The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, that is, how a library can go virtual during the pandemic times

By Dr Agnieszka Franczyk-Cegła, Ossoliński National Institute, Wrocław, Poland

The Ossolineum Library (Wrocław, Poland) has launched a virtual exhibition entitled ‘The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty’ of which the Consortium of the European Research Libraries is an honorary patron: www.zlotaepoka.ossolineum.pl/en. The online exposition, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus, presents manuscripts, early printed books and artifacts from the period called the Golden Age of Polish culture. The materials illustrate the most important phenomena, events and trends that shaped Polish Renaissance. The items presented at the exhibition are grouped around three narrative sections:

  • the dynasty and state of the Jagiellonians (objects illustrating the biographies and achievements of individual rulers, portraits of kings and queens, their autographs, seals and books depicting the most important events in their lives, phenomena such as Jagiellonian foreign policy, etc.),
  • society and economy in the Jagiellonian era (objects illustrating the multinational character of the population of the Commonwealth and the famous religious tolerance of that period showing from Armenian Statues, Jewish Shulchan Aruch and the first catholic Bible in Polish to the muslim manuscript, so-called Tefsir of the Tatars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as social states, economy, and Jagiellonian money),
  • culture and science (unique early printed books from De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus to an extremely rare occasional publication on the wedding of Bona Sforza).

Due to its universal character, the exhibition is addressed to the wide audience interested in expressions of the Renaissance in Europe. It combines elements of learning and fun thanks to educational quizzes and interactive games. It is accompanied by a concert of Renaissance music. The virtual exhibition is available for people with special needs, including those with disabilities, by e.g. using sign language in media content and audio description.

The realisation of the exhibition brought into focus many important issues concerning the questions how the cultural institutions can operate on the web, especially in the times of the pandemic. Modern science libraries not only collect, store and make available books, and conduct and support scientific research, but also undertake a number of activities aimed at disseminating their collections and promoting science and culture in society. These undertakings take various forms, from organising authors’ meetings, exhibitions and lectures to children’s workshops, outdoor painting or city games.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of the universal lockdown in the first half of 2020 have dramatically hampered the traditional educational activities of libraries. Tools such as the Internet and social media, which previously served as an aid to communication with the reader, became overnight practically the only means of maintaining contact with the world outside the library. With their help it was possible to make lectures available to the readers in the form of video podcasts, collection demonstrations in the form of virtual tours or online workshops.

From one day to the next, the competences of many library staff members in the field of project implementation also had to change. The transition from real-life to online activities does not only involve making collections available in digital libraries or publishing promotional materials on dedicated sites, but also other processes, more complex in terms of concept and methodology – and I do not mean the technical side.

This was made clear to us in the Ossoliński National Institute when it came to the implementation of the virtual exhibition „The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty”. Going virtual with it was not our first goal. The exhibition had been planned a long time ago as a physical event but the coronavirus changed all plans. Quite quickly everyone realized that thinking like ‘This is just a break. In two weeks’ time we will return to normal work’ was wishful thinking, and the new reality would take longer than we would like. Postponing the exhibition for the next few years was not the goal – after all, the event was supposed to be organised on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Sigismundus II Augustus’ birthday, and this does not happen every year. Nobody was thinking about implementing the exhibition on the net, until the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage announced a program ‘Kultura w sieci’ (transl. Culture on the Web), introduced in order to encourage institutions to take action in the virtual world, as well as to promote and increase the presence of culture in social life through online tools. It suggested the direction of action in this new reality and became the impetus to change the format of the planned exhibition from physical to virtual.

Easier said than done. Specialists with experience in the realisation of physical exhibitions were involved in the organisation of this exhibition, but in practice it turned out that a virtual exhibition requires a different look at the presentation of the collections. The realisation of the virtual exhibition “The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty” began with the creation of stories around selected books, manuscripts, medallions, coins and stamps. In addition to the descriptions typically found in exhibitions, the virtual exhibition was accompanied by narrative descriptions explaining the importance of a given object for the epoch. Summarized, they answer the leading question of the exhibition: why was the Golden Age gold? The descriptions, much more detailed than in the case of our normal exhibitions, are of a scientific nature, while the narrative descriptions are of a popular scientific nature, combining the main objectives of the scientific libraries: scientific elaboration of the collections and their presentation in a popularising form. The accompanying presentations (lectures, concert, educational activities) have also been transferred to the digital space giving them the form of video podcasts, an online concert and games and texts available on the portal. The virtual exhibition created in this way does not aim at presenting objects, but at presenting a narrative through objects.

The work summarized in this way seems to be simple, but it was accompanied by a long period of research and discussion about the essence of the virtual exhibition, especially in the context of the relationship between virtual space and real space. Two important issues before planning a virtual exhibition are what to present and how to present it. Most of the virtual exhibitions are connected with objects existing in reality, i.e. they present a digital, mainly pictorial, representation of a tangibly existing object, but there are also those that feature artwork that do not have a real equivalent but have been created on the artist’s computer and, as such, exist in the form of files. Libraries, as they hold many unique manuscript and paper works of art, will have a natural tendency to present those, and not the digital creations.

