Thoughts on designing a virtual exhibition

This article follows on from a dissertation written at the ESIEA under the supervision of Xavier Villebrun and with help from Jessica de Bideran. The idea is to work on the notion of a virtual exhibition by reflecting upon this “portmanteau word” and envisaging the creation of an exhibition based on virtual reality techniques. These notes were published in “L’atelier des médiations” and provide a summary of this exploratory study, supplemented and enriched by remarks made by Jessica de Bideran.

Is a definition impossible?

Examining the concept of a virtual exhibition requires us to first examine the concept of an exhibition. Exhibiting consists in collating material objects so as to place them in a dual discursivity based on both a sequence of spatial relations and a textual commentary. The exhibition as a whole forms a meaningful journey capable of conveying meaning to visitors and of making them think, dream and so forth. To avoid an exhibition being experienced as a weak semiotic object (Davallon, 1999) – an exhibition is not initially curated to say something but rather to show things – and provided the intention is that the exhibition should actually say something and thus serve a discourse, it is essential for it to be adequately arranged and presented. The exhibition can thus be seen as a media constructed by professionals with the aim of creating effects on the intended audiences. Depending on the exhibition’s subject area, these effects may vary: they may be aesthetic, scientific, social, etc. The specific feature of the exhibition media is therefore that it deploys exhibited works or objects in an arranged and ordered space so that audiences may see, understand and appreciate them.

While adding the term “virtual” to this notion inevitably brings to mind simulation techniques used to produce a virtual reality, relatively few systems are actually based on synthesized imagery techniques which give people the feeling they are entering computer-generated universes. Thanks to its capacity to reference a known and recognized reality, the expression “virtual exhibition” has very quickly been taken up by numerous professionals who produce very different objects, while using the same expression to describe them.

Nowadays, this expression is used to refer to all manner of ways of presenting works, objects and digital documents on the Web. Some such exhibitions are specifically designed to be consulted online and do not have a counterpart in the physical world, for example the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s renowned virtual exhibitions. Other virtual exhibitions act as the multimedia extension to a real-life exhibition and thus have multiple advantages because they perpetuate the curators’ work beyond the few weeks when the exhibition is open in situ. This kind of virtual exhibition provides permanent, free access to all or part of the content of the original exhibition. It also means that complementary archive material can be added when there may originally not have been enough physical space for it to be displayed at the real-life exhibition.

This format has been extensively used by library professionals (Gautier, 2002), though it was for a long time restricted to putting heritage resources online to provide access to archive material to as many people as possible. However, it has been progressively acquiring use value as a tool of cultural mediation in its own right. Digitized documents can thus be consulted via a table of contents providing online users with access to a series of pages displaying images and associated texts, while links and browsing options give access to the following or previous pages. Sometimes there are also videos, interviews with specialists, digitized high-definition manuscripts, etc. The text formats are generally short so that they can be read directly on a screen. This kind of virtual exhibition remains fairly close to the format of a slideshow of documents. However, new life is being breathed into it thanks to easy-to-use tools that play on the spatial positioning of time-specific features. There is also new thinking on the construction of use scenarios and the showcasing of pictorial elements, and more specific reflections on mobile and tactile consultation practices. For example, the developments offered by tools such as Neatline go much further than Omeka’s Exhibit builder plug-in, which is reminiscent of slideshows. Together with StoryMapJS, this is a clear example of ongoing change in this area …

Given this diversity and following on from Laure Bourgeaux’s work, from which we borrowed the first two expressions (Bourgeaux, 2009), we have defined three types of virtual exhibition. Though they are similar in certain respects, they remain fundamentally different from one another given the techniques used and the aims involved.

  • The “double editorial” type. This reproduces exhibition catalogues, hence the name virtual exhibition. It is a system centred on discourse and implies that the selection of documents places the receiver in a relatively “passive” position (e.g. the Medieval Manuscripts of Aquitaine);
  • The “virtual reality” type. This provides a simulated experience of a real-life visit, encounter or consultation and enables users to move around virtually. It is a system centred on innovation and immersion but one in which discourse and interaction often remain limited, for example because this exhibition type reproduces the same limits as the physical space it portrays (e.g. the Lascaux caves);
  • The “transmedia” type. This is a new form of online mediation which exploits a renewed, more open and participative regime of interaction. It is also characterized by the fragmentation of contents across different formats, with the aim of fully exploiting all the possibilities of digital sites and networks. This type of system breathes new life into online exhibition design in order to recombine the three logics necessary to produce a true “visitor experience”, namely a “discursive logic” involving a statement, a “spatial logic” involving a visitor journey (or a narration) and a “gestural logic”, with actions and interactions between the media deployed and the users (e.g. Le défi des bâtisseurs, or “Challenge of the Builders”).


The Hammer Galleries (NYC), virtual and interactive visit, 2012.

