September 18, 2020

Ten Digital Curation Tips from the Archives of Ontario

The Archives of Ontario (AO) is one of the largest provincial archives in Canada, with collections documenting the decisions and activities of the Government of Ontario, and the individuals, businesses, and organizations with enduring provincial significance that illustrate Ontario’s history and development. The AO makes these records available through over 40 online exhibits, curated by its staff and (as needed) by external partner organizations. These exhibits cover a huge range of subjects, from widely-known topics to niche interests—each created by a project team with a curator guiding content development. 

Curation in a digital space requires specific considerations unique to an online environment. This includes building and maintaining narrative flow, using an appropriate form and structure, and taking your audience’s experience into account. In this article, the AO’s exhibit team outlines some of the key components, considerations and questions we use in digital curation—our best tips to help you in your own work and when practicing curatorial thinking in your classroom.

  1. Ask yourself what the big-picture story of your exhibit will be. Planning an exhibit often begins with thinking about the histories or narrative you want to depict. You can start planning by asking a series of questions about your topic, such as:
  • What is the story you are trying to tell? 
  • What do you want your audience to remember afterwards? 
  • Why does this story need to be told?

Just as students are given an assignment, curators are often “assigned” a topic for an upcoming exhibit—it’s up to them to figure out how they will tell that story. 

When our team was asked to create an exhibit using the AO’s largest collection of business records, the T. Eaton Company fonds, we decided to start with a single, personal story from the collection – rather than trying to cram over 200 years’ worth of archival records into a single exhibit. Future T. Eaton Company exhibits will explore other unique stories from the collection.

Project manager Alison Little and Curator Jay Young review records for an online exhibit.
Project manager Alison Little and Curator Jay Young review records for an online exhibit.

2. Think about who your audience will be, and their expectations. Ask yourself:

  • What will they expect to see? 
  • What might they already know about the subject?
  • What do you think they will want to learn? 
  • Could they have any personal experience(s) with the topic? 
  • Do you want to challenge them in any way?

Curators help to provoke consideration, questioning, and discussion of the records and artefacts they’ve assembled. To do these things, you need to know your audience.

The AO team created the ANIMALIA: Animals in the Archives online exhibit with our audiences in mind at every step of the process. This led to a final product that speaks to the diverse interests of our viewers: from researchers curious about new areas of scholarship (the growing field of animal history) to those fascinated by the many animals that call Ontario home.

3. Imagine what structure will best tell your story. There are many different formats you could choose, but two main types are used repeatedly in online exhibits:

  • Thematic exhibits organize records around different topics, and can promote connections between, or perspectives on, various people, places, and events that would not otherwise be linked. Ontario’s Sporting Past is an example of this format. 

Successful exhibits in any format help visitors to compare and contrast, and give evidence from primary and secondary sources to support why change occurred. To ensure your exhibit is presenting evidence effectively, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What kinds of secondary source research have you conducted? 
  • How can you ensure that you’re drawing from as many credible sources of information as possible?

Remember that exhibits are another form of presenting your research findings—try to think of creating an “experience” for your audience through the structure you’ve chosen and the way you lay out your evidence. 

4. Discuss with (and listen to) others about how your exhibit can acknowledge your perspective and biases in relation to the topic of your exhibit. It’s important for all curators to ask for and listen to responses to the following questions: 

  • How does your exhibit connect to the topics of class, ability, sexuality, gender, and/or race? If you think it doesn’t, why is that?
  • How are you going to include the perspectives of people with lived experience of your exhibit’s topic?
  • What kinds of primary and secondary sources are you including to ensure the voices of historically underrepresented communities are included in your exhibit? 

Curators can’t do their work alone—every exhibit takes a team so that multiple perspectives are present. 

In 2020, we relaunched the AO’s online exhibit about the James Bay Treaty in partnership with Mushkegowuk Council and Queen’s University Archives. This exhibit replaced an older version of the exhibit done without communities’ input. While the AO is a caretaker for one of the two existing copies of the original Treaty, we knew that this new exhibit couldn’t go forward without incorporating Omushkego voices and Mushkegowuk communities as project partners.

An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “James Bay Treaty (Treaty No. 9)” online exhibit showing a “pull quote” and archival photograph.
An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “James Bay Treaty (Treaty No. 9)” online exhibit showing a “pull quote” and archival photograph.
An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “James Bay Treaty (Treaty No. 9)” online exhibit showing a map and contextual exhibit text.
An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “James Bay Treaty (Treaty No. 9)” online exhibit showing a map and contextual exhibit text.

5. Be aware of any requirements your exhibit needs to meet, including the parameters of the web platform you’ll be using (ie: image file type and size) and your teacher’s expectations. Knowing these requirements in advance will help you narrow down all the material you’ve gathered and continue to shape your story. 

  • Review your assignment requirements and make sure what you have meets your teacher’s expectations.
  • How long is your exhibit going to be? Be specific: how many pages  do you want your exhibit to include?
  • What are the limitations of your web platform? Know them, so that you can work within them and around them.
  • What size are the images, videos, and other visual/audio materials you’ve gathered? Does your website have enough bandwidth to host them?

When we created our Centennial Ontario exhibit, the ability to separate content into different pages helped us create chapters that keep the content clear and keep the reader moving forward through the exhibit’s narrative. Knowing our platform and using its strengths to our advantage allowed us to tell the entire story of how Ontario celebrated the centennial anniversary of Confederation in 1967 in just *four* short exhibit pages. 

An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “Centennial Ontario” online exhibit showing the main menu.
An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “Centennial Ontario” online exhibit showing the main menu.
An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “Centennial Ontario” online exhibit showing two blueprints and an interactive zoom tool for closer viewing.

