Is this an exhibition or a publication? Defining online resources types in art museums

Maribel Hidalgo Urbaneja, University of Glasgow, UK


Art museums tend to develop online resources on the basis of physical exhibitions (both permanent and temporary) and print publications (the exhibition and collection catalogs). A good number of these online resources are labelled as either online exhibitions or publications, whereas some others are identified as websites, microsites, and interactive resources. While some art museums’ online resources are easily categorized, many others would fit in several types. This paper aims to present research findings and conclusions relative to both producers’ and users’ perspectives on the definition and identification of online resources as exhibitions and publications. Art museum professionals who were involved in the development of online resources in major museums were interviewed. Their perspectives were compared with the viewpoints of a scholarly audience. One of the objectives of the research is to assess the way in which digital technologies transform and enhance the traditional exhibition and publication models. The presentation will delve into the capabilities and qualities of online resources that users and producers identify with the concepts of exhibition and publication. The research shows that both producers and users have views rooted in traditional conventions; for example, visuality is related to the idea of exhibition, while textuality with publications. However, within online resources, these conventions might shift so publications become highly visual, and exhibitions include more textual components. The presentation will also discuss the reasons why art museums might prefer to develop a certain type of online resource over another. For instance, producers are more inclined to produce interactive resources and online publications than online exhibitions or exhibitions websites.

Keywords: online exhibition, online publication, online resources, art museums, websites

Frequently, art museums tend to develop online resources on the basis of physical exhibitions—permanent and temporary—and print publications—the exhibition and collection catalogs. A good number of existing online resources are labelled as either online exhibitions (Mundy & Burton, 2013; Cooper, 2006; Sayre, 2000; Tinkler and Freedman, 1998) or publications (Albers, 2017; Yiu, 2013; Quigley and Neely, 2011; Honeysett, 2011) whereas some others are identified as websites, microsites, interactive resources, or online features (Lai and Noey, 2013). There is no clear taxonomy that identifies the particular characteristics of each given type; for instance, online publications, online exhibitions, microsites, and online features share the same functionalities, interfaces, or authoring modes. While some art museums’ online resources are easily categorized (Mateos-Rusillo and Gifreu-Castells, 2017), many others would fit into more than one type.

As part of my doctoral research, I completed a survey of online resources according to these two recognizable typologies: the exhibition and the publication. The survey of state-of-the-art online resources can be found at the following website ( For each online resource, the survey includes the name, the institution, the country, the year of creation, the typology, and the audience (scholarly or general audience). The survey lists online resources that have been labeled by art museums as online exhibitions and online publications, as well as online resources comparable to the first two types of resources which have been given a different label—such as interactive feature, microsite, or simply website—or no label at all. The online resources gathered in the survey often have similar interfaces and navigation structures. 

Investigating the process of remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 2000) not only helps to categorize online resources, but also to determine the added value of digital technologies and possible future developments. One of the main objectives of the research is to assess the way in which digital technologies transform and enhance exhibition (Huhtamo, 2009) and publication models (Hughes, 2010). Six online resources from the survey, encompassing online publications, online exhibition catalogs, and interactive features, oriented to either a scholarly audience or the general public, were finally selected as comparative case studies. The online resources are from six major museums from the US, UK, and Spain: Online Editions (National Gallery of Art, 2014); Object:Photo (Abbaspour, Daffner, and Morris Hamburg, 2014); 82nd & Fifth (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013); Bosch. A story in pictures (Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016); Featured Artworks (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2016); and Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting (Lillie, 2014). Their analysis facilitates the discussion of the similarities and dissimilarities between the existing online resources types identified. Subsequently, I interviewed ten art museums professionals who were involved in the development of the selected online resources. They were interrogated about the differences between online exhibitions and online publications, with the purpose of explicitly speaking about the case studies, and additionally obtaining an overall professional opinion on the two typologies.