Creating a virtual reality exhibition: Thoughts on design and interactions

As engineering students in a computing school, we were particularly keen to reflect on the “virtual reality” model, which first supposes creating a space in which to exhibit and showcase objects from an artistic, scientific, historical or memorial standpoint, etc. This space may be a simple cubic room whose walls are used to “hang” the objects, but it can also be more complex. Unlike reality, the virtual dimension enables the creation of a space limited only by our imagination … The space can thus be considered as a work of art in its own right. Finally, the space can be set up in such a way as to showcase the works more effectively (perhaps to the detriment of the discourse involved?), by playing on visitors’ perception, directing their viewpoints in a certain way, suggesting complex visitor journeys, etc. This type of thinking thus consists in developing a type of design that can transform a simple place into a space full of meaning thanks to the appropriate placing of the elements involved (walls, exhibited works and mediating objects), so as to create a complex apparatus that will actually change people’s perception of the objects on show. These may be presented in a precise, topic-based way, or chronologically, in order to tell a story, or oppose or defend ideas. They can also be arranged “randomly”.

Pierre Louis Carlier, design of the “Fables of the Flemish Landscape” exhibition, Lille Museum of Fine Art, 2012.

This work of designing the exhibition space, if it feeds into the way the objects presented are perceived by those receiving the information, can also create an atmosphere more or less conducive to interactions between the different people present within the expographic space. This “human” dimension is very often neglected in digital approaches to virtual exhibitions. To avoid these being simple libraries of digital images, there must be many interactions with the virtual world but also between users and with the real world.

In our view, then, three levels of interaction need to be considered.

  • The first level of interaction that should be envisaged is that of directing movement through the exhibition space to best manage how visitors “walk” through the virtual universe. Different standpoints and methods of moving around the space are available and the choices made alter visitors’ perception. The most commonly observed movements are walking (this imitates reality), flying (total freedom), focusing on the object (zooming the camera in or out) or teleportation (this enables a broader field of movement, shifting from one standpoint to another).
  • Users can also interact with the different objects exhibited within the space. Here too, several methods and levels of interaction exist. Users may simply be led to observe the object and to click on it to obtain more information. They may virtually take hold of an object (which cannot be done in reality) so as to observe it from different angles. Moving on from this, there are also cases in which users can interact to a greater extent with the object by handling it, changing some of its characteristics (imitating a reconstruction of broken remains) or actually using it (to understand the uses of the object concerned).
  • Finally, a virtual exhibition also needs to enable users to interact with other visitors to the same exhibition or who have already explored the space, in similar ways to those observed in physical museums (Jacobi and Jeanneret, 2013). Several solutions can be implemented to enable such interactions. For example, as in many video games, there can be a discussion zone on one of the sides of the visit “window”. It would also be possible to envisage a kind of comments space open to everyone, like real-life museum visitors’ books. However, integrating social media and introducing an animation by a community manager seem more relevant given how common such practices are, even though these require significant human investment (Magro, 2015). In any case, we feel that this is one of the most important ideas to develop in terms of creating such a meeting space.

To conclude this brief overview, given that we are still at the stage of thinking through the various possibilities, it seems important to us to stress that in both real life and virtual exhibitions, the way information is received depends both on the design of the exhibition and the possibilities for interaction provided to visitors. From this standpoint, a great deal of thought is still required to facilitate take-up and mediation activities that consist in more than simply wandering around a space against a given backdrop …


Bourgeaux, Laure, 2009. Musées et bibliothèques sur Internet : le patrimoine au défi du numérique, Université Paris 1, Panthéon – Sorbonne, Master 2 Histoire et politique des musées et du patrimoine.

Davallon, Jean, 1999. L’exposition à l’œuvre : stratégies de communication et médiation symbolique, Paris: L’Harmattan.

Gautier, France, 2002. Concevoir une exposition virtuelle en bibliothèque : enjeux et méthodologie, dissertation surpervised by Jacques Gana, Enssib.

Jacobi, Daniel et Jeanneret, Yves, 2013. Du panneau à la signalétique. Lecture et médiations réciproques dans les musées, Culture & Musées, special issue, La muséologie, 20 ans de recherches, p. 47–71.

Magro, Sébastien, 2015. De l’usage des réseaux socio-numériques comme supports d’une médiation culturelle en ligne, La Lettre de l’OCIM, 162 URL:

Featured image: Natur in Menschenhand? @ Naturkundemuseum by Universalmuseum Joanneum, licence CC-BY-NC.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.

Cite this article: "Thoughts on designing a virtual exhibition", by Arnaud Taburet - Pierre Rivault in Anthology.

Arnaud Taburet - Pierre Rivault

Etudiants à l’ESIEA à LAVAL,nous avons pu travailler avec Xavier Villebrun et Jessica de Bideran à travers notre projet de formation humaine : Expositions Virtuelles (proposé par Xavier Villebrun)