Stepping Back: Online Exhibition Shapes and Boundaries

The early stages of history exhibition drafting can be taxing on the brains. Along with wading through information and materials from various sources and repositories and determining where they fit into your exhibition’s historic narratives and themes, I also frequently find myself stepping back to refine our overall exhibition structure. In the grant writing phase we laid out a tentative plan for the exhibition structure.  But now that we are in the drafting phase, it seems like a good time for big picture questions.  Basically, before you get too deep in filling the container, you have to ask, is this the right container?

In addition, both the blessing and curse of online exhibitions is that you have a wide range of options. Physical exhibitions have a set amount of space– only so much text and materials fits within a panel or in an exhibition space.  But rather than physical limitations, once you have secured your long term digital storage, the major challenges of online exhibitions (or at least this one),  is time and accessibility. For each topic we plan to address, scholars have written numerous articles and books, and archives contain a range of digital materials– so we have resources to wax on forever. But to make the exhibition broadly accessible to a range of audiences it must be clear and concise as well as informative, and we would like to launch this website in a timely manner. So where do we stop? And how do we simultaneously avoid going so broad in providing historic context that we oversimplify the the complex issues and experiences of the topics and time periods we address?

My solution for now is this: we have two types of containers. One is the core exhibition, which addresses broad historic themes in colonial and antebellum African American history in South Carolina and presents various archival materials that exemplify these broad themes (for example, when we discuss Urban Slavery in Charleston, we present images of badges slaveholders forced enslaved African Americans to wear, as a marker of their roles and status within a mobile, diverse city population). But to avoid obscuring the specific complexities of these historic contexts, we will also develop a second container for in-depth “case studies,” that will exist on separate pages that link to these broader exhibition sections. For example, under Urban Slavery, we can link to case studies of different enslaved individual’s experiences working in downtown Charleston. The beauty of this 2-container model is that it offers a space for foundational historic overview in the core exhibition sections, while also providing a structure to include specifics, which can grow and change over time. This second container will not only enhance the pedagogy of the exhibition (i.e. don’t forget, history is complex!), it also offers an effective vehicle for the exhibition to grow and change over time. Through the flexible of Drupal as our web content management system, these case studies (which can be organized in a menu by exhibition section as well as linked to different points in the core exhibition) can be added over time and generated by guest curators based on their distinct research activities, as well as by LCDL staff. Case studies can also come in different shapes and sizes– from short essays with images to interactive maps to online tours and videos…

This 2-container model is not particularly original, textbooks frequently highlight a separate “stories in a box” next to broad history discussions.  But what I find exciting in the online exhibition context is how these specific studies can grow and change over time, providing a space for the exhibition to continue to acquire new, innovative materials and information, while also maintaining the anchor of accessible, foundational information in the core exhibition.