Online Exhibitions

Jennifer Mundy, UK, Jane Burton, UK


This paper will explore the conceptual and methodological issues surrounding the creation of a virtual art exhibition, drawing on the experience of working on the recently launched online exhibition The Gallery of Lost Art.

After a brief overview of the typologies of existing online exhibitions, the paper will review the principles underlying the creation of The Gallery of Lost Art and will underline the ways in which this project is similar to and differs from other online exhibitions. It will interrogate the concept of curation when applied to virtual spaces and digital technology, and raise questions about whether conventional museum practice can – or should – be developed and migrated to this arena.

The paper will review the genesis of the project, which was a collaboration between Tate, the digital wing of the television company Channel 4 and the digital design agency ISO, and discuss how it developed into being a project with a serious art historical dimension (an exploration of the diverse ways in which important works of modern and contemporary art have disappeared or have been lost over the course of the twentieth century and how we remember these lost works).

Key principles underlying the project will be reviewed. First among these was the decision to create an immersive experience (as opposed to a flat, image-plus-text presentation) rich in the associations of visiting a gallery space (albeit in this case something closer to a warehouse space). Second, we chose to bring curatorial values and practices to this project with a view to developing an exhibition that a conventional museum visitor, rather than, for example, someone seeking information from a museum website, could potentially enjoy. These values and practices included a sensitivity to the scale and physical qualities of the lost artworks (and the documents through which their existence was traced), a refusal to create surrogates for the lost artworks, and the provision of a complex and challenging thesis through the selection of forty case studies. The third determining principle was the decision to allow the project to end after one year, mimicking the situation with museum exhibitions. This has proved controversial, with some surprise and indeed criticism being expressed at the idea of allowing what has been seen as a valuable educational resource to be 'lost'.

The paper will explore these decisions and their consequences for the conceptualisation of an online art exhibition. It will ask whether this sort of project, which was conceived and developed as a curatorial rather than a learning project, offers a model with potential for significant future development for art museums that are seeking to connect with audiences who that may not normally consider visiting a conventional exhibition or are geographically remote. It will also look at the difficulties of locating an art historical thesis within a sphere that is not normally seen as having an impact on art historians, and the positives brought to the project about history and memory by the digital terrain.

Keywords: online exhibition, lost art

From the early days of the Internet, the museum paradigm for an “online exhibition” has been a translation of a physical exhibition consisting of images of artworks on a website, laid out flatly, catalogue style, with a modicum of accompanying explanatory text. While a useful form of record keeping and resource for learning, this approach has framed online exhibitions as being secondary to visiting in-gallery exhibitions in person, an adjunct and very much a lesser affair.

In recent years, more innovative approaches have emerged, and a new range of typologies for the online exhibition have been brokered. Setting aside the questionable, expensive forays made by some museums into the virtual world of Second Life, which failed to deliver on its promises for at least the cultural sector, we can identify today a number of styles of online exhibition that come closer to creating a parallel experience to that of a physical visit, sometimes seeking to harness and activate the things that, arguably, can be done better in the digital realm than in the gallery.

The first type we might call a “rich media catalogue.” Building upon early expressions of online exhibitions, this approach still foregrounds images of the artworks in a two-dimensional design scheme, akin to a printed catalogue, but increasingly it offers rich media assets to support the images. A recent example is MoMa’s Cindy Sherman website (2012), which presents a room-by-room guide to works in the exhibition, focusing on Sherman’s photographs first and foremost, but with additional videos and audio commentaries ( Although not an immersive site, its minimalist design, in which large images of the artworks slide across the screen, and added interpretative media make it a rewarding viewing experience.

The BBC’s Your Paintings project is another high-profile example: a website that aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings, with details about where to see them ( It is made up of paintings from thousands of museums and other public institutions around the country, and it is accompanied by online audio tours and clips from the BBC’s vast archive of related film and radio programmes about featured artists. It also encourages users to become active participants in tagging paintings to improve the way people can search the site.

We might call the second online exhibition type “capturing the gallery.” This approach involves using the latest 360-degree stills or video technology to produce an interactive online replica of the gallery exhibition. Famously, The Google Art Project, launched in 2011, brings 151 museums and galleries from across 40 countries together online to show highlights of their collections ( Google Street View technology was used to create 360-degree virtual gallery tours and special “gigapixel” extra-high-resolution images of individual artworks, one per museum. It is the first global art collection accessible to anyone in the world with a broadband connection. Users can compare and contrast famous artworks from different institutions and zoom in on paintings for a view that goes well beyond what can be seen by the naked eye, demonstrating the power of digital technology to deliver an experience that would be impossible in galleries. Through association with the Khan Academy, Google is also building up a portfolio of contextual information about key works in the project.

