An online exhibition looking back over 20 years of Theater Aan Zee

Inspired by the 20th edition of its Ostend theatre festival in 2016, Theater Aan Zee (TAZ) decided to look back at its past. Er TAZ Eens is an online exhibition that takes visitors on a journey looking back at 20 years of TAZ from various perspectives. This report explains how TAZ got started.

Status

  • Preliminary process (spring 2014 – February 2015)
  • Grant application for cultural heritage development project (January - February 2015)
  • Digital exhibition development with MOVIO (November 2015 – May 2016)
  • Digital exhibition launch (June 2016)

Problem

TAZ wanted to tell and visualise their own unique history at the twentieth edition of the festival in 2016, so they started a preliminary process to map out and centralise their archive, and enthusiastic volunteers drew up an inventory at item level under guidance from Het Firmament. The steps that TAZ took in the preliminary process provided the organisation with a clear picture of their archive, which formed the basis for their further archival ambitions. These ambitions were developed in more detail by a working group comprised of TAZ employees, former TAZ programmers, former TAZ laureates and a number of project partners, and an artistic core within this broad working group determined what archive content was valuable for storage and what should be made accessible to the public. To do this, they discussed various methods for making the content accessible and who the target audiences would be. Among other things, they decided to make the content available in an online digital exhibition. TAZ wanted to do this so that the general public – as well as researchers, employees, students, journalists and the arts and heritage sector – could find out about the festival’s past. They wanted to raise awareness of Theater Aan Zee’s history and drum up more support. This practical example describes how the online exhibition was developed.

Method

  1. Develop project proposal
  2. Gain insights into MOVIO software
  3. Build exhibition structure
  4. Collect archive content and data
  5. Import data in the software
  6. Curate exhibition

1. Develop project proposal

The first step was to develop a project proposal, and TAZ sought additional funds within the Cultural Heritage Decree because the multi-year grant they had been awarded as part of the Arts Decree was not sufficient to put on an online exhibition. TAZ made prior agreements with several partners, and ErTAZeens was therefore created in collaboration with Het Firmament, PACKED vzw, Kunstenpunt (Flanders Arts Institute), VIAA, the City of Ostend’s Department of Culture, the Provincial Archives of West Flanders (link in Dutch) and supported by the Flemish Government as a cultural heritage development project. The project application consisted of two parts:

  1. Develop a digitisation process to provide the digital exhibition with the right content.
  2. An accessibility process to present the digital content to the public.

Read more about a TAZ employee’s experience of developing the project proposal in the report (in Dutch) from the TRACKS meeting in 2015.

2. Gain insights into MOVIO software

We compared various presentation options at the start of the exhibition project and ultimately opted for MOVIO, a CMS system developed as part of the European AthenaPlus project. It had to be a simple web tool that could create digital exhibitions and display different information sources (e.g. images, text and video) in a variety of ways: on a map, with a timeline, in a photo gallery...1 Theater Aan Zee did not need to pay any installation or licensing costs and could adapt the program code itself (in theory) because the software is free and open source.2 Project partner PACKED vzw also co-managed the AthenaPlus work package in which MOVIO was developed, and was in touch with the software developers. Several museums in Flanders and Brussels had already used MOVIO to create digital exhibitions, but TAZ was the first arts organisation to work with it.

PACKED vzw provided training in December 2015 to teach TAZ employees how to use the software. This training explained all the functionalities, layout modules and page templates, and looked at a number of example exhibitions. We also tested the feasibility of the first concepts that TAZ had already developed for the exhibition. This showed that some modifications to the software code and exhibition were required to achieve some of the desired functionalities.

3. Build exhibition structure

3.1 Designing the story

Once we knew what was possible with MOVIO, we set up the digital exhibition story. TAZ had the ambition of providing a picture of each edition of the festival, such as a description of each laureate and the main guest, highlights, typical locations and key figures’ recollections – all supplemented with photographs and visual materials. They also wanted to show their history and the context in which it was created. The performances programmed at TAZ were central to this story.

3.2 Outlining the data structure

They then considered what aspects the exhibition would be comprised of and how they were connected. One of MOVIO’s special modules is its ontology builder, which makes it possible to connect all the different elements of the exhibition together. This means you can easily see which performances a particular actor appeared in, for example, or which performances took place at a specific location. It clearly shows the links between the different editions, festival categories, genres, performances, (performing) artists, organisations and locations, and makes all the information in the digital exhibition convenient and searchable.

