Ways of Seeing

Last week we launched the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive. Since then the archive has had a very positive response, with the popular educational website Open Culture writing a very engaging article that has currently received over 11,500 shares on social media and the Shakespeare Blog also writing another flattering piece. The past few days have been a real insight into the way social media works from the ‘other side’ – as a creator rather than passive participant – and I will be writing more about this in the future. For now, however, I would like to suggest that what accounts for this reaction is not just the content of the archive (although, certainly, Shakespeare illustration was always going to gain some attention), but rather it is the way the archive has been curated and designed to provide users with new ways of experiencing historical artefacts.

In her essay, ‘A Way of Seeing’, the art historian Svetlana Alpers writes about what she calls ‘the museum effect’ whereby objects (such as Greek statues) are taken from other cultures and presented in museums.[1] The museum effect, Alpers writes, is ‘the tendency to isolate something from its world, to offer it up for attentive looking and thus to transform it into art like our own’.[2] It is through the museum effect, Alpers argues, that Greek sculpture has ‘assumed such a lasting place in our visual culture.’[3] The museum invites us to look ­– it is ‘a way of seeing’.[4] However, simply placing an object in a museum does not mean that the object then provides a viewer with the best viewing experience. As Alpers goes on, we need to ‘Free viewers, in other words, and make them less intimidated about looking.’ How can this be achieved? By a better understanding of space and the viewer’s relationship to it:

The way a picture or object is hung or placed – its frame or support, its position relative to the viewer (is it high, low, or on a level? Can it be walked around or not? Can it be touched? Can one sit and view it or must one stand?), the light on it (does one want constant light? Focused or diffuse? Should one let natural light and dark play on it and let the light change throughout the day and with the seasons?), and the other objects it is placed with and so compared to – all of these affect how we look and what we see.[5]

Crucially, the questions that Alpers poses, are just as significant when it comes to designing a digital archive as they are when it comes to exhibiting a piece of work in a museum: the way the images in a digital archive are juxtaposed with each other, how easy it is to access these images, the precedence the images are given in the archive, and how a user can navigate through the archive, all play an important role in how the viewers/users will respond to the archive itself and their overall experience within it. In essence, then, the first step in creating a digital archive that will, hopefully, ‘free viewers’ is to start thinking like a curator.

According to David Balzer in his book Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, the ‘most powerful curator’ working in the world today is Hans Ulrich Obrist.[6] Obrist is the Co-director of Exhibitions Programmes and Director of International Projects at London’s Serpentine Gallery and has been described, by Balzer, as ‘as close to a rock star as a curator can be’.[7] Obrist, however, is not just a curator but is also a theorist and historian of curating itself. In his book Ways of Curating, Obrist provides a useful definition of what it means to ‘make a collection’, or, as I tend to read it, about how curating (and designing a digital archive) is about producing knowledge:

To make a collection is to find, acquire, organize and store items, whether in a room, a house, library, a museum or a warehouse. It is also, inevitably, a way of thinking about the world – the connections and principles that produce a collection contain assumptions, juxtapositions, findings, experimental possibilities and associations. Collection-making, you could say, is a method of producing knowledge.[8]

Digital archives are a new medium for producing knowledge. Not only do they allow new research questions to be asked of their content (Victorian Shakespeare illustrations, for example), but their very creation allows us to gain new insights into books, materials, and digital cultures. As Jerome McGann notes, the digitisation process allows us to engage directly and in a very practical way with primary material, and by working with hypertext opens up new ‘interpretive opportunities’.[9] For example, handling and digitising the illustrated Victorian Shakespeare editions day after day meant that I became acutely aware of how devices such as illustration, the placement of the text within the page and the texture of the paper construct meaning.

Obrist goes on to write that ‘We are already starting to witness visionary acts of digital curating, and curating will surely change as a generation native to digital tools begins to develop new formats.’[10] Frustratingly, Obrist does not give any examples of what these visionary acts of digital curating might be, but we can perhaps infer from his attitude to curation elsewhere what the characteristics of ‘visionary acts of curation’ might consist of. In an earlier chapter, Obrist writes of his frustration that:

One often finds oneself in exhibition formats that are a bit too fixed, lacking innovation in either a spatial or temporal dimension. As such, one must ceaselessly question these conventions and change the rules of the game.[11]

Ceaselessly question these conventions and change the rules of the game. The digital, more than any other medium, I argue, allows us constantly to change the rules of the game. It allows us to do things differently.

As impressive as The William Blake Archive and The Rossetti Archive are, for example, they are very much academic resources aimed at a specialist audience. They make us, in the words of Alpers, feel ‘intimidated about looking’. It has always struck me as rather incongruous that when we visit either site (both of which are, obviously, about images) we are greeted by a large quantity of textual information. It is as if the curators and designers of the archives are saying to the viewer/user ‘we do not trust you to look’. The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive was designed and curated as a response to such a way of creating a digital academic resource. It actively encourages the user to be ‘free’ to look, to be playful, to remix, and to recognise the mediation that has taken place in bringing the illustrations from page to screen. It celebrates, to quote Walter Benjamin, ‘that the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.’ By reimagining the scholar as curator and the curator as scholar (to quote the writers of the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0), we have created new ways of seeing historical material and our relationship to it.

 Michael Goodman

[1] Svetlana Alpers, ‘A Way of Seeing’, in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, eds. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), pp. 25-32 (pp. 26-27).

[2] Alpers, ‘A Way of Seeing’, p. 27.

[3] Alpers, ‘A Way of Seeing’, p. 26.

[4] Alpers, ‘A Way of Seeing’, p. 31.

[5] Alpers, ‘A Way of Seeing’, p. 31.

[6] David Balzer, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (London: Pluto Press, 2015), p. 21.

[7] Balzer, Curationism, p. 13.

[8] Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ways of Curating (London: Penguin, 2014), p. 39.

[9] McGann, Radiant Textuality, p. 140.

[10] Obrist, Ways of Curating, p. 171.

[11] Obrist, Ways of Curating, p. 168.


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