Turning physical exhibitions into digital ones

Practical advice from the Royal Armouries in Leeds
Anna Ward
The Burgundian Bard, 1510. Originally glittering with gold, this armour was a gift to Henry VIII from Emperor Maximilian I
The Burgundian Bard, 1510. Originally glittering with gold, this armour was a gift to Henry VIII from Emperor Maximilian I Royal Armouries

The Royal Armouries in Leeds was about to launch our celebratory temporary exhibition Tudor Power and Glory: The Field of Cloth of Gold when lockdown was imposed in March. Henry VIII was half dressed, with his skirt on but not his sleeves; mounts for horse armours, a longbow, helmets and swords were there on gallery, but none of the objects themselves had made it into the cases. With heavy hearts we lowered the shutters and left our project in the dark.

However, we had previously been awarded a development grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to deliver against our digital vision statement for the future. This included “providing new, high-quality content and making it engaging, accessible and relevant to our audiences’ needs”.

We decided to take the opportunity of lockdown to realise this digital vision and launch the exhibition online.

We found that we were able to use the original theming and interpretation hierarchy devised for the physical exhibition to propose a shape for our online offer. We knew from our research that we needed to try to put our content online in locations that our intended audiences might already visit, rather than expect them to come completely cold to a new site.

To achieve this, we created a whole raft of supporting content, which would alert current and new audiences to the upcoming exhibition, as well as diversify and increase the content of the final online exhibition. This content, which included articles, animations, films, interviews and fight demonstrations, was published in the months before the exhibition on Facebook, Instagram and concentrated on YouTube, where the armouries has a significant number of followers.

Our intention with the finished online exhibition was that visitors could immerse themselves by following the narrative of the physical exhibition – or just dip in to read an article or the themes that interested them.

One challenge we had to overcome was finding the right platform to host our content. Our existing website would have restricted our vision and external hosting sites would have taken too long.

We eventually found an open-source template that enabled us to develop a “slider” style of exhibition.


Another challenge was sourcing and creating new written and filmed content during lockdown; this required both creativity and fortitude from all participants.

The advice I would share with anyone looking to develop an online exhibition is to give it the same strategic attention as a physical exhibition. Plan in plenty of time to plan, and also to test the visitor journey through the exhibition before launch.

We are really pleased and excited by our exhibition which has so far seen excellent levels of engagement; 565,000 people have watched the related content on YouTube and Facebook or visited the exhibition itself, and 65% of those who visited were new to the Royal Armouries website.

Using in-house production, our budget was £2,500.

Anna Ward is the interpretation manager at the Royal Armouries. You can visit the online exhibition here