Interview with the Author: Emily Marsh on Creating Digital Exhibits

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

September 05, 2023

Emily Marsh wrote Creating Digital Exhibits for Cultural Institutions: A Guide. This book intrigued me because of the importance of online work. My interview with Emily is below.

Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I am a writer and researcher working as a librarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. (*** I should point out that the book was written in my personal capacity and does not reflect the opinions of the United States Government. That disclaimer also applies to this interview.) I have an MLS and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. Most of my professional experience is in reference service, special libraries, and digital user experience.

I fell into exhibit work totally by accident. A patron alerted us that we held physical copies of some obscure newspaper stories written by the poet Robert Frost. My-then supervisor asked me to create something that would showcase these materials once they were digitized. That first exhibit, Frost on Chickens, led to more projects that showed me how digital exhibits can act as a key element in a cultural heritage organization’s information ecosystem, connecting digital collections to audiences who might otherwise not engage with, nor even be aware of, our materials. This book is my attempt to share the things I have learned about digital exhibits, filtered through my perspective, especially as an information science researcher trained in qualitative methods of document analysis.

I live in Baltimore, Maryland with my family and a neurotic Welsh Corgi.

Briefly summarize Creating Digital Exhibits for Cultural Institutions: A Guide.

The book addresses the many analytical aspects and practical considerations involved in the creation of digital exhibits by professionals working in cultural institutions such as libraries, small museums, and historical societies. It was written to provide support for: analyzing content to find hidden themes, applying principles from the museum exhibit literature, placing content within internal and external information ecosystems, evaluating and selecting exhibit software, and finding ways to recognize and use your own creativity. Demonstrating that an exhibit provides a useful and creative connecting point where your content, your organization, and your audience can meet, the book also demonstrates that such exhibits can provide a way to revisit difficult and painful material in a manner that includes frank and enlightened analyses of issues such as racism, colonialism, sexism, class, and LGBTQI+ subjects. Unlike many instructional materials about exhibits, the book centers textual documents, in contrast to visual artifacts.

I strived to make sure the book can be used by solo practitioners and single staff members acting as a “Team of One,” with limited financial and organizational support. One of the book’s core strengths is its focus on questions of exhibit purpose and intellectual structure, rather than on the more procedural issues of other guides such as software platform functionality.

Why did you decide to write this book?

 There is a substantial amount of confusion about the nature and purpose of digital exhibits, manifested by some staff members and managers of specific cultural institutions, and the larger world of the academy and librarianship. I felt the effects of this confusion personally when colleagues would dismiss exhibits as either trivial, “cute,” easy to create, or somehow more of a personal hobby than actual work, intimately connected to the library’s purpose, its collections, and its audience. In response to this widespread reaction from peers and library leadership, I wanted to give readers an inside look at the kind of intellectual effort that goes into making digital exhibits.

Another, perhaps contradictory, goal was to show how cultural heritage workers could create their own projects, using tools they already possess—the type of everyday creativity that goes into their everyday work. This includes the ability to identify, access, understand, and use relevant materials from the scholarly record and the ability to shape a project that will be true to the organization’s materials—and useful and interesting to its audiences. All these elements can be combined and used to create projects that both achieve serious organizational goals and engage audiences.

 What are two things you hope all readers take away from reading the book?

I will just echo part of my response to the last question: librarians and other cultural heritage professionals already possess many of the necessary skills and tools for creating exhibits. They just need to be re-cast and re-aligned to create digital projects that center audience and organizational goals, within the exhibit paradigm. Closely connected to this assertion is my hope that readers will come to see how they need to engage deeply with their exhibit materials so they can understand them in ways that will reveal connections to visitor interests, as well as internal organizational goals. In this case, you actually do need to tell exhibit visitors what it is you find compelling about your materials, in addition to showing the objects themselves.

For someone new to digital exhibits, how do you recommend they get started?

 Many people who are keen to start exhibit work have an assortment of materials in mind that they think are highly interesting and engaging—which might very well be true. However, aside from highly significant, “blockbuster” items, objects alone do not make an exhibit interesting or engaging. You need to step back from the assortment of potential exhibit objects to see them as elements of a larger information ecosystem. As you create the exhibit’s intellectual structure that will hold your objects, you should ask yourself these questions iteratively:

  • Who would be interested in these objects?
  • What is their larger meaning?
  • How are they significant?
  • How do these items relate to your organization’s collections and mission?

One way to start addressing these questions is to look around at the information landscape outside the walls of your organization. What are your external colleagues and competitors doing with their digital materials? What is the popular culture talking and thinking about? How have researchers and writers used and analyzed similar objects and topics of interest as reflected in the scholarly record? Are there other digital exhibits or projects that are relevant to your idea? How are those structured? How do they succeed or fall short of their stated goals? What can you learn from them and how can your exhibit stand apart? How could you repackage your exhibit content to fit alternate formats and communication channels such as shorter digital essays, tweets for your organization’s Twitter account, and other related communication tools?

These are not easy questions to answer, but it is essential to develop thoughtful responses to them before you move on to the practical issues of digital exhibits such as platform choice.

Will you share a few examples of digital exhibits that you highlight in the book?

Apron Strings and Kitchen Sinks: The USDA Bureau of Home Economics (

This was the second exhibit I built for the National Agricultural Library on the Omeka platform. I think it is a good example of how a document-based exhibit can be enriched with images and videos from other resources such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This exhibit has the added benefit of overlapping with the resurgence of interest in Home Economics as reflected in popular histories by Danielle Dreilinger and Linda Przybyszewski, as well as Bonnie Garmus’ novel Lessons in Chemistry.

The Story of the Beautiful (

This exhibit is different from other examples in the book: it is centered around art works and not documents and is the product of three large institutions with deep benches of team members for design, technology, and curation. This was one of the first Omeka exhibits that really inspired me at the beginning of my exhibit work back in 2013. I still find it to be quite inspiring and, yes, beautiful.

Mirrors and Mass: Wayne Thom’s Southern California (

This is another image-heavy exhibit, built using the Scalar platform. It is a product of students in a 2018 University of Southern California School of Architecture class taught by Dr. Emily Bills and shows how an organizing scheme based on basic elements such as space, time, and type can be used as the basis for a sophisticated and elegant exhibit.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

My current project is helping to design a physical exhibit for one of the common areas of my library. It has been a challenge to organize visual and textual content into a defined physical space. As much as I have enjoyed this work, I am looking forward to creating more digital projects and possibly updating the book with the perspectives of other digital exhibit creators. I would be happy and eager to connect with others to learn about their experiences with digital exhibits, in addition to finding out what they found useful in the book and topics to include in any future updates.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Dr. Lauren Hays is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. Take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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