By Amie Kirby, Marnie Parker & Lina Fitzjames

This article discusses the student exhibitions curated as part of the ‘Managing Collections and Exhibitions’ module on the MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies. The article addresses the themes of each exhibition, as well as the specific challenges of curating an online exhibition whilst working remotely. Though the exhibitions varied greatly in subject matter, their creation raised three important themes: remote collaboration, the importance of wellbeing, and structural inequalities. The article discusses such themes and concludes by presenting suggestions for the sector’s relationship with digital technologies, especially as the pandemic tentatively reaches brighter stages.

With the second wave of the Coronavirus appearing in tandem with the beginning of the academic year, the country saw any chance of in-person teaching disappear. Introductory meetings were held over Zoom; with students meeting their classmates and lecturers for the first time through computer screens. Though not quite the welcome many of us had hoped for – especially after a summer of lockdown-, restrictions were not looking to ease any time soon. Modules were adapted to ‘the new normal’ and the heightened importance of creating online resources became an integral part of institutional life. 

The ‘Managing Collections & Exhibitions’ module of the MA programme in Art Gallery & Museum Studies utilised the unprecedented situation to explore the creation of online exhibitions. In this article, we, as AGMS students, explored three key points – remote collaboration, the importance of wellbeing and structural inequalities – that we each found integral to the creation of our and others’ exhibitions. Each point offers significant insights that we feel are key to the sector’s future development. As we look towards a post-Covid-19 future, we must wonder what this means for the access to, and accessibility of, online resources.

Project Background

When we were first introduced to the assignment in October 2020, the UK’s cultural institutions had already endured seven months of Covid-19 restrictions. This period saw an expansion of museum virtual content from exhibitions to digitised collections. However, such expansion was generally seen as mitigation or substitute for the physical space which was no longer available. 

Nevertheless, having overcome the initial shocks of forced closures, and foreseeing the historical significance of Covid-19, institutions across the UK had speedily initiated campaigns of contemporary collecting surrounding Coronavirus material. This rush to collect was wide-spread; early in our classes, a visiting museum professional reported feeling unable to not collect. This is certainly a common sentiment amongst sector professionals, with curators such as Ellie Miles reminding workers not to collect too rapidly

Despite this rapid collection of Covid-19 material, there existed a lack of online exhibitions addressing these collections. In response to this, the exhibition assignment of the ‘Managing Collections & Exhibitions’ module presented a challenge to students in how to innovatively and accessibly present objects that represented the contemporary moment. A further challenge was the acknowledgement that the events of the pandemic were still unfolding. Thus, the stories presented by contemporary Covid-19 collections needed to be displayed ethically and sensitively, communicating a museum’s responsibility to uphold an ethics of care. 

A screencap from Everyone’s Breaking The Rules. The exhibition covers various acts of protest and activism throughout the pandemic. This image shows the #SayTheirNames list, as well as a protest sign from UK Black Lives Matter protests.

Remote Collaboration

The six exhibition groups were randomly assigned; thus our introductory meetings were, for many of us, the first chance we had to converse with fellow students outside of seminar breakout rooms and Facebook group chats. Weekly meetings became not just a place to plan exhibitions, but a safe and trusted space to express frustrations, including worries about the lockdown, the future of the industry, and executing a Masters-level workload. These meetings quickly came to represent a constant amid the ever-changing new normal of the pandemic. Saliently, the remote nature of the project posed a unique obstacle, how to collaborate remotely. In order to be a thorough and equitable process, extra attention was demanded to ensure that everybody’s voice was heard; and that no concern went unaddressed. With members located around the country, and in some cases, the globe, flexibility and understanding were two key requirements during the six exhibitions’ planning and execution. 

