Digital Exhibitions As A Medium? A Chat With John Summers On The Future Of Digital Exhibitions
When my previous exhibition, Transition Related Surgery: The Fight For Access, went from a physical exhibition to a digital one, I got interested in the ways that digital exhibitions are different. Scrolling through the resources that were available to me, namely JSTOR through the Toronto Public Library, I was let down to discover that very little had been written about them as a medium. A lot of what I found approached digital exhibitions with the same mentality, same rules, as in a physical building. This was not satisfying to me. I started forming some theories of my own which I would carry through into my exhibition. After I was hired by the Transgender Archives to develop a digital exhibition, I knew I wanted to take this line of questioning even further. So I sat down with John Summers, author of Creating Exhibits That Engage and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.
Summers and I both agreed that museums were not taking full advantage of digital, although interestingly for different reasons. For myself, I was interested in the process of writing for a digital exhibition. I was taught very straightforwardly that there is only so much text that a visitor will read in an exhibition. In my head, I tied this to Tony Bennett and “The Exhibitionary Complex”. I am certain we have all been in an exhibition and felt like we were holding everyone else up because we wanted to read everything. Maybe you were with people and they were faster readers than you, so you did not fully take in the text that was in front of you. These pressures shaped the text hierarchies that I was told to write; but they were not present in the digital space. You could take as much time as you like. You could even come back whenever you wanted. The physicality of the space did not impact your reading. And so I started to inquire, what is the right amount of text for a digital exhibition?
Summers came from a different perspective. He lamented what he called the “page and paragraph” format of digital exhibitions. He describes this style as very “scrolly”, an image followed by words followed by another image and more words and so on. These are more like blog posts than they are exhibitions. Exhibitions, to him, are a “comprehensible three dimensional journey.” Three-dimensional in this sense does not mean physically though. It can also be narratively. Many digital exhibitions offer a single linear narrative that they expect the visitor to go through, but these lack the ability of brick-and-mortar exhibitions to be drawn to something across the room. This is an essential part of the museum-going experience but is missing from these digital spaces.
To him, designing an effective digital exhibit is a lot like video game design. The exhibit needs to be open and allow for freedom of exploration. It is centred around choice. To highlight this, Summers provided an example; The Map of Metal. This website presents the history of metal music in the form of an interactive map for a fictional universe where the different features of the world represent the genres of metal. Clicking on a genre will bring up a brief description as well as a collection of songs that represent that genre. The songs can keep playing even as you click on another genre, letting the visitor have control over how long they spend with any given section.
One of the big solutions for Summers was to play with the design of the exhibition. Digital can be a lot more flexible than physical. Design has the potential to disrupt the almost textbook-like nature that a lot of digital exhibitions fall prey to. Introducing other elements such as visuals (beyond simply including pictures to refer to) or narration. Podcasts are a great example of this, Summers notes. Podcasts offer these highly engaging and immersive narratives that differ from, say, a docent tour. Perhaps exhibitions could take a lesson from these other mediums to challenge their preconceptions.
Even when sticking to the words on a page, there are opportunities to go beyond the simple paragraph structure. One was to play with the text like it was some concrete poetry. Treat it less as a block of text but more as a way to convey meaning in its shape and appearance. Another was having multiple paragraphs that the reader could swap between. Each having a different style or narrative.
As he was describing this, I was reminded of a review for the iOS game Infinity Blade, discussed in a video by video essayist Jacob Geller at around the 11 minute mark in the video. The game is about getting better with each death, improving upon the previous character and getting further. To reflect this gameplay, the review also would change. The text would be altered to tell a new story. It actively played with its meaning to better reflect the game. These are the kinds of things that exhibitions should be playing with.
The solutions discussed here are not the only options. These are but starting points to consider where things can go. None of the techniques or theories have been fully tested. As with any good questions, there may not be a definite answer about what an effective digital exhibition looks like. They will always be flexible. Hopefully we can start to see a shift towards more experimentation and research. COVID-19 highlighted how valuable the digital world can be, it would be a shame if we did not try to take full advantage of it.
I would like to thank John Summers for agreeing to talk to me and having this fantastic conversation. His book, Creating Exhibits That Engage: A Manual for Museums and Historical Organizations, is available through Rowman & Littlefield and on Amazon.
Bennett, Tony. “The Exhibitionary Complex.” In The Birth of the Museum, 59-88. London: Routledge, 1995.
Galbraith, Patrick. “Map of Metal.” Accessed November 21, 2021. https://mapofmetal.com/.
Geller, Jacob. “The Future of Writing About Games.” Jacob Geller. August 28, 2020. YouTube video, 22:41. https://youtu.be/Vr6pA15xuFc.
Summers, John. October 9, 2021. Interview by Amelia Smith.
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Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.