A Make-Believe Museum: Creating an Online Exhibition

Tuesday 7 July 2020

As you may have seen in my previous post on the Laidlaw Scholars Network (or linked in, and twitter if you happen to follow me there), I have recently launched an online exhibition using the social media image sharing platform Instagram. Although the subject of this exhibition—Sickness & Saints: An Exploration of HIV/AIDS and Christian Iconography—is not directly related to the Laidlaw research I am currently undertaking, an Instagram exhibition is a new and exciting way for myself and others to disseminate our research, both Laidlaw projects and otherwise, to a very large audience. So, in this blog post I’m going to talk a little bit about coming up with the idea of an Instagram exhibition, the process of creating/curating the exhibition, and why I think this is an exciting and worthwhile pursuit.

First, I’ll give you a bit of background. I’m going into my final year of studying a joint honours degree in Art History and Philosophy, and after I graduate, I’m hoping to do a postgraduate degree in Museum and Curatorial Studies. I love art from all historical periods, and other archaeological finds; museums and galleries are my happy place, and if I could, I would spend all my time in them. For obvious reasons, that’s impossible at the moment. I had hoped to spend some of my summer working as an intern in an art gallery, but a global pandemic made that (and many other, much more important things) impossible.


Screenshot of my Sickness & Saints Instagram art exhibition, June 19, 2020. All images used in the exhibition are credited in their individual post. 

My best friend is a Fine Art student at a university in Sussex. Because of our shared interest in all things arty, we often send each other articles, documentaries, or book recommendations, and occasionally essays or other university coursework. Last semester I took a module on the Art and Visual Culture of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, for which one of the coursework assignments was an exhibition proposal. This involved coming up with an exhibition theme, choosing five artworks which exemplified the theme and issues surrounding the theme, and then explaining why this exhibition would be interesting, and what it would offer to the current discourse. After handing in the assignment, I sent my friend a copy. She thought the proposed exhibition was really exciting, and after I expressed a desire to actually curate the exhibition in a real-life gallery space, she suggested I do so online.


The idea of an online exhibition is not a new one; museums and galleries have been posting video tours of their exhibitions online since technology allowed them to do so, and recent advancements in virtual reality have seen museums all over the world create realistic replicas of their gallery spaces online. These online tours allow people who are unable to travel, due to access requirements, the cost of flights, or the current global situation, the opportunity to see thousands of incredible artworks from the comfort of their own home. Now I’m not a technophobe, but I definitely lack the skills required to create a 360 degrees interactive virtual gallery space, and it would likely be very time consuming for me to do so. So, I found a way to share images of artworks, with captions containing all of the details you would see on a gallery wall, that I was familiar with: Instagram. I’ve been active on the platform for several years now, and often spend hours at a time scrolling through my feed, looking at images of art, cats, food, and selfies. I follow several art related accounts, and have heard of Instagram exhibitions before, but had never actually seen or been able to find one myself.


Once I had the idea to use Instagram as a platform for the exhibition, the rest of the process was fairly simple. I had already done most of the research for the coursework assignment, so just had to create an Instagram account, choose a few more artworks to include, get all of the posts drafted, and then post them all at once and in the right order so that the page looked aesthetically pleasing. Although a fairly simple task, it was actually pretty time consuming, and ended up demonstrating some of those core Laidlaw values—ambitious, brave, curious and determined—and developing other related qualities, such as self-confidence and time management.


While Instagram exhibitions might not be an ideal way of presenting everyone’s research, I would recommend trying it out if your research is based upon art, historical objects, archaeological finds, or any other visual material. Not only does finding a new use for social media and a new way to disseminate research help to develop skills and values essential for both research and leadership, but it has the potential to be beneficial to the wider community. Instagram is easily accessible, requiring internet access and a device on which to access the app, and currently has over 1 billion monthly users. That’s a really large audience who may not have access to academic journals or be aware of blogs like this. While it’s unlikely any online exhibition I post will reach that many people, there’s the potential for a lot of people to see my research and my ideas.

Drawing of the Kuntillet Ajrud inscription. Image taken from: Olyan, Saul M. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988

In the coming weeks, I plan on my Instagram account to showcase an online exhibition based upon my Laidlaw research, which is focused on goddess worship in the Ancient Near East. This research is not focused on art, but I can use images of the archaeological findings—such as Pithos A, c.800 BCE, from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which I discussed in my blog post last year—and use the captions to explain the significance of the objects and inscriptions, in order to present my argument.


My account (@makebelievemuseum) currently only has around 50 followers, and only one small exhibition has been posted, but I will continue to use this platform to display my findings, and hopefully eventually reach a larger audience. I hope that this has provoked some thoughts about new ways of presenting research, particularly in relation to social media, and that any researchers will continue to find new ways to make their research more accessible to large audiences of the general public.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lord Laidlaw and all of the Laidlaw team for giving me the opportunity to undertake my research into ancient goddess worship, and for providing me with the opportunity to develop the skills and qualities which I have applied to other areas of my academic study and research.

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