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  • Interfacing American Culture: The Perils and Potentials of Virtual Exhibitions
  • David Silver (bio)

Life History Manuscripts from the Folklore Project, WPA Federal Writers’ Project 1936–1940, located at, summer 1995-present. American Memory Project, Library of Congress, exhibition designers.

Remembering Nagasaki, located at, summer 1995-present. Sponsored by the Exploratorium in collaboration with IDG Films and Rupert Jenkins. Ali Sant, design and production; Marina McDougall, writing and design; Jim Spadaccini, technical assistance; Rupert Jenkins, Michael Pearce, and Susan Schwartzenberg, project advisors.

The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory, located at, fall 1996-present. Chicago Historical Society and Academic Technologies Northwestern University, exhibition designers. Sponsored in part by H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine. Carl Smith, curator and author; Paul Hertz, art director; Joe Germuska, production supervisor; Eric Whitley, Lou Skriba, and Gia Sadhwani, assistance.

In March 1989, AMERICAN QUARTERLY acknowledged the critical importance of American studies-related museums and exhibitions by initiating a new feature: the exhibition review section. Noting the recent increase in museums and exhibitions and their crucial role as public sites of culture, the original exhibition review editors, Joseph and Wanda Corn, [End Page 825] sought to open new dialogues between academic and museum communities. Moreover, they hoped “to bring to museum practice the dignity and challenge of scholarly debate and discourse.” 1

Today, this challenge continues. Yet in addition to focusing upon collections stored within the four walls of museums, we can and should begin to explore other, less tangible collections. With the recent introduction and widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, museum curators across the world are increasingly “going online.” Theoretically able to reach tens of millions of Internet users, virtual exhibitions mark a new stage for museums, the process of museum development, and the act of museum visitation.

Beneath the unchecked hype accompanying the Internet lie interesting and exciting potentials for online cultural collections. In particular, Internet technologies allow for dynamic applications of multimedia simultaneity, user interaction, and multilinear narration. At the same time, reduced (so far) to a two-dimensional interface, the structural limitations of html, and the often shallow, point-and-click mentality fostered in part by the World Wide Web, virtual exhibitions may amount to little more than disorganized and decontextualized digital collections. 2 Focusing upon three collections—the Library of Congress’s Life History Manuscripts from the Folklore Project, the Exploratorium’s Remember Nagasaki, and the Chicago Historical Society’s The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory—this (virtual) exhibition review addresses such issues in an attempt to conceptualize both the perils and potentials of virtual exhibitions.

An Introduction to Virtual Exhibitions

Since this is the first review of virtual exhibitions to appear in American Quarterly, it is helpful to begin by providing readers with a basic, working definition. Stated simply, virtual exhibitions are online, World Wide Web-based, hypertextual, dynamic collections devoted to a specific theme, topic, concept, or idea. These descriptions merit explanation.

Electronic versions of material collections are hardly new. Indeed, filmed walk-abouts through exhibitions featured in such notable museums as the Louvre and the Smithsonian have existed for decades. Likewise, many museums have published detailed CD-ROMs, affording users “virtual visits” of their collections. Such exhibitions are examples of stand-alone systems; they exist within a limited, predetermined “space” such as a CD-ROM, a floppy disk, or a hard drive. 3 Only within the last two years [End Page 826] have curators begun to mount their exhibitions online; that is the exhibitions exist as part of and within a computer-mediated, networked system. Today, the network of choice is, of course, the Internet.

The virtues of being online are numerous. While traditional exhibitions require physical visitations, online exhibitions are aspatial, and can be accessed simultaneously by a number of users, or “virtual visitors,” from various networked locations across the world. Further, unlike cd-rom-based exhibitions which are pressed, unalterable versions of a particular collection, online exhibitions exist as perpetual works in progress; they can be changed, redesigned, subtracted from, and added to within minutes. Finally, as part of a...

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pp. 825-850
Launched on MUSE
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