Museums now use similar technology themselves, to present a taster for their collection highlights on their own websites. London’s National Gallery, for example, presents a virtual tour that captures the in-gallery experience, while allowing users to zoom into artworks (

At Tate in summer 2012, we decided to push the 360-degree technology to its limits with an experimental video capture of Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst retrospective. We produced an interactive 360-degree video that allowed online users to navigate their way around the exhibition in the company of comedian Noel Fielding and Hirst himself. Alongside the video experience, we also made a 360-degree stills version of the exhibition, which included embedded videos offering insights from critics, curators, and other commentators  (

None of these presentations, however, quite capture the emotional and sensory impact of viewing art in a museum; they remain dilutions of the physical gallery experience. But the typology of the “immersive” online exhibition is becoming more interesting as a new generation of Web technologies emerges and aims to restore some of these sensory aspects to the digital space. An early experiment for Tate in this area was an interactive interpretation of Miroslaw Balka’s 2010 commission for Tate Modern, How It Is. Drawing on Balka’s own handwritten notes and interviews about the art installation he created for Tate, the project aimed to allow visitors to immerse themselves in a dark and mysterious world, evocative of the original installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall but unique in itself (

Looking ahead, the arrival of HTML5 brings new potential for creativity. Although not an exhibition, Google‘s “sensory chrome experiment” with Cirque du Soleil reveals intriguing possibilities for the museum sector (  It uses gesture-based interaction instead of a keyboard or mouse, combining two inputs (sound and camera) to interpret users’ movements. The project is still going through some technology teething problems, judging by the comments from its users, but it nonetheless points to a future for the web in which our sensory perceptions and imagination could perhaps be more fully engaged.

Against this background of a few promising new ventures amid a plethora of increasingly average-looking sites that combined learning and marketing, Tate in 2010 began to plan to develop an online exhibition that we hoped would emulate key aspects of in-gallery exhibitions. It secured the interest and financial investment of 4iP, the digital wing of the television company Channel 4, for a project around the theme of lost art. It also gained the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), then seeking innovative ways of allying itself with research projects with the potential to share knowledge with the broadest possible range of audiences. (The AHRC’s hopes for a significant and innovative alliance with a television company were frustrated by the subsequent dismemberment of 4iP, but its support permitted a sustained period of art historical and curatorial research to an extent that, in our experience, was unusual in similar Web projects.)

This was perhaps key to why the project was different from so many other online exhibitions. Neither an exercise in information-provision nor explicitly didactic, the project was curatorially led from the outset and framed by an ambition to create an online exhibition with the visual qualities and scholarly authority of an in-gallery exhibition at Tate (we even applied Tate house style to the site, although it was hosted independently with only links from the websites of Tate and Channel 4). Our target audience was the same as that of Tate itself—people who were interested in art and ideas but not necessarily regular museum visitors; however, we were more than willing to experiment and try to exploit the popular appeal of Web presentations in new ways. We were committed from the start to the idea of marketing the exhibition and getting it known largely through social media; and, reflecting 4iP’s interest in developing popular engagement, we initially considered finding ways of incorporating people’s comments about their experiences of loss, whether momentous or trivial, in a special area within the site. Eventually, however, we settled for interactive blogs attached to the case studies and felt that the project’s subject was sufficiently intriguing in itself to attract even potentially new audiences.

A further factor determining the final look and character of the project was our desire to try to emulate what we saw as the defining features of in-gallery exhibitions. Some might argue that this was wildly perverse: why hobble a digital medium with the unnecessary constraints of the physical exhibition? But it seemed to us a worth exploring these constraints in order to benefit from their positives and test the parameters and museum value of the genre of online exhibitions. The enthusiastic reviews we have received from the public suggest that we are onto something, but let us first review our admittedly simple analysis of the key features of in-gallery exhibitions.

The first of these, we felt, was a sense of being in a particular place designed for viewing objects and that, through visual cues and appealing to people’s curiosity, encouraged visitors to move through the space in order to see more. Responding to the brief, the Glasgow-based digital design agency ISO, led by Damien Smith and Mark Breslin, created an immersive and dramatic setting for the project. With its warehouse proportions and concrete floor, the backdrop of the Gallery of Lost Art echoed aspects of contemporary art settings but suggested, too, something awry or mysterious through its play of light and shadow and unnatural, jarring soundscape (see figures 1 and 2). The setting was static but the presentation—notably the regular addition of new content and the images of real people in the space—created the illusion of change and movement. One blogger noted: “The site is not just a database, it’s an actual experience. It’s eerie” (Graves, 2013).

