The final part of my R2P project is now live on the web: an online version of the exhibition ‘Burning Bright: William Blake and the Art of the Book’, which took place at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, earlier this year (see my first and second posts for details of the other aspects of my project).
Translating a physical exhibition into an online format was an interesting exercise, which highlighted for me important differences about how we (or I at least) engage with material physically and digitally:
- In a physical exhibition, there are spatial limits on the items displayed; with books, this is compounded because it is only possible to show one opening (this was partially overcome by the inclusion of a digital reader showing digital surrogates of the two star books in the exhibition), and the grouping of items is partly dictated by the size of the display cases.
- In the virtual exhibition, it became possible to make more images available (thanks to the Afterlife funds, it was possible to commission new digitalisation) and to group material with greater freedom. However, there was a restriction on the format for displaying images so that only a ‘slice’ of each is shown on the exhibition webpages (although the full images can be accessed from the webpages), which is more effective in some cases than others.
- In both cases, the ‘visitor’ is distanced from the act of physically engaging with the book as an object, be it locked in a glass case or only being present ‘virtually.’
- We read in different ways in an exhibition setting and on a computer screen. Neither is the same as when we sit down to read a book: we tend to ‘scan’ in both cases, wanting to absorb the information quickly. What the online exhibition has allowed is more length, and therefore detail, about the items, but it’s a completely different sort of writing to the chapter of my thesis I was working on at the same time.
My PhD examines the figure of Christ in Blake’s visual works and I have been able to include a small amount about some of the images I am exploring in my PhD in the online exhibition. Researching and writing the online exhibition also led me to look at material from a different perspective and helped me to discover and spot various things which will feed into my thesis.
The online exhibition also showcases work produced in various activities which took place alongside the physical exhibition (including a workshop for schools which I devised), so that it acts as a legacy to the exhibition as a ‘package.’ The inclusion of the creative fruits of the exhibition resonates with the theme of the exhibition itself, which explores Blake’s influence on subsequent generations of artists, writers and designers.
The online exhibition will continue to ‘burn’ and I look forward to seeing what it might kindle.
Naomi Billingsley, PhD Candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester.