Frontier spirit

If the BBC considers repeating last month’s glorious drama Shooting the Past, set around a threatened photolibrary, the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television would probably be very grateful.

If the BBC considers repeating last month’s glorious drama Shooting the Past, set around a threatened photolibrary, the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television would probably be very grateful. Shooting the Past reminded audiences that a good photograph can express the story behind an image with an eloquence that words can rarely match. Next month, Bradford’s NMPFT reopens its doors after a long year in exile. Its home has been extended and refurbished to the tune of 16m by architect Austin-Smith Lord, with gallery design by MET Studio and the museum’s in-house design team, led by Emelda Kay.

The 16-year-old museum is understandably proud of its tag as Britain’s most visited museum outside London, with 750 000 visitors annually. Originally converted from a theatre and adjacent cinema, the museum grew fast and haphazardly, with galleries crammed into available space to the point where there was simply no more space to appropriate and overhaul. As the museum looked to the future and began to sketch out plans for recording, interpreting and exhibiting the huge strides being made in “imaging”, a mix of public and private funding – including National Lottery money and a grant from the European Regional Development Fund – enabled it to purchase a site adjacent to the existing building. This provides 20 per cent more space in which to house the new Imaging Frontiers Galleries. Its aim, put succinctly by NMPFT redevelopment project director Tony Sweeney, is “to put the visitor in charge, while not abandoning tried and tested approaches. People increasingly want more than simple pre-packaged facts. Assimilation of knowledge is the real key. For this, you need to question, to find a range of options and opinions.”

At just over 13m, the Imaging Frontiers Galleries forms the apogee of the museum’s redevelopment, criteria and objectives. The jewel in its crown is Wired Worlds where, Sweeney says, “visitors will explore the digital media frontier not through traditional didactic explanation, which couldn’t address the sheer dynamism, scope and impact of these media, but through a series of artworks commissioned from leading digital media artists”. Sweeney’s belief is that works by the likes of Paul Sermon will cover key aspects of the evolution, uses and impacts of digital technology, ranging from digital image manipulation and multimedia information to interactive entertainment, virtual communities and advanced virtual reality models of artificial life forms. In the latter area, an exhibit which should prove popular, if its on-line history is any indication, is TechnoSphere, a virtual world populated by creatures whose digital DNA is defined by the body parts you give them. The creatures interact with each other and keep you informed of events and activities via e-mail. The installation version at the NMPFT, conceived by Jane Prophet and Gordon Selley, is a real-time 3D simulation which virtual users should eventually be able to access via the TechnoSphere website.

While display methods in the gallery include large-scale projection and touch-screen kiosks, Sweeney says, “We’re not interested in hi-tech for hi-tech’s sake – that’s not what the gallery’s about; ultimately, the gallery will have succeeded when visitors take up the challenge to look at things from different perspectives.”

Looking at things from different perspectives is key in Advertising: The Persuaders’ Art gallery too. Here, in association with British Design and Art Direction, the museum has created a space in which three sections surround a central interactive showcase housing selections from the D&AD annual awards on DVD and an interactive slogan game. Sarah Mumford, head of education at the NMPFT, says: “Visitors were surveyed for their interest in an advertising gallery and their favourite ads, many of which will appear contextualised in the gallery, which has been designed with a contemporary, lively feel to appeal directly to teenagers and young adults (aged 16-30).” TV ads and posters will be updated periodically, and Mumford claims the gallery and its content “will raise issues such as: Does advertising influence or reflect society?” But she admits that, broadly speaking, “It will take a popular look at how and why advertisements persuade us to buy, buy, buy!”

The animation gallery also tries to balance populism with innovation and recognition, previously overlooked by the art world. The design of the gallery was dictated very much by its prior life – or lives, as it was formed from the union of the old museum shop and a small gallery behind it. From this, the museum’s design team, led by Paul Lee on 3D and Marianne Schiavoni on 2D, created what curator Michael Harvey describes as “a space which created a natural flow for both narrative and visitors, with lots of circles, and primary colours on white and a curvilinear feel created by curved walls”.

Given that animation is arguably using digital applications even more than film or photography, Harvey seems to play down the digital aspects of the gallery. But elsewhere in the museum digital technology is very much to the fore. New MPEG2 playback systems, developed by the museum’s own technical group, are being used throughout the galleries, supported by an MPEG2-encoding facility, while a fibre-optic network backbone capability will support future upgrading and new network facilities.

A research centre gives access to material which cannot be displayed through the Investigator, the museum’s new multimedia image database, developed by Ibase Image Systems. Using the database from touchscreen moni- © tors throughout the galleries and workstations in the centre, visitors will be able to view images and get information on a three million-strong international collection (including the recently acquired Phil Leakey and Roy Ashton Collection of more than 500 artefacts relating to Hammer films).

“The database and user interface are being designed to support different users and levels of interest, from casual browsing to more in-depth investigation. Critically, the aim is not to replace access to the original objects and images, but to provide new ways into them, new perspectives on them, and in due course remote researching or educational capability via the Web,” explains Sweeney.

And as if that lot weren’t enough, no museum these days would be complete without “digital technology aids to visitor orientation” – or touchscreen kiosks. While the main signs system at the NMPFT is a physical one, the system is backed up by multimedia information situated in the main entrance foyer, including multilingual translations, and the museum plans to extend these throughout the museum if they prove popular.

