The Documentary Archives – Explorable Gallery

A common practice in documentary film is to  includes archival footage or photographs, supporting the main content of the piece. As mentioned in my early research, with Portrait Of An Artist, we were keen to find a way to incorporate these traditional aspects of documentary filmmaking in a way that suited the environment. We wanted to do this to provide the participant with more information after watching the interview, so that they could dive deeper into Colin’s story if they chose to. We also wanted to make the most of the original content that we had collected; to reveal information that they may have not heard before or seen before. As Nicholas (p13, 2007) writes,

“Documentary films stand for a particular view of the world, one we may never have encountered before even if the factual aspects of this world are familiar to us.”

Indeed, although many of Colin’s paintings are well known to some, the context and thoughts behind of the paintings are not. We wanted to use this platform to share those lesser known stories, which are an integral backstory to the interview element of our piece.

In order to do provide the viewer with these stories and additional information to support the interview, there were a number of things to consider. Firstly, there is the written text that the viewer can read and secondly, there are the audio clips of Colin speaking about the work. This post focuses on the work I did writing for the each of the gallery sections.

Writing for the Gallery – Exhibition Research

Before I began writing for the gallery sections, I researched gallery content best practices. I had previously done a good deal of research into the design of the spaces and typography in the space, so I took a look back to understand how content is curated in those spaces. There is a clear typographical hierarchy of information in gallery spaces, which are designed to be read as the viewer moves closer or further away from the work.

I took a look at different styles of exhibition content, and spent time reading the text that accompanied the pieces. In the Behind The Mask exhibition, the biggest collection of BAFTA-winning actor portraiture ever assembled to take over entire west wing of Somerset House (BAFTA, 2013), the text is broken into three short one line sentences. It explains who the exhibition is by, a general description of what it’s about, and finally a little more detail about the content. The simplicity of the language is very readable, for any audience; it’s short and to the point.


A different approach can be seen in the Inspirational People of The Law Exhibition (2015) at Newcastle University. In this piece, there is simply one short paragraph explaining exactly what the exhibition is under the large title.


For our piece, the struggle that I was having was knowing wether to focus on the content of the exhibition that we are creating, which is a collection of Colin Davidson’s work through his life, or to introduce the exhibition in the broader context of Portrait of The Artst, a VR documentary experience. After looking at these examples amongst others, I decided to focus on the exhibition of Colin’s work, rather than mentioning the VR experience. The exhibition of Colin’s work is part of the experience, so the viewer should not be taken out of that world, with a reminder of the fact that they are in VR. If we were to show a panel describing the broader context of Portrait of The Artist, that would fit in a display for our final year project at the exhibition rather than within the piece.

In light of all of this, I wrote a short and simple summary of the gallery to introduce the participant the the space as they walk in:

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Writing For the Gallery – Content Research

Having figured out the goals of the gallery’s introductory text, I took a look at some advice on best practice for gallery writing by the Victoria And Albert Museum, London (Trench, 2013). Not only does the writing need to be clear and informative, it needs to actually engage the reader. As Trench writes, “to appeal to readers and visitors, text also needs personality, life and rhythm.” Gallery Text At The V&A sets out ten top tips to create great content:

  • Write for your audience
  • Stick to the text hierarchy and word count
  • Organise your information
  • Engage with the object
  • Admit uncertainty
  • Bring in the human element
  • Sketch in the background
  • Write as you would speak
  • Construct your text with care
  • Remember Orwell’s Six Rules

Write As You would Speak & Bring in The Human Elements

There were a few areas of this advice that was more relevant than others, so I took nuggets of information from the document to help inform my work. For example, the advice to “bring in the human element” and “write as you would speak”, was particularly interesting, as I had struggled to choose what tone I should be writing in. I had previously thought about quite a formal text to accompany the work, as I feel like that’s what I ‘m used to seeing in galleries. However, this can be quite dry to read as a viewer. This research challenges that thought, and encourages the practice of connecting with the audience. As Trench writes,

“We know from the Getty and other research that people connect with people. This presents a problem in museums, where objects have been divorced from people. But there are ways we can reconnect people and objects.”

Trench goes on the explain ways of connecting people with the work, for example, using humour, relating the work to present day concerns, link the past and the present, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and using quotations are all different methods.

With this in mind, I used a variety of these methods to write for certain panels. In the Portraits gallery, I only used a quotation to tell the story behind the work. The decision to do this rests upon the research to connect the viewer to the work. As well as this, the idea of “common humanity” is a fundamental theme in Colin’s work, so I wanted this idea to stand alone, and not be cluttered by any other information.

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In Silent Testimony, I used present day concerns and linked the past and the present in the text. The idea of loss is something that nearly everyone can connect with. Similarly, conflict is something that is sadly something we can all relate to. By connecting

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In the Where It All Began panel, I used the advice to write for the audience, write as you would speak and brought in the human element. This section could easily have been a factual panel about Colin’s degree in art, and his design firm. With the research in mind, I used it to tell a story. I used the hierarchy of text to draw the reader in with a mildly surprising sentence, “Colin Davidson wasn’t always planning on painting”. I then went on to recall a colloquial story that Colin shared.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 17.50.18.pngWrite for your audience & Stick to the text hierarchy and word count

Throughout the process, I was very cautious of not overfilling the piece with text. In virtual reality, I had discovered that is is not enjoyable to read large bodies of text, so in the earlier design of the space, I tested placeholders to see what was the right word count to structure the text against.

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Having this placeholder to work with was really important in writing for the gallery, as it forced me to write with the confines of a word count. As I had previously tested and researched, I used typographical hierarchies to draw the viewer in. The practice of being succinct is a tough one, so I really had to consider every single word, and question if if were necessary or not. I wrote everything in a word document and then tweaked the text to fit in Illustrator, refining and refining until I had the text as short as possible.

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As Trench writes,

These word limits don’t restrict the amount of information that most visitors absorb. Instead, they increase it. In a gallery or exhibition, less really is more.

She goes on to highlight that there is a real difference between the complexity of information that can be gained through an exhibition and that which is suitable for a book. For this reason, each of the spaces were limited to a certain number of words. If I could communicate the message in less, that was even better. For example, in the Sketches section, I felt the this short paragraph was plenty.

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Placing in the Space & Oculus Testing


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Finally, I placed the new textures in the space, testing that they worked along the way. I then packaged the textures to be replaced in the master scene, where we were able to try it in the oculus.

We were really pleased with how this turned out, and felt that they had just enough information. The next step is adding the audio triggers and cutting together the narration.


Nicholas, B. (2007) Introduction To Documentary. In: Anon.Introduction To Documentary. 2nd ed. Indiana University Press, 13-20.

BAFTA (11 December 2013) BAFTA and Andy Gotts MBE to Exhibit ‘Behind The Mask’ Photography. BAFTA. Available from: [Accessed 08/05/2016].

Anon (2015) About the exhibition. Newcastle University: Newcastle Law School. Available from:!about-the-exhibition/c1w7n [Accessed 08/05/2016].

Trench, L. (2013) Gallery Text At The V&A. London: V&A Museum. Available from: [Accessed 08/05/2016].


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