Towards a new concept for online museums: storytelling, behavior, and content

Karolina Ziulkoski, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, USA, Olivia Reid, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, USA

Abstract

What principles apply when a museum exists online only? This paper addresses the experiences and lessons learned while developing the YIVO Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum, an institution designed from the ground up to exist primarily digitally. The central issue that guided the development of the project was understanding what defines a standalone online museum. We are used to seeing the digital presence of museums as an extension of a physical institution, usually focused on exploring collections. But when a museum exists only online, is it necessary to follow the same established rules of physical exhibitions? How can we go beyond collections explorers? This led to thinking about the concept of an online museum anew. Three main points stood out when addressing the questions posed above, which, despite being developed as part of a specific project, are lessons that can be applied to online exhibitions in general. In this paper, they are examined individually as well as how they relate to each other.

Keywords: Online Museum, Digital Exhibition, storytelling, internet behavior, digital experiences, interactivity

Introduction

What principles apply when a museum exists online only? This paper addresses the experiences and lessons learned while developing the YIVO Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum, an institution designed from the ground up to exist primarily digitally.

The central issue that guided the development of the project was understanding what defines a standalone online museum. We are used to seeing the digital presence of museums as an extension of a physical institution, usually focused on exploring collections. But when a museum exists only online, is it necessary to follow the same established rules of physical exhibitions? How can we go beyond collections explorers?

This led to thinking about the concept of an online museum anew. Three main points stood out when addressing the questions posed above, which, despite being developed as part of a specific project, are lessons that can be applied to online exhibitions in general. These issues intertwine – they are interdependent:

  • The digital space is a medium in itself, different from physical exhibitions. The focus should be on engaging experiences that facilitate understanding of the content and work well with the behavior of people in the digital space;
  • Storytelling can and should take front and center when developing online exhibitions. This means that the focus might change from individual artifacts to a broader narrative that encompasses those artifacts instead;
  • Use different levels of information to deliver more complexity as users go deeper to avoid long blocks of text while also presenting all the contextual information without losing historical nuances.

In this paper, we discuss our research findings as well as how we applied these findings to our case study, the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Beba Epstein: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Girl.”

 

The Digital Space is a Unique Space

Museum and gallery exhibitions are made of two main components: the artifacts presented and the place in which they are being displayed. When developing a fully digital exhibition, the physical element is completely removed, and you can only show copies instead of original artifacts. When it comes to the actual objects presented in exhibitions, Walter Benjamin affirms that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence” (3). What you lose in a reproduction is the authenticity, which can only be ascribed in the presence of the original (Benjamin 3).

Falk and Dierking established the Contextual Model of Learning, which includes three main dimensions: the personal, sociocultural, and physical. The physical context is described as including “the architecture and ‘feel’ of the building, as well as the objects and artifacts contained within. These physical context factors strongly influence how visitors move through the museum, what they observe, and what they remember. […] The smell of the elephant house at a zoo may influence how long a time certain visitors will spend watching elephants” (Falk and Dierking 28). Not only it is impossible to recreate all of the aspects of a physical museum in a digital setting – there is currently no technology that can reproduce smell or touch through digital devices –, but when developing an exhibition meant to be accessed through the internet there is no control of the physical environment altogether.

You cannot know when or how the audience is going to interact with the exhibition. Moreover, the same authors assert that “media also has the power to create a visual context for objects, to help to place them in their appropriate historical and/or cultural context. Context helps visitors to better understand objects to transcend their concrete characteristics” (Falk and Dierking 120). Given the importance of establishing context, and “since digital objects are mobile, modifiable, and extensional, digital collections can be developed in ways that are impossible for physical objects” (Srinivasan, Ramesh, et al 747), the first lesson learned is that the digital space is a medium in itself, different from physical exhibitions. You cannot replicate the experience of visiting a gallery online, and the opposite is also true: several digital experiences cannot be translated to physical exhibitions. The key is to understand the behavior of users in digital environments and then apply it to the exhibition instead of trying to translate the strategies used in in-person galleries to online formats.

 

Storytelling

New media’s impact on our culture has been immense. New modes of expression such as documentaries, feature films, news shows, blogs, and tweets developed and enriched our culture. Along with them, new behavioral patterns arose” (Westera 29).

