Jesse Merandy is director of Bard Graduate Center’s Digital Media Lab. He is expected to receive his PhD in English from the City University of New York this year after completing the Graduate Center’s first entirely digital dissertation—a mobile game based on Walt Whitman. Below he talks about his collaboration with the late Professor David Jaffee, who curated New York Crystal Palace 1853, and the students in Jaffee’s course, on the exhibition’s digital components.

How would you describe the exhibition?

The New York Crystal Palace 1853 exhibition transports visitors back to New York’s first World’s Fair which opened on July 23, 1853 in a remarkable glass and iron edifice built on the current site of Bryant Park. The exhibition explores the goods, sculptures, and exhibits that were on display, as well as the experiences of those who visited the site until it was destroyed by fire in 1858.

As part of the Focus Project series at the Bard Graduate Center, David Jaffee, who passed away in January, began developing the exhibition concept and content in his New York Crystal Palace course held in spring 2016 while also coordinating with the Focus Team, which includes members of the gallery curatorial and exhibition design staff, the digital media lab, the art department, publications, and academic programs. In initial strategy meetings pertaining to the digital elements of the project, it was clear that David envisioned this exhibition as an extension of the scholarship and work that had already been done for his 2014 Focus Project, Visualizing 19th-Century New York. However, he also viewed it as an independent, self-contained project that would offer a unique lens through which to examine the emergence of New York City as a center of urban culture and consumption.

I began working with David and his students on the digital elements for the exhibition very early on and had the pleasure of visiting his class on several occasions to review and discuss the prototypes they were developing. With the ambitious scope and important role laid out for the digital interactives during these visits, it was obvious how invested David was in this project and his students’ work. Even after he became ill late in the fall of 2016, he maintained that dedication and continued to work through issues and resolve questions, taking meetings and phone calls whenever he could. It all seemed so inconsequential in comparison to what he was going through, but he never treated it that way; he was completely devoted to realizing this project. At one point I even lightly recommended that we scale back portions of the interactive to make it easier for him, but he wouldn’t have it. It was inspiring to witness that passion and fight. It was definitely a sentiment I sought to honor as I continued working on the project.

How does the digital publication relate to the exhibition? What was the impetus behind its creation?

For this exhibition, each of the digital interactive elements were conceptualized and produced as an interrelated set of stand-alone components which, taken together, constitute the digital publication. This collective serves multiple purposes for the exhibition. First, the digital publication presents visitors with a wealth of important materials and information that reinforces the central themes of the exhibition while also covering aspects that would be difficult to convey solely through the objects on display. For instance, the interactive, “A Stroll Through the Crystal Palace” allows users to navigate through Frederick J. Pilliner’s 1854 engraving of the Crystal Palace interior while learning more about select items featured throughout the panoramic image. This digital component gives users insight into the density and organization of display inside of the Crystal Palace, reinforcing the arrangement of objects in the gallery, while it providing an understanding of the enormous scale and the social nature of the fair.

Another important function of the digital publication is its ability to extend the exhibition outside of the gallery space. Online, the publication becomes a lasting archive of the show and serves as a valuable educational resource. It provides those who visited the gallery with an avenue to continue exploring the exhibition at their own pace and for those who could not attend, it offers an opportunity to explore the rich content for the first time. Finally, a key driver behind the creation of the digital publication was that it would serve as a vehicle for students to publish their research. Forgoing a traditional print exhibition catalogue, David felt strongly about supporting emerging scholars and using the digital publication as a powerful delivery platform. Ultimately, nearly all the research and text produced for the publication, from the interactive hotspot texts to the more in-depth essays, was written by students.

Describe the other digital components accompanying the exhibition.

From the outset, David was incredibly enthusiastic about the the ways in which digital interactive components could capture the experiential aspects of the New York Crystal Palace. He wanted to to think through the objects on display in the exhibition to contemplate what it was like to walk within the Crystal Palace and on the surrounding streets. The audio tours for the exhibition attempt to create that human entry point through the perspectives of three unique voices: famed poet Walt Whitman, who visited the fair often during its existence, and the two fictional characters of Aunt Kitty, a visitor from rural Pennsylvania, and Philip DeGrasse, an African American porter living in Seneca village. Through these tours, visitors are able to learn more about the objects within the gallery as well as the important historic and social context embedded within them.

The interactive “A Visitor’s Companion” is modeled after nineteenth-century illustrated newspapers and is a playful nod to the guidebooks which were popular for visitors to the Crystal Palace. Through its three sections, “The Crystal Palace Building,” “The Latting Observatory,” and “What To Do And Transportation,” users are able to learn about the history and inspiration for the Crystal Palace and also discover more about the entertainment and transportation surrounding the fair. It also serves, along with the previously mentioned “Stroll Through the Crystal Palace,” to echo the dichotomy of interior and exterior space established by the exhibition design.

Finally, the student essays, which are joined by the exhibition object catalogue and bibliography, give an in-depth reflection on the Crystal Palace as a new kind of urban spectacle. The impressive collection examines everything from the innovations in technology, transportation, clothing, and display to the fair souvenirs and awards. This is, in many ways, the heart of the digital publication and the research core which extends out into all other aspects of the gallery.

How were students involved in their creation?

David was a constant advocate of his students’ work and he championed their involvement in nearly all aspects of the exhibition from the early brainstorming and interactive prototyping to the research, development, and final content production. During his New York Crystal Palace course, David collaborated with his students to shape the concepts and contents of the exhibition while simultaneously presenting them with an opportunity to develop hands-on experience in exhibition design. At the conclusion of the course, the blueprints for the majority of the exhibition, including the digital interactives and the students’ essays, were already in place and ready for the next stages of development with the Focus Team.

One of the most remarkable experiences of working with students on this project occurred after he became too ill to continue with the exhibition. With a great deal of work remaining to be done on the digital interactives, including additional research and content development, several of the the students who worked on the project during the course returned to see it through to its conclusion and realize the vision that they had laid out together. Although a difficult task, and often an emotional one, it was a challenge that was embraced with integrity and compassion, and will always remain a moving tribute to David’s impact as a teacher and scholar.