Centre for Design History PhD researchers Hajra Williams and Kate Guy reflect on their experiences of co-organising the recent CDH conference ‘Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures’, 1-11 September 2020.
Meeting in our supervisor’s office in Brighton in October 2019 to discuss a conference idea on museum exhibition design, we did not realise that our initial visions of a physical conference would remain just that – a vision. Booking rooms for keynote speakers, meeting and greeting participants, chairing discussions and museological debates and post-conference meet-ups – none of these would materialise in the ways we were imagining. From this initial scoping-out meeting we agreed to continue our discussion via email. For the small project team, consisting of Dr Claire Wintle, Hajra Williams and Kate Guy, all from University of Brighton this would be the first and only physical meeting for the entire planning stage and duration of the conference.
Covid and digital conferencing
By February 2020 we had confirmed our keynote speakers and conference dates and from 27 February we publicised the call out for papers through our networks. And then Covid…we have by now heard those three words resonate in conversations around the world as people reflect on their lives during the past year from the first lockdown in March 2020. However, our supervisor and co-organiser, Dr Claire Wintle was not deterred by a global pandemic – she simply suggested moving the conference online. Coincidentally, Dr Tim Satterthwaite of University of Brighton was convening a digital conference, Future States: Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945, from 23 March to 5 April, 2020, at a time when our own discussions were taking shape. We decided to use the Future States conference format as a starting point. A little funding was set aside to buy in the expertise of Tim to guide us through the initial stages of website development. As the vehicle for the conference, it was crucial to get this right. Tim’s initial advice and input was invaluable – having said that it was a steep learning curve to navigate technical aspects of website development. Admittedly we were using a template (WordPress), but this still required technical knowledge in terms of inputting text, images, links to resources and videos of speakers.
We had not anticipated such an incredible response to our call for papers. Abstracts from scholars and practitioners came in from around the world. We narrowed these down to fifty-eight speakers, a stark increase on the ten we had initially planned for our physical event. We decided on an asynchronous format, asking participants to prerecord their presentations. We supplied them with a recording guide, which offered two options, a simple recording approach on PowerPoint or a more advanced method using video editing software. Presentations would be released in batches and would remain on the website for a two-week period for attendees to watch at their convenience. The conference would conclude with a live plenary. Image copyright issues meant some papers had to be withdrawn after this period but many of the papers including the plenary discussion are still on the website.
It was a steep learning curve to deliver an online event of this scale, and we did not foresee the range and scale of the technical issues we would face. Access to equipment, software, and technical skills varied amongst our participants, and many required additional support. We responded by setting time aside to provide this support despite the fact that participants were in various time zones in different parts of the world. For some, a few emails back and forth sufficed, but others required short demonstrations via video. Unexpectedly, in providing such support, we developed a rapport with our participants, fostering great relationships and camaraderie despite the physical distance of an online event.
Large video files were downloaded and stored on an external hard drive, then uploaded to SharePoint, a secure web-based collaborative platform used by University of Brighton. Uploading the videos to SharePoint was a lengthy process as the platform would frequently crash due to the large multimedia files. Minor technical problems continued during the conference, the most critical issue was the sound dropping out or distorting during some videos. It is worth noting that distortion was caused by people splicing their videos before sending in. In some cases, this problem was remedied by reuploading the video to the site. For other videos we required the invaluable support and expertise of the university’s IT support team.
Outcome and impact
Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures conference took place between September 1-11, 2020. Over 500 attendees and 58 presenters/speakers participated. Key themes that emerged from the conference papers included collaborative, multi-authored exhibitions, often from a decolonial and postcolonial perspective; the materiality of exhibition design that goes ‘beyond text’, focusing on labour and production processes; and methodological approaches to studying museum exhibition history. The aim is to develop these themes further in an edited volume.
The advantages of an online conference are many- it is low cost, carbon neutral, more accessible and inclusive. Inclusivity is worth mentioning in more detail, we lost count of the number of times people thanked us for the opportunity to watch the presentations in their own time and at their own pace. Subtitles were provided through YouTube and text transcripts were available for those who requested. The conference provided other lessons too – above all, for presenters and organisers, the importance of learning digital skills and adapting to an online format. The website enabled us to include everything in one place, abstracts, participant information, reading lists, details of global research centres and archives. The disadvantages of online events can lead to a feeling of distance and isolation and in order to offset these factors, we developed opportunities for panellists and audience participants to come together as much as possible. We did this through a noticeboard and chat room functionality on the website, a finale of a live plenary discussion and encouraged engagement through social media. In post-conference evaluation below, attendees highlighted their experiences and offered suggestions for improvements:
“Fantastic speakers, an accessible delivery model, a highly-engaged level of debate and, overall, an extremely well-organised event. It really set the bar for how online conferences can work. I will also really appreciate being able to draw on legacy resource in my teaching and practice in the future.”
“I liked the more leisurely and on your own time way of viewing the presentations but missed the rigor of in-person and the chance to socialise and share in person…. Finding a way to have more synchronous attendee interaction would be good. However, I really like the virtual format because you could go back and re-watch presentations, and of course it cut out the sometimes challenging cost and time of travel.”
“I really appreciated the moments when the conference was hyper local (based on speaker’s expertise, no matter what geographical region or museum type); when content supported our current moment’s politics of anti-racism and decolonization; when speakers and content moved beyond standard euro-U.S. stories.”
“Watercooler/coffee bar moments and the ability to connect with speakers soon after their presentations were absent here. How might they be restored?”
“Overall I thought this was a great conference that ran very smoothly and a helpful resource for ongoing research.”
The conference highlighted the importance of investing in technology and software and ensuring continuous training in IT for those wishing to engage in educational and public-facing events. With the help of our participants, we created an international research community for the duration of the conference and a much needed, useful, accessible and permanent resource on museum exhibition design histories.
– Hajra Williams and Kate Guy
To visit the conference website: https://musex-design.org
Reposted with kind permission from the Museums and Galleries History Group blog, where this post originally appeared http://www.mghg.info/blog/2021/2/12/physical-to-digital-conferencing-in-the-age-of-covid