One of the most difficult elements of researching and writing about past exhibitions is grasping how they looked and how they felt to walk around. Even though some exhibition plans are available in museum archives, these documents don’t always give a real insight into how the exhibition was laid out, or the route the visitor would have taken to view the objects and interpretation. Also, any last minute changes to exhibitions might not be recorded on exhibition plans, and the final layout may be lost to researchers forever.
Thank goodness for you, Internet! Especially you, YouTube. I’m writing up my final (*panic*) chapter at the moment on digital history, and I’ve been looking at virtual museums and virtual tours of exhibitions. In doing so I’ve found footage or online versions of exhibitions I never thought I’d get to see. Exhibitions that were staged when I was still in school, exhibitions on the other side of the world: I can visit them all the same from 2015 and from my desk in London. I’ve written about Museum Trailers before, but these filmed exhibitions give a whole different level of access to the public.
One of the virtual tours I’ve found most useful is one I came across a few months ago when I was writing about Rainbow City, a 2006 exhibition at Edinburgh City Arts Centre. I went up to Edinburgh to visit the archives, see the objects that had been on display and see the plans for the exhibition. However, what I took from the archive plans looked so different to what I saw when I was walked through the exhibition by lesbian icon ‘Auntie Studs‘ (by cartoonist Kate Charlesworth), narrator of the virtual tour.
Reading plans, taking photo’s and notes of exhibitions is one thing, but capturing the walk, the layout and the experience is another element of what it is to visit an exhibition or museum. In particular, I was really pleased to see the footage of the Rainbow City entrance, the ‘Corridor of Fear’. Reading about the content of the panels wasn’t the same as really being able to imagine walking through it.
One I came across researching this chapter is the tour of the GLBT Historical Society exhibition ‘Dykes on Bikes’ (2008), presented by co-curator Glenne McElhinney. The GLBT Museum/Historical Society has several ‘Online Exhibitions’, including this one. This recording of the exhibition with a narration by the curator means it’s like watching a DVD with running commentary from the director. Brilliant.
I guess the next step from these short virtual tours are blockbuster cinema screenings of exhibitions. I’m yet to see one, even though the V&A produced one for the David Bowie Is… exhibition. Exhibition on Screen showcases some of the exhibitions to head to cinemas and it looks like this is a really good way of bringing exhibitions to new (and geographically widespread) audiences. For now, it looks like screened exhibitions are art focused, but the social history museum world can learn a lot from the art gallery and museum world. I’m excited to see where filmed exhibitions and virtual tours lead, both as a researcher who needs to access past exhibitions and as a visitor who cannot get to every exhibition I’d like to see in person.
You can see the trailer for David Bowie is Happening Now below, because Bowie.