March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Beyond the On-line Museum: Participatory Virtual Exhibitions

Jonathan Cooper, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia


Rather than creating a substitute for a real museum visit, Internet technology has the potential to extend and enrich the total museum experience, particularly in the areas of personal engagement, participation and community involvement. Participatory virtual exhibitions are one way this can be achieved. This paper examines a number of participatory virtual exhibition projects and discusses their different functional models and interfaces. One project, the recently launched myVirtualGallery (Art Gallery of NSW) is examined in detail, including discussion of important and interesting philosophical issues raised during debate amongst museum professional staff shortly before the project’s official launch.

Keywords: virtual, gallery, galleries, participatory, exhibitions, myVirtualGallery


When Internet technology was first applied in the context of museums, some people in the field spoke excitedly about how the Web could be used to create on-line virtual museums. No need to go to Paris to visit the Louvre, or New York to visit MOMA: people would be able to visit them from the comfort of their own homes. For a while the goal seemed to be to make the on-line experience resemble as closely as possible the physical experience, using simulated 3D spaces and VR (Virtual Reality) technology. While it is clear that no representation on a computer screen, no matter how high the resolution, could ever substitute for an encounter with a real object, physical museums also have certain built-in limitations.

Let us examine, side-by-side, some characteristics of the typical experiences of visiting a physical museum on the one hand, and a museum Web site collection area (or on-line museum) on the other. Although some of these observations are based on an art museum context, most will apply to museums generally.

One, perhaps obvious, advantage of the physical museum is that its objects, being physical, can be experienced directly (although perhaps behind glass), unlike objects in an on-line museum, which are representations of physical objects. Another advantage of the physical museum is that visitors can generally arrive without preparation and browse at their own pace. Someone visiting an on-line museum, however, is usually presented with two options: to search (e.g. by artist, title, keyword etc.) or to browse by curatorial area. Thus, visitors are expected to know what to search for, or else to have a grasp of the curatorial hierarchy of the museum (e.g. they might drill down from Australian, to 19th century, and then to Sculpture). A third advantage of the physical museum is that objects are carefully arranged by experts (curators) to appear in the context of other, related objects (generally related by location and/or time). Objects in an on-line museum, however, are actually records in a database and, as such, are normally not pre-arranged at all. On the other hand, the rarity (or uniqueness ) of physical museum objects, clearly one of their significant attractions, restricts each one to being in a single, fixed position at any given time. This, combined with architectural limitations of space, means that for many physical museums, only a small proportion of their objects are ever on public display at any time. This restriction has prompted some museums to create special areas where visitors may ask to view specific objects not on display (e.g. a prints and drawings study room).

Many physical museums offer aids to interpretation, such as catalogues, text panels, extended labels, guided tours, lectures, performances and other public programs. On-line museums offer extended information on some objects, but beyond that, visitors are generally expected to do their own exploration using internal and/or external search engines. One final advantage of the physical museum is that it can be a social, as well as a cultural, venue: many people visit in pairs or groups, although a solitary visit can also be rewarding. However, visiting an on-line museum (as with any Web site) is generally a solitary experience only.

This comparison is summarised in Table 1. Definite positive and negative characteristics indicated with [+] and [— ] respectively.

[+] Objects are physical 'Objects' are representations of physical objects
[+] Visitors browse objects without preparation and at their own pace The visitor is usually required to search (e.g. by artist, title, keyword etc.) and, hence, to know what to search for
The visitor may also be given the opportunity to browse by 'curatorial area'
[+] Visitors see objects arranged in the context of other, related objects 'Objects' are normally not pre-arranged, but stored in a database, ready to be retrieved by searching
Objects are selected and arranged by invisible experts (curators)
[— ] Objects are fixed in their positions
[— ] Each object can only be in one location at a time
[— ] Only a fraction of the collection is ever on public display at any time [+] The visitor can usually see more, and more obscure, 'objects' than in a physical museum
A visitor may have the opportunity to request specific objects not on display (e.g. in a prints and drawings study room)
Other aids to interpretation are available, if desired (e.g. catalogues, text panels, extended labels, tours, lectures and other public programs) Other aids to interpretation are normally not available immediately, but can usually be searched for with an internal and/or external search engine
[+] Visiting can be a social experience
(or a solitary experience)
Visiting is generally a solitary experience only

