Digital projects and online exhibitions: why bother?

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Precursor to Life

Digital projects and online exhibitions extend the educational reach of historians and cultural institutions. They are fantastic platforms to share and exhibit information to a vast public and they often enable the public to help shape its design and message. However great the benefits of online exhibitions and projects are, there are a plethora of challenges the curators and designers must overcome. Ensuring that you have the legal authority to post images, text, and audio/visual materials, deciding the best platform to use, how the page will look, what menus you will use, where will links go, acquiring funding, and managing competing ideas are only a few of the challenges facing the creators of digital projects.

For a historian writing a book, acquiring images to illustrate their points can be complicated and expensive. Depending on the situation, locating images for an online project can be much more difficult than finding them for a printed project or it can be much simpler. Many institutions do not have procedures or set fee schedules for using their materials online. Due to this, acquiring images can be a costly and time consuming pursuit. However, depending on the scope and audience of the digital project the creator may choose to ask for forgiveness, rather than permission. It is very easy to remove an image off of an online project. The curator/designer must decide how far they want to push fair use.

Maintenance is also an ongoing concern. Most likely controlling the humidity and temperature is not a concern for an online exhibition, however maintenance is still required. The software needs to be updated and you need to ensure links stay active.

Another issue concerning images is deciding which ones and how many to use. It is very easy to upload an overabundance of images to an online project. You did the research and put in the effort to find all of these great images, why not use them? We must be careful not to inundate digital projects with excess images, text, and information simply because it is so easy to upload it . Similar to physical exhibitions we need to curate what images and information we want to include.

Also similar to physical exhibitions the creation of a digital project may be a collaborative effort. There may also be competing ideas of what the best platform to use is, how much information should be displayed, and how it should look. I am currently working on the first online exhibition for the historical society I work for. It was originally intended to be an online exhibit about all of the centennial houses within the village. There would be a photo, basic information about the house (build date, architect, style, etc.) and a short paragraph about the homes historical significance (if any). However, some involved with the organization believe it should be a curated database rather than an exhibition. It would include all of the information the society has about the house and all of the photos. Eventually, they would like the project to expand to all 800+ houses in the village.

This example includes a few of the issues I mentioned earlier: curating what information you include, managing competing ideas, choosing the best platform, etc. Online exhibitions can be as time consuming, costly, and frustrating to create as physical exhibitions are.  However, the benefit is that countless more people will be able to benefit from an online project versus a physical exhibition. Hopefully those who explore your online project will then choose to visit your institution to explore even further.

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One thought on “Digital projects and online exhibitions: why bother?

  1. Provocative title! I see that you have first-hand experience with trying to incorporate multiple expectations for a digital exhibition into a single project with limited capabilities/resources. How do you manage these expectations? Working in the progressive expansion of a project from the seemingly straightforward architecture of a digital exhibition into a repository presents some challenges.

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