A digital exhibition on replication and early modern knowledge.
This website was the deliverable for one of three areas of my comprehensive exams in 2018.
The thematic structure of my digital exhibition was inspired in-part by early modern practices of collecting and organizational methods recorded in early treatises. I worked primarily from a sixteenth century treatise by Samuel Quiccheberg.
The shape of early modern collections were based on the collector and were designed to represent the individual. This is not a portrait of myself in the same way that it would have been for a noble person, but it provides the space to include those replicative works which might have played a role in early collections (particularly the collections of people of more humble means). In a way, I have imagined a vague notion of sixteenth century collector, since many of these areas require personal investment in the subjects which the images portray. Rather than attempt to reconstruct a collection based on a single historical personality, I took the opportunity to loosen the prescriptive hold that such value statements and relationships could have on the exhibition. Instead I elected to leave certain choices intentionally ambiguous, in the hopes that questions that arise in viewers’ minds would be productive and encourage curiosity.
FORM OF THIS DIGITAL EXHIBITION:
I have organized objects loosely along four early modern categories. While I initially imagined a collection through which any number of paths could be taken, I came to realize that the level of interaction I hoped to have with a viewer required some guidance or direction (especially if they are not comfortable and highly familiar with the Scalar platform and/or the content of the exhibition).
This website was built using Scalar. This platform’s pathways and tags allowed me to connect objects and themes that crossed the categories of “organization,” while still providing some direction for the viewer.
Unlike a physical exhibition, the visitor does not always know where they “stand” in relation to the number of objects or “rooms” there are. Pathways can sometimes lead to dead-ends or loop back around the same objects multiple times. I would have preferred to maintain a more visual navigational tool, which would allow the visitor to keep in mind all of the possible objects and the progress they had made through the entire corpus of the exhibition. There were challenges to this goal, particularly given that Scalar is a publishing platform more attuned to the needs of textual presentation. To create the type of interactivity I desired, I toyed around within the constraints of this platform by using the annotation system on images as a possible way to lay everything out for viewers on a single page. However, once applying this method, the text became a distraction and navigation became less (not more) intuitive.
The objects included in this exhibition were chosen because of their relation to the topics of replication and early modern visual knowledge. My initial plan was to limit the number of objects to no more than twenty, since each object requires a significant investment of time to include for a number of reasons, from research that reveals justification for the object’s inclusion to finding a high-quality image available to use free of cost to building the page itself. In order to have any hope of completing the object pages, I needed to start building their pages before I had an overarching navigation system planned out. Once I designed and began to implement the structure of categories, the objects selected did not correlate with the themes evenly, and so a handful of additional objects were selected to enrich certain areas of the exhibition. Objects were aimed at being diverse yet connected visually, thematically, and physically.
The diversity of works selected for this exhibition are only able to engaged with by viewers via digital representations of original objects. Therefore, I endeavored to provide a variety of digital surrogates, including interactive “digital facsimiles” and 3D images that would encourage a sense of wonder and curiosity in their unexpected appearance, a format that moves toward what might be called virtual materiality. Works that were the most successful in this respect were the 3D images of seals and the books that allow for viewers to flip pages and browse. Visitors can view more than one page at a time (a limitation that is often a necessary reality of physical exhibitions) and explore without risking damage to the original.
By paying attention to these interactive aspects of digital representation (3D images, high resolution images, and page turning capabilities in books), I hope to draw attention to the physicality of the object. Users of digital media today, be it on a desktop or smartphone, are most conditioned to the static image, and I hope to break with expectations of image presentation to allow for a certain level of play in this exhibition. The potential for some manner of recklessness (seeing how close or far you can get from a representation, or flipping as fast as you can through a book) will allow people to better know the representation and foster the sort of creative, unexpected interaction with an object that deepens curiosity and has the potential to yield more interesting connections and questions.
There are a great many things that I have learned throughout the process. The challenges I faced were sometimes technical, but were more often conceptual and even ambiguous. It was not always obvious exactly what the obstacles were, let alone how to address the issue at hand. One of the ways that I handled such uncertainties and made progress on this project was through reflection and moments of readjust at multiple points during this project. Reflection during multiple points throughout the process of design and creation of this exhibition provided the perspective necessary to make this both well designed and intellectually rigorous.
Time for consideration and critical assessment was needed to delve deeply into curatorial questions and spend time in productive areas of uncertainty. The structure of a digital practicum seminar (in which I was enrolled in the Spring of 2018) provided consistent intervals for work and reflection. The semester was broken into three “sprints”, and at the end of each cluster of weeks I needed to be able to articulate my progress and plans to my peers. Both before and after these presentations, I would reflect on advances I had made since the previous presentation before readjusting my plans for the next phase of the project. This micro to macro view of the work was stressful at times, but the process allowed me to make changes to the direction of the exhibition rather than toil endlessly on a dead-end. The process of gaining prospective, rather than being caught in the weeds, is something that I intend to take with me in future projects (whether they are solo or collaborative).
While it is true that I learned more about the basics of coding and the realities of getting something to appear on a website in a manner that is acceptable, often the hardest work was making decisions about more traditional areas of scholarship. I did not create this website from scratch, and am grateful for the structure of Scalar. The pathways were especially helpful to reaching my goal of creating something that did not require a single linear experience. Working with Scalar, I also learned about the limitations a platform such as this imposes on users, and weighed the time needed to “get around” these restrictions against my larger goals. In the end, this site does have far more text than I would have preferred, a consequence of Scalar’s text focused origins and current reality (projects default to being called “books”). The platform’s navigation and interface made interconnections visible and manageable, for which it was worth sacrificing my original design hopes at the page level.