The perceptions of the audience are also captured by the research. In this case, 20 scholars visited the six online resources using think aloud protocol, and a series of retrospective questions were asked after the visits. Participants were not told the categories of the online resources before the sessions, and the only information they were given was that one website was general audience oriented while the other was scholarly oriented. The elements that led them to identify an online resource as an exhibition or a publication emerged from these questions.

Discussing typologies: views from producers and audience

In all kinds of online resources, works of art are digital reproductions and surrogates—with the exception of digital art pieces. Once this material configuration erases differences between typologies, what are the other similarities and differences between them? The research shows that both producers and users have views rooted in traditional conventions about both typologies; though the research also demonstrates that digital media is transforming these conventions and challenges existing typologies. Those conventions and characteristics respond to the following notions: authorship, understood as the museum and curators’ intention; temporality, in terms of the resource lifespan as well as the possibility for modifications; audience, the usage and interactions between users and the resource; and lastly, the presence of visual and textual elements in the online resource.

First of all, if exhibitions and publications are different, it is due to a discursive principle. This have been remarked by some of the interviewees, museum professionals, as well as the participant scholars. According to interviewee number three, the “exhibition is intended to be an end in itself.” Exhibitions generally tend to be the result of curatorial research, which displays a group of objects under a narrative or overarching theme. As agreed by interviewee number one, “exhibitions are conclusions, are statements.” Nevertheless, it could be argued that publications do also make conclusions, and introduce new statements about a given subject, as highlighted by participant number 18. However, there seems to exist a different approach in the temporal validity of these statements. In the first place, the exhibition makes a statement that lasts for its temporary duration; once the exhibition ends, there is no chance for curators to revisit the exhibition discourse. The exhibition catalog has a recording function, and updates to this catalog are not planned. In the case of an exhibition catalog, or the exhibition itself, it might end up being outdated for scholarly reasons, for instance, if it displayed an artwork whose attribution was revisited. Contestation to the scholarship of an exhibition is possible only if a new exhibition and by extension, a new exhibition catalog, is produced.

Other types of catalogs, especially scholarly and collection catalogs, are conceived to accommodate multiple editions according to updates in scholarship. Catalogs of temporary exhibitions and scholarly catalogs operate under slightly different authoring models that contrast with the definitive model of the exhibition. Ballon and Westermann (2006, 44-5) emphasize the temporal validity and stability of scholarly catalogs, in addition to the collaborative nature of their authoring process. As scholarship evolves and scientific evidence is challenged, these complex publications can be rapidly outdated. The digital medium allows for higher dynamism and more possibilities for revision in publishing that is enhancing the authoritative nature of the scholarly catalog and may overturn the concept of exhibition from that same discursive and authoritative viewpoint. Indeed, Ballon and Westermann highlight the potential benefits of digital publishing for this kind of never ending authoring process that would facilitate more frequent revisions of the content. The question here is whether this evolving and temporal conception of authorship would transform exhibitions into publications. For instance, one of the online resources studied was identified by participants number seven and 11 as an online publication, a visual blog, because of the structuring of the contents in “little installments” that were published online as periodic episodes during a single year. However, once all episodes are published, the website becomes the record of that temporary event. For these reasons, the online resource could be identified as an exhibition due to its temporary nature, as well as an episodic or serial publication.

There are online resources that do not fit into the two previous categories, or could potentially be considered as both. Museum professionals interviewed struggled to provide names and categories for digital projects that do not sit within these two types; they prefer to avoid labels which refer to non-digital and traditional formats such as exhibitions and publications. Instead, these can often be found under the widely-used category of interactive or online feature, and employ digital relative terms such as “interactive features” and “microsites.” Museum professionals alluded to the ever changing nature of digital media; new practices and concepts are introduced and adopted by museums as the digital medium evolves, and technical capabilities are developed. Interviewee number four recognized that the naming has evolved from online publications and online exhibitions to online features, at the same time that online projects were adopting particular features and diverse media contents typically not utilized in non digital publications or exhibitions. In a way, interactive features present functionalities that go beyond the qualities of physical exhibitions and print publications. The professionals involved with online features would act more as producers rather than editors—the traditional professional figure in publishing. However, interviewee number six stated that the idea of content curation, and therefore the professional responsible for the content or digital curator, reflects the reality of a professional who has to work with multimedia content for different types of platforms that do not respond to traditional definitions of exhibition or publication—even though the idea of curation is generally connected to exhibitions. It is becoming difficult to discern which job title better represents the work that is being done in the digital medium: whether it is editor, producer, or curator.