Figure 1
Figure 2

Rather than having walls divide up the gallery space, words stencilled onto the concrete floor demarcated the different themes and sections within the exhibition through which the visitor navigated using arrows and cursor keys. Built in Flash, this simple but striking setting had been inspired by Lars Van Trier’s minimalist scenography for the film Dogville (2003), which in turn had been influenced by experimental performances and “black box” theatres. A world apart from the flat, Web-based, educational online exhibitions that were and still are very much the norm for museums, the setting suggested an artistically aware use of visual metaphor. Most visitors will have been unaware of the cinematic and theatrical sources behind the design, but many were won over and intrigued by the first impression of the site, which in turn predisposed them to feel that they were about to enjoy what lay ahead of them.

The subject of how to represent art that no longer existed—and, indeed, included pieces such as Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) that could never have realistically existed in, or fitted into, any gallery space—was a further design and conceptual challenge. As a team, we rejected potentially gimmicky ideas of creating digital surrogates for the lost works and realised, too, that presenting manipulated images of “displays” of these pieces would be as unappealing visually as it would be impossible (for some of the works we wanted to include, there were only very poor quality images or, in one case—chosen in part because it represented an extreme—none at all). What existed and therefore could be shown were the various records that testified to the previous existence of the works and their demise. Located in libraries and archives, both private and public, around the world, these materials included photographs, press clippings, letters, and illustrations in catalogues and books. In a few cases there were also related sound recordings and films. It was an awkward miscellany, without obvious visual appeal (figure 3).

Figure 3

The design team, however, quickly found a compelling solution, drawing again on current artistic and curatorial practice. Damien Smith (2012) explains:

We were fascinated by the power that collected fragments carry and how they can be explored by users to build a very personal picture or a person, work or event. The visual references we used were varied but all dealt with the space and remains left behind after an incident of loss. These ranged from NASA reconstruction labs of downed spacecraft where an incident is reconstructed by gathering the trail of debris, objects, data and eye witness reports … [to] The Peter Saville Show at London’s Design Museum (2003), where a career of defining works was visualised through an array of archive boxes that contained what was left over from photo shoots, events etc.

The design team had worked previously on the graphics for television series dealing with crime and forensic science, and found themselves transposing some of their ideas for this into the build of the project site, with visitors being cast in the role of investigators. Thus, the site’s visual metaphors encouraged visitors to imagine themselves studying research materials—not precious and unique archival items—that were presented spread out casually on office-like tables. Photographs (or, more typically, simple computer printouts of images) were shown slightly crumpled or mounted on dog-eared paper; press cuttings were arranged casually spread out or stacked in untidy piles next to old film cassettes; and throughout the site were signs of research under way—people bent over the different tables, looking at card files and folders with bulldog clips and yellow Post-It notes, and open laptops (a home for the project’s commissioned short films). While we had not wanted to fake the display of the lost artworks, we were willing to manipulate the appearance of these documents in the gallery setting (the spatial metaphors we were using required a degree of homogeneity among the items displayed). The documents, however, were shown in unmanipulated form when a visitor selected them to see in detail—a disjuncture that no one seemed to notice or mind.

Faced with the challenges of representing the subject of loss through archival documents and of conveying to a non-specialist audience why this was of interest or mattered, we adopted certain strategies. We decided to focus on modern and contemporary art partly because, while people are familiar with the idea of loss in relation to the art of distant times, the loss of works made in our own times or those of our parents or grandparents seems more surprising, even shocking. We used ten categories to structure the exhibition, each functioning as a section or the equivalent of a room in an in-gallery show. Some were predictable, but many were less so. We included a section on unfinished works, for example, which seemed to us a relevant, if less obvious, category of loss. Controversially, we included examples of works that were never intended to survive for any length of time. The loss involved in no longer being able to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin 1971–1995 (1971–1995) or Keith Haring’s Berlin Wall Mural (1986) was ultimately no different, we felt, from the loss involved in not being able to see, for example, sculptures discarded by their creators or canvases consumed in a fire. The methods of retrieval, or reimagining the works, by later generations were the same, and involved a sometimes painstaking retracing of the work’s “life.”

