Why write a book on digital exhibits?

7 December 2022

Written by Emily Marsh

It seems counter-intuitive, right? Why go to a behemoth of legacy media such as a book publisher to express thoughts about the digital humanities? Why not just write whatever content I am compelled to write, post it on this website, and call it a day?

You have a problem..., but you’re in that strange limbo where you don’t feel exactly burdened by the problem and you don’t have a solution. You’re in that atmosphere between these two poles. And in that atmosphere, you’re going to come up with something.

Patti Smith- Harper's Bazaar, December 2022

The majority of books and web-based tutorials on digital exhibits are focused on either the content for the proposed exhibit or the software platform being considered. The authors of the content-focused perspective usually cite the Big Idea construct of Beverly Serrell. Serrell’s organizing principle is an intellectually sound and practically useful tool for creating a meaningful and successful exhibit. There is a problem with most of these resources, however. While they advocate using this construct, they often fail to describe exactly how an exhibit creator should go about developing their Big Idea and then to implement it effectively as an organizing principle and driver of their project.

I faced this same problem in my first exhibit. I had a selection of materials that were designated by management to be the focus of a mandated exhibit, but I had little clue as to how to properly showcase them in a way that would be engaging and meaningful to an outside lay audience. Suggesting that I should identify a Big Idea to frame and drive the exhibit was somewhat helpful, but I was still at a loss because few authors go beyond this initial admonishment to a deeper level of analysis and implementation. How exactly do you create and then apply your Big Idea?

There was, and is, a real lack of help for exhibit curators to get beyond this point: knowing you need to develop an organizing framework grounded in a set of materials, but not knowing exactly how to go about doing this. This was eerily reminiscent of my time spent as a doctoral student trying to analyze my dissertation dataset. While there were many resources eager to tout the value of narrative and textual data and methods for analyzing that data following a given qualitative method, there was not a lot of detailed procedural support. Aside from recommendations to immerse myself in my data so that the thematic categories for analysis would eventually appear, there was little assistance to actually help me to discern these categories. Presumably, given enough effort and immersion time, they would appear somehow, in some way. Although I eventually did analyze my data and complete my dissertation and degree, it would have been helpful to have some sort of explicit, detailed guide to support and shape my immersive analytic work. This insight led me to recognize a similar gap in the literature for digital exhibit creators who want to build document-based projects.

While I could have created a website detailing my thoughts about all this, getting this content in front of the right audience did not seem likely. I assume anyone reading this is only here because I turned my writing into a book, and not a website or collection of digital essays. This seemed like the premise for an online journal, not a guide for digital exhibit creators. Organizing my perspective into a cohesive, substantive text for a published book seemed more promising, albeit somewhat daunting. That is why I decided to write Creating Digital Exhibits for Cultural Institutions: A Guide.

I am excited to share this work with, I hope, a much larger audience that will include my fellow exhibit creators.