From the perspectives of users, only two online resources from the six selected, labelled by art museums as online scholarly catalogs and online exhibition catalogs, were unanimously identified as online publications—they “could be a print book.” The remaining online resources were viewed as either or both online publications, and online exhibitions, as well as something else outside these two categories, since at least two participants stated that “the digital is its own thing,” independent of any category. There are no absolute categories to conclusively classify all six case studies, which in almost every instance, are hybrids combining characteristics from both exhibitions and publications. According to a group of participants, the case studies they were evaluating could be both an exhibition and a publication, and if they existed outside the digital domain, both could be translated into a physical exhibition and a print publication. In both cases they could provide similar contents and interactions as in the online resource. It is particularly interesting that sometimes, the way in which the resource was designed reminded a couple of younger participants of certain digital publishing formats such as Instagram or a blog—even though the participants did not specify whether those platforms are a form of digital publishing—rather than of a catalog or an exhibition. On the other hand, not surprisingly, for participants number 11, 15, 16, and 18, the scholarly publications provide the same information that could be contained in a print catalog; they read like a book; and the experience of browsing them is similar to the one of “having a book,” or several volumes of books. On the contrary, in the case of general public online resources, if translated to other media, they would take the form of a short documentary, a pamphlet, or a glossy book.

If an online resource was considered a publication, it is due to the following reason. From the perspective of the user, the amount of text in the form of essays, in addition to paratextual elements such as bibliographies, indexes, author names, footnotes, etc., determines if an online resource or website is a publication. One of the major differences between a print publication and a digital one, according to interviewee number eight, is that the reader interacts with the text through a different interface which allows for diverse ways to manipulate the text, such as making it searchable or/and easily reusable with the actions of copy and paste. Furthermore, the relationship between text and image is a complex one in publications. Even though it was acknowledged by museum professionals, as well as by participant scholars, that the quality and quantity of images in online publications tends to be substantially higher than in print publications, participant number two remarked that the image in the publication has an illustrative function rather than an exhibitionary one. According to this participant, the text is privileged over the image: “What this is constantly doing is inviting me to have a relationship with the text rather than inviting me to have a relationship with the work.” In the opinion of this participant, this can be detrimental for a visually compelling experience of the online resource. The user expects online resources to overcome the limitations imposed by the display of images and text. In digital media, there seems to be a potential for a more balanced relationship between text and image.

During thinking aloud sessions, the inverse relationship between image and text, which is the prevalence of the image, arises particularly when any of the case studies is identified as an exhibition. The thoughts of at least five participants were that if images stand up and the website is highly visual while the text tends to be secondary, we are in front of an online exhibition. As described by participant 13 “you can see everything more carefully and I just thought the way in which this is designed (…) so it seems like they really want to make you want to look.” Three participants agreed about the idea that an exhibition does not use the same amount of text that a publication does, since the text in this case is limited to labels and walls. Therefore, if a website provides more visual material than text, it could be considered as an online exhibition. Moreover, participants considered that the focus of the exhibition is on the object, while the publication provides “all this contextual stuff” that allows for a more in-depth understanding of the exhibition objects.

