The numbers tell a story about DePaul University’s first virtual historical exhibition, Saint-Lazare as a Women’s Prison: 1794-1932.

The 26-page narrative is broken into eight parts; each part includes a video averaging four minutes long. Special “footnote stories” bring the total page count to 52 and video running time to 65 minutes. “Zoom in” maps — each one originally huge (31”x 21”) — were scanned in parts and then put back together in photo shop. Six galleries contain 326 gorgeous images (many rare, of-the-time photographs and illustrations). Finally, the site includes 258 links to relevant sites and 36 downloadable documents.
 
Clearly, this was a labor of love.

Rev. Edward R. Udovic, C.M., the exhibition’s curator, explains the exhibition’s genesis and importance: “Traditionally, libraries — as well as museums and archives — highlight their collections through exhibitions, which require long periods of planning, preparation, interpretation,  and installation. Not surprisingly, the process of mouthing an exhibition is time-consuming and costly. Then, after a few weeks, or months, on public display, an exhibition ends, is quickly disassembled, and fades into memory.
 
"The new world of information technology promises to transform these traditional exhibitions in ways that we could barely dream of only a few years ago. A ‘virtual’ exhibition also requires a huge effort, but it offers a singular advantage over its ‘real’ counterpart: it never has to go away, it never has to disappear. In fact, a ‘virtual’ exhibition can be — and should be — continually updated to stand as a testament to a particular collection’s scholarly and research potential.”
 
A Showcase for a World-class Collection
 
The exhibition, Saint-Lazare as a Women’s Prison: 1794-1932, explores a fascinating chapter in the long history of Saint-Lazare, the famous motherhouse of the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) in Paris. Originally founded as a leprosarium in 1122 far outside the city gates, the complex served as the Vincentian mother house from 1632 until 1792.  Confiscated by the revolutionary government, the complex became an infamous women’s prison from 1794 until its closure in 1932.

DePaul’s archives include world-class and unique Vincentiana the result of a 15-year ambitious program to collect manuscripts, rare books, out-of-print and new titles, journals, archival sources, and material culture. Saint-Lazare as a Women’s Prison: 1794-1932 is the first example of a commitment — shared by the Institute, the Richardson Library, and the Archives and Special Collections department — to make these “hidden” collections available in digital formats and virtual exhibits. The platform housing this inaugural exhibit provides the template for future efforts.
 
“By creating from scratch a world-class Vincentian collection, we have become the premier international source for Vincentian research and scholarship,” says Fr. Udovic. “And the best way to make these materials available, to as many people as possible, for scholarly and popular use is via the Web.”
 
“Best of Everything”
 
According to Fr. Udovic, virtual exhibitions will never completely replace traditional exhibitions, but they do offer a display possibility not available to traditional exhibitions:
 
“They are available worldwide to countless people who would never ordinarily have the opportunity to see them. And they can be viewed 24x7, from anywhere, anytime. Every museum, special collections, archives, and libraries with exhibitions as part of their mission are exploring some form of this new format.”
 
“This isn’t just a website — it’s the convergence of text, images, and recordings into a format that’s interactive,” says Brian Cicirello, Instructional Technology Consultant from the Office of Mission and Values and the project’s producer.
 
“We say we ‘populate’ the exhibition because it will never be ‘finished’ — we’ll always be refreshing, enhancing, and expanding the exhibition. Content is king, and Saint-Lazare as a Women’s Prison: 1794-1932 is a remarkable example of a ‘best of everything’ approach to content sharing.”