the sources of the exhibition - the historic artifacts, the scientific specimens, the objects of art, as well as secondary sources such as books and articles. These are the raw materials on which the intellectual framework of the exhibit is built.

In this level, the target audience is experts, those who are familiar with the general topic. Scholars and higher-level students fall within this group, but so do other enthusiasts, such as collectors or historical re-enactors. This audience is typically goal-oriented in their visit, looking for a specific object or group of objects. Here, the on-line exhibit becomes much more powerful than the physical one. While space limitations and conservation issues are limitations on real-world displays, on-line exhibits can provide near-limitless repositories of object information in the virtual collections.

The content in this level is intended to grow and change, as new objects are added to the collection, new information is uncovered, and new books are published. For this reason, the level's content is usually stored in a database, and supported by content management tools for easy updates by museum staff.

The organization of content at the research level is completely non-linear since the visitor can group and regroup items based on his own criteria. The exhibit can provide tools to help the visitors find content matching certain criteria, such as keyword searches or topical filters.

Level two: Exhibit

In the middle of the format spectrum, between research application and immersive experience, the second level provides the majority of the interpretive and educational content. It provides curatorial context to the primary sources held in the research level. Aimed at a general audience, the organization at the exhibit level is a mixture of linear and non-linear. Here, visitors can choose among topics and themes selected by the exhibition organizers. Like in real-world exhibitions, the arrangement and presentation of content in these exhibits could range from simple text and graphic panels to complex hands-on activities. While the content and design should be consistent enough to maintain the identity of the exhibition, it should also be varied enough to maintain visitor interest.

Level three: Experience

The third tier provides an emotionally engaging (and entertaining) experience that brings to life the story of the exhibition for novice and general audiences. This tier is the most mediated and narrative-driven of the tiers, and usually takes the form of a story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Here the goal is to spark the visitor's interest in the subject, and to provide an intriguing orientation that will encourage deeper exploration. Models such as cinema and theater provide possible approaches to compelling experiences. Although this "old media" approach may seem to run counter to the non-linear, user-controlled character of the Web, recent studies have shown that using an entertaining, curated experience with links to additional information can actually encourage deeper exploration (Vergo, 2001). This finding is not so different from the ways that physical museums use orientation films and introductory experiences. As British designers James Gardner and Caroline Heller have written,

Novelty, charm, ingenuity, movement, people doing things, tricks and mystery, something really big and clever: these are the ingredients of successful display. Attention once captured may be stimulated and directed but it is a mistake to think you can ever start at a "higher level" and assume the concentration of the most specialised public. (McLean, 2001)

Multiple Points of Entry

The second element of the model is multiple entry points. Multiple points of entry give different audiences access to the layer of content that best meets their needs. While a general interest visitor may find an engaging interactive experience worthwhile, a teacher or scholar may wish to jump directly to the type of content that most directly meets their respective needs. Similarly, general audiences may not have enough knowledge of the topic to navigate a powerful search tool, and would need help in putting objects into context.

Connecting Storylines

Recognizing the inherent narrative-driven aspect of exhibitions, the third element is connecting storylines. This method encourages visitors to follow a theme or topic between the layers. Using this approach, general interest visitors could follow such a connection from the experience (third level) to an interpretive exhibit screen (second level) and even further to the primary sources (first level). This path could just as easily move in the other direction as well.

The Model in Action

The model is not a hard and fast outline of how to structure an on-line exhibit, but is rather a guide. The unique characteristics of an exhibit's content and themes will greatly influence its final format. To show how the model can be modified, I will now describe three projects our studio has produced using variations of the model.

Becoming Human

Evidence ... the scientific quest begins with the fossil record ...

Fig. 2: Becoming Human. http://www.becominghuman.org

This interactive documentary experience (Fig. 2), developed for the Institute of Human Origins, tells the story of our species, both where we've come from and the unique traits that make us human. In Becoming Human, the experience level took the form of a television-like documentary. This original program uses animated still photographs, narration, music, and sound effects, to deliver an experience similar to watching a PBS documentary. Donald Johanson, the paleontologist who discovered the Lucy skeleton, narrates this 30 minute program, which is divided into smaller story segments. The exhibit level is composed of over 40 topical exhibits that use text, photographs, illustrations, animation, and audio interviews to explore the same themes covered in the documentary, but in more detail. The research level has several components, including 360° skull rotations of our hominid ancestors and a database-driven collection of vetted Web sites and articles.