Additionally, a meaningful overarching narrative or curatorial selection needs to encompass objects with some information in order to fully constitute an exhibition. Non-linear narratives are more easily identifiable with exhibitions than with publications for some participants. For example, participant number 12 identifies hyperlinked navigation and interaction, and graphs, with the experience in physical galleries:

This one, I think it’s more like an exhibition because (…) you have the freedom to think about things in different ways and to control the content and somehow to be able to walk into the gallery and (…) you can stand in the middle and you can see a photograph on that wall, and see one, maybe around the corner in the other gallery, and you might, then in your brain just be able to make those connections because you’re in the space.

Although on the other hand, in the perspective of participant number five, a similar navigation to the one done with hyperlinks could be done with a publication but “you have to be flipping back and forth” the pages of the book. While the idea of navigation, and the manner in which it is translated from physical formats to the digital medium seems to be complex, one can recognize the value of the digital in enabling navigation between multiple layers of information and contents. The digital medium makes easier to establish connections between artworks, artists, or ideas which in the physical space would be limited to the walls of the gallery, and in the print book, by the pages and chapters of the book. In the same way, the interaction with the space, and the capacity for immersion that it allows, is always identified with the idea of exhibition, and when pointed out by participants, the idea of immersion is in relation to space. An online exhibition should provide an experience which is similar to the one in the physical space. Surprisingly, the possibility of having control over the content and being able to navigate through it is, for a couple of participants, a feature of the exhibition. However, print publications also provide options to access the content in a nonlinear manner—for instance, indexes serve this purpose.

Lastly, there is an additional element of discussion that emerges from the perspectives of users.  Online resources are generally consulted and cited as publications regardless of whether a resource is labelled as online exhibition or online publication. However, citation formats and styles are not standardized and are confusing for users unless the online resource specifies how to cite it.

Preferred typologies

A majority of the museum professionals interviewed stated that if they are developing these online resources, it is generally because they facilitate the access to information and increase the reach of the audience. Making use of digital media to engage the audience and convey new experiences with the artworks and the stories that are being told are also strong reasons to produce online resources. In general, online resources produced for a scholarly audience adopt the form of the publication, while the ones that are directed to the general public are labelled as an interactive resource (and generally identified as an exhibition by the audience). From the perspectives of producers, certain typologies are more effective than others in realizing these objectives.  

One of the most interesting results emerging from the interviews is that the notion of online exhibition is neither particularly well perceived by the professionals interviewed, nor pursued by the art museums for which they worked. And this is strongly correlated with ideas of remediation, replication, and authenticity. None of the professionals interviewed was currently working with online exhibitions, or had worked with in the past; and just a few of the professionals interviewed had been involved in the development of extended multimedia contents related to temporary exhibitions showcased in the museum website. Furthermore, none of the six online museum resources selected appear to have created online exhibitions per se, although exhibition websites have been part of their digital production at some point in the past years.

Reasons among practitioners to not be keen supporters of the idea of online exhibitions included both pragmatic and conceptual arguments. For instance, interviewee number four argued that their concept of online exhibition implies a replication of the physical exhibition: “I’m not a huge fan, because (…) because it’s too derivative, it’s too unoriginal. Here the exhibition in which the museum spends a lot of psychological, intellectual energy on it (…) to make a website of it, the only way to do it is to make it look like that, and that’s not interesting because that’s costume.”

Online exhibitions are frequently understood as mere surrogates whose features are more associated with access and documentation of a distant and/or past physical event to the point of saying that there is “no online version of an exhibition” (interviewee number four) since the online exhibition is a record of the physical one.

On the other hand, exhibition websites are not necessarily derivative of the physical experience. According to interviewee number one, an exhibition website “is a marketing tool (…) it’s a one small, small fraction of what the exhibition project is and it is accessory to it.” Generally, it showcases images of the works of art selected for the exhibition; provides some textual—but rather minimal and introductory—information about the exhibition; is often the same text used in labels and walls, videos of the curators and/or artists; and provides practical information for the visit, and the option to purchase the catalog. The marketing function of the exhibition website has rather negative connotations among museum practitioners.