Table 1: A comparison of typical physical and online museum experiences
(Definite positive and negative characteristics indicated with [+] and [— ] respectively)

As we can see, both types of experience have strengths and limitations and are complementary. One limitation of the physical museum experience — that each physical object can be in only one location at a time — is simply a consequence of the laws of physics. Yet two strengths — the ability to enter unprepared and start browsing the collection (i.e. without having to know what to search for) and the presentation of objects in context — are, by convention, assumed to apply to the physical museum experience only. In addition, one characteristic of the physical museum — that objects are selected and arranged by curators — is both a strength and a limitation: a strength, because it makes unprepared browsing possible and because visitors benefit from the expertise of professionals; a limitation, because it severely restricts opportunities for visitors to create their own narratives or make their own personal connections. The reason for this requirement in a physical museum context is clear: it would be an abdication of responsibility for a museum to allow the public continually to handle and relocate its precious and unique objects. However, no such restrictions need apply in an on-line museum. The rest of this paper looks at how Internet technology can be applied to remove such limitations in practice and achieve personal engagement, participation and community involvement for an on-line museum's visitors.

Navigable Panoramas

A reasonably straightforward way to bring the browsing experience to the Web is with navigable panorama technology such as QuickTime™ VR, in which a series of panoramic images of an exhibition is created and clickable regions inserted for navigation and zooming in on individual objects. While it is theoretically possible to create a navigable panorama of an imaginary exhibition, this technology is generally used as an extension of photo-documentation: to capture a physical exhibition and to partly mimic the experience of visiting it.

Private Bookmarks

One partial solution to the problem of achieving personal engagement and visitor participation is to give each visitor some private space to collect illustrated bookmarks of favourite objects, such as offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, with its My Met Gallery ( The interface is very sparse: below each illustrated object record in the general collection database is a link: Add to My Met Gallery. If you are registered with the Web site (and your computer accepts cookies) you are taken to a page with a thumbnail of your chosen artwork and basic caption details, below any other artworks you may have chosen previously. To modify your selection you have just two options: remove an artwork or add another; there is no facility for rearranging them, or adding personal notes; nor is there any way to share your lists with others (short of sharing your login and password).

Virtual Gallery

It has been shown (Muchinsky, 2000) that participation and recognition are strong motivating factors: people usually feel more positively towards an activity if they feel they have contributed something meaningful towards a tangible outcome, and even more so if their contributions are publicly recognised in some way. Thus, if a visitor were given the opportunity not only to select personally meaningful objects from a collection but also to arrange them, write something about that choice and make the annotated arrangement publicly available, it is reasonable to expect the value of that activity for the visitor to be higher than for just making a private selection. This may have been the thinking behind a project of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF): Virtual Gallery. Running from 2001 to 2005, Virtual Gallery allowed any visitor to choose works from the collections and create a small exhibition with a title and optional introductory text. This exhibition then became part of the FAMSF Web site, meaning that others could view it. (Note: The FAMSF Virtual Gallery has now been replaced by My Gallery:

The entry page of Virtual Gallery featured a representation of six rooms, each one containing a link to an exhibition in the form of a thumbnail image. Each exhibition had four walls, with an average of two or three artworks per wall. As you moved your mouse-pointer over an artwork, basic caption details appeared at the bottom of the page. If you clicked on the artwork, a new page (from another part of the FAMSF site) popped up with extra information about it. To find artworks for your own exhibition (see Figure 1), you searched the collection, using keywords (possibly an artist’s name). The results appeared as thumbnails along the bottom of the screen, ten at a time. To choose one, you just dragged it on to a wall. Artworks could be enlarged to their maximum possible size (and reduced again), moved, and deleted. When you clicked SAVE, you were prompted for a title, an (optional) short description and even a list of email addresses of people to invite to your ‘opening’. Yours then displaced the oldest of the six current exhibitions and remained there until, six exhibitions later, it too got pushed off, into a publicly viewable archive.

