Exhibition websites are a tricky endeavour. Despite the fact that most major museums and galleries now produce microsites to accompany both large and small exhibitions, far too often these websites are banal and fail to offer an experience that exploits the potential of digital media and can exist outside of the context of the physical exhibition. Culture Chanel, a touring exhibition organized by the National Art Museum of China, was the impetus for the creation of a new Chanel microsite that explores the luxury brand’s history and places the iconic designs of its founder, Coco Chanel, in the context of the artistic and literary worlds of which she was a part. More than just marketing for the show, the Culture Chanel website is a compelling resource, one that is equally as engaging for those who have visited the exhibition and for those who will not have an opportunity to catch it in person.
The main component of the microsite, a 3-dimensional space reminiscent of a cityscape, invites visitors to navigate the exhibition’s five themes – origin, abstraction, invisibility, liberty, and imaginary – by clicking on Chanel logos to delve deeper into each section’s content. Rather than present the material chronologically, curator Jean-Louis Froment has organized the exhibition’s more than 400 objects into these thematic categories to offer a reflective exploration of the origins of the fashion house, and to trace how it has evolved into one of the most covetable luxury brands in the world. Relating Chanel’s creations to the art and literature that inspired her is an intelligent approach and extremely revealing. Beside works from such celebrated artists as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, we are able to witness new dimensions of Chanel’s designs and Froment contributes a critical weight to what is often considered to be a commercial endeavour. As the website is so rich with content, it often can take awhile to load, so only plan to visit when you have more than a few moments to spare.
Culture Chanel is so refreshing because it was conceived and executed as an entity in its own right that can exist beyond its relationship to the physical space of the exhibition. It is not about the exhibition, in a sense it is the exhibition. Of course no mediated view can replicate the experience of actually seeing art and design objects in person, yet what Culture Chanel does so well is create an experience that is entirely different than that of attending a museum, one that can only exist in the digital realm.