What do you do when COVID-19 forces you to close an exhibition? Well – one thing is to try and translate it into the digital world and make a web exhibition. But how can a website be like a ‘real world’ display? Here’s how the Z-Time exhibition team thought about the challenge of curating in a lockdown.
We opened our experimental exhibition Z-Time: The Art and Science of Circadian Rhythms at the start of November 2020. It was open to the public for a little over 4 weeks before a new COVID-19 lockdown closed all of Copenhagen’s museums and galleries. We had hoped to re-launch after Christmas, but as the closures started to extend, the team began to wonder if their might be another way to share Z-Time in a lockdown world.
Visit the online exhibition here: https://www.museion.ku.dk/z-time/
Over the last year, museums, like everyone else, have been forced to think more creatively about using digital solutions to reach audiences in a time of social distancing. Many institutions have launched online exhibitions, tours and events as a way of staying in touch with with their visitors. Some have even opted to develop purely digital exhibitions which don’t exist in a physical format. But if you are going to translate an existing display into a digital medium, what is the best way to go about it?
Curating exhibitions involves the careful creation of an experience for the visitor. Objects, displays, and labels are carefully laid out to facilitate the visitor experience – with the curator planning when and where audiences will encounter different stories. It is not only the individual items which are exhibited but the ways in which they come together – which are displayed near by the other as a way of building a narrative, highlighting contrasts or indicating similarities. These principles tend to rely on having a physical space to navigate – so what happens in a digital setting?
Many institutions have chosen to go down the route of creating 3D galleries where visitors can ‘walk’ through the displays as if they were visiting in person. (The Uffizi Gallery in Italy and the Natural History Museum of London’s new Fantastic Beasts exhibition being two especially impressive examples). This approach works well if you want to give the audience a sense of exploring a physical space – perfect for a large-scale exhibition or a gallery with impressive architecture. But Z-Time was originally a one-room exhibition with a singular strong focal point – a dense display of photographic artworks. This meant that being physically present in the space was not as important for us in telling the story of Z-Time than the actual works themselves. (Plus, creating 3D walkthroughs requires a lot of budget and time – neither of which we had available!)
Instead, we decided to pull apart all of the different elements of the original exhibition – the artworks, the texts, the objects, the survey – and to reconsider how they might work together in a digital born format. How might we start from square one by instead thinking about how people navigate webpages to find information? We also needed to be mindful that while webpages look sleek and easy to use – there is an enormous amount of backend work which goes into making this possible. And while I can’t speak for curators everywhere, I am personally devoid of technical skill. So we needed to rely on the generosity and skills of our Museion digital curation team – and luckily they came to our aid, despite the time crunch.
What we settled on was a simple webpage lay out which re-categorized the exhibition content by medium, and which is navigated using a series of tabs. While we could have created tabs which describe what visitors might find there (‘art’ ,’objects’) instead we opted for more evocative titles which hopefully will create a more exploratory experience. This is a little bit risky given that in a physical exhibition visitors can see with one sweep of the eye what is in the room – whereas now everything is ‘hidden’ within the tabs.
It was important for us that we try and use this web exhibition as an opportunity for making Z-Time bigger and better. Rather than seeing a web exhibition as a ‘second best’ option, we tried to think about how the digital format actually gave us space to explore the theme even further and incorporate new content. I was absolutely delighted that we were able to team up with two amazing creators to add a new level to the exhibition.
First, artist Isabella Martin teamed up with Copenhagen- based composer Jim Slade to create a sound experiment inspired by the exhibition and Isabella’s artworks. In what we call the ‘soundscape of time’ – the artist reads texts drawn from the exhibition over an experimental composition combining wood wind instruments with analogue synthesis. The result is other-worldly and brings a new sonic perspective to studying and modified time in the laboratory.
We were also so excited to have the chance to work with a bioinformatician from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR) to try and turn Z-Time on its head. While the original exhibition was an artistic take on science, the visualizations created by Leonidas Lundell are a scientific take on art. Using a research film taken at the CBMR laboratories as a part of the development of the artwork, Lundell used the footage as a way of visualizing the circadian rhythms of the lab itself – in a way similar to how scientists analyze their own data. Motion was visualized by subtracting one frame from the next, and taking a rolling 5 second average over time. Through this new lens, we are able to reveal the round-the-clock patterns of circadian science in a new way.
Finally, a key element of the original exhibition was gathering visitor reactions to the artworks. The concept of the Z-Time project was to give our audience a sneak-peek into an artwork in development – and to provide feedback which will help is to create the final piece for a large scale exhibition later in 2021. But just because the works are now digital, doesn’t mean we are less interested in what people think! So we also created a digital survey called ‘What is your bodytime?’ so our online audiences can keep feeding back into the project. (In a GDPR compliant way)
In short, if there is one thing I’ve learned from creating this web exhibition is that its not as simple as it sounds. Curating for the web is just as nuanced as traditional ‘on gallery’ curation – and the effects of COVID-19 means more and more museums and galleries will need to grapple with the best way to do this. For me personally, I found it freeing to move away from the idea of ‘replicating’ a museum experience and instead by guided by the subject matter.
- Kristin Hussey, researcher and curator of Z-Time: The Art and Science of Circadian Rhythms