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Musings on Digital History

Digital Exhibits: Tools and Issues

CLIO Wired: Module 4

“While the traditional white-cube exhibition display remains the most refined and delicately mute backdrop to honor an artist’s work in person, the global health crisis has mandated an inevitable alternative, with gallerists and curators discovering the possibilities of limitless space and access that enclosed interiors inherently lack.”

Osman Can Yerebakan, “11 Digital Art and Design Exhibitions to Get Lost In From Home,” Architectural Digest, April 10, 2020.

It seems that COVID, among other things, has made (or rather, reminded) museums and other institutions that digital exhibitions and projects are powerful and important ways of interacting with the public, outside of their physical walls. In this moment of social distancing and isolation, the public is turning to the digital for entertainment, solace, and community. And digital-born projects are having a moment.

Ever since I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, I have been interested in digital exhibitions, but the museum had a team of digital experts to create these kinds of projects, so I guess I thought I didn’t have the requisite tech skills to participate in these initiatives, beyond creating the content. In 2018, I curated an exhibition entitled “Jazz at Georgetown” while working at Georgetown University Library’s Booth Center for Special Collections. This exhibition had both a physical display, and continues to live on in the digital sphere on their website. I also created an accompanying Spotify playlist, since it was a music-focused exhibition. I used the tools available to me, but it got me wanting more options in the digital sphere.

I think there is potential to create interactive projects that aren’t so static. Projects like Google Arts and Culture allow visitors to see museums virtually, from the comfort of their homes, yet, I don’t think we have fully embraced the possibilities of the digital. While it is cool to be able to take video-based interactive tours of physical spaces, how can we harness the vast potential of the digital sphere, which inherently has the chance to remove the confines of the physical world.

Just this month, we saw the opening of the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA). VOMA’s creator, artist Stuart Semple, decided to launch his initiative (which he had conceived of several decades prior) after being left disappointed having seen how different institutions have made their collections available through video tours and digitization. Thus, he decided to hire a group of architects, programmers, and video game designers to create his vision. His team partnered with major museums to scan the art so that visitors can see objects in 3-D, while “walking” through the museum in the same fashion that one would navigate through a video game.1

Smithsonian Magazine writer Jennifer Nalawicki quotes the museum app Smartify co-founder Anna Lowe, musing on the major issue with digital museum experiences:

“The advantage of something like VOMA or [other virtual museum experiences] is the reach and engagement you can have with a global audience,” Lowe says. “But I think the key thing about physical museums, and the main reason that people go to museums, isn’t for a learning experience, but to be social. I think that’s the biggest challenge for [virtual visits] is how do you move people through a space without it feeling like you’re just scrolling through a site.

Jennifer Nalawicki, “The World’s First Entirely Virtual Museum Is Open For Visitors,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 17, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/worlds-first-entirely-virtual-art-museum-is-open-for-visitors

Inspired by these readings, and wanting to learn more techniques related to digital curation, I was happy to learn how to use Omeka, a free and open access collections management and digital exhibition app developed by GMU’s Ray Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.2 Omeka’s collections management capabilities are solving a serious problem faced by small museums and private collectors. Collections management systems, like The Museum System (TMS), are incredibly powerful tools for large museums, but they come at a hefty price tag which is a major barrier for small institutions. Omeka has the ability to manage collections while also letting the user create exhibitions and share their own object-based research.

In 2018, I started collecting harmonicas. It began as a research need- I was researching musical instruments designed by John Vassos, a noted industrial designer who is known for designing the first commercially-available color television console as well as the Perry turnstyle (used in many NY subway stations). My main objective for collecting these instruments was to be able to measure and study their designs. After acquiring the three instruments he designed for the Hohner Musical Instrument Company, I became interested in other art-deco harmonicas designed by Hohner for the NY World’s Fair. And thus, my collection took off. I currently have about 20 harmonicas, and I wanted to see how I could use Omeka to organize my collection. If you are interested in how the project currently looks, check out: harmonicas.jaymekurland.com

Digital history projects and digital exhibitions potentially have the ability to shift exhibitions into the public domain. Most of these projects are free to access, unlike many museums, and so they have the potential to invite new guests in. When considering creating a project in the digital sphere, it is important to take into consideration issues related to copyright, as they are not always intuitive. For example, some museums like the Met and the Victoria and Albert Museum have made many of their objects and photos part of the public domain, and users can download and use this information in whatever way they see fit. Other institutions use their collections as income, and license images to help benefit their institutions.

The internet has democratized the curatorial space and has created a place for independent researchers to share their work with the public, without needing a book deal, faculty job, or museum backing, but in doing so, we still have many issues to navigate and figure out related to updating our understandings of copyright, publishing, and what it means to be open-sourced.

  1. Jennifer Nalawicki, “The World’s First Entirely Virtual Museum Is Open For Visitors,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 17, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/worlds-first-entirely-virtual-art-museum-is-open-for-visitors []
  2. Side note—if it is not already obvious, I am completely thrilled with my choice to get my History PhD at GMU, and the focus on DH is a BIG reason. I am having so much fun []

3 replies on “Digital Exhibits: Tools and Issues”

Okay, you have some very good resources here with the articles and apps included. Cannot wait to spend too much time on them to procrastinate.

I agree with your assessment of Covid’s reminder about the importance of DH and the use to democratize museum exhibits and the like. That’s what I’ve always loved about DH and been passionate about.

Your omeka project was so fun! I love seeing advertisements and that you included your own personal collection – my favorite one was the Regina Model Harmonica, simply because of the color.
I also have had trouble making exhibits I liked – but your idea to link out to other sites may be something I co-opt.

Jayme, I really enjoyed your exhibit on Art Deco harmonicas! I agree, I think there is this growing tension created by digital projects and the overall expansion of the field: the democratization of resources and access while at the same time an increased power by companies who are able to limit access via subscriptions.

That is such a cool app! I can’t wait to play around with that!

I enjoyed reading your thoughts and the previous exhibition you curated. That sounds so neat with music aspect and everything. I agree with you on the points you made about Covid and the importance of the digital exhibitions. That was one of things I found so fascinating about many digital and online based resources that became so importance once everything closed down with the pandemic. It really shows how important these digital resources are and the access to them.

I really enjoyed looking at your Omeka exhibit. I love retro and vintage photos/ads. And those harmonicas are BEAUTIFUL!

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