Your latest museum exhibition took months, maybe years, to plan. It may have come with a hefty price tag which, thankfully, enough businesses, individual donors, and philanthropic organizations were able to help cover. Now, scores of prospective visitors are starting to hear about your upcoming exhibition through social media, news outlets, and word of mouth. But before they decide whether to buy tickets, they have one more crucial stop to make: the exhibition’s page on your website. What will they find, and what kind of impression will they take away?
Exhibition pages represent a uniquely important section of a museum’s website. The permanent collection—both on the website and at the museum itself—is (ideally) vast, stable, and predictably organized and easily accessible. It takes up the most space both physically and digitally, and a museum would be hard-pressed to exist without it. Special exhibitions, on the other hand—both on the website and at the museum itself—generate a dynamic quality by providing fresh content multiple times a year, prompting an opportunity to draw in visitors both new and old.
At its most basic level, an exhibition page may be thought of by some as equivalent of an informational flyer, providing the bare information necessary to get visitors in the doors. This is, in fact, what many museums’ exhibition pages look like, and which a strict budget sometimes necessitates. But a great exhibition page goes much further, serving not just as an advertisement, but as a digital extension of the exhibition itself.
Great exhibition pages are relevant to multiple audiences (or perhaps to the same audience at different stages of their visit), and pursue three main objectives:
- Draw in Prospective Visitors: A great exhibition page helps prompt a visit by providing basic information alongside a stimulating preview of what the exhibition contains.
- Provide Resources for Current Visitors: A great exhibition page provides resources like audio guides for visitors while they tour the exhibition.
- Enlighten and Educate: A great exhibition page is not merely a preview of the exhibition, but an extension of it, providing in-depth information and analysis alongside audio-visual content.
Every exhibition is unique, as is every museum, and some exhibitions may call for pages that are more or less elaborate than others due to difference in size, resources, or importance. A larger and better funded exhibition featuring internationally borrowed artwork and expecting thousands of visitors might, for instance, feature much more content than a single piece from the permanent collection being put on special display for a month. Nonetheless, the essential structure and the potential elements of an exhibition page will remain the same.
What are the most important elements of impressive exhibition pages? Keep reading to see some great examples on exhibit.
Goal #1: Draw in Prospective Visitors
People attend exhibitions because they are excited about what they will get to see. A great exhibition page can spark excitement by featuring large high-quality graphics to give users a visual taste of what they will see if they attend the exhibition.
Unfortunately, squashing art into tiny boxes is unavoidable on the web. But at least one large full-width image or video, especially at the top of the page, can help alleviate this problem.
Large images at the top of exhibition pages are so common on museum exhibition pages that the question appears to be less whether to include one and more how large to make it. The following images are full-screen screenshots taken on a standard-size laptop:
On many of these pages, the exhibition’s actual title is not visible “above the fold” on a laptop. In the past, this practice would have been considered less acceptable, since it required users to do more scrolling. Now, requiring users to scroll matters much less, especially since responsive pages will look different on different devices anyway. Consider how the same exhibitions listed above appear on an iPhone 12 Pro:
Some museums make this image even more memorable by animating it with zoom and pan effects, allowing users to view it in more detail. For examples, see The Peabody Essex Museum’s “In American Waters” exhibition and the Denver Art Museum’s “Fantastic Brush” exhibition.
Further down the page, as the user scrolls, more images from the exhibition can be featured. Some images are spread throughout the page, accompanying or at least juxtaposed beside the text. There is also typically a separate section with a small gallery called “Preview the Installation,” “Exhibition Preview,” “Selected Works,” or something similar. This section features some of the most important or interesting works and are typically arranged in a grid or masonry layout or with a scrolling effect. Allowing users to click an image to view it full-screen is a helpful feature as well.
