Transcolonial Journeys: The Ayahs and Amahs Project’s online exhibition

One of the key aims of the Ayahs and Amahs project is to reconstruct, describe and analyse the historical experiences of ayahs and amahs and to investigate the way that visual and literary representations of these women travelled with them along circuits of the British empire.

Our new online exhibition, Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Journeys, was conceived as a way to present these ‘travelling representations’ to a global audience in an exciting and accessible way. As a recent history graduate, I have a passion for making history accessible and for telling stories through digital technologies. I joined the Ayahs and Amahs team as the Exhibition Curator in September last year, and I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that after many months of research and design, the exhibition will be launched on the 8th of September 2022! It will be open to online visitors until 8th of June 2023.

In this post I’ll share with you the process of creating our exhibition, the opportunities we embraced, and the challenges that we faced to bring this exhibition to life.

Online Exhibitions

Online exhibitions have been growing in popularity over the last few decades and the Covid-19 pandemic has established the online exhibition as an alternative to physical exhibitions. As people have become more digitally engaged as a result of increased reliance on digital strategies to live our everyday lives during lockdowns, the viability of a standalone online exhibition (not a supplement to a physical exhibition) has increased. Online exhibitions can present objects and their associated narratives in endlessly creative ways which allow the audience to interact with and engage with our history in the digital space.

There are many opportunities that are associated with an online exhibition: they are cost effective; they aren’t limited by time and space; they are dynamic and can be easily and readily updated; they have a capacity to incorporate various forms of media including new technologies such as augmented reality. They also offer the visitor chance to take their time and fully engage with the contents of the exhibition. Of course, there are also challenges involved in making an online exhibition. Not only does the exhibition need to be interesting and interactive, it needs to provide enough direction for visitors so that the experience is engaging and follows a narrative.  There are also various technical considerations including making the exhibition available on various devices. As well as this, there are challenges in obtaining permissions to publish the images, as well as the financial costs in obtaining/reproducing the images.

Our Exhibition

The Ayahs and Amahs Project is incredibly lucky to be able to draw upon the wealth of visual and literary representations of ayahs and amahs from across the world. The objects that we wished to use in the exhibition – which ranged from postcards, to oil paintings and oral histories – are located in various cultural institutions, private collections and online repositories. We knew from our previous research and engagement with the public through forums such as our blog how impactful these objects are. They are not only tools for conveying the historical stories of the ayahs and amahs depicted in them, but also in considering how cultural representations both form and reinforce wider imaginings of ayahs and amahs.

Our main consideration was how we would  present these objects, and the stories associated with them, to our audience – providing them with the opportunity to think critically about the objects in the exhibition, and also harnessing what we felt were the major opportunities of presenting the objects online.

After much deliberation, we felt that there were three main elements that were of ultimate importance to us – accessibility, narrative and embodiment. We designed the exhibition with these elements in mind.

Accessibility

Online exhibitions are inherently more accessible than physical exhibitions, as they allow visitors to attend without the constraints of time, proximity or money. The accessibility of the online exhibition appealed to us, as not only would it make the exhibition available on a global scale, it also reflected the overall transnational theme  of the exhibition. Ayahs and amahs travelled globally: so should our exhibition. Our choice of objects was also informed by this global context. We endeavoured to include representations of amahs and ayahs from around the globe.

Narrative

As a group of historians, creating engaging narratives and cohesive themes for our objects was of the utmost importance. The thematic links between the objects that we chose and the information labels that we included alongside them were designed to do the important work of helping our visitors to ‘make connections between museum artifacts and images and [their] lives and memories’ – to not only engage our visitors but also encourage ‘personal reflection’ and ‘public discussion’.[1]

Embodiment

Overall though, our exhibition design really concentrated on the notion of embodiment – the conscious experience of the body which creates engagement and makes our world meaningful. We wanted the online exhibition to feel like more than ‘just a website’ and to offer our visitors opportunities to actively participate, take action, and interact with the objects on display. We did this through the construction of the exhibition, the language we used, and in the way that we displayed the objects.

‘Hubs’ and ‘Spokes’ 

Our exhibition largely follows a ‘hub and spoke’ model – where there is a central page (the hub) with various galleries (the spokes) of thematically linked content that visitors can explore based on their own personal preferences. While visitors can ‘choose their own adventure’, we also provide signposting and direction for the visitors. Each of our galleries has a particular thematic focus, with narratives interwoven within and throughout the galleries themselves.

Language

The concept of embodiment also comes through in the names of our galleries. We wanted to harness the feeling of movement – of a journey. This not only reflects the content of the exhibition, the idea of transnational flows, but makes the visitor feel like they are moving and taking action as well. Using words such as ‘turning’ and ‘moving’ was a conscious choice in an effort to foster embodiment.

Displays

To avoid the trap of visitors simply scrolling through pages, we endeavoured to present our objects in many different ways. We have picture galleries, image scrolling effects, and story maps among other displays, all of which were chosen to promote interaction and engagement with our visitors.

This project has been such an incredible collaborative learning experience. We are so excited to share the exhibition with you and to hear your stories and feedback. If you happen to be around in Sydney town on the evening of the 8th September, we’d love to see you at our official, face-to-face only History Week launch (see registration links below).

Sign up to be notified when the exhibition ‘goes live’ at www.transcolonialjourneys.com.

Sign up to attend our official exhibition launch at 5.30pm, 8 September 2022 @ The Loft | UTS.

Lauren Samuelsson 2022


[1] Leslie Bedford, ‘Storytelling: the real work of museums’, Curator, vol. 44, no. 1 (2001), pp. 30, 33.

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