Research Update: How to Do an Online Exhibition – Reviewing Award Criteria

If you have an idea about developing an online exhibition for your organization, but aren’t exactly sure how to get from point A to point B, looking at award evaluation criteria is a good place to start. Regardless of whether a project will be designed to win a certain prize, award evaluation criteria provide insight on what is considered by the field to be good practice, and shed insight on the narrative possibilities that are unique to the web.

To define the scope of the project, consideration has to be given to what distinguishes an online exhibition from, for example, a research tool. The Best of the Web Awards, presented annually at the Museums and the Web Conference, describes the category of online exhibitions as “sites or apps [that] excel in presenting and interpreting museum collections and themes, providing a rich and meaningful digital experience. They may be a section of a larger museum website or be a collaborative project among institutions and/or individuals and communities associated with museums. Entirely virtual museums are eligible (…) as are exhibitions of Web art and other "born digital" collections.”[i]

The ALA/ACRL Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (a division of the American Library Association) hosts The American Book Prices Current Exhibition Catalogue Awards. They also have a category dedicated to online exhibitions, defined as “…produced for distribution on the World Wide Web or on other digital media. They serve as gateways to library or archival materials. An electronic exhibition need not be based on a physical exhibition but it must describe the materials from a distinct point of view.”[ii]

These definitions begin to illustrate the diversity of factors and approaches that make for strong online exhibitions. Well executed online exhibitions not only present artistic content, but also offer an interpretation of that content. They can be the product of a variety of sources, from entirely digital material to digitized content. They can live within a museum’s website or in an entirely new platform, and can be created exclusively for the web or as a part of a physical show.

Collection Wall at the Cleveland Museum Art's Gallery One - Winner of the Best of the Web award in 2014 for the Digital Exhibition Category. Image:

Collection Wall at the Cleveland Museum Art's Gallery One - Winner of the Best of the Web award in 2014 for the Digital Exhibition Category. Image:

An online exhibition project can be analyzed across two broad aspects: content and design. The first, content, is primarily related to the arts organization’s mission and asks: Why is this project important? Who do we want to serve? The second, design, is related more to the desired outcomes: How will these be accomplished in the long-term? What does success (literally) look like?  Based on the award criteria for online exhibitions from the Museums and The Web, the American Library Association and from award criteria for cultural institution’s websites from the Webby Awards, main components of each category emerge:


1.       Content

The content of an online exhibition is understood not only as images and text, but also any kind of video, audio, or animation that is presented. Information generated by third parties through crowdsourcing or social media feeds and integrated into the site are also considered content. All elements should be relevant to the exhibition and contribute to the understanding of the topic. In other words, everything in an online exhibition should be included for a reason; that it is technically possible is not sufficient. Consideration should also be given to the expertise level of the intended audience.

Because online exhibitions often live much longer than traditional exhibitions, a plan to regularly update the content should be included in the exhibition’s design. In sum, content should be engaging, relevant, current and audience appropriate.


2.       Design

The design of an online exhibition follows the same principles of any other web project. However, it also presents a unique opportunity for arts organizations to integrate navigation with a broader narrative related to the exhibition content. The overall structure should be appropriate to the topic and the intended audience, but above all, should be consistent, intuitive and transparent.[iii]

The technology and design elements used to build the exhibitions should also consider accessibility in terms of ease of access across a wide range of devices and connection speeds, and the specific needs of people with disabilities. The Webby Awards explains, “Good functionality makes the experience center stage and the technology invisible.”[iv] Yet it is also important to make provisions for updating the site to remain usable as technology continues to evolve, as there is nothing less engaging than a website with broken links and outdated plug-in requests.


It is in the best interest of an organization to approach any project with as much information as it can. Evaluation criteria created by authoritative sources do not constitute project plans by themselves, but they do provide a reference point that will guide and focus the complex process of designing an online exhibition.

What do you think makes a good online exhibition? Share your ideas below!