Curating online: Our ‘Envisioning Women’s Places’ exhibition

Envisioning Women’s Places: Photographs from the George Washington Wilson Collection – an exhibition of photographs of women from the Victorian and Edwardian eras – was due to be on display in the Sir Duncan Rice Library this year. But, due to Covid, the display had to move online instead.

A Highland Washing

Taking stock of the situation

Envisioning Women’s Places isn’t the first exhibition that the Museums and Special Collections team has had to develop online since the pandemic reached the UK, over a year ago. But the period of its curation was the first chance we had to really think about what, exactly, an online exhibition is, and how – or whether – we could create one to rival the joy and fascination of a physical exhibition. Luckily, we already had a dedicated online exhibition platform, Omeka, which we’d used as a digital archive for previous gallery exhibitions. So we knew we could do online exhibitions… in theory!

By taking stock of the original aims of the Envisioning Women’s Places exhibition, which was developed by and curated with Áine Larkin, Senior Lecturer in French, Heidi Brevik-Zender, Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, and Ashleigh Black, PhD student in Film and Visual Culture, we established what the aims and content of the online version would be.

We knew we wanted:

  • For the women in the photos, their lives and their stories, to be at the heart of the exhibition.
  • For the photographs to be able to be viewed in all their wonderful, vivid detail.
  • And for ‘visitors’ to the online exhibition to be left feeling inspired, curious, and eager to learn more about women’s histories.
Packing Herrings, Holdsgarth, Lerwick

What were the challenges?

We gave a lot of consideration to how to make the exhibition look visually appealing, knowing this could be tough because of some of the limitations of developing it online.

In a physical exhibition we’d have created big prints of the photographs and displayed them proudly in our gallery space. With an online exhibition, we were restricted by Omeka, and also by the sizes of our visitors’ screens (which would all be different).

Luckily, because of how brilliantly the photos in the George Washington Wilson collection were originally digitised, it is possible to zoom in on the photographs and view them in very close detail. So, we ensured that it would be easy for visitors to the online exhibition to use the digital Zoom tool, and to experience the photographs in full.

Falls of Rogie, Ross-shire – In some of the photographs the women can be difficult to spot.

We also explored Omeka’s different features to find a design that was a good fit for the photographs, that would complement their black and white starkness, and be appealing for visitors.

Another challenge of working on an online exhibition was thinking of ways to make the exhibition interesting and engaging, so that visitors would want to spend time looking at each image, and wouldn’t be put off by too much text or clunky layouts.

We chose to use a small amount of text to accompany each photo, hoping to encourage visitors to look carefully at the images, and to form their own responses to the artistry, and to the stories the photos tell about their subjects.

We also wanted to have some level of interactivity, as you might get by having drawers for visitors to open in a physical gallery, for example. Omeka allows you to include a slideshow for visitors to flick through images themselves, at their own speed. We hope by including a slideshow of the photos we have created a layer of engagement that might otherwise be lacking. We are keen, though, to use more of Omeka’s features, such as video, audio and maps, to make this and future exhibitions even more interactive and engaging.

Skene Street School Group Portrait

What are the opportunities of going online?

One of the positive aspects of online exhibitions is that they are permanent, and can be seen by people all over the word! Knowing that someone in New Zealand will still be able to access the exhibition in five years’ time is exciting. That we don’t have to ‘de-install’ the display, means that we can revisit and add to the exhibition in future, too, should it become relevant and worthwhile to do so.

With these benefits come other considerations. How can we make exhibitions for everyone, everywhere, that are relevant, engaging and fun?

And is there going to be much of an appetite for online exhibitions when, eventually, the pandemic ends, and we are able to go back into real-life museums again?

These are questions we’re mulling over, and which will inform all of our future exhibitions – online and physical.

We are certain that, even when things do return to some sort of normality, online exhibitions will continue to play a role in how we share collections, tell stories, and engage our audiences all over the world. Even if we haven’t quite yet figured out how we’re going to manage a real-life and a digital programme forever more!

A Group, St Kilda

How did it all turn out?

You tell us!

Envisioning Women’s Places was published on International Women’s Day 2021 and is online for you to visit.

Take a look at more of the incredible photos and tell us what you think by emailing us at uoacollections@abdn.ac.uk

We can’t wait to hear from you!

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