6. Select what records, artefacts and other sources will be included in your exhibit. Always ask yourself how the items you’ve selected help you tell the story you’ve outlined for your exhibit and watch for sources that might catch your audience’s attention. Seek the right balance of “everyday” or common things and “extraordinary” things and point out why and to whom something might seem “extraordinary.” To help narrow your focus, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the record or artefact valid (can be in trusted to provide accurate information)?
  • What is most relevant? What needs to be in the exhibit? Make a wish list of everything you’d like to include in your exhibit. 
  • Do you have a variety of material? Select a variety of materials, subjects, creators, locations, etc.
  • Think carefully about which records will help you tell the story—how will they add value (provide evidence)?

In creating the Meet the Browns exhibit, our team worked carefully to balance George Brown’s well-known political accomplishments with the lesser-known aspects of his family life. The records we chose show this balance: political records, like the Quebec Resolutionsletters to colleagues, and artworkswere included alongside photos and intimate letters between the family members.

7. Think about “sense making” in your exhibit: how you will use the exhibit text to connect and show the meanings of the sources you’ve selected! History is more than just dates and names—great exhibits use interpretive text to make connections between events, people, and places for their audience. And remember: too much text can put your reader to sleep so keep your text short

  • How will you connect the records together?
  • How are records or artefacts in your exhibit grouped together? What do those groups/clusters mean to the narrative of your exhibit?
  • What kind of patterns or trends are demonstrated in your exhibit?
  • What context do you need to provide for each record, artefact, and source you include?
  • Will you include quotes from primary sources? How will you work them in?
  • Will you be including any audio or video in your exhibit? Do you need to write any text connecting them to the rest of your exhibit content?

For the Dear Sadie: Love, Lives, and Remembrance from Ontario’s First World War exhibit, the AO team shared the story of a young man and woman who exchanged letters during the First World War. Using “pull quotes,” (excerpts from primary source texts), audio clips featuring voice performers reading the letters, and photographs, we were able to re-tell the story of Sadie Arbuckle and Harry Mason despite having no photos of Sadie in our collections to draw upon.

You, as the curator, need to find the right mix of information and interpretation to keep your reader interested, without fabricating the past.

An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “Dear Sadie” online exhibit.
An excerpt from the Archives of Ontario’s “Dear Sadie” online exhibit.

8. Share your exhibit in draft form with someone else—feedback is a crucial step in the exhibit development process, and no curator can work without input from their colleagues and those outside the immediate project team. Ask your classmates, family, friends, relatives, and anyone you trust will help make it an interesting exhibit for their thoughts on your work. Here are some questions you can ask them:

  • What do they like about your exhibit?
  • What would they change? 
  • What was the “big idea” of the exhibit?
  • What was the purpose of the exhibit (i.e. to entertain, to persuade, to warn, to celebrate), and how was this clear in the construction of the narrative?
  • Where did they spend the most time? Why?
  • Where did they spend the least time? Why?

Every single AO online exhibit receives feedback from multiple sources. Those sources vary depending on the topic and project team, but this feedback is always essential to improving our work! In building the In Good Hands: Lawrence Bruce Robertson, WWI Surgeon exhibit, our team shared the draft version with other staff for feedback. They said it would be helpful to see a map showing the location where L. Bruce Robertson had worked during the First World War. We also learned from this feedback that we had the perfect map in our collections, and so added it at the end of the exhibit. Asking for feedback leads to a stronger finished project! 

9. Test your exhibit for accessibility. Building an inclusive online exhibit is an important consideration for a curator but is also the responsibility of everyone in the project team. When designing your exhibit, choose colours with a high contrast ratio, always include detailed alt-text for any images, ensure any videos include closed captioning, and provide transcripts for video and audio content.

AO staff have worked to ensure all new online exhibits meet accessibility requirements set out by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), and are in the process of revising older exhibits. The following list indicates some of the AO’s exhibits that are considered accessible, as they make use of alt text, include transcripts, meet appropriate colour contrast ratios, and are navigable using assistive technology (i.e. screen readers): 

Building in time and tools to offer accessibility is the responsibility of your website host, you as the curator, your project team, and your teacher—all those involved have a role to play! As the curator, you can ensure that accessibility considerations are part of the process.

10. Look for opportunities to include interactivity and give yourself some flexibility! “Interactive” can mean lots of things—it could be a game, a text-based puzzle, a series of embedded widgets, videos, a poll, a QR code, a walking tour of real-world sites connected to your online content, or any number of creative solutions. Use the tools you are comfortable with to build interactivity that you would want to see and use as an exhibit visitor! To help plan your “interactive moments,” ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How can you ensure the exhibit will help your audience feel like they’re part of the story? (i.e. keep their attention, build empathy)
  • Is there a moment in the exhibit where you’d like to build in a “pause,” or the vibe of the exhibit content changes suddenly? This is often a good spot for an interactive break.
  • Where can you use interactivity to help your visitor feel closer to the records, artefacts, and other sources you’ve included in your exhibit?

In the Eaton’s Goes to War exhibit, the AO team used a zoom tool to give users the opportunity to view individual portraits of solders close up (a rare opportunity!). We also included a form for users to submit stories of family or community members connected to the T. Eaton Company, which were collected in 2018 and are now included as part of the exhibit. These “interactive” moments gave (and continue to give) users different ways to connect with the content of this exhibit.

Curating in a digital space is very different than working in a physical gallery or museum, but many of the considerations and lessons remain. Narrative, tone, length, audience, and your “big idea” are all still important to understand, as are format, parameters, accessibility, and your voice as it comes across in the digital space. Remember: as the curator, your role is to help visitors make connections, hear new voices, and be inspired using the tools, inputs, and supports you have available!