Fig.1: Virtual Gallery - Create a Gallery, Fine Art Museums of San Francisco (

Fig.1: Virtual Gallery — Create a Gallery, Fine Art Museums of San Francisco

The large number of exhibitions (over two thousand) in the Virtual Gallery archive, or Index testifies to this tool’s popularity and ease of use. However, many appeared hastily assembled. A more likely explanation than a lack of care is that each exhibition had to be completed within a single session; there was no way to save an exhibition-in-progress. I suspect that many visitors would have been initially excited by the possibilities of this tool, would have started creating an exhibition to see how it worked, but then realised that they did not have the time right then to give the task the attention it deserved. (It is perhaps an indictment of the hectic pace of modern life, but knowing that a task requires a certain uninterrupted block of time is an almost certain recipe for indefinite procrastination!) This was exacerbated by the fact that every exhibition, unless abandoned mid-way, went public automatically.

When asked about the potential for abuse of an unvetted exhibition-creation tool by mischievous or malicious ‘curators’, Andrew Fox, the creator of Virtual Gallery, wrote:

... so far I have not run across any offensive content on our virtual gallery. Users on [the] whole have been very well behaved. I have not had the time to vet all 2000+ "galleries" but those that I've randomly sampled have been quite fit for public consumption. Many of the ideas and uses of the galleries are in fact quite remarkable. It's interesting to see what users make of your collections. (Fox 2005)

This raises another interesting point: If a remarkable exhibition were created, nothing could prevent it from being effectively lost, once it got pushed off the front page, into an alphabetically arranged archive, or ’Index.

Despite these limitations, Virtual Gallery was a groundbreaking and empowering tool. It was also personally groundbreaking because, although I had been dreaming of creating “a place for people to curate their own exhibitions of works from our collection (with commentary)” (Cooper 1998) for almost four years, it was not until I saw Virtual Gallery that the dream took shape. Coincidentally, in the same year as my memo, Scott Sayre, director of print and electronic media at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, was quoted as saying:

Students and teachers should begin to look at the Net as a museum in itself. ... They could easily put together a thematic collection of images from all over the world on a Web page; examine the images, their themes, and artists' techniques; create links; and write critical conclusions. Teachers might build curriculum around having students connecting works, and they can publish their own best works and lessons on the Web. (Valenza 1998)


So it was that, in May 2005, the Art Gallery of New South Wales launched a new interactive tool named myVirtualGallery (, with the following features:

  • A registration/login system to enable exhibitions to be created over many sessions
  • The ability to have any number of walls, in the form of a closed loop, so that the last wall appears to be adjacent to the first
  • An introductory text panel on the title wall, plus the ability to have text panels on any other wall
  • An approval process (rather than all exhibitions going public automatically)
  • Past exhibitions retrievable, by searching (by title, exhibition and creator's name) and browsing
  • The ability for outstanding exhibitions to be featured for as long as required

Briefly, this is how it works (see Fig. 2). Every new exhibition starts with a single wall. You search the collection (using a single search field), choose an artwork and drag it onto the wall, then give the exhibition a title and a short introduction (which can be changed later) and click SAVE; your exhibition is now in the system. You can continue building it — taking as much time as you like — by adding extra walls and artworks. Exhibitions can be submitted to be made public by clicking SUBMIT. This changes the status of the exhibition from ‘under construction’ to ‘pending approval’ (to temporarily prevent further changes) and sends an email to the virtual gallery manager (who may be different from the Web site manager). Approved exhibitions automatically appear on the Exhibitions List page, from the newest to the oldest, and selected exhibitions can also be made to appear in the ‘Featured Exhibitions’ section on the Welcome page.

Fig. 2: myVirtualGallery - Edit Exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW (

Fig. 2: myVirtualGallery — Edit Exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW

Philosophical Issues

The problems encountered in the development of myVirtualGallery were certainly more than just technical: the project prompted lively debate amongst in-house curators, fellow educators and marketing people. One or two curators regarded the idea of untrained people ‘curating’ virtual exhibitions as pointless and trivialising (as though we were saying, in effect, that curating required no skill or understanding) whereas others only had a problem with exhibitions going live — i.e. appearing on the Web site to everyone. This raises some interesting and fundamental questions about the role of a museum, in particular an art museum:

  • Who has the right to make public statements about objects of public significance, in particular, about artworks?
  • Is there such a thing as a definitive, authoritative interpretation of an object or artwork?
  • Do the reputations of artists, and art, need to be protected? (If so, is this part of a curator's job?)
  • Should a museum allow itself (e.g. its acquisition choices) to be publicly criticised, in the same way that newspapers do in their Letters to the Editor?