Beyond the novelty of its design and the conceptual structure, however, the project offered unexpected insights into loss. Conventionally, the loss of a work of art is seen in negative terms, as a matter to be always regretted. Some commentators talked about the site in terms of its revelation of the “death” of artworks. But the project underlined the extent to which loss is an accepted, if little acknowledged and curiously ignored, part of art’s history. It suggested that loss was endemic to the history of art and had silently framed, even skewed, our view of the past. It urged a greater awareness of the gaps in the historical record. And it showed how loss has become a creative theme, stratagem, and even precondition of art-making in some quarters in the later twentieth century. Of their Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin 1971–1995—a project that took nearly a quarter of a century to prepare and lasted a mere fortnight—Christo and Jeanne-Claude memorably claimed, “non-permanent art will be missed.” But of course the reliance on secondary documentation for the survival of information about temporary artworks poses many still unresolved questions about future representations of such pieces in museums that aim to tell a representative history of recent artistic practice (and raises the question of whether some aspects of the approach to evidence adopted by the Gallery of Lost Art will have to be used increasingly by museums in their displays and exhibitions of art that are no longer physically extant but part of the stories of art’s histories that they want to tell).

Ultimately, the project suggested that artworks—whether extant or missing—needed to be seen in terms of a broad ecology of ideas, influences, and connections, in which the material existence of the artworks was only one, and not necessarily crucial, element and where the artists were not main arbiters of meaning. Artworks, it showed, could remain a potent force even when no longer extant (Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a world-famous icon of modern art that disappeared almost as soon as it was first shown to anyone, is a case in point). Art history still tends to focus on what exists to be seen and in practice relies heavily on the familiar but questionable assumption that meaning is derived from the artwork rather than from its context. But lost art forces researchers to rely on context in order to understand what was lost and the impact of the loss, and to explore how missing works can sometimes exert influence because of, not despite, their disappearance.

The Gallery of Lost Art was launched in July 2012, with half of the forty case studies revealed. The launch was accompanied by a strong press campaign, and as we revealed a further case study each week over the next six months, we connected to existing and new audiences through press articles about the newly released individual case study and through social media. At the time of writing (February 2013), the project has only been complete for a few weeks, but, while the success of a project is not measured entirely in terms of its reception, some points already can be made about the effectiveness of the site in numerical terms.

The first is that online exhibitions have the potential to reach a large and genuinely diverse and global audience. We have already achieved a respectable number of visits in the first six months: over 72,000 visits from 144 countries. The site’s bounce rate (22 percent) is low, with an average dwell time of 6.18 minutes, indicating that most visitors become interested and explore the site. Over 900 different online locations (social media sites, websites, blogs) have brought people to the site. In addition, searching for the site’s name currently brings 107,000 results, with articles written about the site in a range of countries, including the United States, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. The press team reports that 100,000 people were reached by our social media campaigns in these six months, while online articles about the project were available to 3.5 million people. It is hard to be clear whether these audiences include non-museum visitors, but the press campaign targeted publications and websites where Tate exhibitions would not normally feature.

Beyond these numbers, however, what can be said about how people enjoyed the site and how has the project impacted on people’s thinking about the subject? Inevitably this is much harder to gauge: most of the comments we can trace have been positive but disappointingly brief. The project was reviewed enthusiastically in the Guardian newspaper, but there have been no serious reviews about the site and its implications in the art press. The nearest was a column at the back of an issue of Art Monthly about the legal issues raised by some of the case studies. This paucity of serious comment, we believe, is not a reflection of the quality of the site (academic project sites recently launched by Tate have also failed to gain the reviews that the equivalent publications in book form would have done). It is rather a reflection of the difficulty that many in the art world have accepting the intellectual value of sites designed for mass audiences and which are associated in the minds of many with a sphere of popularising communications and transient promotion. This remains a powerful disincentive for further exploration or creative innovation in this field and needs to be addressed, we feel, if the potential of online exhibitions is to be realised and curators, scholars, and artists are to be involved.

Ironically, perhaps, the sole criticism we are aware of has come from those most persuaded of the site’s virtues and relates to our decision to close the site after a year. People appreciated the neat symmetry involved in an exhibition of lost art itself becoming lost but were not used to the idea that a resource-rich website should be allowed to disappear. Henry Lydiate (2012), author of the Art Monthly article, wrote:

Intentionally, and perhaps ironically, another loss will happen when this remarkable and unique research resource closes on 3 July 2013. Hopefully during the coming year Tate will reconsider and make this a permanent archive.

In a thoughtful blog that acknowledged the site’s exploration of the positive aspects of destruction, Professor David Rundle (2012) wrote:

If … we take the Gallery to be an artwork meditating on the death of art, its own demise might seem to provide an elegant and ironic fulfilment of itself. But must we let it die? Or, indeed, as it is so untactile, can it really die? If, instead, we term the Tate’s project to be an educational resource, then the closure of it would be all the more criminal: it would provide a deletion of knowledge which could not be re-described as creative vandalism.