Distinctly, some of the exhibitions took a hyper-local approach (Reflections), in either the collection of objects or the setting of the exhibition itself. For the latter, this had a significant consequence for group members who were not local to Manchester, had not visited, and were unable to because of Covid-19 restrictions. ‘Reflections’ employs an abstract imagining of Moss Side’s Alexandra Park for its design. This innovative approach considers both the restrictions of ArtSteps, the chosen design platform, in creating a lifelike creation and the inability of group members to visit the park itself. Resultantly, group members worked collaboratively to fill the gaps in each other’s knowledge, resources, and experiences of (or lack thereof) visiting the park. This display of collaboration is just one of numerous efforts common to the experiences of the module’s students. The final products are a testament not only to the hard work of each and every student but to the resilience shown in the face of an event sure to be relevant in society for years to come.

A screencap from The Everyday Extraordinary. This exhibition presented lockdown experiences through the re-definitions of ‘normal’ over the past year. The exhibition brings together various pieces of dynamic media such as videos of personal histories, artwork, and objects such as train tickets. 

The Importance of Wellbeing 

Although the six group exhibitions were disparate in thematic focus, one notable feature was common to all. Each group chose to explore the modes of coping and wellbeing mechanisms that aided the population in day-to-day life during the Covid-19 crisis. For many, this encompassed the recent popular culture of ‘self-care’ (Reflections).  These mechanisms were largely celebrated by students and ranged from the use of music listening as escapism (Rapid Resilience) to political protest addressing unsatisfactory PPE supplies (Everyone’s Breaking the Rules; Reflections). 

Interestingly, long before the pandemic’s onset, museum professionals articulated a need for their institutions to identify and meet the health and wellbeing needs of their constituent communities. For example, Jocelyn Dodd and Ceri Jones’ ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ (2014) refers to several interventions made by museums in the promotion of health and wellbeing. Locally, schemes such as Manchester Art Gallery’s The Mindful Museum share this mission and promote the relationship between cultural experience and mental wellbeing. The six student exhibitions indicate that there is great potential to continue this mission remotely, even when museum spaces reopen physically. Strikingly, the digital space affords institutions and individuals an opportunity to sensitively document and share examples of healthy coping mechanisms, which develop in response to an ongoing crisis. Many collections, such as artwork (common to most of the exhibitions), and zines (Reflections), are arguably by-products of this response, expressing the importance of activity-based coping mechanisms. 

Conversely, it is important for museum professionals hoping to engage with this subject to consider that some objects themselves represent a coping mechanism. Therefore, the collection and accessioning of these objects for physical display (whilst they may still be needed) is inappropriate, unethical, and counter-productive. Thankfully, given the predetermined digital format of the exhibitions, students were able to share object-driven narratives of lockdown experiences, whilst lenders could retain their objects. For many, this included medical aid (Reflections) or exercise equipment (Rapid Resilience). Therefore, the use of digital exhibitions provides a salient opportunity for museums to ethically showcase coping mechanisms. As such, their future role within the promotion of health and wellbeing can only become more prominent. 

Structural Inequalities

The exploration of health and wellbeing is just one of the many commonalities amongst the six student exhibitions. While the pervasive theme of coping and ‘self-care’ presents a uniting force and common experience amongst a locked-down population, the items collected within each exhibition demonstrate the vast differences in lockdown experience. For most, the lockdown presents new challenges in working and indeed, living online, encompassing a redefinition of ‘normal’ (The Everyday Extraordinary), many aspects of remote communication are familiar to distinct societal groups, such as those with Disabilities (Reflections). 

As the Covid-19 fog tentatively lifts, making way for brighter futures, the realities of systemic inequality pose important questions about the future of life after lockdown. For Disabled people, who have had to shield for over a year, this is even reflected in disparities amongst the vaccine roll-out.

Indeed, structural and systemic inequalities have been propelled to the fore of a Covid-19 world. For some, they are even synonymous with this period in history. Resultantly, it was enlightening to see the exhibitions address the ways in which people have reacted to such inequality, namely through protest (Everyone’s Breaking the Rules; Reflections). For members of Black British communities, the advancing of the Coronavirus pandemic in the summer of 2020 is undivorceable from the explosive Black Lives Matter movement. This is saliently and rightfully highlighted in exhibitions such as ‘Everyone’s Breaking the Rules’, which includes a blacked-out wall containing all names in the Say Their Names list. Notably, such a political uprising presents the cultural sector with a long-awaited reckoning in addressing the non-neutrality inherent to their existence, especially within their colonial pasts. As a result, many cultural institutions have shown a more vocal commitment to anti-racism.

