The Evolving Gallery: Exhibition Spaces and Audiences in the Physical and Digital World.

Tuesday morning (3 October 2017), Cromwell Place and Vastari, co-hosted the second panel of the Blueprint Breakfast Briefings. Tuesday’s subject was the evolution of exhibition spaces due to technological advances such as virtual and augmented reality. The panel was moderated by Sarah Gillett, Creative Director of Cultureshock Media, and consisted of Sylvain Levy –Collector of the DSL Collection-, Hugh Feilden –Partner in Feilden+Mawson-, and Elizabeth Markevitch -President and Founder of ikonoTV.

Our panel members all embrace the power of technology within their professional practice. Sarah Gillett delivers insight and develops engagement programmes with museums, cultural organisations and commercial brands to tell compelling stories that connect people with each other and the world around them. An example is her project with the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, where she created a more interactive environment on the website.

Hugh Feilden works closely together with museums in order to help them take their exhibitions to the next level with the aid of technology. He is accredited by the RIBA as a Specialist Conservation Architect and is currently leading the restoration of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, a four-year scheme to transform the historic castle keep, Museum’s entrance space, café, shop and learning spaces. In his project at Norwich Castle, his research of a similar castle in France has inspired him to use augmented reality to show a virtual projection of the old wall paint and furniture. This makes it possible for the visitor to get a general idea of how the castle’s old interior may have looked like, without having to commit to a speculation by painting the actual walls.

“…by using augmented reality curators can share their views with the audience, without having to risk the conservation of the site by committing permanently to a certain outlook” - Hugh Feilden

Taking technology even further, is Sylvain Levy, co-founder of the DSL Collection. This collection is made publicly available via virtual reality. The public can explore a virtual museum and interact with the artworks directly. This pioneering idea of a VR museum is a new way to experience art.

Elizabeth Markevitch brings audiences closer to art via an international platform for visual arts broadcasting. IkonoTV tries to shifts its audience’s focus towards art through carefully curated on-air exhibitions and global broadcasting.

The panel started with one of the art world’s most pressing issues, how to attract visitors and thus income. So far traditional methods include websites and advertising.

Though a good website can go a long way, Sylvain Levy showed that there is wasted potential in virtual visitors. For example, the Metropolitan Museum had 6 million visitors in the museum vs 29 million on the website and 92 million on the Facebook page. So, how are curators supposed to react to this? Will museums find ways to turn Facebook-likes into tickets sold? Or will the museum slowly move online, where people can enjoy their own tour from a digital depot? Although all panel members had a different view towards the digitisation of art, they unanimously agreed that nothing could replace the physical experience had within a museum. The encounter with the physical object is an experience triggering emotions that can not be unlocked by a digital reproduction. (for more about this see Monday’s panel on ‘Authenticity in the Digital World’)

“the Metropolitan Museum had 6 million visitors in the museum vs 29 million on the website and 92 million on the Facebook page” - Sylvain Levy

Nonetheless, digital technologies such as virtual reality and television can enhance the museum experience. As mentioned earlier, augmented reality can help the visitor to visualise certain scenarios that are too difficult or too risky to realise. Similarly augmented reality, but also apps on a device can be used to make museum tours more interactive and to provide optional additional information. In addition, new media can expand beyond the museum walls to target previously unaddressed or unreachable groups of society. Sylvain Levy created VR gallery that allowed people from all over the world to visit his collection, thus removing geographical barriers. At the same time, DSL also built an immense hall housing an exhibition of enormous objects, something that never could have been realised in the real world. A downside to this method is that it transforms the enjoyment of art into a solitary activity. Sylvain Levy is positive that this will change in the future, yet it is difficult to imagine the appeal of VR-Skype.

In contrast to Feilden’s and Levy’s innovative approaches, Elizabeth Markevitch, has searched for alternatives in traditional, if not dying media. She has created a broadcasting channel solely focused on the explanation of art. By providing high-quality videos of artwork, people are able to look at the details of the art. TV can more easily reach an audience that has the time and interest to emerge themselves in art: children and elderly people. Though TV is more user-friendly and easily accessible than VR it only allows audiences to access curated content rather than creating their own experience. Audiences cannot use the material to enhance the experience of a real-life viewing.

However, one reservation that in varying degrees is applicable to all of these approaches is that they target people who are already interested in art. For the curated approach, seems to miss out on the most powerful aspect of technology, which is to make art less elitist and to allow the public to view and enjoy art the way they see fit, even if that is without context.

“The advantage of technology is that it can be used to make art less elitist” - Member of the audience

Considering how the importance of social media will grow over the next few decades, more artworks will show up in people’s selfies on Facebook and Instagram. This shows the visitor’s need to share their experience, but it also raises critique that people are less interested in the art than in the likes it generates. For is the traditional attitude towards art based on value, history and technique the only right method or has this approach become outdated? Should we allow visitors to interpret and enjoy art the way they see fit, even if that means they may not understand or even know about the story and history of which it is a part of?