As part of my final dissertation for the Archives and Records Management program at University College Dublin, I embarked on development of an exhibition for the Irish Jesuit Archives (IJA). The IJA holds a fantastic and diverse collection of materials relating to the Irish Society of Jesus and their missions abroad, including a mission to Hong Kong from 1926-1970. The Hong Kong mission was specifically selected as the focus of the exhibition based on my personal interest and background in studying China. Crucially for the project, the IJA had never hosted an online exhibition previously and the lack of precedence offered an opportunity for me to develop something in a bit of a vacuum, with a great deal of freedom and flexibility to explore and develop external from any precedence established by the archive.
Development of the exhibition required significant flexibility from the outset. The archivist, Damien Burke, proved to be extremely enthusiastic about the project, bursting with ideas for potential themes, kindly suggesting possible useful resources and introduced me right away to the amazing photographic collection held at the IJA. It was important to me and to the project that the willingness of the IJA to participate and the flexibility and freedom to use the archive collections as necessary for the exhibition be reciprocated in the creation of something sustainable and usable for the archive beyond the project. Damien echoed this in expressing his wish for the exhibition design and format be created in a recyclable way, opening the possibility for future exhibitions, while limiting time and resource consumption of any already swamped solo archivist.
Exhibition front page.
With these initial thoughts, what began as an ambitious project to develop a single exhibition to showcase a collection from the IJA quickly evolved to become a more formidable task; development of a sustainable online exhibition platform coupled with an initial exhibition. This, in turn, helped shape the tone and theme of the exhibition. Keeping in mind the broader application of the platform in serving the entirety of the IJA collections, the desire for the platform to host future exhibitions, and my own experience in only recently becoming acquainted with the IJA and the Hong Kong collection, an introductory theme, focusing on different perspectives seemed most fitting. The exhibition title, Impressions of Hong Kong, was inspired by a chapter title in a book by Father Thomas J. Morrissey on the IJA in and around Hong Kong and my discovery of a number of writings by the participants in the mission who discussed the very different world they now found themselves living in.
Creation of the exhibition can be divided into two distinct parts, a less tangible development of exhibition narrative, relying heavily on interpretation of the selected materials, and a much more practical perspective focused solely on how to present and convey the information in the exhibition. In developing the exhibition narrative, I began with a selection of anecdotes from the collections relating to impressions of the mission participants in Hong Kong. Once the anecdotes had been selected I went through the photographic collection and selected images I felt corresponded to the anecdotes. Everything was then, combined and, then, recombined, until a cohesive narrative emerged. Notably, the photographs and anecdotes are not overtly related and were only combined through my intervention. I am especially excited about the conversations initiated between the photographs and the stories that offer a timelessness to the exhibition and, I hope, spark a conversation with contemporary viewers.
Development of the exhibition narrative was, by far, the most difficult aspect of the project for me. I was particularly concerned about the amount of my personal subjective influence that permeated the entire project. I made the decisions on what to include and what to exclude, down to how much of a quote to put into the exhibition. I contended with this subjectivity by attempting to ensure a thorough level of transparency for the project. I added both an ‘About the Exhibition’ and an ‘About the Creator’ section to the website to offer the exhibition audience greater context in understanding the exhibition to be only one perspective of many relating to only a small selection of a much larger collection.
Online exhibitions, in general, are relatively uncharted territory. To gain a better understanding of existing trends for archival exhibitions, I turned to examples; exploring existing exhibition websites from cultural institutions, including both museums and archives, on small and large scales. Through the broad variety of existing methods, from hosting through specific archival platforms, to custom-based websites, to reliance on the omnipresent popular online search platform, which hosts their own arts and culture section, I found an exhibition is more clearly identified by name than presentation in a very much ‘anything goes’ environment.
Based on the unique circumstances of the IJA collection and my desire to create something both functional and attractive for viewers, I took a chance and made the decision to create a custom website. My coding skills are negligible so I had to rely on a third-party platform to host the project. I see this decision as a chance because the third-party website had, to my knowledge, never been used for such a purpose, being generally more applicable to small online businesses, personal blogs and the like. Yet, the fully customizable nature of the website meant the only limit to developing an exhibition website using the platform was my imagination. The website I created was able to accommodate both of my hopes for the project, supporting an initial, pilot exhibition and providing the space and capacity to host future exhibitions, showcasing some really fantastic photographs and stories.
Creating an exhibition for the IJA proved to be a wonderfully creative process that pushed me to contend with and attempt to balance the loftier principles established by archival theory with the nitty gritty of archival practice. It is a difficult balance and I hope that the project, in the least, serves as one of many examples of attempting to address and consider two interconnected sides of the same field. Broadly, this project emphasized the multifaceted role of the archivist; the willingness and ability of an archivist to push boundaries, try new things and learn through creation to interact with and showcase the collections we work hard to preserve and provide access to.
 Thomas J. Morrissey, Jesuits in Hong Kong, South China and beyond: Irish Jesuit Mission – Its Development, 1926-2006 (Hong Kong: Xavier Publishing Association, 2008).
Arianna Shorey, Archivist
With thanks to the Heritage Council for supporting the IAR.