Interesting and Informative Videos
Many sites feature embedded video clips about the exhibition. (A brief video clip may even take the place of the image at the top of the page, such as this example of a family walking into the exhibition.) Videos often fit into one of four basic categories:
- “Curator Perspectives” (under 5 minutes)– The curator discusses the exhibition’s interest and importance, accompanied by images and videos of the exhibition. (Example)
- “Exhibition Films” (5-20 minutes) – More elaborate videos done in a documentary style. (Example)
- “Virtual Tours” (20-40 minutes) – A video of the exhibition itself, filmed in a way that seeks to replicate an in-person tour experience. (Example)
- “Panel Discussions” (40 minutes and up) – A recording of an in-person or livestreamed panel of experts discussing an aspect of the exhibition. (Example)
The longer a video is—and the longer the page itself is—the more its purpose begins to go beyond prompting ticket sales and into enlightening and educating. We will follow up with this idea in Goal #3 below, but here it will suffice to observe that these goals do overlap. The same videos, articles, and other informative content which spark a ticket sale and a visit may also serve the needs of an educator or researcher—even one halfway around the world who will never set foot in the museum, but who has an acute interest in the exhibition’s content.
Key Information & Other Elements
Beside high-quality visual elements, prospective visitors obviously need enough information to determine whether attending an exhibition is worth the time and the ticket price. Great exhibition pages make this information easy to find and appealing to read:
Basic Information: Dates, times, location, ticket price. Additional exhibition-related events like lectures or special tours may be highlighted as well. (See Organizing Your Museum’s Event Calendar for ideas on helpful and unhelpful ways of incorporating exhibition-related events into the site’s calendar.)
Introduction to the Exhibition: A clear, compelling, and concise introduction to the exhibition, informing prospective visitors of its theme(s), scope, and uniqueness.
News and Reviews: Ifan exhibition has been reviewed or featured in a media outlet, a quote, link, or embedded video may be included on the page:
- The Met’s Winslow Homer Exhibition:
- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s “Turner’s Modern World” Exhibition:
- The North Carolina Museum of History’s “Are We There Yet? North Carolina’s Variety Vacationland, 1930s–1970s” Exhibition:
Logistical Information for the Visit: Details on healthy and safety, accessibility, etc. Sometimes placed under a heading such as “Know Before You Go.” Since these details are usually standard across exhibitions, it can be helpful to include it on a separate page or to place it under an accordion heading.
An Ideal Place to Promote Membership Benefits
Since many museums offer members free or discounted admission to exhibitions, an exhibition page is an ideal place to promote membership benefits. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for instance, features a button to buy tickets, immediately followed by a second button that reads, “All members get free admission. Join or renew today!”
Goal #2 – Provide Resources for Current Visitors
Once a prospective visitor has clicked the link to buy his or her ticket, the most basic exhibition pages have fulfilled their purpose. But the best exhibition pages do much more, and one way is by providing resources for visitors when they come to the museum.
Since nearly every visitor shows up at the museum equipped with a portable audio device (i.e. smartphone), museums can easily record audio tours and put them online for visitors to access. The most natural place to make this accessible is on the exhibition page itself. A playlist based on various works included in the exhibition makes it easy to navigate:
A museum might include other relevant information as well, as shown in these examples:
- “Access Guide” (Denver Art Museum) – includes images, videos, and audio categorized according to the structure of the exhibition.
- “Object Checklist” (Getty) – a PDF labeling all images contained in the exhibition.
- “Booklet of all in-gallery labels” (The Met) – a PDF of all artwork labels, which can be especially helpful at crowded exhibitions or for visitors who need to magnify the text on a screen.
Goal #3 – Enlighten and Educate
Beyond enticing prospective visitors and providing resources for current visitors, the exhibition page can serve as a key resource in itself. It is important to observe that, unlike many event pages on websites, exhibition pages do not come down after the exhibition is over. The best museum websites feature an easy-to-find link to “Past Exhibitions” or an “Exhibition Archive,” where users can continue to access these pages many years later.
For this reason, a great exhibition page is not just a promotional page to get visitors in the door, but a lasting resource that retains is relevance indefinitely. What other content, then, can help it to increase and then retain its value?
