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How Can Museums Embrace The Potential Of Online Exhibitions

David Wright is part of Durham University’s Museums, Galleries and Exhibitions Team, working on public facing projects across all the University’s visitor attractions. His work helps to connect local, national, and international audiences with academic research and the University’s world-class collections. MuseumNext sat down with David to find out more about how the University has embraced the potential of online exhibits and how the team’s approach to digitalisation has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like many institutions that saw their visitor attractions closed during the lockdowns of 2020/21, Durham University turned to online content as a vital tool for maintaining a connection with visitors. Now that venues have reopened and the physical exhibition programme is in full swing again, it would be easy for online exhibition projects to take a back seat. However, at Durham University this has not been the case. David Wright explains,

Online exhibitions started through necessity, but we’ve created some really high-quality work through it, and it would have been a shame to leave that all behind when the venues reopened.”

Instead, the success of the University’s online work during Covid has inspired David and his team to think of the online platform as an additional venue to manage, maintaining an ongoing and varied programme of exhibitions and giving a voice to newer curators.

Incorporating Digitalisation Into Long Term Planning

Initially, David was, by his own admission, not overly excited by the concept of online exhibitions. He says, “I’m a curator, and one of the things I value about my job is creating a physical space for people to visit.”

But with Covid lockdowns changing the game, the team began to utilise online tools to form part of their long-term planning. The first piece of online content the team created during lockdown was a 3D walkthrough which, although it received positive feedback, left David feeling like the team had only scratched the surface of online possibility.

“I wanted to create content focused on storytelling, thinking about how people navigate a space online,” he says. “A 3D walkthrough is great, but if you give someone the option of visiting a place in person or using a 3D model, there is a clear winner. I wanted us to create online exhibitions that didn’t feel second best.

“Trial and error were important for us. You learn to understand what works for you and your audience.”

Taking Online Exhibitions Seriously

David makes a point of referring to the online space as an additional “venue”, with just as much importance placed on it as the University’s physical cultural spaces.

“Our online exhibitions bring in comparable visitor numbers to our physical exhibitions per year and, for that reason, we need to make sure we plan our exhibition schedule and have the staff, resource plan and budget to pull it off.”

David and his team are currently working on a project centred around migration from Kurdistan, and during the planning stages, the team realised it would work more effectively online:

“It was initially pitched as something that could be staged in one of our galleries, but because of the specific target audiences they wanted to reach, it made more sense to do it online. We can market to specific groups in different parts of the world, and do it as a multilingual exhibition.

“It’s a whole new world of possibility.”

The Perks Of Online Exhibitions

The University team’s journey through online exhibitions has involved learning that digital spaces can, in some cases, be more beneficial than physical ones. One such benefit is extending the shelf life of physical exhibitions.

“Online exhibitions prolong the legacy of a temporary exhibition,” says David. “We might spend a year or more working on a show that’s only open for three months, but digitisation means we can preserve them.

“Online exhibitions are also turned around quicker. It can be difficult to capture the zeitgeist when proposing, planning, developing, and publishing physical exhibitions. But a faster turn-around time means online shows can hit key talking points while they’re still in the public eye.”

Online displays also allow certain objects to shine, with visitors able to zoom in on specific details, or read particular passages from books and manuscripts. David highlights an upcoming Shakespearean project centred around a copy of the playwright’s first folio. Having an online platform allows the University to take a “deep dive” approach, telling the personal story of a single rare item.

That’s not all, however. David explains how online spaces make it easier for emerging curators to get a foot in the door:

“Going online means freeing up some of that control, which means emerging curators can develop their skills without fear. Online exhibitions are more liberating, because you don’t have to know where the plug sockets are and all the rest of it. New curators can focus less on budgets and practicalities, and more on communicating with audiences and integrating an interesting design approach.”

Guiding Principles for Online Curation

David and his team have developed a set of guiding principles to apply to all online exhibitions, in order to avoid the trap of seeing them as a lesser product than physical displays.

“The first thing I tell the team is: remember that it’s an exhibition. It’s not a website, it’s not an online resource. Thinking of it as an exhibition helps people keep that focus on the audience, and that high level of quality.

“Secondly, be experimental in your approach. Bring in different tools and other apps. Use video content, use audio content, take inspiration from other places.

“Thirdly, embrace the advantages of working online. If there’s a niche audience that you want to target, you can do that. If it’s important to incorporate multiple languages, you can do that. Look at formats that might work better online, such as comparisons of historic and contemporary images, or focusing on object details.”

Tunstall and The Tudors

The University’s most recent online exhibition puts these guiding principles into practice. Highlighting the calculating ways of Prince-Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, the Tunstall and The Tudors exhibition started as a physical showing at Durham Castle, but its legacy has been extended online. One benefit of this, as David explains, is accessibility: “It’s a historic building, so there are limitations in terms of physical accessibility. They also have strict visiting times, which can further limit things.”

By going online, the exhibition expanded its audience, and the team made use of digital tools to further bring the displays to life.

“Our designer came up with a brilliant design approach, with pixel art characters that inject a sense of fun into the exhibition. The wider team and I also explored different tools, and played around with how much content to include. There’s always the temptation to add in more and more stuff, but it’s quite important not to do that so the displays have space to shine.”

The students who helped with the project were able to develop their curational skills in the process, and Wright gained “an insight into analytics, monitoring visitor use, search engine rankings, Google results, and more.

“Temporary exhibitions can feel immediate, but now we’re able to create projects that grow over time.”

Broadening Possibilities With Digitalisation

At Durham University there are no plans to slow down the output of online programming to their digital venue. As the University looks to widen its pool of collaborators, engage in different tools, and be more experimental with length and scale, the opportunities online are significant. Hybrid museum models, too, are proving a source of inspiration.

“Having online spaces allows us to engage more readily with student audiences and local art groups. It benefits our physical exhibitions by highlighting features and prolonging their legacies.

“So, even though online exhibitions aren’t as essential to museums as they were during Covid, we all learned so much, so fast, that it would be a shame to not to continue to apply some time and resource into this form of exhibition. I can’t see us going back now; the only way is forward.”

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