Siteseeing: Visiting Museum Exhibits Online

A dear friend of mine is the new mother of an adorable baby boy. Now that she has lots of time at home, she asked that I write a blog post about online museum experiences, ways to visit exhibits from the convenience of her computer. As I did some research, I realized that what she wanted from a museum website was different from what I have typically wanted from a museum website. Since I had lots of free time in which to visit museums in person, I wanted websites to give me the basics: hours, location, price for a ticket. I wanted to know if the day I planned to visit would have a special program, or a closure for a private event.

For my friend, however, the ideal museum website is not about finding out how to visit in person. A good museum website for her would be a way to learn about places and objects without needing to cart around a stroller and diaper bag. People can use museum websites to plan onsite visits, to supplement their real-life visits, or as a substitute because they cannot, for whatever reason, experience the real thing. At this time in my own life, that last category applies to most museums outside the DC area.

I began my search with these two lists: Accredited Online Colleges’ 50 Amazing Museum Exhibits You Can Enjoy Online and Artinfo’s Top Ten Best Museum Websites. (Please note that 50 Amazing Museum Exhibits is from 2010, and some links no longer work.) Following the suggestions on the lists, I looked for online exhibits and activities that were informative, vibrant, and easy to use. Here are some of my favorite discoveries:

“Idea hub.” The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has gotten a lot of buzz lately for its new website. Blogger Clairey Ross describes the website as “a safe place for unsafe ideas.” This website is a space for art news and ideas far beyond the museum itself. I must admit, I was overwhelmed, perhaps overstimulated, when I first clicked on the website. If you are quickly trying to look up one specific thing, this site may not be the best. (I had read that the Walker posts “Cat Breaks,” and the path to this specific feature seemed rather roundabout.) But if you are interested in spending some time exploring the art world, seeing where each link leads, this website is a good place to dive into.

Virtual tours. While several websites have virtual tours, my favorites were the tours offered by the Louvre and the Anne Frank House. The virtual aspects of both are well-done; you see and navigate what looks like a three-dimensional space, rather than just looking at a photo album. Furthermore, the tours provide information, as you explore, about the buildings themselves and the objects in them. Far from making me think I have now “done” these museums, these two websites whetted my appetite for visiting in real life.

Themed collection tours. The National Gallery of Art in DC provides numerous slide shows online, put together based on the artist or a common theme. Similarly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has themed tours on topics such as “Cats and Dogs,” “New Baby,” and “Etruscan Paintings.”

Kids’ stuff. I loved the American Museum of Natural History’s Ology section, which combines kid-friendly explanations and diagrams of scientific facts with games, interviews, and instructions for related offline activities. Users are encouraged to collect all the virtual cards, which serve as both an incentive to keep exploring the site and a way of showing how different concepts are connected. Tate Kids lets children see themselves as artists – they can create their own galleries of favorite art, both their own and the art in the museum’s collection.

Games and quizzes., affiliated with the New York Hall of Science, offers online games that demonstrate scientific principles. Among many other online features, England’s National Portrait Gallery has quote quizzes about Shakespeare and about women suffragists.

British Museum

Part of the Parthenon, photographed at the British Museum in 2004

Multimedia. The British Museum’s website includes access to the BBC radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects, along with other information and interactives related to these objects. One of these objects is the Parthenon; the narrator, British Museum director Neil MacGregor, discusses the historical background of the Parthenon and its meaning to people in different time periods. Visitors to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum’s website can watch videotaped lectures and chain reaction demonstrations.

E-cards. Both the MFA and Colonial Williamsburg allow audiences to send electronic greetings featuring museum objects. (Diana, I hope you received the ones I sent you!)

Shameless plug. I wrote this online exhibit for the National Postal Museum. It shows stamps in the museum’s collection and what some local middle schoolers learned about these stamps and the people they feature.

What are your favorite museum exhibits online? What makes an online exhibit successful?


June’s blog theme is Learning from Objects: Primary and Secondary Sources.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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2 Responses to Siteseeing: Visiting Museum Exhibits Online

  1. Diana says:

    Wow, this blog post is so much more comprehensive than I could have ever imagined! At first I was only thinking in terms of virtual tours, but now that I’ve read your article, I can see that there’s much more to online museum education than just virtual tours (although those are cool too). I think it’s so interesting that just 20 years ago, I probably couldn’t have “walked” the halls of the Louvre or participated in activities by the New York Hall of Science from the comfort of my home computer. I wonder how museum education will change in the future with the advent of even newer technology.

    I think that part of what makes an online exhibit successful is the ability to interact with the exhibit. You mentioned in your blog post that attending a museum’s virtual tour only whetted your appetite for the “real thing.” I can relate to that! I would assume that for many visitors, being at a museum isn’t simply about viewing the exhibits; it’s also about being among these ancient artifacts or great works of art, experiencing the exhibits with the people around you, quietly and respectfully navigating the rooms and walking the halls, and even taking in that museum “smell.” 😉 All of that is missing when you visit a museum online, so if an online exhibit isn’t interactive in some other way, there isn’t much to distinguish it from, say, simply reading a Wikipedia article. I think that your blog post cited some good examples of interactive online exhibits, and I’ll have to take the time to check them all out.

    Oh, and I did get your museum e-cards… thanks so much! I meant to respond to them, but it slipped my mind. Sorry about that! >_<

    Anyway, very awesome blog post! Thanks again, Laura!

    • Laura DiSciullo says:

      Thank YOU for such a comprehensive comment!

      I did find many museum websites with sections that read like Wikipedia articles. This was all good and well for anyone just wanting a written resource for information on their computer. But I did not recommend these sites to you, knowing that you wanted something that approximated the actual museum experience.

      No problem about not responding to the cards. I know how it is to get behind on correspondence. But I have sent ecards from a certain museum, and the ecards never reached the inboxes, so I wanted to make sure you got these.

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