September 21, 2015

Choosing interactive tools for virtual museums mixes art and science

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's virtual tour affords
the visitor 360 degree views of the exhibits and space.
Image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History/Loren Ybarrondo

(September 21, 2015)  Museum curators planning to develop virtual exhibits online should choose communication and navigation technologies that match the experience they want to offer their visitors, according to a team of researchers.

"When curators think about creating a real-world exhibit, they are thinking about what the theme is and what they want their visitors to get out of the exhibit," said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory. "What this study suggests is that, just like curators need to be coherent in the content of the exhibit, they need to be conscious of the tools that they employ in their virtual museums."

Many museum curators hope to create an authentic experience in their online museums by using technology to mimic aspects of the social, personal and physical aspects of a real-world museum experience. However, a more-is-better approach to technology may actually hinder that authentic experience, the researchers suggest.

In a study, visitors to an online virtual art museum found that technology tools used to communicate about and navigate through the exhibits were considered helpful when they were available separately, but less so when they were offered together. The researchers tested customization tools that helped the participants create their own art gallery, live-chat technology to facilitate communication with other visitors and 3-D tool navigation tools that some participants used to explore the museum.

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