This paper will explore the conceptual and methodological issues surrounding the creation of a virtual art exhibition, drawing on the experience of working on the recently launched online exhibition The Gallery of Lost Art.
After a brief overview of the typologies of existing online exhibitions, the paper will review the principles underlying the creation of The Gallery of Lost Art and will underline the ways in which this project is similar to and differs from other online exhibitions. It will interrogate the concept of curation when applied to virtual spaces and digital technology, and raise questions about whether conventional museum practice can – or should – be developed and migrated to this arena.
The paper will review the genesis of the project, which was a collaboration between Tate, the digital wing of the television company Channel 4 and the digital design agency ISO, and discuss how it developed into being a project with a serious art historical dimension (an exploration of the diverse ways in which important works of modern and contemporary art have disappeared or have been lost over the course of the twentieth century and how we remember these lost works).
Key principles underlying the project will be reviewed. First among these was the decision to create an immersive experience (as opposed to a flat, image-plus-text presentation) rich in the associations of visiting a gallery space (albeit in this case something closer to a warehouse space). Second, we chose to bring curatorial values and practices to this project with a view to developing an exhibition that a conventional museum visitor, rather than, for example, someone seeking information from a museum website, could potentially enjoy. These values and practices included a sensitivity to the scale and physical qualities of the lost artworks (and the documents through which their existence was traced), a refusal to create surrogates for the lost artworks, and the provision of a complex and challenging thesis through the selection of forty case studies. The third determining principle was the decision to allow the project to end after one year, mimicking the situation with museum exhibitions. This has proved controversial, with some surprise and indeed criticism being expressed at the idea of allowing what has been seen as a valuable educational resource to be ‘lost’.
The paper will explore these decisions and their consequences for the conceptualisation of an online art exhibition. It will ask whether this sort of project, which was conceived and developed as a curatorial rather than a learning project, offers a model with potential for significant future development for art museums that are seeking to connect with audiences who that may not normally consider visiting a conventional exhibition or are geographically remote. It will also look at the difficulties of locating an art historical thesis within a sphere that is not normally seen as having an impact on art historians, and the positives brought to the project about history and memory by the digital terrain.