It was a challenge to conceive of all of the working parts of this project at the beginning of (and even at some moments throughout) this project. It felt at times like I was shifting roughly between modes of making, reading, and writing, all of which are important aspects of this exhibition. At first, I attempted to section of time for each of those actions, reasoning that I should ensure that distraction does not allow me to spend all of my time on one aspect and neglect another. However, these rigid distinctions proved difficult to uphold, as writing and design became intwined on the page.
Given more time, I would prefer to have a large body of writing from which to pull, so that the majority of my writing and building time was spent honing the arguments and writing as a sort of design element that would best bring out the moments and arguments I believe to be most productive. There would necessarily be rewriting and a shift in argument presentation, because the structure of the exhibition itself shapes the way an argument unfolds, an aspect which is amplified each time an alternative route of navigation (and therefore reading) is made available.
THE LONE-WOLF METHOD
One of the things I find appealing about digital projects is their tendency to be collaborative in nature. The generative character of combined effort is often bred of necessity, and results in a more complicated project than could ever hoped to be produced by a single person. For example, communities in museum professions are comprised of highly-specialized individuals who combine their efforts to create something more ambitious larger than any one member could have created on their own. Like many large digital projects, exhibitions are not often “made” by one person, and even if there is one curator who is selecting and presenting objects to the public, there remains an important network of individuals who are caring for, transporting, advertising, or fulfilling any number of the seemingly endless lists of actions that must take place for even the most humble of exhibitions to be possible. These are physical realities of traditional exhibitions, and one benefit of creating an online exhibition was that the physical logistics of object and image display can be reduced by a considerable degree. Nevertheless, online spaces have their own considerations and challenges, many of which go unnoticed by most viewers.
Indeed this is often a sign of good design, which works so well that it is practically invisible. With an eye toward this, I surveyed as many online projects as I could find, and realized that the term “digital exhibition” did little to describe what a viewer might expect to see on a given website, which ranged from slideshows to Instagram-like galleries to highly interactive maps. I was able to use many beautiful (and not so beautiful) projects as inspiration from outside institutions and the small body of literature that is currently available on the topic. I had the chance to read broadly on both physical/traditional exhibitions as well as some foundational texts about digital collections. I benefitted greatly from my colleagues like Aisling Quigley, who is completing her dissertation on the topic of digital exhibitions, and Chelsea Gunn, who generously offered suggestions for where to start on digital organizational texts. I also had the opportunity to work on this project and receive feedback as part of a graduate seminar/practicum led by Alison Langmead and Aaron Brenner, which (as mentioned above) facilitated more regular and productive reflections throughout the process that altered the shape of the exhibition. Needless to say, though this was a “lone-wolf” project, the “wolf” was not on an island.
HOW TO BUILD A PLANE
Throughout this process, the analogy used to describe my endeavor to create a digital exhibition as a comprehensive exam deliverable varied between two main types: the lamb to slaughter, or building the plane as we fly it. I much prefer the plane analogy, though at times I felt a little sheepish. At the end of the day, I know that I have learned a great deal by creating something that had no ready blueprint, though I did benefit from a community of peers and mentors that provided much needed advice and support.
If someone were to ask me whether or not I would recommend this particular type of project as a comprehensive exam deliverable, I would say “maybe.” I knew before beginning this project in earnest, that it would take more time and energy than many of the other options (maybe all of the other options), available to me. However, I weighed that with the potential to gain experience building a digital exhibition, which would have a life beyond the proverbial “hoop-jumping” of exams.
Nevertheless, a digital exhibition is not for the faint of heart, and indeed may not be for many digital humanists. It is hard to know whether or not this experience will be highly valuable as I continue my career, since I do not intend to pursue creating exhibitions alone like this in the future. I missed data. I missed my spreadsheets. I do not see myself as a graphic designer. There were aspects of this digital exhibition that were right up my alley, but others seemed so far off as to be frustrating.
In the future, if someone is interested in pursuing this type of project as an exercise, I hope to be of some help as an example of one possibility. I hope that my process and product will allow future exhibition creators to better anticipate the shape and structure of their project, and work smarter rather than harder. The area that this hindsight might be most helpful, would be in regards to the size of the project/number of objects included. Though I tried to limit my object list, it grew much larger than is ideal (or than was intended) because of a somewhat radical redesign that happened a third of the way through the building process. Rather than throw out many of the objects I had worked so hard on (checking image permissions and learning the specifics for their online presentation), I felt compelled to keep those works and add more objects to address areas I felt were lacking. Each work that is added to the exhibition multiplies the time required to make a coherent presentation, as the network of objects and images becomes more and more tangled and dense. There was also much more text than I was anticipating in the creation of this project, part of which has to do with the structure of the platform I chose. Nevertheless, the “traditional” forms of academic labor that are required for a project like the one I have created are a significant factor that should be considered early on in the planning process.
I would recommend to future students who think they might want to create a digital exhibition for their exams, to honestly answer the following questions:
- Are you considering a profession that values knowledge of or ability to produce digital exhibitions?
- How will you limit your project? (numbers and conceptually)
- What do you want from this project, what do you need from this project, and what do your committee members want/need?
- Are the benefits of creating this digital exhibition for your exams worth doing it at this time, rather than as part of another aspect of your graduate career?
- How will you know when you reach the minimum level of completeness for this project?
- How long will this project be maintained and by whom? (Digital Preservation)
In short, be very careful when choosing this path. It requires the type of energy that comes from passion, the sort of dedication that is harnessed throughout our time as PhD students. It is important that you love and believe in this presentation format, analogous to the level enthusiasm you have about your dissertation project (at least at the start). If you choose something because it is “smart” or may be desirable to a future job market, you will suffer more. Comprehensive exams are already hard enough, so make sure that you believe that the process of creating a digital exhibition will make your heart sing.