Users have a neutral opinion on the online exhibition or the exhibition website concept, even though many times those types of online resources are considered  “an engagement” that serves as a lure for an actual physical exhibition. In the opinion of participant scholars, it encourages the user to go to the exhibition, as there exists a co-dependency between the actual artistic object and its digital records, and art museums would use them in order to attract visitors. Additionally, according to at least two participants, the online resource may also have a complementary function to the exhibition that is not necessarily covered by a print, or digital, catalog; in many cases, it “has its own place” besides the exhibition and the catalog.

Online publications instead seem to be free of negative connotations. In this context, the idea of digital publication appears to have certain connotations related to scholarly prestige. Most interviewees support the idea of a rich multimedia online publication, even though the re-conceptualization of the idea of publication as a non-derivative model requires technical developments that not every museum can afford. Participant scholars share the same idea, and expect to see digital publications that expand the boundaries of the print book even further, and would make use of the digital medium to enhance publications capabilities. These enhancement include an increased implementation of high resolution images in addition to interactive graphic elements, such as maps, timelines, diagrams, that only a few museums nowadays include in their online resources.


A major focus of this paper is to understand what leads to identifying an online resource as an exhibition or publication; yet, a clear definition of the types cannot be provided. The research has shown that characteristics from both exhibitions and publications may be present in online resources, and therefore a given online resource can be considered an online exhibition and online publication, or neither of the two types. The following table summarizes the characteristics that are identified with each type:


Online exhibition Online publication
More visual More textual
Fixed duration Evolving (multiple editions)
Replica of a physical exhibition Record of an exhibition
Interaction (spatial or objects manipulation) Interaction (similar to turning pages)

Table comparing characteristics of exhibitions and publications.

It can be argued that the characteristics of the online exhibition are substantially less defined and unstable than the ones of the online publication, in which the textual components of it have a strong relevance. Textuality—and more precisely the amount of text presented—seems to be at the center of the online publication. Digital publications can easily adopt many of the characteristics of exhibitions; but in the moment that the text gains the same prevalence as images, should the same typology be used or should a new one be proposed? If the same term is employed by institutions, it is because new conventions are being introduced. On the other hand, employing a term that does not refer to the idea of exhibition and publication can be seen as a reflection of the shifting moment we are witnessing: Digital media is a source for rethinking and transforming previous models, just as it is for generating new ones. Moreover, when online resources are not as highly textual, and the notion of exhibition is not particularly welcomed by practitioners, which term should be used? Everything seems to suggest that novel terminology is more highly appreciated; furthermore the translation of the print to the digital seems more easily comprehensible than the one of the exhibition physical display to the digital medium.

Regardless of the separation between typologies, an exchange between them benefits a broader reconceptualization of online resources. A stronger relationship between the worlds of publishing and exhibiting would bring new results. For example, publishers whose point of reference is the printed or digital book can learn from multimedia and visually-centered experiences that apply to the area of exhibitions, and vice versa.

From the point of view of the audience, there is not a preferred model, and the idea of online exhibition does not present negative connotations. Yet, on the other hand, users seem to demand more from online publications; they expect art museums to rethink print publishing conventions related to the use and presence of images, and the addition of graphic interactive elements. This opinion from the audience should invite museums to push the boundaries of the existing online resources and typologies by offering functionalities that advance the current models. When establishing the basis of the existing and new typologies, the audience should be taken into account. Museums would need to interrogate the ways in which the audience would use the online resource and label them accordingly, in addition to considering whether users would accept new typologies, and need to be introduced to new conventions. Museums should think carefully what they want to convey when employing or the typologies or not, as they imply certain conventions and the use of specific features.


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Cite as:
Hidalgo Urbaneja, Maribel. "Is this an exhibition or a publication? Defining online resources types in art museums." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 16, 2018. Consulted .