WIlli Smith: Street Couture digital exhibition designed by Linked By Air. Courtesy Cooper Hewitt.

You don’t need me to remind you that just over two years have passed since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was March 11, 2020, and two days later the Cooper Hewitt was due to open Willi Smith: Street Couture, a major exhibition exploring the twenty-year career of the groundbreaking and multidisciplinary designer. As with public buildings across the country, Cooper Hewitt’s doors closed and IRL experiences were suspended for… well, nobody knew then. 

In the process of putting together the Willi Smith show, curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron and her team had also been preparing the Willi Smith Digital Community Archive. The website was built in collaboration with Cargo, the popular design-focused content management system, and would collect “personal recollections, new scholarship, video, and digital ephemera that contributes to a greater understanding of Smith’s life, work, and times” assembled with submissions from an open call. The site had been planned to launch on the day of the exhibition’s opening on the Upper East Side but as a result of the closure, according to Cunningham Cameron, “it became the de facto experience of the exhibition”. As with cultural institutions, the pandemic forced Cooper Hewitt to pay renewed attention to their online activities and, locked down in our homes, the viewing public sought out cultural experiences to stay engaged, for escape, for reassurance, for entertainment, for connection, etc. 

The outpouring of work was significant. There were live-streamed lectures and DJ sets, virtual vernissages, draining conferences, confusing interactive experiences, web-based workouts, endless new podcasts, Houseparties, Clubhouses, and a new catchphrase: Zoom fatigue. Amidst the flurry was also the rise of the virtual exhibition. Arts institutions began experimenting in earnest with new ways to show their collections and commission new work. The result, I would argue, was a truly fascinating period of cultural development on the web; complete with false starts and revelatory moments, and often circling around what we might mean by a “virtual” or “digital” exhibition in the first place. 

To take a few examples from the UK where I am based: Art UK launched Curations, a tool for anyone to “create an online exhibition”, choosing from the national art collection. Admittedly in this instance, an online exhibition was simply an image gallery but the intention was admirable as a tool for discovery nonetheless. A more focused example came from the Camden Art Centre whose The Botanical Mind exhibition was translated to a microsite in May 2020 and featured new artist commissions, podcasts, playlists, films, texts, and images exploring the significance of the plant kingdom to human life. Carefully thought through, the site was organized into chapters which, although fascinating and richly detailed, read like over-long blog posts at times. Elsewhere, the scale and ambition varied from VR-viewing rooms (see commercial art spaces like Frieze or David Zwirner) to more straightforward editorial projects (see the V&A’s excellent Pandemic Objects series). 

Running through these projects and the myriad others are some central questions, tensions even:  How does curation and exhibition design work on digital platforms? Can these URL spaces ever produce meaningful cultural or artistic experiences, or are they simply marketing tools for institutions? And what makes one thing a “digital exhibition” and another a mere website?

Which brings us back to Willi Smith. Not content with the Digital Community Archive alone, the Cooper Hewitt team commissioned designers Linked By Air to develop a digital exhibition that would not just bring the Willi Smith show to those who couldn’t visit New York, but also to create a platform that would allow Cooper Hewitt to stage more digital exhibitions in the years to come. 

It’s arguably in the distinction between these two sites—the original Community Archive and the later digital exhibition—that we see some of those tensions resolved, or at least elaborated. The former is distinctly archival. Visitors navigate freely through detailed thematic sections and the information is presented as a bulk much like a library: everything is here, it’s up to you to find it. The virtual exhibition, on the other hand, unfolds through an interplay of visitor choice and predetermined routes. On “arrival,” you choose a theme—say Film—and will be presented with two artifacts or objects to choose from. “You’re always in a room and there’s always two doors out of that room,” explains Dan Michaelson, a partner at Linked By Air. “You pick one and then you get another room, and there’s two more doors. Every visitor has a different path.”

This navigation design is deceptively simple, requiring narrative restraint and conscious subtraction to draw visitors along a specific route. It’s a marked contrast to typical web design which tends to facilitate access to as much information as possible as efficiently as possible: if I’m searching for the date of Bradley Cooper’s birthday, I know exactly where to look on Wikipedia; if I need to know the opening hours of my local pizzeria, the Shops page is there for me. To take this design approach back into an exhibition space would be akin to placing every object from the Willi Smith archive in a giant hall and giving each visitor a printed index. However, we know that exhibitions work in a different way. They’re built through narrative, objects are curated and placed in relation to each other and this broader narrative, allowing for choice, serendipity, distraction and a gradually unfolding experience. 

“Most people don’t systematically walk through the gallery and analyze each individual picture for the same amount of time and then move on to the next one,” says Michaelson. “In some way or another, you’re breezing through and pausing on the things that grab your attention. You’re making a choice about where to go next. We wanted to recreate that experience, but in a way that is uniquely digital.”

Crucial here is a prioritization of the objects on display, rather than the environment they sit in. Like the architecture of an IRL exhibition, the success of Linked by Air’s digital exhibition design is in its quietness. It serves to nudge and suggest in a way that is unobtrusive, almost virtuously boring. The simplicity of the interaction design and the strictly limited navigation options means that, while “passing through” the exhibition, I spend almost no time thinking about how to use the site. Rather, my attention is fixed on a Map Print Skirt, a runway show, the recollections of Lisa Yuskavage, and so on.

That this new platform for Cooper Hewitt should be unveiled with the Willi Smith show seems fitting. The exhibition design is well-suited to highlight the fashion designer’s collaborative, experimental nature and the way his work touched, influenced and responded to different cultural fields including film, performance and music. As Michaelson puts it, “whatever we built should be kind of a connection machine. It should let people go deeper into all of these different silos that he connected.” 

This applicability aside, the platform Linked by Air built for Cooper Hewitt is a template that will be applied to other digital exhibitions going forward, the next is Designing Peace which opens in the museum on June 10. The choice to invest in the digital exhibition infrastructure seems a wise one on the part of Cooper Hewitt and hints to one silver lining of the pandemic for them and similar cultural institutions. “The surge of digital exhibitions during the pandemic felt like organizations having the bandwidth and the need to do something in a way they would have liked to be thinking all along,” suggests Michaelson. The move towards digitization was clearly underway before COVID-19 hit—Cooper Hewitt began digitizing its collection in 2015—but the pandemic break allowed for the investment of museum resources, energy and attention into the infrastructure required for impactful cultural experiences online. 

Two benefits are clear and quite simple. One, the work on display can benefit from the multimedia capacities of a smartphone or computer. Two, audiences way beyond New York can “visit” the shows. In truth, I had never heard of Willi Smith before this commission and I couldn’t have visited the show at Cooper Hewitt. Now, from London, I go and I go back; and each time I encounter Willi Smith anew.