Shake up the gallery: how iPads are changing the way we visit museums

From where I am at the moment, there’s only one place from which you can see the Eiffel Tower, and I have to fight through a crowd of kids to get to it. On the roof terrace of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris I point my iPad at the horizon, between the curves of glass and wooden beams, above the heads of yowling ten-year-olds and towards the iconic structure. I snap the photo and complete the game.

The game is part of Apprentice Architect, an app designed by

London-based developers Touchpress. The app, loaded onto rubber-clad iPads, is designed to help kids explore the Louis Vuitton Foundation – the Frank Gehry-designed building that erupts from the Bois de Boulogne on the west side of Paris. As well as a game that involves taking pictures of specific locations dotted around the gallery, there’s information about architectural techniques and a tool that lets you design your own Gehry-style structures.

It’s a drop in the swelling tide of apps being rolled out for museums and galleries across the globe, from The British Museum in London to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Whereas a trip to the museum used to mean a physical map and rooms full of labels, exploring exhibitions increasingly involves everything from handheld apps to augmented reality.

apprentice architect ipad app

Image: Apprentice Architect by Touchpress © Fondation Louis Vuitton / Mazen Saggar

At their best, these technologies shake up the way visitors engage with collections. At their worst, they offer little more than superfluous digital tat. So how do developers and institutions make sure they use technology to bring something new to the experience of visiting a museum or gallery? How do they negotiate the line between creating an engaging app and drawing away attention that should otherwise be spent enjoying art or artefacts?

“[The] iPad presented a new medium. It’s engaging in a way that static media can’t be,” says Louise Rice, executive producer of Touchpress. “It’s not about staring at the iPad. We want kids to engage with the building and what they are seeing. The app adds to their experience; it asks them to look at things around them.”

Rice touches on an important issue. When you have an iPad in your hands, how do you convince people to look away from it? Apprentice Architect addresses this by balancing informative graphics with tasks forcing the user to physically move around the space. To complete the photo-taking game, for example, I had to find six specific parts of the building. In this way the app encouraged me pay attention to the gallery, not through facts and figures but through exploration and play.

Games in the gallery

Another developer straddling the line between play and cultural engagement is Bristol-based studio Thought Den. The studio has been responsible for a range of web and mobile installations for cultural institutions including the Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery and the Science Museum.

One of the most intriguing projects in Thought Den’s portfolio is Capture the Museum, made in collaboration with National Museums Scotland. The game involves splitting 50 visitors into two opposing teams – the red clan and the blue clan – and having them compete for territory in the museum by solving exhibit-related puzzles through a specially built iPhone app.

capture the museum

Image: Capture the Museum by Thought Den

“For me, gaming is another way of describing the play instinct, and it’s one we humans have had since we walked out of the primordial swamp,” says Ben Templeton, creative director at Thought Den. “It relaxes us, and helps us break down social barriers and bond. We use it to explore the boundaries of function and reason. In a museum context, games are an incredible medium to support and stimulate curious minds.”

Capture the Museum belongs to a burgeoning intersection between cultural institutions and games. A number of other centres have made efforts to tap into the social and mental benefits of play, including the Victoria and Albert museum with Strawberry Thief, a game by BAFTA-award winning developer Sophia George. The British Museum has meanwhile explored the appeal of gaming through Museumcraft, a project that involves recreating the entire museum and its collections in Minecraft.

museumcraft british museum minecraft

Image: Museumcraft by The British Museum

The British Museum is also working with Touchpress on a playful new project, due later this year, which will complement the newly opened Waddesdon Bequest gallery. According to a spokesperson from the museum, the app will be “part of the most ambitious digital programme for a permanent collection that the museum has undertaken”.

Engaging adults

The majority of these projects have a distinct focus on children. Is it simply easier to convince kids to use iPads and apps in a museum? “Yes,” says Rice. “I can’t tell you how blown away I was by these kids. I think kids are totally comfortable with the technology, and I also suspect that they’re more disciplined than adults in looking around. Whereas the adults tend to look at their phones, kids are more willing to do what feels right at the time.”

Kids may leap on a chance to make a trip to the museum more playful, but for adults seeking a deeper understanding of particular artworks, technology needs to address a different set of demands.

Second Canvas Museo del Prado by Museo del Prado

Image: Second Canvas Museo del Prado by Museo del Prado

Many of the “adult” museum apps currently tend to focus on making it easier to organise your time. The Hermitage Museum app, for example, lets you book tickets, read about the history of the museum and plan routes through the various collections. On a basic level, this type of app helps tourists to prepare for their visit and negotiate a sprawling cultural institution without having to fight through crowds to find a map. It’s a useful tool to have in your pocket but is, essentially, a sophisticated guidebook. Museums and galleries are increasingly looking beyond this in how they integrate technology with their collections.

Second Canvas Museo del Prado, for example, not only provides information about the paintings on display, but lets you zoom into 14 masterpieces in ultra-HD, see X-rays that reveal sketches beneath famous works of art, and share images through Facebook and Twitter. The Rijksmuseum app similarly tackles an enormous art collection by cataloguing it and providing tools for you to see extra details.

Other institutions are going further still, experimenting with using technology to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. In the Antoni Gaudí-designed Casa Batlló in Barcelona, for example, visitors are given a handset that combines an audio tour and augmented reality. Stand in one of the rooms and the handset will show an augmented version of the space, with original furniture and surreal animations such as turtles floating across the ceiling.

Visceral experiences

Experiences like these offer a whole new canvas for telling stories, but they inevitably bring us crashing back to the original issue: with so many digital toys jostling to add content to museums, do they risk overpowering the actual pieces themselves?

“On-site engagement is really tricky,” says Templeton. “It makes sense to use the time before and after the visit to provide context, extra learning, fun stuff to continue to the journey. The site visit should be about the objects, the visceral and social experience of being in a beautiful building.”

Casa Batlló augmented video guide

Image: Casa Batlló augmented video guide

As Templeton suggests, developers need to ultimately be aware of the fact that people go to galleries to engage with collections in a physical, visceral way. Games, X-ray images and augmented reality are all fantastic tools to have in a museum’s toolbox, and they open up whole new ways of exploring art and objects from home or in schools, but it’s crucial that apps don’t override the feeling of physically being in a space, stood in front of something special.

On the evidence of their apps, developers like Touchpress and Thought Den are keenly aware of this balance. New technology has brought with it new ways to see and understand exhibitions, and by applying digital tools in intelligent, subtle ways, museums and galleries can bring more focus than ever to their collections.

Stood on the roof terrace of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, learning about the Frank Gehry building beneath me, I completely forget that I have an iPad in my hands. And that’s when the app truly succeeds.

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