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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

The Culture Role of Culturally Specific Museums and Online Exhibitions

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


With May, the Asian Heritage Month, coinciding with the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, many institutions were forced to cancel their planned exhibitions and events and bring the celebration to the virtual world.

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Source.

A good example is the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, United States. Following the #MuseumfromHome movement, the website moved the main part of its exhibition online. The website included a meditative art video, a virtual tour of two currently featured exhibitions; Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, and Pause, an installation by artist Jean Shin, and cooking videos as a part of showcasing Asian food culture. The audiences can even download a file of artworks that can be used to upgrade their Zoom background. These online resources not only enable the museum to deliver its exhibitions in an alternative way but also cater to the needs of the audiences during the quarantine.

Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Source.

In recent years, culturally specific museums started to play more important roles in cultural education. One of the reasons being that non-specific museums tend to treat cultural groups, especially those belonging to visible minorities, as a monolith, while culturally specific museums can capture the diversity within the broad terms. The research pointed out that culturally specific museums help build the environment to facilitate discussions about race and identities. Such conversations are especially important for minority groups who are remote from their original cultures.

Canada History Museum. Source.

While non-culturally specific museums can introduce different cultures and arts to audiences, the culturally specific museums are places where the conversation can go deeper. This makes both types of institutions necessary for museum education. The former had a head start with its long history and large scale. However, with the advance of technology, culturally-specific museums can develop various ways to engage more audiences in different ways.

Indigenous Arts, Royal BC Museum. Source.

While visiting a museum in person is a more appealing option, online exhibitions open up more opportunities for both the museum and its audiences. Research by Mateos-Rusillo & Gifreu-Castells argued that digital exhibitions created a new model for museums and changed the relationship between museums and visitors. Digital museums went beyond the limitation of time and space and became an extension of the traditional museum system. Mateos-Rusillo & Gifreu-Castells further studied the digital exhibition cases and summarized three different models of the online exhibition: the mirror model, the hypermedia model, and the narrative model. Respectively, these models allow visitors to follow the exhibition under guidance, to freely explore by themselves, or to have narration accompany them while navigating the exhibition. The researchers thus concluded that digital exhibitions largely enhanced the museum's ability to circulate knowledge.

While we are looking forward to the end of the quarantine when we will be able to visit museums and galleries in-person again, we are offered an opportunity to witness the potential of online exhibitions. How to maximize the abilities of new technologies to facilitate museum experience is an interesting direction to explore.


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