Online exhibitions: galleries in the lockdown


    Over our 19 years of operation, Surface Impression has produced many online exhibitions for our cultural sector clients. Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, we have had numerous enquiries from organizations seeking to “move” exhibitions from the physical to the digital domain. This page presents a selection of examples from our recent work in the field…

    Arts Etobicoke

    Produced quickly in response to the Covid-19 lockdown, this online exhibition presents work submitted to an open exhibition run by Arts Etobicoke, a dynamic community arts organization in Toronto, Canada. The exhibition uses a 3D model to simulate the space of their gallery, and to replicate the hanging of the artwork that had been selected by the open exhibition’s judges. Alongside the 3D version, there is a catalogue of the selected works, including video clips provided by the artists, that help viewers to understand the people behind the art. We also created a section where visitors to the site can see all submissions to the open, and make a new curatorial selection, which is then displayed as their own online gallery.  

    An interior view of a virtual, 3D, copy of the Arts Etobicoke gallery

    The online exhibition was made to look very different from the main Arts Etobicoke website, to give visitors a sense that they’re in a new mode of engagement while in the “gallery”. However, the online exhibition uses the same content management system (WordPress) and hosting as the main site, allowing for cost-effective, speedy deployment.

    The Lost Collection

    This online exhibition explores the art collection of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland (1600-1649) and the private gallery that he created to display it at the Palace of Whitehall in London. Charles was an enthusiastic collector and he bought works by Renaissance greats such as Titian, Raphäel and Rembrandt. When Charles was executed in 1649, the collection was broken up and the pieces are now found in museums and private galleries throughout the world. Whitehall Palace itself burned to the ground in 1698. 

    A 3D model depicting a Tudor / Stuart era interior filled with Renaissance paintings

    Surface Impression was commissioned by The Royal Collections Trust (the body that manages the British Royal Family’s art collections) to help digitally “reconstruct” the private gallery of Charles, using two historic inventories of the art, and archaeological evidence for the lost palace. The result are 3D spaces that show the most likely hanging and environment for the works, alongside catalogue information, historical context and other interpretation. The design of the online exhibition has been tailored to fit with the look and feel of the main Royal Collection Trust site and branding.

    Shaping Our Sorrow

    This online exhibition, commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, takes a narrative approach to exploring the social, cultural and creative processes that went into establishing war graves, and the conventions of remembrance, following the end of the First World War in 1918. Framed around the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – the exhibition weaves photographs, architectural plans, biographies, archival documents and video into a rich narrative that can be followed in a linear or a “random access” fashion. Features include archival documents that can be explored in detail, with zoomable and annotated pages, overlays that progressively reveal the stages of design from sketch to building and “pop out” biographies of key people referenced in the story.

    Theme page from website titled Anger

    A History of Place

    Surface Impression designed and built the History of Place website – a National Lottery Heritage Fund supported project that explores the connection between disability and architecture throughout British history. As part of the website, we created a “story viewer” to deliver online exhibits that focus on particular themes.

    A web page with a medieval drawing of a city surrounding a cathedral alongside some descriptive text

    Each story enters a full screen view when scrolled into, removing all distractions and allowing the site visitor to concentrate on the content of the exhibit. Interaction with the exhibition is triggered by further scrolling – as the screen is scrolled, different images, panels, quotes and other elements are brought into view in a clear sequence. Audio is used for soundscapes or to provide a narrative enhancement.

    In their absence

    The International Committee on Missing Persons had planned to stage an exhibition of the films, posters, brochures and other media products produced by Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) at an international conference. However, once the pandemic hit, they were forced to move the display online. Surface Impression was able to process the media products and arrange them into virtual “panels”, complete with both english and arabic captions. The exhibition showcases some of the amazing work produced by organizations in and around Syria to help people find their missing loved ones.

    A screenshot of a home page featuring exhibition panels arranged in 3D

    Outside In

    We have been working with Outside In since 2009 and taken their site through several iterations. Outside In is a charity that “provides a platform for artists who face significant barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation.” As well as giving artists spaces to make their own (2D) online gallery spaces, we recently introduced a fully 3D virtual gallery – now “hung” with an inaugural group exhibition.

    A view of a 3D gallery in the Outside In site showing four paintings in one corner of the virtual space. Alongside this, text describes the exhibition and its artists.

    Sharing Nature

    Online exhibitions do not have to stand apart from other gallery activities. For example, Surface Impression designed and developed a multi-platform digital exhibit system for the Wellcome Collection’s A Museum of Modern Nature exhibition. On a fortnightly promotional schedule, members of the public were invited to share photos relating to a given “nature” theme (e.g. “wild”, “dead”, “green”) via hashtags on social media (twitter, instagram and facebook) as well as a web-based form. Following moderation and curatorial selection through a custom control panel, submissions were then displayed in an online exhibition. At the same time, the same images were shown at the Wellcome Collection’s gallery in London via a large back-projected screen that was integrated into the physical exhibition.

    Once selected, the images on display were used to invite further interaction from visitors (both online and in-gallery). Viewers were asked to answer questions about the chosen photographs through a “swipe left / swipe right” interface. The data generated through this activity was used to determine which pieces most resonated with each fortnight’s theme and the public.

    Modern Poetry in Translation: 50th Anniversary

    Online exhibitions do not always have to be focused on visual art. Surface Impression produced an online exhibit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, a poetry journal founded by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort to showcase the best poetry from around the world to English speaking audiences. Presenting the first ever issue as an artefact, the site allows viewers to navigate between page and poet, poem and page, exploring the richness and context of the publication. An important feature of the presentation is a “distraction free reading” button, that removes all clutter from the page, allowing the reader to enjoy the poem as a stand-alone item.

    A simple page containing a poem

    What makes a good online exhibition?

    Having continually worked with cultural sector institutions since we were founded back in 2001, we have produced many different digital projects that fall under the banner of online exhibitions. This has given us a depth of experience to help our clients create effective and engaging digital exhibits. We have learned that the following ingredients are necessary:

    • The exhibit should be distinct from the main website
    • There should be a strong curatorial “voice”
    • The creative works should be displayed as large as possible
    • Layout and interaction should work well on both mobile and desktop formats

    Our specialist skills and experience will help you produce a unique online exhibit, while also tailoring the project to suit your budgets and timescales. Working with Surface Impression will result in a beautiful and engaging online exhibition that maximises the potential of the creative works on display and fulfills organisational objectives. 

    Get in touch with us

    Reach out to our team to discuss your ideas and/or requirements further…

    UK / Europe

    Sally Moorhouse


    Surface Impression Ltd.

    [email protected]

    Canada / USA

    Dr. Amy Hetherington


    Surface Impression (Canada) Ltd.

    [email protected]