This debate revealed the existence of a spectrum of opinion. At one extreme is a belief in the authority of the curator; i.e. that only a professional curator should be allowed to curate exhibitions and interpret artworks in the public arena; this I shall label authoritism. At the other extreme is a belief in the equal validity of everyone's views: thus, anyone should be allowed to curate and interpret, and share personal contributions with others. This view, which I shall label autonomism, was not represented in its extreme form within the discussion. Not all curators were equally extreme in their authoritist views; however, all those tending towards authoritism were indeed curators. This may be a natural reflection of the necessary, inward focus of the curatorial profession — in contrast to the outward focus of museum education. However, the extreme authoritist view also appears to be a conservative reaction to a perceived liberalism and ‘dumbing-down’ of art. For example, witness Heather MacDonald's sarcastic attack on what she describes as ‘cringing curatorial populism’:

Let the people do the curating! is a widespread doctrine. Heaven forbid that museums make value judgments or demonstrate specialized knowledge that the average Joe may not possess. That would be just so authoritarian! Better to open everything up to democratic decision making, however uninformed. (MacDonald 2001)

There is probably also a continuing nervousness about the Internet: whereas a physical exhibition has a finite duration and a finite, controllable set of visitors, content on the Web can theoretically remain available indefinitely, to an unseen audience.

  • The word ‘curator’ was removed when referring to someone who creates a virtual exhibition
  • The introductory panel was labelled My introduction and internal text panels, My response
  • The button to click when an exhibition is finished and ready to be considered for public display was originally named COMPLETE; this was changed to SUBMIT (and certain help text changed accordingly) to make it clearer that ’completed’ exhibitions are not automatically approved, that there is an assessment process
  • A disclaimer was placed above the exhibition wall: NOTE: Opinions expressed in this virtual exhibition are solely those of its creator
  • A group of linked pages was created and connected the experience of creating a virtual exhibition to the role of a curator in a physical museum (e.g. Interview with a curator and How a real exhibition happens)
  • The pages were moved to the Web site's Education section (it was originally under Collection). Incidentally, it is interesting to consider why this would (partly) appease the authoritists. Perhaps the museum education realm is seen as one where strange and inappropriate things, from a curator's point of view, already happen; so, as long as it is quarantined there, the damage may be minimised!

Public Responses

The public response to myVirtualGallery, although initially slow, has been increasing steadily. In the six months between the official launch and the end of December 2005, exactly 250 exhibitions were created by non-staff. Of these, 205 (82%) were never submitted. Of the remaining 45 exhibitions, 28 (62%, or 11% of the total) were submitted but rejected (with comments) — and never resubmitted — and 17 (38%, or 7% of the total) were submitted and eventually approved, mainly with minor modifications (see Fig. 3). From the relatively low number of approved exhibitions it can be seen that the criteria went beyond the mere absence of libelous, offensive and factually incorrect statements. The aim — at least in the early stages — has been to produce a set of public exhibitions that are insightful, informative and thought-provoking.

Fig. 3: myVirtualGallery exhibitions 26 May - 30 August 2005

Fig. 3: myVirtualGallery exhibitions 26 May — 30 August 2005

The remaining statistics refer to all exhibitions (under construction and approved), except those created by museum staff.

Despite the fact that users are allowed to create exhibitions over a period of time and to make considered responses with text panels, roughly 90% of exhibitions were created and last modified within the one day, and 75% have only a brief introduction but no other text panels. What is clear from this is that just giving people the opportunity to spend more time, attention and effort creating their own virtual exhibitions does not automatically mean that they will take advantage of this opportunity. It appears that most people still create exhibitions in a single session, probably just to see how the application works. However, by also allowing people to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to submit their exhibitions (and, as the figures reveal, most are never submitted), the experience for viewers can be made more rewarding, because they do not have to wade through countless ‘disposable’ exhibitions.

There was a concern, before the launch, that the task of processing submitted exhibitions would be too onerous and time-consuming for me. Fortunately, however, this has not been the case so far. I have even managed to write fairly detailed responses to all submissions, explaining my decisions and offering constructive suggestions. However, if the use of myVirtualGallery by schools continues to increase — with more classes submitting batches of exhibitions at a time — I will probably need to involve teachers in the assessment process somehow.