So how do people use the internet? One of the most popular uses of the web is to get information, of all kinds. For example, according to a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center, 43% of Americans report often getting news online (Gottfried and Shearer). Another report from the Pew Research Center, from 2018, canvassed technology experts, scholars, and health specialists on the future of digital life and well-being (Anderson and Rainie). Several interviewees noted that one of the most positive aspects of digital life is the easy access to knowledge. Kenneth Cukier, senior editor at The Economist, wrote that “in terms of the spread of knowledge, the past two decades have been as revolutionary as when early man harnessed fire.” Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, said, “I count as an unfathomable luxury the ability to look up most any fact, any book, any news article at no cost and in seconds.”

People also use the internet to seek entertainment. The streaming platform Netflix revealed in 2017 that members of the platform around the world watched a little more than one billion hours of content per week around the world (“2017 on Netflix – A Year in Bingeing”). The users of video platform YouTube watch more than one billion hours a day of content in over 100 countries and 80 languages (“YouTube for Press”).

Information and entertainment are presented mostly through storytelling, be it through videos or news articles. It is no less important in museum settings: “narratives and stories are the culture threads that clearly connect the objects shared with collective cultural meaning” (Srinivasan et al 739). In fact, research done by IBM found that participants were “more engaged by narrative multimedia experiences with a human voice than interactive databases of cultural artefacts and knowledge” (Vergo at al. qtd. in Birchall and Faherty). Another research project from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York regarding their website’s object pages found that users were more interested in the descriptive text that tells the story of an artwork rather than “tombstone” details such as medium, date, accession number, dimensions, etc. (Villaespesa, Tankha and Shehu). One of the conclusions of this research is that users need more context to create a stronger sense of narrative, which makes them explore further.

Thus, storytelling can and should take front and center when developing online exhibitions. This means that the focus changes from highlighting individual artifacts to a broader narrative that encompasses those artifacts instead. Our society is driven by storytelling (Harari), and this is especially true in digital environments: social media, games, video content, forums, standalone websites, entertainment options – all of them are ways of immersing oneself in a story or telling your own story, but this is not always fully embraced by exhibitions, or done so in a very limited manner; for example, only focusing on one aspect of the story of an artifact.

Given these findings, in the YIVO Cernia Slovin Online Museum we use storytelling and narrative-driven experiences to share the life of an individual. It is possible to use the story of a person to provide an emotional and personal connection to a time or place in history. We utilized the story of Beba Epstein to do this in our first exhibition. By providing a personal narrative, visitors are able to connect with Beba and her story before going further into historical context and artifacts.

When we started this project, we decided to use the autobiography that Beba wrote when she was 11 or 12 years old. Her account is very rich in details and shows how her family lived in their everyday life. It was not unlike that of many children today, irrespective of their background or faith: she talks about what she learned at school, how she hoped to go to college one day, how she spent her summers in resort towns swimming, and how much she loved her family. We saw the potential for a connection with contemporary young audiences. So we used this as a jumping-off point into the history and culture of East European Jewish during the interwar period. The autobiography and other testimonials guided us to different topics to create experiences and curate artifacts and objects around.

Figure 1: Front cover of Beba Epstein’s autobiography

From Beba’s personal account of her childhood, we were able to draw from the YIVO archives and library to provide artifacts and historical context that highlighted moments and topics culled from Beba’s autobiography. For example, Beba wrote of attending camps and health colonies during her summer breaks. We used this as an opportunity not only to highlight Beba’s experience, but also to provide examples of other camps at the time and to provide context as to why summer camps and health colonies were a vital part of childhood and young adulthood during interwar Poland.

Figure 2: Comic strips produced for the exhibition that show the experience of attending six different Jewish summer camps in interwar Poland.

We were able to continue to tell Beba’s life story through testimonials she gave in the 1980s providing information on her life leading up to the war, during the Holocaust, and immigration afterward. Like with her autobiography, we were able to use testimonials as a starting point and a guide for what to search for in our archives and library to provide historical context.

Figure 3: Testimonial given by Beba Epstein as an adult

Her personal story provides a means of connecting with the audience and serves as a springboard to learn more about the time and place she lived through several artifacts from the YIVO collections. Following a personal story also serves as a way to underscore the importance of collecting and preserving these artifacts: it is only through them that we can learn and understand history in general. With this, we aim at achieving the maximum educational impact described by Falk and Dierking: “finding the sweet spot that intellectually nudges individuals to actively engage with important topics, ideas, and behaviors that are just beyond their current awareness” (303). Thus, we greatly expanded the impact of observing a single artifact by knitting them all together to look at the bigger picture of history.