Articles & Podcasts
In addition to whatever information is included on the exhibition page itself, many exhibitions also feature separate articles highlighting particular objects, themes, etc. If these are part of the museum’s blog, then this is an ideal place for cross-linking, which is one of the four attributes of the best museum blogs. (The same can be said for embedded videos, as these may be part of the museum’s YouTube or Vimeo channel which users can become aware of.)
Audio resources like podcasts can be integrated into the page in a similar manner.
Other Potential Elements:
- Educator Resources: If resources for teachers like lesson plans have been developed, these can be linked on the exhibition page.
- Bibliographies: Books and articles for additional reading can be included for researchers. This can be included on the page itself or linked as a separate document.
- Promoting the Exhibition Catalog: If a catalog has been produced, it can be highlighted with a link to the museum’s online store. The example below from the Peabody Essex Museum is prominent and nicely designed, appearing at the bottom of the exhibition page.
Two More Elements: Sponsorships & Social Media
How Should Sponsorships Be Highlighted?
Since sponsorships are crucial to an exhibition’s success—not to mention its very existence—exhibition pages are an important place to properly acknowledge these generous individuals and organizations. Because the prominence and placement of sponsors can greatly affect the look and feel of a page, a museum has two important decisions to make:
- Placement: Where should sponsors be acknowledged? The top, middle, or bottom of the page?
- Content: What should the acknowledgement look like? If a sponsor has a logo, should the logo be included, or just the name? If logos are included, should they retain their original colors, or be modified to fit a common color scheme or converted to grayscale? (Note: some organizations do not allow the colors of their logos to be changed, so this option should be verified in advance.)
The balancing act consists of finding a way to make sure sponsors are pleased with their names being prominent enough on the page, while doing so in a way that does not detract from the design and tone of the page by making it appear overly commercialized. The key here is to be intentional and consistent, making sure your generous sponsors understand your usual procedure.
How Should Social Media Be Integrated?
Most exhibition pages do not integrate social media, and doing so is not absolutely necessary. But if a museum has a strong social media presence and emphasis, or a unique idea about how to integrate social media into the website, it can make an interesting addition. Social media integration may consist of (1) making it easy for users to export website content to their social media accounts and/or (2) importing social media content to the exhibition’s webpage.
- Website Content – Social Media
A site may include buttons and links encouraging users to share about an exhibition on their own social media accounts. A basic set of icons to “Share with Friends,” for instance, is easy to include, usually through a simple WordPress plugin, and this is often already built into the website. This is not a feature that is likely to be used very frequently, but given how little space it takes up and how easy it is to include, even periodic use can make it worthwhile.
- Social Media – Website Content
Occasionally, museums find creative ways to import visitor-generated social media content to the exhibition page. A fun example is the Denver Art Museum. When visitors take photos at exhibits and then tag the art museum on Instagram or Twitter, the museum is notified of their pictures and selects images they would like to feature on their website. If given permission (the museum reaches out to original posters, who agree to certain terms & conditions before the museum will use the image), the museum includes these photos on exhibition pages and elsewhere. Their “Whistler to Cassatt” page, for example, looks like this:
Making the Most of Your Exhibition Pages
As we have seen, great museum exhibition pages fulfill a host of purposes. Beyond inspiring prospective visitors to attend an exhibition, a great exhibition page also:
- Allows current visitors to access audio guides and other resources
- Provides informational and audio-visual resources to learners and researchers
- Reminds visitors of the advantages of museum membership
- Makes more users aware of and interested in the museum’s blog, podcast, YouTube channel, etc.
- Directs users to the museum store to purchase the exhibition catalog
- Highlights the generosity of sponsors
- Is connected to relevant social media accounts
- Makes a great impression on all users, leaving them with a positive impression of the museum whether or not they end up attending this particular exhibition
Time and resources will vary from museum to museum and from exhibition to exhibition, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to an exhibition page. At a minimum, it is a source of information to help visitors get in the door. At best, it is an online extension of the exhibition itself, giving the exhibition a digital presence even many years after the exhibition itself has come to an end. For these reasons, designing an exhibition page with care and excellence is well worth the effort. A great exhibition page that accompanies a great exhibition will leave visitors eager awaiting the next one.