'Internet at the Museum': Visiting Online Exhibitions from the Best Seat in the House ... Yours

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Did you ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a child? Or maybe you've spent a giddy week away from home visiting the Smithsonian Institution's Museums in Washington, D.C.? Or just watched Ben Stiller in one of the Night at the Museum movies? If so, you know that museums have the ability to captivate, intrigue, educate, and amuse us. For those of us dedicated armchair travelers who find that we just can't travel as much as we'd like, the internet can take you on wonderful virtual journeys to museums around the world. Museum websites can supplement actual visits by helping you plan the timing of your trip or serve as complements to an existing exhibit, but the sites can also provide sensational stand-alone online experiences, highlighting objects and art that might otherwise idle in storage.

So sit back, relax, and get ready for your own "Internet at the Museum."

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We begin in the Capitol of the U.S., but place really doesn't matter as you peruse The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden [http://hirshhorn.si.edu] website. Physically located just off the National Mall [http://www.nps.gov/nama], the museum as a whole is dedicated to enhancing the "public understanding and appreciation of contemporary art." The site includes a variety of podcasts, including lectures, a Meet the Artist series, and Gallery Talks. A series entitled Artists Collected In Depth allows a closer look at a particular artist's work. For example, one featured artist is Hiroshi Sugimoto, a contemporary artist from Japan whose photography captures, in a sense, things "intangible, ephemeral, and even non-existent." Biographical information about Sugimoto is combined with his images, a previous exhibition at the Hirshhorn, pod-casts, a link to the artist's website, and a teacher packet for educators. Another section of the website allows online visitors to add their own tags to images of selected recent acquisitions. A section entitled Staff and Visitor Picks adds a personal touch to images of works from the Hirshhorn's collection.

When I lived in Seattle, a day trip to the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) (British Columbia) opened my eyes to the richness and wonder of objects created by the people of the Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations [http://www.museumofvancouver.ca]. Some of these materials can be seen via the MOV's object gallery, a Flickr-esque display of objects individually or by collection. Speaking of Flickr, visitors can become part of a physical exhibit from anywhere around the globe by submitting relevant photographs to MOV's Flickr set. For example, as a companion to the exhibit Velo-City: Vancouver & the Bicycle Revolution, virtual guests can add photos of themselves and their bicycles to the Flickr group Velo-City [http://www.flickr.com/groups/velo-city]. The photos are then streamed into the actual exhibit for all visitors to see on two digital screens.

Let's flip back to the East Coast. This time we have a unique opportunity to visit a museum's online presence before the physical space exists! Titled, "The Museum on the Web," the National Museum of African American History and Culture [http://nmaahc.si.edu] website was "Conceived from the very beginning as a fully virtual precursor to the museum to be built on the Washington Mall, [and] is the first time a major museum is opening its doors on the Web prior to its physical existence." Nonvirtual construction is scheduled to begin in 2012. In lieu of or until then, submit your own photograph or share a memory associated with one of the NMAAHC's offerings, listen to submissions to StoryCorps Griot, where paired participants share their stories of the African American experience. Visit virtual exhibits such as Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits.

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Recently relocated to Washington, D. …