The issue of the form of a virtual presentation is a little more complex. Going through dozens of museum online exhibitions, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art through to the Museo del Prado and the National Museum of Singapore, has made us aware of one thing: there are as many concepts of virtual exhibitions as there are institutions and galleries. Under the banners of ‘virtual exhibition,’ ‘online exposition’ or ‘digital exhibition’ one can find on the web various forms of displaying objects in the virtual space: Power Point presentations, virtual tours, galleries of 3D graphics mapping the interiors and objects, pages with links to the pages of individual artists, galleries with a photo of the object and a description, files in various formats presenting different elements of the exhibition (objects, catalog records, recordings, advertising, promotional materials), which can be downloaded in zipped form to your own disk. What to choose?

First of all, whatever form of presentation you adopt, you should remember that a virtual exhibition is not an ad-hoc upload of the documentation of a group of objects on a website, just as a real exhibition is not simply lining up a group of objects in a series of showcases. Thus, the exhibit design of a virtual exhibition is not to tell the programmers: ‘Listen, on the right at the top I want a photo and on the left I want a signature,’ just as we do not say to the arrangers of stationary exhibitions: ‘Here in the corner we will give a showcase, and above it a signature and a board with its magnification,’ because we might as well hire an interior designer who arranges furniture in corporations to arrange exhibitions.

In fact, the process of the exhibit design is surprisingly similar in both online and offline exhibitions. The artworks and their juxtaposition have to be arranged harmoniously with their surroundings. Some aspects of installing and launching the virtual exhibition may vary from the ones planned for a exposition in your physical exhibition space, but the idea is the same, e.g. you don’t paint walls in support of the exhibition concept, but you can apply colour to the webpage. The arrangement of virtual space seems to be even more difficult from the point of view of attracting the viewer’s attention than the real space. When we enter the exhibition hall, we look around and take an automatic tour: we look at the object behind the object, approach only the object that has attracted our attention from afar or sit in front of only one object for which we came here and enjoy the fact of communicating with the original.

The virtual exhibition is deprived of all this. We start our tour by going to the portal page or in front of the computer screen, and nowadays more and more often cell phones, and it’s on the way to work, people go home on public transport. The virtual exhibition arranger must take into account that it operates in cyberspace, which cannot be seen as a simple mapping or continuation of real space. Why? What should the curator of a virtual exhibition do, together with the team arranging its space, when s/he hears the words such as those: ‘No matter how beautifully we film the performance, how faithfully we digitally map a given object, nothing can replace the experience of seeing it live’1? First of all, agree with that statement – after all, we are not going to the Louvre to see the latest trends in interactive exhibition, but to have a look at the Mona Lisa (seeing it from behind the forest of heads is another thing, after all we are not the only ones who came up with this idea), and a 3D scan of the image will not replace it. Secondly, to realize that the main purpose of the virtual exhibition is different, and that is to tell a story. The arrangement of a virtual exhibition must serve to emphasize the narrative, because when an offline exhibition defends itself with objects even with an underdeveloped narrative, a virtual exhibition has no such luxury. As a consequence, the most important thing in the creating of a virtual exhibition is to treat it as an individual project in a unique space such as digital space, and not to perceive the virtual exhibition as an addition to a physical exhibition. Thus, we also do the viewers a favour: the attempt to replace the ‘real’ exhibitions only reminds them that they are locked in their homes and deprived of the ‘real original’. The virtual exhibition must be an event in itself, and the actions taken in cyberspace must be different, but related to the real world.

Paraphrasing the definition of an offline exhibition, a virtual exhibition can therefore be defined as the art of exhibiting in a certain virtual space objects that interact with each other and with the surrounding networked reality. The virtual exhibition is a part of digital culture, i.e. culture that uses digital technology and information systems to present its elements and phenomena in the virtual world. Just as digital culture is, according to contemporary definitions, ‘more about conscious and purposeful cultural activity than about objects,’2 so a digital exhibition should be more about a story built around objects than the objects themselves. Libraries seem to have a unique predisposition for this. Their collections are so diverse that often the whole virtual exhibition could be placed around one object. The degree of their digitisation is very high – the activity of libraries in the virtual space was at a high level even before the pandemic, as evidenced by numerous digital libraries, databases, online catalogs, etc. So why not try to adapt cyberspace also for exhibition activities?

1 G. Manginis, Academic director of the Benaki Museum in Athens [in:] Culture at the time of a pandemic, https://www.athensinsider.com/culture-at-the-time-of-a-pandemic/, 29 VI 2020.

2 M. Connor, Curating Online Exhibitions [in:] https://rhizome.org/editorial/2020/may/13/curating-online-exhibitions-pt-1/#_ftn8, 13 V 2020.

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