It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when the art world was sniffy about the Internet. Purists saw museums as havens of cultured calm, and the World Wide Web as a place for noisy technologists. Most shuddered at the idea of multimedia kiosks cluttering the classical lines of their foyers.
Now, of course, every museum is online, with digital content accompanying every exhibition, and online-only exhibitions also emerging (DW 21 August). Museums routinely generate their own media content, and use it both in gallery and online.
If Jane Burton experienced any of the old attitude when she joined Tate Modern in 1999 as curator of interpretation, there’s no trace of it now. Tate is among the most digitally advanced of museums, and the department responsible, Tate Media, is a fizzing team of film-makers, editors, writers and designers crammed into a former military hospital alongside Tate Britain.
‘We’re serving our customers in new ways,’ say Burton, whose wide brief ranges from documentary film-making, to working with curators, to developing different ways of presenting and interpreting art at Tate. ‘It’s really just different viewing models. People can come to the gallery, or look at art on their computers, watch a programme about a Tate show on television, or download a tour to their mobile phones. We want our content on as many platforms as possible.’
It seems that the art-viewing public is right behind Burton. Tate Media created the multimedia tour for Tate Liverpool’s recent Gustav Klimt exhibition. Visitors to the show could hire iPods from the museum with the tour installed, or download it to their own iPod or iPhone via the gallery’s wi-fi network. ‘The experience far exceeded conventional audio tours,’ says Burton, adding that visit times for people using the tours soared from 45 minutes to as much as three hours.
Ask Burton why the Klimt show was chosen as the first iPhone project and she reveals the practicalities of museum life. ‘Much of the material was out of copyright so we could film to our heart’s content,’ says the Oxford graduate who worked as a journalist and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art before joining Tate. ‘Also, we had no contract with an existing [museum guide] supplier, so we had the freedom to make whatever we wanted.’
The iPhone project is, in fact, the tip of Tate’s digital iceberg. The Learning Zone, created with Ab Rogers and Wolff Olins, is a buzzing multimedia resource on the concourse at Tate Modern. ‘It involved a surprising number of designers,’ says Burton of the project. There’s also Tate Shots, launched last year and best thought of as micro documentaries made by Tate Media about artists including Antony Gormley, Paula Rego and Cy Twombly. Tate Shots can be seen on Tate Online and are the number one arts video podcast on iTunes. Since their launch, some 520 000 episodes have been downloaded, an average of 36 000 per issue. However, none of this quite reveals Tate’s emerging role as content provider. An upcoming example is the 40-minute documentary it has made for the South Bank Show on the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles. It will screen on ITV during Tate Modern’s retrospective of his work, but as it is Tate’s intellectual property and copyright, it can also distribute it via Tate Online in perpetuity. This is the ‘long tail’, the ability to watch things after the first ‘broadcast’, that features in all digital conversions. It also turns the tables on conventional broadcasters, who have traditionally made their own arts documentaries, and it has significant implications for the relationship between museums and their design partners.
‘We work with all sorts of designers,’ says Burton, citing the numerous consultancies Tate contracts to create exhibition graphics, as well as print and digital projects for its show. However, these standalone disciplines aren’t ideal for the integrated projects Tate now undertakes. ‘We need [designers] who can transfer their print and 3D work into the digital realm. In my experience, not all designers have this ability.’
Cildo Meireles is at Tate Modern from 14 October to 11 January 2009. The Tate/South Bank Show documentary is scheduled to broadcast on terrestrial TV on 26 October