TAZ arrived at a structure by drawing a diagram of all the data on offer at the exhibition with an overview of all the relevant entities (e.g. show, performer, location). They were then able to make the connections between the different entities and produce the following plan:

The data structure for every production

This overview shows the information that had to be collected for each production. Every production is allocated a genre, TAZ category, location, edition, company, director, text and performers.

The test set-up, however, showed that MOVIO didn’t support the desired structure because it’s not possible to search for text in different fields, so you can’t search for people across the different fields (director, text, etc.), for example. It was therefore decided to add people in MOVIO without indicating their roles, and to use HTML to add the various fields so that this information could still be included.

3.3 Developing the website structure

We then considered what the various pages should look like, what structure they should have, and how they could be linked together. This was also worked out in a diagram as it’s an easy way to communicate with project employees and web builders who need to work together to develop the website.

Home page structure
Structure of the editions overview page
Edition details page
History page structure
Report page structure

This structure was then tested using the 2015 festival edition. We created and linked together all the pages in MOVIO before adding the 2015 content. Then, once we were happy with the result, we did the same for all the other festival editions.

4. Collect archive content and data

We collected data and archive content from the previous 20 years based on the above model. Most of this was done in the preliminary process. Among other things, we appealed to employees, partners and members of the public to locate any lost archives. The archive was then centralised in the TAZ archive area, where a number of volunteers described it at item level. We also centralised the digital archive that was stored on various carriers, and saved it on the server following a trash day. This meant TAZ knew exactly what was in the archive and what was missing.

4.1 Collecting data per production

TAZ decided to set up an archive database to collect all the data per production. They added data from the old and new website, brochures, etc. so that everything that had to be imported in MOVIO was saved in the same place – all the data from different sources (such as brochures, flyers and texts from the website’s CMS) was centralised. The TAZ performance was the central element in the database that all the people, companies, locations and other sources of information were linked to.

We based the data structure on the data that was required for the digital exhibition:

Database structure. 1 = unique field, L = list, HTML = text with layout.

Eight volunteers manually entered all this data for the period 1997-2006, and data for performances from the period 2007-2015 was retrieved from the TAZ website CMS. TAZ developed an import module for this, and volunteers then cleaned the data up.

Because volunteers were able to easily process lots of information in a short space of time, the database was kept simple with only a few restrictions imposed: there were only a few required fields, and most entry fields were free text. Various similar data (e.g. multiple actors taking part in a production) could be entered in a single text field instead of separate fields, although this had the drawback that the TAZ employees had to do extra work checking each record for spelling mistakes and the accuracy and correctness of names of performers and companies.

4.2 Digitisation

A server crash at Tourism Ostend vzw resulted in TAZ only having a few digital documents from the first years of the festival, so volunteers digitised posters, flyers, programmes and photos from this period. We drew up a user guide in advance, with agreements about quality requirements for the scans and how to name files. Scans were created in Uncompressed Baseline IBM TIFF v6.0 at a resolution of 600 PPI and A4 size, before being converted into compressed PDFs for each publication so they could be looked up on the website.


We used OCR software to digitise the programmes. In this process, a scanner creates an image of each document, and any text in the image is converted into editable text so you don’t need to retype it all yourself. This took longer than expected because there were lots of mistakes in the OCR text that needed correcting. Errors in OCR text can be caused by various reasons, such as a font that the software doesn’t recognise, text on a background with a similar colour so the letters aren’t clearly identifiable, or the quality of the OCR software itself.

The audiovisual archive consisted of 110 Betacam SPs that were created to put together a daily festival journal in the first editions of the festival. We labelled and inventoried the cassettes together with Flanders Arts Institute (Kunstenpunt), and VIAA digitised the carriers in 2015.

4.3 Linking with external data from the Flanders Arts Institute database

TAZ was able to enrich the exhibition with data from the Flanders Arts Institute database. This database, established by VTi (Institute for the Performing Arts in Flanders, now Flanders Arts Institute), contains information about productions, organisations and performers in the field of Flemish performing arts. It enables visitors to the digital exhibition to see additional details about performances and performers that have appeared at TAZ. TAZ received an export of the complete Flanders Arts Institute database for this. They used various sources, including Wikipedia and company websites – to check all the names it contained because some individuals had been listed twice or had misspelled names – before using permanent links to connect all this data with their own database.

