Teaching with Online Exhibits

The development of an online exhibit as coursework offers students the opportunity to engage with object- and media-centered learning. Exhibits provide authentic learning experiences that can potentially engage with a wide range of audiences. Students explore their subject matter through the careful curation of images, videos, audio recordings, and objects in a collection. The process of curating an exhibit gives students opportunities to not only describe objects in detail but also to interpret and contextualize those objects. Curation is a process of selecting the materials that best tell the story students wish to tell. Exhibits can include curation that provides analytic insight to enrich the programmatic organization of the exhibition. This model allows students to creatively express and apply their knowledge within a format that can build upon the rich collections at Princeton and contribute to the University’s intellectual community through a multi-faceted, media-rich project.

Online Exhibit as a Capstone Project

A student-created online exhibit is a rich and complex capstone project that has the potential to be published for a community outside of the classroom. Here, students can demonstrate their grasp of concepts, themes, research, and, possibly, their technical skills. Students can take a research question and explore it from multiple angles while also engaging with it in multiple forms and in multiple media. By acting as curator and carefully interacting with the objects in the collection, students engage with the themes of the exhibit, but also with the argument the exhibit is putting forward.

While exhibits provide opportunities to interact with objects, they also provide venues for semester-long student collaboration. An exhibition can make an excellent group project, giving students the chance to communicate, manage, and reach consensus on the final design, content, and quality of their shared project. The development of an exhibit can be an iterative process involving a wide range of tasks and therefore can also provide opportunities for students to contribute their skills in a variety of ways. Over the course of the semester, instructors can see the exhibition take shape and students can weave the course material together. Each step in this process offers faculty members the opportunity to provide feedback.  As an assessment, the exhibition combines formative and summative components. When completed, the student and class will have a representation of their intellectual growth in a community-facing work that engages a public audience.

Online Exhibit as a Curricular Model

Instead of a singular project, instructors have the opportunity to fully integrate an online exhibit into their semester-long courses. The exhibit can share the course’s learning milestones, where each assignment and assessment builds a section of the online exhibit. Students can incrementally explore and engage with digital collections, multimedia modes of analysis, and information sharing through the spatial conception of online gallery spaces. With this model, the exhibit is directly informed by course materials and transforms the semester into an ongoing project where students can explore veins of inquiry collectively through the creation of sections of the exhibit. These sections can reflect specific learning milestones students will meet throughout the semester.

Classrooms become collaborative spaces for students to assess concepts, themes, and digital collections in a dynamic way. They can consult with the instructor, who sets clear parameters for gallery creation, to find the ideal modes of conveying information that will best suit the online exhibit as a whole. Students can learn from each other as they reach consensus on the design of specific components of the online exhibit and can rotate responsibilities throughout the course. Through this semester-long project, students can engage with digital production and consistently build upon their knowledge with very tangible results. As students reach the end of the semester, they will be able to reflect upon their growth by consulting the exhibit they planned, organized, and created.


  • Exhibits provide opportunities to draw connections between objects and themes engaged  through the span of the semester. Expect students to emphasize these connections in their work.
  • Exhibits are often developed as group projects.  Grading group projects can be challenging. Be clear about the criteria by which you will be evaluating student work and communicate these expectations. Consider developing a reflective grading document where students can track their own contributions, assess their own work, formulate goals, and consider how they best learn.
  • The creation of an online exhibit provides students with opportunities to develop new skills and collaborate with subject specialists. These experiences model what students might find in professional settings in ways they might not anticipate encountering in a college course.
  • Even if the finished product is not a public resource, consider the audience when evaluating the exhibit. The goal should be to engage and inform an audience that is not familiar with the subject matter.
  • The development of an exhibit as a public resource that will be published on the web can motivate students to critically reflect upon their work. In many cases however, especially when working with materials that may be under copyright, access to the exhibit must be restricted. Look for ways in which those exhibits can still be exposed to an audience. These audiences might include for example experts in the field, visiting lecturers, other classes on campus, or students at another institution.
  • Just because the final result is an online resource, that doesn’t mean it should be informal. Exhibits can involve the same academic formalities and rigor that you would expect from in a more traditional term paper. Encourage students to critically assess their resources and how they are constructing an argument through the organization and coordination of digital assets.
  • While the platforms mentioned here for creating and publishing digital exhibits are quite easy to use, expect that it might be necessary to devote some time to in-class training. Expect to set aside at least  a half-hour for in-class instruction on the use of these platforms. Other related activities, such as selecting and acquiring materials, transcribing, and transcription, can also be quite time-consuming and should be carefully considered.

Tools for Virtual Exhibits

Digital PUL (DPUL)

Digital PUL (or DPUL) is Princeton University Library’s collections showcase that provides a user-friendly interface for our ever-growing number of thematic digital collections and exhibitions as well as accompanying content from Exhibit Builders. Based on the Spotlight digital exhibits platform, DPUL supports several forms of curated exhibits and collections. They may be the primary point of discovery for an entire library collection or a subset of one; they may highlight special collections selected for a class or have a thematic focus on a specific subject, time period, or genre; others may serve as a companion to a physical exhibit in a library or museum space. All exhibits in DPUL are built with content drawn from the Library’s vast Digital Repository (Figgy) in conjunction with a variety of available features that may be used to customize metadata display or highlight and organize specific items, as examples. For more information, please visit the Library’s Building Exhibits Guide.


The McGraw Commons website platform, offered for coursework through the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, includes themes and plugins specifically suited to the creation of online exhibits as course projects. The platform, driven by the easy-to-use Wordpress software, allows students to post writings with associated multimedia and to include maps and other types of visualizations. With an included integration with the Princeton Art Museum, students can make use of campus digital collection directly in their work. Exhibits hosted in Wordpress can also include digital objects from the Princeton University Library’s Digital Repository and other institutional repositories.


Omeka is an open-source, online platform for creating searchable collections of digital objects, associated metadata, and other information. Those objects can then be organized into collections and exhibits. Often used by libraries, museums, and archives, Omeka is well-suited to course projects that involve a digital collection with existing metadata or for projects in which students will be developing descriptive metadata to create a searchable archive.

Getting Help

Princeton University Library looks forward to helping you engage with our holdings, which span five continents over five millennia and include items of global cultural significance. We aspire to be active and creative partners in the interpretation of these documents by providing you with as much access to our materials as possible and by engaging with you to develop innovative forms of pedagogy and research. For more information, please contact Emma Sarconi, Reference Professional for Special Collections Public Services.

The Educational & Classroom Technologies group in the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning provides support for a wide range of technologies for digital assignments, including the creation of online exhibits with Wordpress and Omeka. Staff from the McGraw Center regularly provide instruction to classes in the use of various tools and provide advice to faculty interested in integrating these tools into their curriculum.


Princeton University Library: Building Exhibits in Digital PUL
Princeton University Library: New PUL program provides Princeton students, faculty, and staff opportunities to curate digital collection