At issue here, of course, is the vision for the project as a whole. We wanted the site to have the salient characteristics of an in-gallery exhibition; of these, finiteness was, we judged, crucial. It is part of the drama of in-gallery exhibitions and a major factor driving people to make the requisite efforts to go visit them. Ending the site mimicked and underscored the loss of the works of art that were its subject, as the authors above noted. And, without an ongoing budget, we would have been unable to sustain the copyright fees for the many images we used, but we have made plans for the exhibition’s “second life” as a book (to be published in autumn 2013), an app, and through the introduction of project materials, including the twenty new films specially made for the Gallery of Lost Art, onto Tate’s website once the project ends. But end it will. Not everything needs to last forever, or can do so. New works will be stolen or destroyed, and seem better candidates than the case studies we chose; and some of the now-missing works may yet be found. We feel that online exhibitions (particularly when they deal with copyrighted images) need to embrace the possibility of being both valuable and short-lived.

Online exhibitions, as noted at the beginning of this paper, offer enormous, and to our mind, as-yet untapped potential for museums and curators. The obvious but important fact is that they can be visited by anyone anywhere in the world at any time, and so offer a fantastic platform for museums with their educational mission. They also reach non-visitors, those who through geography or inclination do not come to particular museums but who are happy to browse websites. Online exhibitions also provide extraordinary pedagogic opportunities, bringing together texts and related materials at the point where someone is viewing an object. They also can offer layered information, allowing people to delve as deep as they wish and to read as much or as little as seems appropriate (the Gallery of Lost Art has approximately 180,000 words). Very importantly, with zooming, images can be seen in more detail than is ever possible in galleries. And with a creative design team, the look and experience of the site can be as special and distinctive as that found in the best of in-gallery exhibitions, but without the usual inconveniences (e.g., poor views of the objects, crowded spaces, and fatigue).

Some might say that online exhibitions are prohibitively expensive and, if short-lived, wasteful. Certainly, the cost of creating an online exhibition can be high, but it has been our experience that, although direct comparisons are difficult, the costs of the Gallery of Lost Art were similar to the sums (around £300,000, including research time) involved in mounting small to medium exhibitions at Tate’s London galleries. No one in the art world questions the “waste” involved in the investment made in in-gallery impermanent exhibitions, with their transport and insurance costs and endless building and knocking down of partition walls and remaking of plinths and packing cases; and we believe that the sector could become more comfortable with similar levels of investment in short-lived digital projects, especially if, as with exhibition catalogues, there were some longer-lasting legacies on other platforms. The main blocks to a greater use of the format, if not financial or technological, appear to be cultural and institutional. Can museums, both large and small, begin to welcome and exploit the opportunities afforded by online exhibitions? Can scholarly curators embrace the medium?

With its unusual theme of art that is missing or no longer extant, the Gallery of Lost Art does not challenge the nostrum that museums exist to show people real objects in real spaces and that there is something unique and special (and worth making a special trip or paying an entrance fee) about seeing artworks in the flesh that the digital realm simply cannot offer. This belief makes many museum colleagues frankly dismissive of online exhibitions; however, the experience of seeing art in a museum is one thing and seeing it online another, and it must be acknowledged that the latter has certain distinct advantages, not least in terms of numbers and outreach. The flat, non-immersive environments detailed in the beginning of this paper do not, and never intended to, rival the display of artworks in galleries. But is it possible that the immersive model of a project like the Gallery of Lost Art and similar ventures offers a more serious challenge to those who believe that the digital realm cannot displace the preeminence of the in-gallery exhibition? Are there visually rich and idea-led exhibitions of extant art that could only be made digitally, or would attract a bigger audience if they were? It seems to us obvious that this must be the case. Creativity, aesthetic sensitivity, scholarship, and intellectual authority can flourish in the online sphere, and it would seem that nowadays the door is wide open for museums to enter this new territory with the same conviction and passion that currently frame in-gallery exhibitions.


Graves, J. (2013, February 6). “Death and the object: The Gallery of Lost Art may be the best experience of art you ever have on the Internet.” Slog. Consulted.

Lydiate, H. (2012, September). “Gallery of Lost Art.” Art Monthly, no. 359.

Rundle, D. (2012, July 29). “Let’s not lose the Gallery of Lost Art.” Bonæ Litteræ: Occasional Writing from David Rundle, Renaissance Scholar. Consulted.

Sherman, C. (2012). MoMA Interactive website. Consulted.

Smith, D. (2012, July). Email communication.

Cite as:
J. Mundy and J. Burton, Online Exhibitions. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted .

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