 

Digital Experiences

When developing exhibitions, content and experiences are indiscernible. “It is appropriate, given the nature of museums, that exhibitions and programs be concerned about content, as defined by a curator or other subject matter specialist, but when content becomes the only consideration, it reduces their effectiveness. A better approach is to find ways to use the content to create visitor experiences, or to find ways to create visitor experiences that involve the content” (Falk and Dierking 272).

This is especially true when such content is geared towards younger audiences. The Millennials – those who graduated from high school from the year 2000 and beyond (Kundanis 5) – consume experiences as opposed to status or ideology like previous generations (Francis and Hoefel). According to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey, when it comes to Generation Z – those born between 1995 and 2010 –, they look at their consumption as a way to access rather than possess. They were born into a connected world and are looking for truth and ethics. They are also “more comfortable absorbing knowledge online than in traditional institutions of learning” (Francis and Hoefel).

When developing such experiences, another important point is novelty. According to Vosoughi et al., “one alternative explanation emerges from information theory and Bayesian decision theory. Novelty attracts human attention, contributes to productive decision-making, and encourages information sharing because novelty updates our understanding of the world. When information is novel, it is not only surprising, but also more valuable, both from an information theoretic perspective and from a social perspective.”

It is important, however, to avoid getting caught in a trap of developing an experience only for the experience’s sake, especially when dealing with interactive digital features. It is important that the interactive experience be at service of the content. The main purpose has to be delivering that content more effectively, not hindering it.

For the Beba Epstein exhibition, we developed several interactive experiences aligned with the content being displayed. Walter Benjamin argued that “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach of the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record” (4). Today, we can go even further with new digital mediums that can enhance significantly the experience of museum audiences. We’ll focus on two examples here.

The first deals with the city Beba was born and raised in, a very important Jewish center in Eastern Europe: Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). Therefore, presenting the areas of the city that were important to her as well as to the Jewish community at large was an important part of the exhibition. One key aspect here was that the city was not destroyed like other European centers, but the Jewish buildings were either demolished or repurposed. Most importantly, the Jewish population that comprised almost half of the city’s population before World War II is mostly no longer there. So, if you visited Vilnius today, you would not find the world inhabited by Beba and its Jewish population. The solution we found was to create interactive 3D models of the city in the 1930s that display the buildings and people that are no longer there. We are not recreating a city that already exists but rebuilding the parts that are gone. Thus, you can take a stroll around streets that do not exist today, while also learning about important centers for Jewish life and its people. Instead of presenting just pictures and text, those are embedded into an immersive experience.

Figure 4: View of a 3D model exploration of the Great Synagogue area in interwar Vilna built for the exhibition. The red dots contain information about the places highlighted alongside pictures.

Another example is the detective game that presents Beba’s immigration process to the United States. Just like children’s detective books, there are scenes with clues and a question at the end. However, the audience cannot advance unless they answer the question correctly, mimicking an actual immigration process, where a person is stuck in a point until they can produce satisfactory evidence to advance to the next step. When the question is answered correctly, visitors receive more explanation about the issue at hand and can advance in their journey. This experience gets the point across to the audience more effectively than just presenting the documents that relate to her immigration process along with explanation texts. These are instead embedded in the experience of trying, being unable to move forward, and not knowing what hurdles might come next.

Figure 5: View of one of the scenes where visitors have to find clues to move forward with Beba’s immigration process.

 

Figure 6: View of one of the question pages. Visitors can only move forward if they respond correctly.

Alternatively, the section that deals with the Holocaust presents very sensitive personal experiences as well as complex historical context. For this, we decided that the best approach would be to focus on texts, pictures, and video testimonials divided into four parts that follow Beba’s experience during the war: the Soviet occupation of Vilna, living in hiding and then in the ghetto, concentration camps, and the final moments.

Figure 7: View of part of the chapter that focuses on the Holocaust, which uses only text and pictures to tell the story due to the sensitive nature of the content presented.

