Yesterday afternoon, I was able to visit the University of Arkansas exhibition “Fay Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture Comes to Arkansas” - without purchasing a ticket or leaving my apartment. This extensive exhibition on the life and development of these two notable architects was made possible through a collaboration between University of Arkansas Libraries’ Special Collections and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library and Archives. Exhibitions such as this are part of a broader movement in recent years towards making archived content more easily accessible to the public through web platforms. The concept of the online exhibition, however, is still in its infancy and there remains significant room for innovation.
The 137-image exhibit includes a vast collection of materials ranging from personal letters between Jones and Wright to professional architectural photographs showcasing their most prominent built works, as well as an essay by Associate Professor Gregory Herman. According to Timothy G. Nutt, head of Special Collections, the exhibition allows “fans of Wright and Jones get a glimpse into their mentor-protégé relationship.” The introductory essay and the myriad of personal letters and documents in the archive allow us to appreciate the life and work of Wright on a more intimate level and understand his influence on Jones. Taken as whole, the website provides an incredible glimpse into the lives of these two influential designers in a detailed biographical format. However, as with any online platform, the exhibition faces a challenge in emulating the full physical experience of a traditional exhibition, with the curators forced to question how digital content can begin to engage the viewer in different ways to more fully take advantage of the platform.
Despite being able to enlarge high resolution images to see every speck of dust on the original photograph, original images can appear flat and lifeless when viewed digitally. Though perhaps less crucial for photography than painting, sculpture or architecture, the physical and emotional effect of standing in front of an authentic artifact is completely removed. Additionally, in a physical exhibition architecture plays a crucial role, further directing our path through the space and influencing our perceptions. Well-designed exhibitions engage visitors with each new step, forcing their attention to the objects in front of them and momentarily removing them from the outside world. Without being able to rely on shaping physical space, digital content platforms may employ strategies such as animations to provide a greater sense of depth and space, or experimenting with website structure to compartmentalize various elements.
In curating the exhibition, architectural archivist Cat Wallack “sought to arrange the digital objects in an order that highlights specific relationships between objects – creating an online experience for the viewer that more closely parallels the way viewers encounter a physical exhibit.” Upon close examination one can understand subtle relationships between images, however ultimately the “image gallery” format of many online platforms, including the University of Arkansas exhibition, give users complete control over the order in which they view content. Such great control over one’s experience of gathering information could be seen as liberating, but all too often we are left overwhelmed and disoriented as to where we begin. Rather than a curated experience, such an “exhibition” reminds us of a daunting list of image search results, where the architect’s sketches are juxtaposed with smiling portraits of acquaintances and handwritten notes, giving one the impression of sifting through old boxes in Wright’s attic. There have been clear attempts to approach the kind of curated experience one finds in a museum, for example, but the user interface of this particular platform made understanding these subtle themes far more difficult.
User interface and the way one navigates from one image to the next become incredibly important when designing online exhibitions such as these. Having to scroll through a list of thumbnails, click on an image and reload another page to get a closer look becomes a frustratingly cumbersome experience after several pages. Surely these user experiences will improve as software technology develops, and the ever-increasing pixel density on most displays may bring the digital experience closer to a true depiction of reality. Coupled with advancing virtual reality technology and even holographics, the online museum could allow us to see artifacts in our own homes up close and personal. Despite all of the current shortcomings with online exhibitions, one cannot argue against the incredible value such sources add for scholars and researchers, and the University of Arkansas and Crystal Bridges Museum should be praised for their bold decision to advance this discourse. Making information accessible to even the most remote parts of the world has been one of our greatest advancements in recent years and this exhibition is a crucial first step in providing a magnificent public service.
You can visit the "Fay Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture Comes to Arkansas" online at the University of Arkansas Libraries digital collections here.
Crystal Bridges team: Catherine Petersen and Jennifer De Martino
University of Arkansas team: Janet Parsch coordinated efforts with Jason W. Dean, Angela Fritz, Deb Kulczak, Arthur Morgan, Tim Nutt, Martha Parker and Cat Wallack, project curator
Assistance and Essay: Gregory Herman