A screencap from Reflections. This exhibition’s layout interestingly provided an online simulation of Alexandra Park in Moss Side. Presenting the themes of Resilience, Protest, and Self-Care, the exhibition aims to reflect upon the experiences of some of the most vulnerable communities during the pandemic. 

Where Next?

This dynamic group of student exhibitions tackles a wealth of themes, with each theme presenting calls to action for the sector. Amongst such calls to action, one particular point dominates, the use of digital spaces to create exhibitions and facilitate events has proven fruitful for both exhibition makers and audiences. For the former, exhibition design is not confined to a pre-existing gallery floor plan. There exists an entirely different range of possibilities for the presentation of digital collections, allowing creators to flourish and creatively curate exhibitions in newer ways. Amongst this range of possibilities, exhibition makers can present varying types of media in much freer and fluid ways, an important practical repercussion. For the latter, audiences are no longer restricted by having to be present in a physical space. For those that may be less likely to visit cultural institutions for whatever reason, from physical access requirements to inaccessible public transport (cf: Heumann Gurian’s Threshold Fear concept (2005)), to now have the museum’s collections and exhibitions available at the click of a cursor is a brilliant solution. Nonetheless, this is not to suggest that the digital world is itself accessible and without fault as many UK residents do not have digital access at home. 

Whilst both the physical and online space present their own benefits and caveats, it is key to realise that each space is different. This is the most important realisation from the use of digital technologies during Covid-19, the digital space presents its own distinct range of possibilities. As soon as the digital is treated as an expansion of the physical or as temporary mitigation, the agency of audiences to engage with digital material in new and exciting ways is diminished. The sector would do well to acknowledge that digital technologies cannot revert to secondary importance post-Covid19 . 

Conclusion 

Museums and cultural institutions are now beginning to look towards a post-Covid future. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that measures deemed inconvenient or restrictive to some allowed others to participate in ways they once could not. Our digital exhibitions allowed us to reach a much larger audience, although a clear distinction between the physical and digital is needed if these spaces are to be used to their full potential. They also became a vehicle to address some of the systemic inequalities that had been brought to light by Covid-19 and to explore the emphasis that has been placed on wellbeing, namely, how this can be used in museum practice in the future to create a more inclusive space for all. 

You can find the six student exhibitions here: 

Group 1 – ‘Rapid Resilience’

  • Please follow the instructions on the landing page to view the exhibition. 

Group 2- ‘COVID and Culture @ Home: Maintaining Wellbeing through the Pandemic’ 

Group 3- ‘Reflections: Representing Experiences of COVID-19’ 

Group 4- ‘The Everyday Extraordinary: How COVID-19 Transformed Our Lives’ 

Group 5- ‘Coping in the Age of Lockdown’

Group 6- ‘Everyone’s Breaking the Rules; Protest and Activism in the Midst of the Pandemic.’

Biographies

Amie Kirby – Twitter @_amiekirby Email amie.kirby@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

Amie is a student of the MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester. Having completed her BA in Archaeology at Durham University and undertaking a dissertation on the display of Mesopotamian museum collections, Amie is interested in applying decolonial theory to museum practice, specifically through collaborative practice with refugee and migrant communities. She has written for several organisations such as Arts Emergency and Stockport’s Arc Centre. You can find her work on her WordPress blog, amiewritesthings.wordpress.com.

Marnie Parker – Email marnie.parker@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk 

Marnie is an MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies student at the University of Manchester and has a BA in Art History. She is interested in the potential of unprovenanced objects and the management of orphaned collections. She has previously written for Castlefield Gallery and Dispatches in Art History.

Lina Fitzjames– Email lana.sisson@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk 

Lina is an MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies student with a BA in History.  She is especially interested in numismatics and object conservation and would like to wholeheartedly thank Nicolas Cage and the cast of National Treasure for inspiring her to pursue a career in the heritage sector. 

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