If the curators’ and Sweeney’s enthusiasm pays off, they will do. And if that popularity is matched by visitor numbers, maybe the staff would rather the BBC didn’t show Shooting the Past for a good few months yet.


Case study

Choosing what to put in Wired Worlds, a gallery dedicated to what the museum calls: ‘digital imaging media, information and communication technologies’ might be a daunting one, but Tony Sweeney, redevelopment project director at the NMPFT, decided that ‘we had to distinguish between the underlying characteristics and impacts and the short-term technical breakthroughs which rapidly become assimilated or discarded. We asked leading professionals and academics how they saw the field – what is it like to be involved in its development and application? What is it like to be on the receiving end of “digital”?’

Sweeney set the gallery’s formal objective as ‘exploring the impact of digital media on human culture, and how they influence the ways we understand our world and ourselves. In particular,’ he adds, ‘we wanted to look at the ways digital media are altering and extending established notions of story-telling, reality, identity, place, time and community.’ Sweeney and his team settled on commissioning digital artists to produce pieces which would ‘raise questions in unusual, compelling ways about the nature and implications of these media’.

Sweeney also decided that visitors should have the opportunity to experience and read the gallery and its content at several levels, ‘from the pure entertainment value in digital visual effects and classic video games to exhibits that “sense” the visitor so that they can interact with them in ways other than the now traditional touchscreen kiosk paradigm’. But he also felt that the exhibits and explanatory wall texts should prompt questions about the evolution or implications of the media. ‘They don’t do this heavy-handedly or too didactically – but hopefully in ways that will inspire visitors to explore the subject further,’ he says. And, in keeping with the fast-changing digital world, we have ‘deliberately designed the content and storyline as flexible domains so that they can be changed and updated without completely renewing the whole gallery’, he concludes.

Case study

Advertising gallery

In France, when ads are shown in the cinema, the agencies that created them are named on screen. Here in London, an annual ads all-nighter at London’s Leicester Square sells out every year. Yet the art of advertising is rarely recognised outside the industry.

Advertising: The Persuaders’ Art is set to change that, thanks largely to public interest. ‘Visitors were surveyed for their interest in an advertising gallery, and their favourite ads between the dates of 30 March and 1 April 1997. More than 90 per cent of them said they were interested in an advertising gallery,’ says Sarah Mumford, the museum’s head of education.

Using three sections, Advertising: The Persuaders’ Art will promote awareness of a number of elements in the medium, including how advertising has developed, its influence on attitudes and behaviour, its commercial role and its diversity across media forms. The content has been selected to interest a young audience and has, says Mumford, ‘popular appeal underpinned by an appeal to students of art and the media’. Each of the three sections plays its part in showing the story of an advertising campaign, from conception to completion. Graphics panels are supplemented by 14in monitors and a 42in plasma screen showing ads and interviews with John Hegarty and Philippa Crane (producer of the Levi’s Mermaids ad), while areas explored include ways of selling, branding and controversy in advertising.

The centrepiece of the gallery features two interactive elements: award-winning ads from last year’s D&AD Annual on DVD and an interactive slogan game called Match It!, in which users match the slogan with the product, also developed by D&AD. The DVD, designed and produced by AMXstudios using Sonic Solutions’ DVD mastering software, shows the D&AD winners in full-screen high resolution audio and video, and will be updated each year.

Backing all this up is the museum’s 20 000- plus archive of TV ads, accessible via TV Heaven. This used to be a catalogued archive accessed via requests to members of staff who would locate the item. The database is now on-line, giving users direct access to the server-based material through MPEG2 streamed videos.

Case study

Animation gallery

Michael Harvey, curator of cinematography at the NMPFT, is emphatic when describing the purpose of the new animation gallery at the museum. ‘It’s a response to British animation’s huge growth and increasing breadth over the past 15 years. I wanted to show that there’s a lot more (to animation) than Disney – contemporary animators like the Brothers Quay, Barry Purves and Oscar nominee Anna Quinn, (and) extraordinarily influential special effects people like Ray Harryhausen,’ he says. The objectives? ‘To offer a hands-on introduction to the intricacies of animation and explain the origins of film-making.’

To this end, the gallery makes use of a full range of exhibition and interactive elements, including sets from 3D and 2D films, optical toys, historical objects, back-screen projections and video screens showing script to screen-type presentations in a simplified way. After seeing this latter display, visitors can make a short piece of animation themselves. ‘A multimedia animation process is used to show how early mechanisms and cameras worked; through it you can follow a historical train of individuals, developments and ideas,’ says Harvey. ‘Captions and objects have a value, but they can’t always explain the way things work.’

This pragmatic approach sums up Harvey’s method of incorporating digital elements into the gallery, as a display and educational device. ‘I essentially wanted to show the place of digital animation in the historical flow of animation, but also that while traditional skills like drawing and spatial awareness are being updated, they are still necessary, they still relate. And with computers there’s a danger of things like skill and imagination being hidden, so it was important we took exhibits outside the computer screen,’ he explains.

The large-scale elements of the gallery may be difficult to keep up-to-date, but Harvey is confident that studios will play their part. ‘Some of them have already expressed an interest in changing sets regularly,’ he says. Given the amount of support the museum has already received from major animation studios – the likes of Aardman Animation, Cosgrove Hall and Bob Godfrey – it sounds like he shouldn’t have too much of a problem.

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