Sunday, April 5, 2009

Online exhibitions - a great way to promote your collection

A summary of a paper presented at a Museums Australia (Vic) seminar on Online exhibitions - writing for the web on Monday 6 April, 2009 at the City Museum at Old Treasury, Spring Street, Melbourne.

A large number of historical societies in Victoria now have websites. Websites provide the opportunity for historical organisations to promote their organisations and collections. However, many of the websites are static with the content rarly changing though some groups have embraced the web to produce interesting and informative sites. An online exhibition can be an extension to the basic website. The online exhibition can promote a section of the collection, be an extension of a physical exhibition or tell the story of an event, family or organisation.

In 2007 and 2008 four online exhbitions were added to the RHSV website -

Walter Woodbury's Photographic Panorama of Melbourne
An online exhibition showcasing four photographs from the collection. The exhibition uses other resources from the RHSV collection to help show a view of Melbourne in 1855.

Travellers Tales: Photography , Travel and the Proliferation of the Postcard
In 2002 an exhibition showcasing the range of postcards held in the RHSV collection, particularly those produced in the second part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, was developed as part of the exhibition program. When a database of scanned images of postcards was put online, an online version of some of the content of the 2002 exhibition was prepared to provide information about the importance and range of postcards. Slideshows were included to provide examples of categories of postcards.

MacRobertson's Round Australia Expedition 1928
An online exhibition utilising part of a collection to tell a story about an event that occured 80 years ago. This exhibition was prepared as part of a digitisation grant. Procedures used were dwscribed in entries in a blog.

The WCTU & the Woman's Petition
2008 celebrated the centenary of women winning the right to vote in Victorian government elections. In October 2005, as part of the celebrations of 150 years of parliament in Victoria, an online index to the Woman's Petition was launched. Who were the women who collected these signatures? How did they collect so many signatures in such a short time? What motivated the women to undertake this task? Why did women sign the petition? The online exhibition attempts to provide a resource to help answer some of these questions.

These four online exhibitions were created using basic html, and standard, readily available (and often free) programs. This session looks at how community groups, including historical societies, can create effective online exhibitions.

Online exhibitions tell a story. As with the development of a physical exhibition there are a number of tasks to be undertaken including planning, checking available resources, research, story board (including deciding what to include and waht to leave out), designing the pages, putting it all together, and checking the end product.

Walter Woodbury's Photographic Panorama of Melbourne is a small online exhibition showcasing four images portraying an interesting portrayal of Melbourne in 1855. Walter Woodbury made a series of "wet plate" photographs taken from the top of the new Gasworks chimney in the area now known as Docklands. Copies of the images were included in an exhibition held at the RHSV in 2006 in conjunction with a conference on life in Melbourne in 1856, and again in 2007. Extensive research had been undertaken about the images for the physical exhibition but additional information was required to make the online exhibition more than just four images of Melbourne taken in 1855.

Buildings in each image were identified and marked on the exhibition images. Research was undertaken to establish from where the original photographs were taken and permission was obtained to enter a room in a high rise building in the Docklands area to take a photograph replicating the view today.

The RHSV also holds a map of Melbourne prepared by James Kearney in 1855. A section was digitised and the free program, Zoomify, used to allow a magnified image of part of the digitised map. An article from the Argus was located describing the opening of the chimney. Biographical information was researched about Walter Woodbury and James Kearney. Research was also undertaken about each of the buildings identified in the photographs.

Consequently extensive planning, checking of available resources and research was undertaken before decisions were made as to how to present the material online. All this information was then assembed to create an online exhibition which used resources from the RHSV collection to provide a snapshot of the development of Melbourne in 1855.

The order in which the material was to be presented, the design of the web pages, putting it all together as one entity and then checking that it worked the way it had been planned was undertaken before it was put online in the Treasures of the RHSV section of the RHSV website.

Other considerations when writing for the web - especially for local history websites - include
  • Know your audience
  • Be aware of the range of computers used by potential viewers - not necessarily latest models
  • People living in country Victoria may have limited internet access
  • Not everyone has broadband
  • Browsers behave differently - need to check the pages in major browsers
  • People adjust computer settings
  • Write clearly and concisely
  • Provide layers of information - provide the opportunity for users to select the information they want to view
  • Keep focussed on why the online exhibition is being developed - it is easy to become side tracked. Keep in mind the aims of the exhibition
  • Provide user friendly navigation about the site
  • Do not asume that everyone knows how links and other web devices work
  • Although it may be possible to include fancy bells & whistles on the site, only use them if appropriate
  • Use meta data tags to help browsers locate your site

MacRobertson's Round Australia Expedition 1928 is an online exhibition that took two years to develop. It was created to celebrate the 80th anniversary of a five month trip around Australia by two Karrier trucks, an Oldsmobile and twelve men which left Melbourne in April 1928. The online exhibition provided an opportunity to promote a special collection held at the RHSV as well as to tell an interesting and special story.

General information about the exhibition was provided in the blog - ckeck the online exhibitions tag.

The design of the online exhibition was kept relatively simple using tables. The background colour is the same for all pages but the colour of the border is changed for each section of the trip. Templates were created and used with minor alterations as required. A cascading style sheet was used to control the uniformity of print style and size etc throughout the site. A small version of the MacRobertson map, located in the top left hand corner of each page, served as a link to the home page.

On the home page there are two options for navigating The Expedition pages

  • a map of the expedition including links to the beginning of each stage (image map)
  • hypertext links to each stage beneath the map

Other links

  • navigation links at the bottom of each page to move within the stage
  • navigation links at the top of the page to move around the site

Checking the content is an ongoing process, especially checking that the hyperlinks link to the correct pages. The pages need to be read and reread to eliminate typing and other errors. It is useful to get someone else to check the pages. Mispelling the word expedition in the main heading on the template and then replicating it was an inital embarrassing error. At least it is easier to make minor alterations in an online exhibition as opposed to a traditional exhibition.

As this was the story of an expedition, the online exhibition was released in stages following the time frame of the trip. The first stage went online on the 12th April 2008, the anniversary of the day that the expedition left Melbourne 80 years earlier. Other stages went online at intervals.

Historical societies have many stories to tell from their collections and online exhibitions are a way that these stories can be made available to the public.

As we have seen online exhibitions
  • may highlight a small part of a collection
  • may provide additional information about a collection
  • may tell a story based on items in a specific collection
  • may celebrate an anniversary
  • may be held in conjunction with a physical exhibition

Online exhibitions are relativly easy to create and can enhance a website. They do not have to be elaborate. They are an effective way of promoting part of a collection or telling a story relevant to the history of the local area. Creating online exhibitions can be a challenging and satisfying experience. Have fun!

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