A live stream of a sculpture is unlikely to draw a crowd. And if you try to click through one of those clunky digital museum tours, you might quickly conclude that you’re better off with no museum experience at all. Even if we can look through collection databases to pass the time, the museum exhibition, which depends on physical objects and carefully designed spaces, must remain a relic of the pre-pandemic age, right?
The staff members at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) don’t seem to think so. Whereas most museum websites might, at best, offer companion materials to their physical exhibitions, NMAI is trying to make exhibitions such as “Americans,” which examines representations of Native Americans in American culture, just as accessible and interesting on a Web browser as at the museum.
Dan Davis, integrated media manager at NMAI, believes it’s crucial to the museum’s mission that the institution puts as much effort into its digital initiatives as it devotes to its in-house programming. “The museum has huge aspirations. Aspirations no less than changing the world, changing the way we think of native people,” Davis said. “We can’t do that by requiring people to come to the museum.”
The show’s thesis that “Indians are everywhere” is conveyed particularly well online. A constellation of images referencing Native Americans — a launching missile (a “Tomahawk”), a box of Argo cornstarch, a sign for the “Arrow Motel,” sports paraphernalia, beer labels and so on — gets at the randomness of these representations. At the same time, the interactive design, which allows you to zoom out and scan the images, illuminates the unsettling themes that unite them: fantasies of the West and dangerous stereotypes about Native Americans.
The exhibition focuses on four main stories: Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, the Indian Removal Act and the Battle of Little Bighorn, but it mostly keeps the text sparse and informative, letting the images take center stage. “Because of the huge amount of choices visitors can make when they are visiting the museum online, we try to make the content easy to skim through quickly, with opportunities to swim more deeply,” Davis explained.
Since 2017, reaching more people online has been one of the Smithsonian Institution’s major goals, and in some ways, “Americans” is just one exemplar. Websites across the Smithsonian also reflect a growing digital focus: The National Portrait Gallery’s digital presidents galleries is another highlight, as are an exhibition about the Smithsonian Gardens and “Developing Stories: Native Photographers in the Field,” NMAI’s latest digital offering.
Curated spotlight lists bring together related objects from different museums: rock-and-roll posters, images of Frida Kahlo, depictions of spring and the Statue of Liberty. An ongoing project on women’s history features actors and public figures in commissioned videos, the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Webby award-winning website highlights objects from its collection, and there are many other “online exhibitions” archived on the main Smithsonian site that stretch back years.
Still, most of these “exhibits” are really just websites. It’s a certain savvy that makes “Americans” stand out.
NMAI curator Paul Chaat Smith and Davis found inspiration in the Mauritshuis museum’s online exhibition about “The Goldfinch,” a painting by Carel Fabritius. The Dutch institution’s site uses audiovisual elements — poignant classical music, a comforting narrator, a scroll-like layout — to create a mood, like stepping into an immersive space. But while a physical space limits the objects that can be displayed, associations online can be as free-flowing as the images moving around the screen. In the “Goldfinch” exhibition, curators place the painting in conversation with biblical imagery, other 17th-century goldfinch paintings, Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” and additional examples of trompe l’oeil (visual illusions).
In the museum space, “color, tricks of lighting, pacing, all accentuate the fact that you are standing in front of an actual Tomahawk missile, or a vintage Indian motorcycle,” but digital exhibitions offer more fluidity, said Smith, the NMAI curator. “It allows us to make connections for viewers, and drill down many layers, zoom in and out and pace their journey in ways impossible if they were in our building.”
Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands takes this “impossible” pacing a step further, with a website that is formatted like a Mondrian painting and tells the story of the artist’s life. To varying degrees, other modern art museums have also embraced the digital medium: The Getty Research Institute launched an interactive Bauhaus website to coincide with the German art school’s centennial, and the Reina Sofia in Spain recently did a virtual deep dive into Picasso’s “Guernica.”
These museums’ sites succeed because they don’t try too hard to mimic the physical exhibition. They embrace the Internet: its built-in interactivity, the mash-up of different media. It’s not quite the same as being immersed in person, but maybe the digital exhibition has its own strengths. Online, you can slow down, click around and, without any museum guards looking over your shoulder, get as close to the art as you like.