In addition to 20 exhibitions about a single artist, there were 22 — by the general public — in which the title of every artwork contained a common word. An additional 50 exhibitions were created by students in the one (year 4/5) class, and used the word Aboriginal, presumably at the direction of their teacher. Searching by title — a less-than-ideal substitute for searching by subject keyword — was necessary, unfortunately, as the collection database contained no keywords field.

One surprising outcome was the variety of ways that users presented their chosen artworks on the walls. In a significant number of exhibitions, artworks were staggered (hung at different heights). In some, artworks were crowded onto walls, while in others, each wall contained a single, small-to-medium-sized artwork. It is worth considering how much of contemporary western museum practice in the display of two-dimensional artworks is based on physical factors (such as the heights of visitors), how much is based on psychological principles, and how much is based on fashion. (Is it acceptable for a museum to host virtual exhibitions that resemble a crowded living room wall?)

A commonly observed problem was that of mismatched relative sizes, where an artwork that is quite small in real life was made to look similar in size to a much larger work. Ensuring that all artworks in an exhibition are automatically in proper and accurate scale to each other, while technically possible, would not be desirable in all cases (otherwise, some would have to appear miniscule). Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge in some way the issue of relative size of physical objects. Perhaps there needs to be an easier way to convey the real scale of an artwork in the creation phase.

Technical Issues and Ideas for Version 2

In order for myVirtualGallery to operate at a reasonable speed over an average Internet connection, it was decided that thumbnail images (specifically, the lowest of three available resolutions for all works illustrated in the collection database, with a maximum dimension of 152 pixels) would be used throughout. It is only when an image is double-clicked that it appears at a higher resolution, in a separate window. However, this means that if artworks are enlarged too far on the wall (something that users seem to do fairly often), they appear blurred and jagged. One solution that is being considered is to use thumbnails for creating exhibitions (thus speeding up searching) but the next higher resolution for viewing them. Of course, this would still have a significant effect on the loading time of exhibitions with many artworks.

Although the ability to search for exhibitions by creator/curator, title and introduction is a significant improvement over an alphabetic index of titles, a valuable addition would be the ability to search by artworks. Perhaps a visitor, while viewing an exhibition, could click a button that says View other exhibitions that share artworks with this one. This would take the community networking power of myVirtualGallery to another level.

There is one significant way in which the process of creating a myVirtualGallery exhibition has turned out to be inferior to the process of creating a physical one. Currently, searching for artworks creates a shortlist of thumbnail images, one which can be refined by removing unwanted items. However, this shortlist is not saved at the end of a session. A real-life curator will often spend weeks mulling over a list of possible artworks before doing anything else. This is commonly done with photocopies of the artworks loosely attached to one or more pieces of board, and the process will involve rearranging the images to explore connections. Perhaps the ideal virtual gallery would involve a two-part process: the first resembling My Met Gallery (but where one could rearrange images in a large, two-dimensional space), and the second resembling the current myVirtualGallery.

Summary and Conclusion

The experiences of visiting physical and on-line museums have different strengths and limitations and are complementary. Access (in a museum context) is normally measured by the ease with which any visitor can experience the museum's collection. Virtual gallery tools can extend that to a more active, personal engagement by allowing visitors to create new content out of an existing resource and add to that resource. This has the potential to create a new and vital form of cultural networking. However, planners and developers of such tools should be prepared for, and be sensitive to, resistance (ranging from nervousness to hostility) from in-house curatorial staff.


myVirtualGallery was developed by (, using a combination of Macromedia Flash technology and the MySource Classic open-source content management system. Conceptual design: the author, in collaboration with John-Paul Syriatowicz. Programming: Mark Brydon and Marc McIntyre. Visual design: Casey Frendin.


Cooper, J.M. (2001). AGNSW 12 month plan for the Web. Internal memo to senior staff, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 11 July 2001.

Fox, A. (2005). RE: Virtual Gallery. E-mail to the author, 11 March 2005.

MacDonald, H. (2005). The Met's Triumphant Democratic Elitism. In City Journal, Winter 2001. (accessed 19 Sep 2005).

Muchinsky, R.M. (2000). Psychology Applied to Work. Belmont, CA, USA: Wadsworth, 341-46.

Valenza, J.K. (1998). Real art museums without walls. In Technology Connection, Vol. 4, Issue 9, Feb 1998, 10., (accessed 9 Sep 2005).

Cite as:

Cooper, J., Beyond the On-line Museum: Participatory Virtual Exhibitions , in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at