Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 10.46.23 AMOne of my primary roles as the Director of Digital Adaptation here at the Blanton Museum of Art is determining exactly what the Blanton’s online “products” should be. Aside from simply making sure that visitors know how to get to the Museum and what they’ll see when they arrive, what’s the point of the Blanton’s website? Is it to provide content? Context? Conversation? Pretty pictures? Links to our Facebook page? And in all cases, who are we trying to reach? People who visit us in person? People who only interact with us online? People who retweet us? People who don’t retweet us?

Witness Voices, a website developed in conjunction with the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights In the Sixties, helped us dig into a few of these questions. By the time the exhibition closed, we had a website that was serving a different function from that which we’d originally intended, but which I think will have a more significant impact on the way the Blanton approaches online experiences over the long term.

Why “Witness Voices”?

One of the first questions we had to address in the lead-up to the opening of Witness was what hashtag we would use to promote the exhibition. After quite a bit of discussion, we finally decided on #witnessvoices. The reason for choosing this instead of something more obvious like #witness60s or #witnessblanton was that we wanted to encourage visitors to voice their opinions on the exhibition itself as well as on themes related to the show. (See Alie Cline’s recent post on hashtags for more on how we make these sorts of decisions at the Blanton.) Because we have works related to these themes in the Blanton’s permanent collection, we felt that this hashtag might have a useful life beyond the run of the show itself.

The thought that went into #witnessvoices (The Hashtag) informed the development of Witness Voices (The Website). As we worked through our goals for the show, it increasingly seemed that a traditional online exhibition, with images of the works from the show and text about each work, would be the wrong approach. An online exhibition could not possibly communicate the power of these works when experienced in person, nor could it really take proper advantage of the social power of the Web. We decided ultimately that this site should be able to stand on its own as a “hub” of communication amongst visitors to the show and those interested in the show’s themes.

A conversation that became an archive

Our initial thinking was that, given the themes and subject matter of the show, that we could use Witness Voices to encourage visitors to converse with one another, and share memories and opinions. With limited time to develop and market the site, we did not imagine that most of this conversation would actually take place on Witness Voices. Instead, we set up an automated routine to re-post any posts on social media that used the #witnessvoices hashtag on to Witness Voices itself. Once those posts appeared on the site, others would then be able to comment and respond.

This approach mostly didn’t work out as we’d hoped. While we found that visitors were consistently posting to social media platforms about the show, they weren’t really interacting with one another. The “conversation” we’d hoped for wasn’t happening, and our efforts to provoke it mostly fell flat. However, the fact that these non-conversations were all showing up on Witness Voices gave them a somewhat different power than we’d originally imagined—we weren’t capturing conversation, but we were capturing visitor responses to the show and, effectively, making those responses part of the exhibition archive. Anyone from the future willing to dismount from his or her jetpack long enough would be able to see how visitors had responded to the show in real time. In a sense, it was as if we had “enabled commenting” for Witness. While this wasn’t our original intention, it ended up working well, and helped us to better understand how our audiences actually respond to the content of our exhibitions, even if that response wasn’t quite what we’d originally thought it would be.

This structure also allowed us to take advantage of the fact that the curator of the Blanton’s installation of the show, Evan Garza, is active on Twitter and Instagram, and was happy to have his perspectives appear on the site as well. This meant that we were able to capture wonderful moments throughout the show’s run, as when Jack Whitten came to UT for conversation with the show’s original curator, Kellie Jones. We recorded the lecture and posted the audio, but Evan also posted a great photo of himself and Jack to Instagram, which also became part of the archive. As the show wore on, we also added in pictures from the Blanton’s Worklab Satellites, as well as thoughtful essays by UT students. These voices merged with those of visitors, in effect making us all commenters.

What does it all mean?

Look at this. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.

–Famous evil archaeologist René Belloq

While we didn’t really see much of the kind of “conversation” we’d expected, it was wonderful that we were able to capture so much rich response to the show in a way that can be preserved (and referenced) over the long term. It was almost as if we’d managed to turn the exhibition into a YouTube video with comments enabled. And as with a YouTube video, some of the comments people posted were insightful, and some were superficial, as it should be. But all have value as part of the exhibition’s history. Years from now, these responses may become part of the ongoing scholarship and history of these objects.

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