 

Fragmentation and Levels

We have covered popular activities on the web and how to make digital content engaging. But how do people engage with such content? What are exclusive online behaviors, and how do they differ from in-person engagement? These questions lead us to some widespread online behaviors, starting with the rabbit hole. The term originated from the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, where Alice follows a white rabbit down a hole and into a fantastical world. Today, however, the term is used to define a common behavior in contemporary culture. Writer Kathryn Schulz defined it in an article in the New Yorker magazine as “when we say that we fell down the rabbit hole, we seldom mean that we wound up somewhere psychedelically strange. We mean that we got interested in something to the point of distraction”. In the same article, the author categorizes the types of online rabbit holes: “one is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep. Thus I have gone from trying to remember the name of a Salinger short story (“Last Day of the Last Furlough”) to looking up the etymology of “furlough” (Dutch) to wondering whether it had any relationship to “furlong” (no) to jogging my memory about the exact distance represented by that unit of measure (an eighth of a mile), to watching approximately every major horse race since the development of the movie camera” (Schulz).

Some research also points to the finding that younger generations think differently because of internet engagement. The Millennials deal with a multitude of subjects at the same time, often starting in one and finishing in another (We All Want to Be Young). This means that they think in a fragmented manner, reflecting the language from the Internet.

Another interesting behavior that relates to a fragmented way of thinking is that, according to a 2014 report, it was found that in many countries a majority of mobile internet users use their devices as a second screen while carrying out other activities -in the United States, 66% of respondents used their devices in such manner (Clement, “Second Screen Usage”). In 2019, another survey found that the third activity most carried out on a second screen while watching TV was to look up information about what they were viewing (Clement, “U.S. Smartphone Use While Watching TV 2019”).

Given all that has been presented so far, how do people read online then? Can we keep our attention span for long texts on the web? A report from the Nielson Norman Group found that people are more likely to scan than read word for word online. They jump pages, skip some content, backtrack to scan what was missed, rescan content. In summary, people do not read content completely or linearly, but pick-up information that is most important for their needs (“How People Read Online: New and Old Findings”).

Therefore, Rocha Veiga, Vaz, and Fernandes suggest that content for museums in the web should be built in layers, “wherein, the more superficial the layer is (directed to users with “weak” ties with the museum), the more subservient such content will be with respect to digital marketing rules.” Indeed, Falk and Dierking affirm that “museums can increase the likelihood that more visitors get at least some of the points of the presentation by providing levels of information within a presentation. With small time investment, all visitors should be able to get to the main points; others interested in more in-depth material can spend more time” (121). This also allows the audience to be more in control of their own visit, which is the greatest promise of digital technologies to Falk and Dierking (123).

In the case of the YIVO Cernia Slovin Online Museum, there was also the challenge of presenting artifacts and other forms of historical context to a broad audience. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research holdings are well known within the academic community, who are aware of their historical background and importance. However, the goal of this project was to reach the general audience. Because of this, the key lesson was learning how much historical context needed to be added and how to present this information. Our solution was to disperse text on different levels that deliver more complexity as users go deeper.

We wanted to give visitors agency and choice in how they viewed the exhibition based on the diversity of online audiences. It is important to design exhibitions under the assumption that the visitor controls the experience rather than the museum. An exhibition can be designed in a particular order with a set of objects on view, but ultimately the visitor will decide how they move through the exhibition and which objects they find compelling enough to stop and view (Falk and Dierking 105). Because of this, it was important to provide choices in content in the exhibition. We did this in two ways.

The first is diversity of interests relating to topics covered in the exhibition. The storyline of the exhibition was divided into chapters, and each chapter focused on a specific topic. Visitors can follow the whole story from beginning to end or explore individual chapters, as they are all full stories in themselves. All of them are accessible through a table of contents for easy navigation. Within each chapter, some visiting the exhibition may have a strong background in East European history and others may not. Therefore, we developed different layers of information for visitors to pick and choose from allowing some visitors to go through the top level of information and others to go for a deeper dive through the many levels of information. The information is fragmented and can be accessed in any order, or even not accessed at all if it is not in the interest of the visitor. The different levels can take you outside of the exhibition to dive deeper into a specific subject making reference not only to the rabbit hole behavior but also to the concept of convergence presented by Jenkins: “convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (3). This can also be connected to the idea of fragmentation of thought. However, the current time also requires caution due to the proliferation of fake news, so a deliberate decision was made to link from the exhibition directly instead of encouraging free search. This way, we know that all sources we connected to are trustworthy and can be used for further learning.