The site is broken down into four main sections (Evidence, Anatomy, Lineages, and Culture), and from each of the section menus there are entry points to all three levels. Most prominent is the link to the section of the documentary for that topic. Beneath that, a scrolling bar outlines the exhibits connected with the topic. And at the bottom on the screen are links to the hominid profiles and references.

While each level of Becoming Human works separately, our aim from the outset was to encourage deep exploration of the subject. To do that, we developed numerous points in the narrative that provide a bridge between the layers. For example, as a visitor watches a documentary segment about paleontological digs in Ethiopia, a small "bug" appears in the lower portion of the screen inviting him to "learn more." Clicking this link pauses the documentary, and takes the visitor to the exhibit level, where he can learn about fossil digs and even take a stroll through a virtual dig site. If he wants to learn even more, he can click the link in the reference section to pull up a list of Web sites and articles related to paleontological digs. His curiosity satisfied, the visitor can then return to the documentary to continue his journey.

The Dynamic Earth

Time Detectives ... atomic clocks

Fig. 3: The Dynamic Earth. http://www.mnh.si.edu/earth

Based on the extensive Janet Annenberg Hooker Geology, Gems, and Minerals Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, the Dynamic Earth (Fig. 3) tells the story of our planet's origins and ongoing evolution. Since the content was so diverse and because there was no central narrative, the Dynamic Earth has only two levels: exhibit and research. Like Becoming Human, the Dynamic Earth has dozens of hands-on exhibits in the exhibit level. However, one of the more powerful features is the database-driven GeoGallery, which allows visitors to find geological specimens based on specific criteria, such as classification or geographic origin. These two layers are directly connected, so that visitors can follow links from interpretive exhibits to explore specimens in greater detail. This function also works in reverse. For example, visitors can search for specimens in the GeoGallery and follow links to related content in the exhibit level, to see the specimen in context.

Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition

Fig. 4: Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition. http://www.lewisandclarkexhibit.org

This Web site (Fig. 4) draws on seven years of research into the artifacts of the Lewis and Clark expedition, presenting newly discovered artifacts and original source material gathered from over 60 institutions nationwide. Never before has such a wide and varied collection of Lewis and Clark material been available to the public in such a carefully researched and authenticated forum. But like the exhibition on which it is based, the on-line exhibition asks new questions about a familiar story. Instead of interpreting the journey of Lewis and Clark as an encounter with the natural landscape, it focuses on the human landscape - the social and cultural geographies that Lewis and Clark traversed. It portrays the crossing of cultural divides as perilous and daunting as the continental divides the explorers had to scale.

In this site, the experience level took the form of an interactive journey map in which visitors can explore the narrative of Lewis and Clark's expedition. The visitor follows the same path as the explorers, up the Missouri, across the Rocky Mountains, and to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the visitor encounters artifacts, audio quotes, and an ever-changing soundscape that blends sounds of the environment with traditional American Indian music from the tribes encountered by Lewis and Clark.

The exhibit level is based on ten provocative explorations of Indian cultures, along such themes as gender, politics, trade, mapping, and curing. Over a hundred interpretive exhibits combine text, photos, audio, and video, to examine the cultural geography of American Indians and the Euro-American world of Lewis and Clark.

Finally, the reference level is a database-driven gallery of over 300 artifacts used in the exhibition. Visitors can search by keyword and limit their searches to specific criteria, such as material or maker. Each of the records contains a high-resolution image of the artifact that visitors can examine in extremely close detail.

Numerous connections have been integrated into the exhibition levels. For example, in the journey map experience, as visitors learn about the tense stand-off between Lewis and Clark and the Teton Sioux, there is a prominent connection to a related thematic exhibit about diplomacy.


One of the inherent strengths of interactive media is its ability to reshape itself in order to provide multiple perspectives on the same subject. Applying this strength to on-line exhibitions gives organizers the opportunity to use a single on-line exhibit to meet the needs of diverse audiences. The Integrated On-line Exhibit Model is the summation of our studio's work to date in the creation of a workable pattern for coordinating the multiple roles of on-line exhibitions. The approach outlined in this paper is working model, and we hope that it will continue to evolve as new techniques are discovered and new ideas are implemented.


McLean, K. (2001). Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions. Washington, D.C.: Association of Science-Technology Centers.

Vergo, J., et.al. (2001). Less Clicking, More Watching: Results from the User-Centered Design of a Multi-Institutional Web Site for Art and Culture. In D. Bearman and J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web, Selected papers from Museums and the Web 2001. Pittsburg: Archives and Museum Informatics. 23-31. available http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/vergo/vergo.html