Robots, apps and rights-free images – when galleries go digital

We look at different and innovative ways arts and cultural institutions are using digital technology to engage with their audiences.

The Tate Britain's After Dark robots

Source: © Alexey Moskvin

The Tate Britain’s After Dark robots

This week, Tate Britain unveiled its After Dark project, which sees robots roam the gallery spaces at night, controlled by online viewers who can choose which works to look at as they move the critters remotely.

The project was the winner of the Tate’s new IK Prize for work that uses technology to engage visitors, showing that linking digital and physical cultural spaces is no longer just about digitising collections, launching an app or redesigning a gallery website.

The Tate robots are one of a number of recent initiatives that show that galleries and museums are being forced to find new ways to use digital to better engage with current and potential visitors, aiming to increase interaction and footfall, and as such, revenue.

While there’s much chatter in other areas – particularly retail – about linking a physical space seamlessly with a virtual one, in the world of galleries and museums, things aren’t as straightforward.

For shops an online consumer is as valuable monetarily as a physical one, but for galleries and museums an online visitor perusing a collection surely isn’t as valuable as a visitor standing in their space, with access to donation points and the ever-lucrative shops?

However, as many arts institutions are keen to point out, revenue is only half the goal – engagement, and the philanthropic aim to connect people with art, is of course the reason said revenue is necessary in the first place – for non-profits, at least.

Bloomberg Connects at the Tate Modern
Bloomberg Connects at Tate Modern

Tate is perhaps the institution in the UK that appears to be using digital more than most to further this more benevolent goal, having stated that it aims to ‘provide rich content for existing and new audiences for art’ and ‘create and nurture an engaged arts community’, though it goes on to add that it will ‘maximise the associated revenue opportunities’.

Alongside its new robots, the institution also brought in Jason Bruges last year for the Tate Modern’s Bloomberg Connects project series of in-gallery installations, which will create a dialogue between visitors, artists and the gallery.

Tate has also launched a number of successful apps, both for individual shows and more fun games such as the Magic Tate Ball. This is a location-based mobile app inspired by Magic 8 Balls, where players shake the ball to receive an artwork that is matched to their surroundings, the date, time, weather and ambient noise levels.

Another  institution that has taken a brilliant and innovative approach to using digital platforms to engage with its audience is the Netherlands’ Rijksmuseum, in its Rijks Studio  project.

Launched at the end of 2012, the Rijks Studio presents 125,000 objects rights- free, allowing online visitors to create personalised collections, share images, and download high-resolution images for personal use.

People have since used images form the museum’s collection for van paint jobs, tattoos and personalised phone covers, taking the pieces far from the walls of the museum and as such, making them reach an audience that its permanent collections ever could.

Last year, design consultancy Sumo published its Digital Engagement In Culture Heritage And The Arts Book. The book suggests that 86 per cent of all web traffic will be video by 2016, and only 28% of words are read on an average webpage. As such, institutions should be looking not just to provide information or static images of their collections, but more interactive content – as perfectly exemplified in the Tate’s After Dark.

Images from the Rijksmuseum collection used to create paint job based on a 17thcentury drawing by Jacob MarrelI

Source: image courtesy Rijksmuseum

Images from the Rijksmuseum collection used to create paint job based on a 17thcentury drawing by Jacob MarrelI

Jim Richardson, Sumo founder, says that he feels the best approach museums can start to take to digital is to use it as part of a drive to become ‘publishers’ as well as physical institutions, pointing to the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis as an example.

When its site relaunched in 2011, it was hailed as a significant shift in approaching the digitisation of museum collections, creating not just an accompaniment to the physical site, but an expansion of it, essentially offering up the museum to visitors in a digital format.

Showing a commitment to bringing art to people, rather than just promoting itself, the site also has the Art from Elsewhere feature within the online magazine, showing content not produced by or about the museum. 

When the The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York unveiled its new identity by Pentagram partner Eddie Opara two months ago, it also revealed the  Cooper Hewitt interactive Pen project. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the device will be given to visitors to allow them to ‘collect and create’ images and share them online during their tour of the museum, nicely aligning itself with the growing rends for internet-connected hardware.

These initiatives are all well and good, but surely much of the drive to engage online as much as offline visitors partially goes against the traditional drive to bring people – and ultimately revenue – into institutions?

‘I think there’s a fight in most museums between people who want to get bums on seats and a more mission-driven stance, and digital tools are a great way to connect with people’, says Richardson.

Magic Tate Ball app
Magic Tate Ball app

‘While funders still tend to judge how [institutions] are achieving by visitors [to the space], they’re also looking at web visitors.’

Richardson points out that while it’s easier for Facebook users to ‘like’ an institution than to pay an annual fee for membership or visit a space, ‘the mechanics aren’t much different’.

 ‘Both
 are about a value exchange between individuals and the organisation. A “like” in return for great content, a subscription for easy access, magazines and other perks’, says Sumo.

In order to align free ‘likes’ with paying subscriptions and visits, Sumo advises organisations to ‘treat all your audiences equally and see their development as an ongoing process. Maybe an online visitor will need to become an enthusiast before their first visit, and then slowly be encouraged to become a member.

‘It may take years, but one day they will make a huge donation, if only you plan and design accordingly.’

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