The link to the Sara Vertongen poster in the Flanders Arts Institute database was included in the TAZ digital exhibition so the general public could easily find more background information about this actor.

5. Importing data in the software

TAZ imported the data from their database into MOVIO, and developed a new custom import module for this because there wasn’t one available in MOVIO. This meant they could import the various editions of TAZ one at a time, which wasn’t experienced as a problem because the festival continues to grow from one edition to the next. The amount of data per edition was also so large that the web interface couldn’t import all the editions at once. The digital exhibition did not include any content for which the rights had not been cleared.

The method for importing the TAZ archive database (column 1) in the MOVIO presentation tool (column 2). MOVIO limitations meant that similar fields in the archive were combined into a single field with layout in MOVIO (column 3) to simplify searching.
The links between the fields in MOVIO.

6. Curate exhibition

Once all the data had been collected, we could build the digital exhibition. A working group first selected the content to be used in the exhibition, holding in-depth interviews with key figures and TAZ employees to properly map the history of TAZ.

We contacted rightsholders to clear rights and provide access to photographs, posters, brochures, etc. – and drew up various themes and itineraries to present the exhibition to the general public:

Itinerary overview page
  1. An initial itinerary runs through the various editions of TAZ, which visitors can view by following a timeline. This presents the history of each edition, just like for the latest work and full programme, supplemented with photos, posters, brochures, press articles and judge panel reports.
  2. ‘History’, the second itinerary, puts a number of elements of TAZ’s history in the picture and places them in a historical perspective. Among other things, this provides an overview of all the main guests and the latest work, and shows the various locations where TAZ shows have been performed over 20 years.
  3. Finally, there’s the ‘Stories’ itinerary, which showcases reports, memories and anecdotes about the festival. Among other things, you can watch videos from the TAZ archive on YouTube as well as Focus-WTV6 videos. The digital exhibition includes clips and interviews with key figures and volunteers who have worked on the various editions. TAZettes, daily papers that were published for each edition, were also digitised and posted online.

Results

What were the outcomes?

  • The ErTAZeens digital exhibition | 20 years of TAZ was created from the TAZ archive. Adding content from the latest edition to the exhibition every year ensures the festival continues to be well documented.
  • Valuable documents have been digitised and saved on the archive server. VIAA digitised video cassettes, with rights on the documents being cleared where possible.
  • TAZ’s anniversary plans proved to be an excellent opportunity to address their own archive’s basic management. They drew up an overview of their archive, set up an archive area, and developed a new directory structure. They also organised a trash day to clean up the digital archive. It is, after all, difficult to change how the archive is used without first undertaking these steps. All this resulted in TAZ have a well organised archive, and the employees have built up the knowledge required to manage the archive moving forward. The new guidelines have also been recorded in user guides.
  • The TAZ archive database was archived in the platform-independent XML format after processing the 2016 edition. This means the data can be imported in different database software programs, regardless of which database software is currently being used.

== What results is TAZ still aiming to achieve?

  • In the discussions with Flanders Arts Institute about sharing data, we agreed to supplement their performing arts database with data from the TAZ database. TAZ received the data from Flanders Arts Institute, but checking and linking it all is taking longer because it has to connect with two databases with different structures, i.e. the arts database and the music database.
  • Data that was only entered in MOVIO, such as reports and histories, will also be included in the TAZ archive database. To do this, the data first needs to be converted in a structured way.

Observations and points for attention

  • The communication with the developers wasn’t as smooth as expected.
  • It is not possible to create permanent links in MOVIO. If the MOVIO database needs rebuilding for one reason or another, each item needs to be given a new ID number and so also a new URL. To avoid this, TAZ included its own permanent link in the HTML formatting for the MOVIO pages that could be retained in the event of a new MOVIO layout or the digital exhibition migrating to another environment.
  • MOVIO does not allow you to analyse website traffic, so TAZ added a module to register visitor data.
  • The archive database entry module was set up to have few restrictions for volunteers, and to allow text to be entered in free text fields. This required lots of manual work by the TAZ employees who had to check each poster one by one for spelling mistakes and accuracy.

Author: Nastasia Vanderperrren (meemoo)

TRACKS is a collaboration between these partners: