During the first Covid lockdown last year, many museums took the opportunity to develop new digital content for audiences unable to visit.
At the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, we released an extended in-conversation with artist Paloma Varga Weisz (originally planned for a physical event) along with material from our Archive of Sculptors’ Papers, Sculpture Research Library and previous programmes.
Turning to the screen for content and connection defined 2020. This allowed us to gather quickly, more sustainably, from further afield and in greater number to discuss the matters of significance that may have previously necessitated travel.
For me, the most impactful events were the UK-wide Culture Reset programme reimagining the future of arts and culture, and Helen Molesworth and Laura Raicovich’s Talking Guston, a multi-contributor Zoom discussion, triggered by the postponement of the retrospective. From institutional debates to DIY events, I enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate in new ways.
But some conversations are more complicated to transfer to Zoom rooms. Alongside our exhibitions and work with the Leeds Art Gallery Sculpture Collection, the institute’s research programme is especially active.
We place sculpture at the centre of art historical scholarship and encourage new research through events including the presentation of academic papers, talks and panel discussions. We pride ourselves on being a hub of contact and exchange, generating and supporting research networks that extend beyond traditional academia.
This has required physical spaces, materials and in-person gatherings, so often shaped by the ‘feel of the room’ as ideas grow and engage response. Prior to November 2020, we had never realised a digital equivalent of these multi-participant, live events.
The challenges of creating something digital were plentiful. It was essential for us to protect depth and rigour – the presentation of research doesn’t transpose effectively onto social media, for example.
But this is where online can shine. Whether or not we admit it, our specialisms (in our case the study of sculpture) are niche and niches thrive digitally.
An international community is quick to show itself given the right opportunity, and at our first online panel discussion we had a 700% increase in attendance compared to physical events (not including subsequent viewings of the recording).
Online also offers a different way to control time: our model is to release pre-recorded talks, often in multiple on a single subject, and host a live Q&A with the contributors a week later.
Circumnavigating the frustration of formulating your question after the event on the bus ride home, this structure has shown how we can build different communities around subjects, allowing engagement over a sustained period. Questions can be submitted through various platforms in advance, or during the live event itself.
Many considerations were prosaic but no less significant. We created speaker briefs for presentations, and we also had to think through copyright issues for on-screen reference materials.
Conversations around intellectual property and time were especially interesting. Research is so often a process, and while a conference paper is typically acknowledged to be part of a journey, it tends to shift in status online, becoming forever a fixed point of view.
We reviewed our contracts, adding a clause that content may be withdrawn after 12 months should a speaker decide their ideas had developed.
Then came the work of invitations, access and ‘on the night’ tech support. Learning curves have been steep, but fruitful.
Next, the challenge is how to integrate this new content into searchable formats that are integrated with our physical collections – objects, books and papers – providing a further layer of engagement across the full spectrum of sculpture.
Laurence Sillars is the head of the Henry Moore Institute