Michigan Library Scholar reflects on “Translating” Exhibit to Virtual – Translate Midwest

Michigan Library Scholar reflects on “Translating” Exhibit to Virtual

LSA undergraduate Charlotte Fater was selected for a summer 2020 internship as a Michigan Library Scholar. Her project was to work on the installation of a library exhibit curated by Dr. Marlon James Sales, Translation and Memory: The Literary Worlds of the Spanish Philippines. Here are Charlotte’s reflections on adapting–or rather, translating–a physical exhibit into a virtual one:

During March 2020, I was selected as a summer intern for the Michigan Library Scholars program. Though my internship was virtual, the exhibit I was designing alongside Barbara Alvarez, Fe Susan Go, and Marlon James Sales was intended to be physically mounted. This was a massive undertaking for me–not only was I designing my first ever exhibit as an undergraduate, I was designing it for an exhibit space I’d only been through in passing, moving from the Hatcher Library to Shapiro Library. There was a large, semi-circular case at the entrance to the Clark Library (pictured above) that would be used as an introduction to the exhibit, and three so-called “walking cases.” These were long cabinets with glass inlaid on top so that Special Collections materials could be displayed safely, and backed with walls so that expository panels could be hung vertically above.

The idea was to create an exhibit that would catch the eye and draw in undergraduates passing through the libraries. We wanted to expose them to the impressive collections housed in the building, and encourage them to use those archives. The wall panels I designed were meant to appeal to the non-expert audience, and keep text to a minimum, as most visitors to the exhibit would be browsing unintentionally, and relatively quickly as they were on their way somewhere else

Nearing the end of the summer, I visited the exhibit space with the purpose of examining it and generating additional ideas for either adding to or revising what I had. As it turned out, I needed to do a lot of adding. The size of the space could not accurately be conceptualized on my 15-inch laptop screen, and the wall panels I created for the walking cases had far too little on them for the amount of space they would occupy. There were even more holes to fill in the large circular case, which was much higher in person and had room for standing objects as well.

I remember distinctly wishing I’d known that because all of our pieces were flat, or just books, and there was room for many more objects of interest. There wasn’t adequate time to search for enough new materials, and some of my wall panels became half-finished at the end of the summer because there wasn’t enough to fill them. In that way, it was a relief when the university announced that our exhibit would have to be moved online.

Because of COVID-19, the physical exhibit was created knowing there was a real possibility it would not be mounted. Between a physical exhibit and a virtual exhibit, there is a sharp drop in the number of visual materials. Packing a physical exhibit with tons and tons of materials works because visitors have the ability to browse. They guide themselves by finding the objects that fascinate them most and learning through lingering over those objects (and ultimately the collection as a whole).

Websites, however, can’t be crammed full of images and metadata in the same way; it’s harder to meander through a website than a physical space. A web exhibit is a direct guide: it relies more on text than image. At a physically mounted exhibit, it’s unlikely that visitors will stop and read. They spend at most a few seconds reading because in-person they expect to be shown, not told. In an online exhibit, the audience can’t walk around an object to experience it in all three dimensions, so a thorough description is necessary.

The format for communicating with our exhibit audience had completely changed, and communication became the key theme of my experiences with this exhibit. A web exhibit is a direct guide: it relies more on text than image. At a physically mounted exhibit, it’s unlikely that visitors will stop and read. They spend at most a few seconds reading because in-person they expect to be shown, not told. In an online exhibit, the audience can’t walk around an object to experience it in all three dimensions, so a thorough description is necessary.

Redesigning the exhibit for its new virtual home was not as simple as attaching the same text and images from the wall panels to different pages on a website. Our materials were created almost exclusively before the 21st century. Not all of them were originally available digitally, and those that were did not always appear exactly in the format we needed. They had to be found, edited for legibility, and then placed strategically to emphasize the exhibit text.

Unlike wandering through a museum room on your own, an online exhibit takes a specific tour through a narrative, with each object having its place chosen carefully to illustrate the points. The text and the materials are coordinated much more closely, and both materials and text must be edited to align with each other. Our text was written by Dr. Sales, our expert curator, and was co-edited with us less-than-expert team members. Together, we worked to emphasize the visuals and knit the materials and the narrative together. The less-than-expert team members also identified jargon and ideas that might not be understandable to an audience encountering the subject for the first time.

Largely, our audience demographics moved away from non-experts to individuals more versed in the subject when the exhibit moved online. It’s more accessible to interested parties whose geography makes visiting a physical exhibit difficult and online, the exhibit is no longer in the path of undergraduate library patrons. Even so, it was important to us that our exhibit be comprehensive to first-time readers, and we want to make it available as a teaching aid or a jumping-off point for researchers approaching the topic for the first time. 

In all of this, there was the imperative to communicate effectively: with each other, and with our audience, and also the imperative to communicate ethically. We relied on our two Philippines experts (Fe Susan Go and Marlon James Sales) to point out which materials were most crucial to the history we were telling and how to emphasize them for maximum understanding. This particular history required us to have very specific ethical discussions about how to include and contextualize images from the Philippine-American War, as many of these images (taken by Americans) show violence towards Filipinos. While there are ethical implications to exposing people to disturbing images, we agreed that there would’ve been greater ethical implications had we not included evidence of the violence of American imperialism and the University of Michigan’s active role in imperialism in the Philippines.

The actualization of an exhibit always carries surprise, whether it’s online or in-person because its final space is different from its creative space.  Our exhibit was created in its next-to-final form in a Google Doc, and when it was finished, there was still the step of transferring it to the software for building the website. Omeka, the virtual exhibit building platform, has its own idiosyncrasies, including insert each paragraph and image separately, as well as the need for metadata detailing each image. Images that were tiny and space-saving on the Google Doc appear in full size on Omeka, dominating the screen between paragraphs. This was preferable, but it was difficult to visualize while we were still in the planning/Google Doc phase. When our images and text were in the Google Doc, it didn’t “feel” like an exhibit.

But as soon as I published the Omeka, we were all amazed to see how in changing the onscreen space from Google Doc to the Omeka hosted on the library website, our work suddenly “felt” like an exhibit. Ultimately, my experience designing the Translation and Memory: The Literary Worlds of the Spanish Philippines online exhibit was a series of lessons on history, translation, communication in the digital age, writing for an exhibit audience, visual design, and Adobe Photoshop. 

–Charlotte Fater, blog post for the Michigan Library Scholars: Considered: the History of the Philippines and the Future of Museums | UM Library

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