Hajra Williams, PhD candidate, discusses a stimulating University of Brighton workshop exploring exhibition histories.

To celebrate the Centre for Design History’s new Museums, Archives and Exhibitions research strand and to mark the end of the first year of the Centre’s Exhibition Histories Reading Group, a session was convened at the University on 24 June 2019 to explore the use of digital technologies in exhibition histories. Attended by students and academics from across the university and beyond, this was an engrossing, lively and thought-provoking session.

Most of us will have been to an exhibition at some point in our life and will have experienced the physical, sensory aspects of being in and moving through an exhibition space. We may even have a strong memory of a specific exhibition that touched us or had a significant impact. But what else remains after the physical exhibition is de-installed? When the reviews have been written up, visitors have left, loans returned, objects placed in their permanent spaces and exhibition ephemera archived? Documenting exhibitions through digital technologies is one way of extending the life of an exhibition. It is another way of experiencing it, of revisiting it, or indeed visiting an exhibition that we may have missed seeing in the flesh.

The session was developed by Dr Claire Wintle with special guest Dr Sarah Victoria Turner, Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Sarah presented her recent pioneering work on the intersection of exhibition histories and digital practices with a focus on the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769-2018.

1923 view of Royal Academy exhibition chronicle https://chronicle250.com


Sarah first introduced the chronicle project, a mammoth task involving digitising 250 years of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions. The chronicle is a new open access online publication by the Paul Mellon Centre that explores the Summer Exhibition through stories, artwork, data and essays for every year of the exhibition. The Summer Exhibition is the longest running annual display of contemporary art.

One of the questions Sarah asked was, ‘Is it possible to create a more expanded history of exhibitions, a history of ideas, art of other realms, politics of an institution, types of exhibition viewing?’ For me, as I am sure for many others this was a thought-provoking question – what and who is missing from the material that is collected? One of the key questions in my own research on exhibitions is, ‘What were audiences doing and where have those histories been recorded?’ Sometimes the artworks themselves offer these other views – The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787https://chronicle250.com/1787 unusually shows the audience doing what audiences do, sometimes paying attention, often not, possibly being seen more than seeing.

Following Sarah’s presentation we moved onto an interactive discussion on digital resources to explore precisely these questions. Working in small groups we focused on the Royal Academy’s resource and “The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain” resource at https://www.afterall.org/exhibition-histories/the-other-story. Exploring the digital sites, we explored – amongst other things – their limits and possibilities, their multisensory and multivocal qualities, their accessibility and the ways in which time and chronology are implicated in digital media. Sarah suggested that a lesson for us all is to future proof our documentation by being aware of and including material that will provide fuller histories.

To round off the session, a short presentation was given on the Exhibition Histories Reading Group by Joseph Long and myself. We reflected on our first year. We have enjoyed putting together the texts – the themes explored evolved in an organic way and we have been focused around methodology, spectacle, transnational, audience engagement, archives and research. It has been an opportunity to explore themes as diverse as historic exhibition making to utopian art museums in the Islamic world, to curatorial ideals and audience expectations. Sessions are being developed for 2019-20 to start on 11 November 2019. Specific themes of feminism, violence, radical exhibitions, decolonisation and queer history have been suggested so far. If you would like to be involved, attend the sessions or offer suggestions please do contact me on H.Williams2@brighton.ac.uk.