Museums in Cyberspace

June 1, 2001
Share:email print

Karla Goldman

Many Jewish museums today are seeking to extend their traditional mandate of preserving and transmitting Jewish experience by emphasizing the museum as a place, a real location where visitors can gather for the creation of identity and community. At the same time, museums and other educational initiatives are embracing advancing computer technology to expand both their audience and their offerings in unprecedented ways, attempting to serve a virtual community that may never step foot in their physical buildings.

In fact, the challenges of designing exhibits on the Internet are not so different from those faced by curators in “brick and mortar” museums. How do you attract visitors? How do you help them navigate through your offerings with minimal frustration? How do you offer them the right balance of content and context without overwhelming them with everything that you would like to convey? How do you facilitate an experiential or intimate connection to historical material when touching is forbidden. How do you get visitors to support your project and return again?

Live museum patrons, of course, have already paid their admission. If they don’t find the cuneiform tablets, they will wander through the halls until they find something else to view or the exit. Web visitors, however, will leave a site immediately if they are frustrated by a slow server, or don’t like the graphics, narrative, or display.

Currently, many institutions use the Internet simply as a way to provide information about their hours and location, and to post teasers about current exhibits. Others, however, are beginning to explore the ways in which the Internet can host a different kind of educational experience than may be possible in a physical space.

The Holocaust Museum site ( illustrates the Internet’s ability to grant visitors intimate access to one-of-a-kind documents that would be destroyed if examined in person, by thousands of museum patrons. One virtual exhibit presents a small wartime notebook, given as a gift by one friend to another, page by page, with a translation prompt that can be superimposed over the image of the notebook. A narrative of the friendship represented by the notebook surrounds its image on the screen. Additional linked texts make clear how the friends’ story formed a part of broader historical events.

The Web site for New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum ( likewise demonstrates the power of this multilayered approach. Like its physical space, the Tenement Museum’s Web site is built around the families that lived in the Lower East Side building now occupied by the museum. The Web site expands upon evocative brief descriptions of each family’s experience with related screens that provide relevant historical context. Visual and audio exhibits convey the experiential dynamic of a visit to the museum. Providing a satisfying visit to the museum via cyberspace may or may not increase the foot traffic to the museum’s actual location, but it extends the museum’s reach far beyond New York City.

In addition to reaching an audience unbound by geographic location, and overcoming the inherent temporality of physical museum displays, the true promise of the Internet lies in its capacity for creating access to much more data than could ever be exhibited in a physical museum.

Existing museums are thus busy exploring ways, as one Web site puts it, to reinvent the “nature of the Jewish Museum experience for digital media without compromising the art and objects themselves.” Different challenges and possibilities arise for organizations that share similar educational goals but whose prime address is virtual rather than physical.

Museum Web sites generally try to give visitors access to physical exhibits and collections. Museum-free initiatives are unconstrained by ties to specific physical exhibits or artifacts. They can focus their efforts on taking full advantage of the Internet’s ability to reach an audience unbound by geographic location, to overcome the inherent temporality of physical museum displays, and to create access to much more data than could ever be exhibited in a physical museum.

Although virtual exhibits are limited by the aversion of Web surfers to reading more than a screen’s worth of text, they can draw a visitor much deeper into their content than would be possible for someone walking by a museum display. An effective Web site can both grant visitors intimate, prolonged access to digitized materials and invite them to become part of a broader discussion.

The Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) Web site ( takes advantage of this potential engagement by offering multilayered examinations of the lives of the exemplary women showcased in JWA’s “Women of Valor” poster series. The Web site offers deeper insight into the lives of these women, linking brief introductory biographies to a series of supporting stories, texts, and images. Drawing from sites like the Library of Congress American Memory collections, the JWA seeks to use the Internet to bring dynamic resources for the study of the history of American Jewish women to the broadest possible audience. The Internet has made some projects - such as a national, searchable index of archival collections related to Jewish women’s experience - possible. Related efforts will afford virtual access to an extensive oral history project and to a broad array of primary and printed materials documenting the history of American Jewish women.

Both existing museums and virtual institutions can use cyberspace to offer vast resources to a broad audience in an accessible, elegant, and useful way. A Web site that reaps the potential of the Internet will not simply transmit rich narratives to a passive audience. By enabling deeper engagement with the various texts that constitute an exhibit, a virtual museum will encourage its visitors, including students, educators, and scholars, to find new and richer stories within the old ones.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Karla Goldman is Historian-in-Residence at the Jewish Women's Archive and author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>