Emerging from the slump, its time to get all fired up again; its time for a declaration of intent, a creed, a manifesto (or something) (trumpets, cheerleaders, confetti, the works)!
Setting out on this project, I had the naïve idea that the concept of doing web exhibitions was a newly found and yet unexploited territory, and that I would be able to shine some light on the potentials for developing this rich seam of digital delights. This, of course, turned out not to be the case. The reality is that web exhibitions emerged with the dawn of the world wide web, and since then, pretty much every avenue of www development has also been exploited in an exhibition context. Accordingly, today’s museum audience can visit virtual reality exhibitions in Second Life; revisit augmented physical exhibitions online; remix digitalized cultural heritage to their hearts’ content (licenses allowing); download podcasts and print out personalised plans pre-visit; rummage through endless ressources; engage in online museum communities; contribute content and explore 1001 storylines; vlog, tag, digg, zoom, tweet, share and more. And everybody’s at it, in Denmark and abroad.
So what’s the point? What’s the problem? Luckily, I still have one. My problem is, that for all the weird and wonderful web exhibitions I have been exploring in the last few months, I still haven’t found one that really, truly did it for me. I can think of quite a few that I liked, there’s lots of great stuff out there. But none of them really stuck with me, I was never truly engaged, and trying to recall them I end up with a blurred mish mash.
Now, I don’t expect to find the holy grail of web-exhibitions; I don’t believe that I will come up with a concept so brilliant that it will give others the experience I wish I had found. (I still wish I could, and I will give it my best shot). But I think my frustration pinpoints the problem of web exhibitions: they just add to the online noise, when what we crave is music.
My lack of engagement, no doubt, has a lot to do with the superficial mental browser mode I was in whilst surfing the net for great examples, and less to do with the actual content or format of the exhibitions. Still, isn’t this what museums are up against? Isn’t this the reality of life on the net, just as the reality of the physical museum is that visitors spend an average of just 3 seconds on a piece of art?
The modern day wealth of information and entertainment, available at a click, has made us rather blasé. Yet all this relentless surfing, all this killing time online is perhaps fuelled by a hope or desire to find something worthwhile. Something that slows us down, stops the browsing. Perhaps the creed of web designers – and museums – shouldn’t be ‘Don’t make me think!’ but rather ‘Do make me think!’. Make me feel, make me wonder or marvel, provoke me. Don’t just inform me.
Sometimes, of course, we are looking for specific information, and need this information and relevant ressources to be as readily available and easy to find as possible. To this end, advanced search tools, functional meta-data, accessible taxonomies and a focus on usability is the key to making digitalized cultural heritage a usable ressource for the public. But this functional approach to online museum content is only valuable if we already have a quest, if we know what we are searching for. In order to engage us, to sow that seed of interest, the web exhibition must go further than to just present us with representations of objects and related facts.
Original objects and works of art are powerful things. Taking my son to see Solvognen for the first time actually brought tears to my eyes; seeing Van Gogh’s paintings live made me realise what the fuss was all about. Here was something that even the best coffee-table reproduction could not capture. In this light, the online iteration is no match for the real thing, the physical exhibition.
But instead of lamenting the loss of aura, the lameness of the reproduction, maybe we could see it as a liberation? Perhaps the physical museum is too bound to the objects themselves (not to mention restricted by how these precious objects must be treated in order to survive being on display). Perhaps online instead we can put a microphone to the stories they hold, and turn up the volume, free from the hushed reverence of the museum halls?
It’s all been done before. But it’s still worth doing again and again until we begin to get it just right.