Level 1: Beba’s Story

The surface level of information is Beba’s story informed by her various testimonials including her childhood autobiography and her interviews given after the war. The main content of each chapter is informed by these testimonies and presents an introduction to the related topic covered in the experience. For example, in Chapter 2, there are four animations providing background information on Beba’s family. These are told through Beba’s perspective taken from her autobiography. However, due to the shortened nature of the animated content, they do not dive into topics mentioned – leaving some visitors satisfied and others wanting more historical background.

Figure 8: Animation for Beba’s paternal grandparents

Level 2: Context Boxes

For visitors looking for more historical background and to dive deeper, context boxes are located throughout the chapters. The context boxes include further information on historical events and climate, and they expand upon the surface level information that is covered in “Level 1.” For example, after watching an animation in Chapter 2, a visitor might be wanting to learn more about what was covered in the video. Located beneath the videos are context boxes that explore further topics that are mentioned in the narration, such as the Pale of Settlement or religious study. Boxes like these are spread throughout the exhibition chapters allowing users to pick and choose when and if they would like to read further into a topic.

 

Figure 9: Context box accompanying an animation in chapter 2.

Level 3: Artifacts

In each chapter, there is a selection of curated artifacts that relate to the main theme of the section. They can provide more information about the story of Beba specifically or refer to the broader topic covered. The types of artifacts include objects such as photographs, documents, works of art, books, posters, and videos. As discussed previously, it is important to provide these artifacts in an environment in order to effectively provide historical background. We did this in three ways. The first is understanding broadly the environment in which they were created, which is done by following Beba’s personal story. Then, each chapter includes a text written by a scholar grounding Beba’s story and the curated artifacts in the broader historical context of the time. There is also a short blurb at the beginning of each historical artifact page providing a brief introduction to the curated items below.

Like the rest of the exhibition, choice and agency were key to developing the artifact sections. The artifacts are accessed through an artifact icon located on the right-hand side of the page and this floats with users as they scroll through the exhibition. Therefore, visitors can choose to go deeper if they wish at any moment throughout each chapter and select which items they would like to learn more about.

Figure 10: The floating artifact icon.

 

Level 4: Links to YIVO resources

Visitors have another chance to dive deeper into historical context through YIVO resources linked to throughout the exhibition. This includes links to the YIVO Encyclopedia – an online encyclopedia providing the history and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe. This is linked to in context boxes as well as artifacts. We also link to different classes that are a part of YIVO’s Shine Online Educational Series or recordings of previous events held at YIVO. Each of these links provides visitors an additional learning opportunity as well as a chance to engage with other YIVO sources. Since one of the goals of the exhibition is to be used as an educational resource by younger audiences, we also connect difficult words, that children might not be familiar with, to a dictionary.

 

Conclusion

This paper presents how we made decisions regarding the YIVO Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum’s first exhibition, “Beba Epstein: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Girl,” following lessons learned from research about how to develop a completely online museum. These lessons, however, can serve as a guide and be applied in several different ways, to very diverse end products.

Another interesting aspect is that, when we started this project, the COVID pandemic of 2020 had not yet started. We actually advanced our timeline and launched earlier than expected since all audiences, not only of museums, moved primarily online. Thus, we did not finish all the testing we had planned, mostly because of the impossibility of meeting in person, especially with our key audience, school-aged children. We nonetheless published teaching guides and got in touch with educators. Interestingly, the feedback we received validated a lot of the research presented here. We have received very positive informal feedback regarding the use of immersive experiences that actually deliver a lot of content, and the use of levels of information is praised by educators. One important feature for teachers is the use of such levels to move between the perspective of a single person to the historical context of the time and presentation of other experiences and points of view. We are now working towards developing more robust surveys to understand how the general audience and teachers alike use the exhibition, what works well, and what can be improved. We hope to write papers in the short future about the results of these surveys.

 

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Cite as:
Ziulkoski, Karolina and Reid, Olivia. "Towards a new concept for online museums: storytelling, behavior, and content." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 14, 2021. Consulted .
https://mw21.museweb.net/paper/towards-a-new-concept-for-online-museums-storytelling-behavior-and-content/