With a Little Help From Your Colleagues. Creating and Archiving Exhibitions With Collaborative Digital Tools

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Wednesday May 4 2011

In this post, I am presenting a step-by-step description of how the recent exhibition of The Magnes, Gained in Translation: Jews, Germany, California circa 1849 (on view in the Rotunda Gallery of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, until July 1st), was created, and its information archived online, with the help of a suite of collaborative digital tools.

The digital catalog of the exhibition on Flickr.com

The collaborative tools used in the project include a wiki, Google Docs, Dropbox file sharing, Flickr image sharing, Scribd text sharing, linoit.com‘s collaborative canvases, Zotero‘s bibliographic research and annotation, as well as the digital storytelling and publication software, MemoryMiner.

I deployed the use of these tools specifically for exhibition planning for several reasons:

  1. Our collections are presently stored in different off-site locations, in view of our imminent move to a new facility, and our team is currently working in different locations, coming physically together only every two weeks for staff meetings.
  2. The use of collaborative digital tools fosters the circulation of information and ideas. The ability to see the project from many points of view, and to have direct access to all available information, as well as the possibility of directly manipulating that information and adding to it in real time from different locations is an invaluable resource in creating an exhibition (a “work in progress with a due date” of sorts).
  3. Having experimented with the use of collaborative tools in sharing cultural heritage collection information for a few years, I wanted to see how a team of professionals working on archives, library and museum collections could help in devising accurate workflows that integrated these tools in their day-to-day work. My colleagues were, as always, very supportive (or at least, quite gracious in indulging my technological experimentations…). It was truly fascinating for me to observe which tools worked best for whom (some are more visually oriented, other more text-based, etc.), and how demanding the adoption of new tools and work practices could be on even a small team of very committed and highly skilled professionals.
  4. Finally, I wanted to test once again how the use of these tools could itself become a publicly accessible archive of the exhibition project itself, through the concurrent use of the Magnes database (powered byIDEA@ALM) and website (built with Drupal).

The idea for the exhibition came from Alla Efimova, Director of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Using as a centerpiece the famed painting by Moritz Oppenheim, Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn (1856), Alla suggested to explore the roots of German-Jewish immigration to the San Francisco Bay Area in the cultural history of the German Jewish Community since the end of the 18th century, and to show the synergies between The Magnes Collection and its UC Berkeley affiliate, The Bancroft Library.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn (1856)

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn (1856)

Incidentally, we also considered an alternative idea to devote the exhibition to the Jewish wedding, which in The Magnes Collection is represented by countless items, ranging from wedding clothes from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Southern India, and the United States, to rings, cups, hundreds of ketubbot (Jewish wedding certificates), and countless photographs, especially of stunning wedding celebrations of turn-of-the-20th-century San Francisco Jewish socialites. This alternative plan eventually inspired the theme of the groundbreaking ceremony for the new facility of The Magnes, which was presented as a marriage between the former Judah L. Magnes Museum and the University of California, Berkeley.

Marriage: A Magnes Set on Flickr.com

The German-Jewish connection, under the “code name” (or working title) of The Mendelssohn Exhibition Project, was researched by Alla Efimova and Francesco Spagnolo via the Magnes database, IDEA, and UC Berkeley’s Library catalog, OskiCat.

Initial ideas, plans, suggested items, and desiderata, were listed in the Magnes wiki (a non-public space used to plan our work, map our holdings and chart our procedures, powered by MediaWiki), where all staffcould participate, especially Lara Michels, Archivist, and  July Franklin, Exhibitions Coordinator.

Wiki::Mendelssohn Exhibition Project

The exhibition project page in the Magnes Wiki (a tool that is only accessible to staff)

This initial collaborative phase allowed the project to expand beyond the boundaries of the holdings of The Magnes Collection, connecting them with those at The Bancroft, the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, and other UC Berkeley Libraries.

We then began searching more deeply into collections, and databases, and sharing our results through a collaborative canvas available via linoit.com.

linoit.com::Gained in Translation

To view linoit.com's collaborative digital canvas, click the image above. When on linoit's site, use your mouse to navigate through the canvas to discover all the images and notes included in it.

This in-depth research included searching for specific items and investigating their accession files, evaluating conservation needs, and weighing the opportunities and the possibilities of including each individual item in the final display. Many items were discarded, and eventually an item “check-list” was created by Julie Franklin, and shared with the entire production team via Google Docs.

Google Docs was also used by Lara Michels and myself to create a chronological table that integrated information about Jewish history in Germany and in California. While very little of this historical ground-work ended up being explicitly included in the final exhibition, it deeply informed its structural outlook, as well as its final content. Similarly, very early on I began tracking my research (especially on the German-Jewish intellectual encounters in the 18th century, which are at the center of the painting by M. Oppenheim that can be seen above) with Zotero, one of the most powerful research tools available today.

As the item check-list grew, organizational criteria were being re-defined. This process led to selecting several themes according to which the items could be grouped, to testing staging possibilities (again using linoit.com), and to finalizing a title for the project.

Once the item selection took place, each item was digitally documented (using a flat scanner and a digital camera), and all files were shared with the production team using Dropbox. The Google Docs checklist tracked progress, and served as the main repository for catalog information (including database links, related information, label drafts, and links to existing digital files already available via Flickr.com).

At this point, two parallel writing and editing processes took place:

  1. Exhibition panel and label texts were drafted by the curators, and shared with the production team via Google Docs. Everyone provided feedback and – using the comments feature – offered very useful editorial suggestions. Lara Michels reviewed all information pertaining to archives, and Eva Gurevich helped reconciling database and Flickr information.
  2. Digital images of the items included in the exhibition, along with database links and descriptive metadata were then moved into a dedicated MemoryMiner library. Through the descriptive capabilities of this software, each item was then described in multiple ways. Along with titles and descriptions, each item was also “geo-located” (a Google Maps location was associated to it), and described through extremely detailed descriptive annotations.
MemoryMiner::Gained in Translation

MemoryMiner library for the digital catalog of "Gained in Translation" (2011)

The edited texts, and the staging suggestions, were then shared with Gordon Chun, who curated the installation under Alla Efimova’s and Julie Franklin’s direction. Panels and labels were printed, so that they could accompany the exhibition items in the gallery. Using a Flip camera, I shot a short video of the installation. Alla Efimova edited it, and we later posted it on YouTube.com:

Parallel to the on-site installation, the editorial phase was followed by digital online publication. The following information was thus made available with the focused use of specific social media:

  • Flickr: exhibition poster, and digital catalog including images of almost all the items included in the exhibition
  • Scribd: exhibition brochure, panels and label texts
  • YouTube: installation video
  • Linoit: research and staging images and annotations
  • Zotero: bibliographic resources and research notes

For me, the most fascinating aspect of digital publication rests with the opportunities provided by MemoryMiner. I have been using this software for the last four years, and I continue to appreciate its endless capabilities. The possibility of describing an image in its most minute details (and of associating to it maps, videos, web resources and links), and of continuing to add to it, was then and remains to this day utterly invaluable.

MemoryMiner::Annotated Image View of Oppenheim Painting

At the end of this process, all resources created were archived both in the Magnes website and in the collection database (and thus via our internal digital archiving practices), which are also conceived as fully collaborative tools. Thanks to the synergetic use of the digital tools described above, it was possible to essentially archive the entire project while the work was still in progress, rather than after the fact.

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