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Bringing 17th-Century Documents from Rembrandt’s day to Life Using Augmented Reality

What if you would take a bunch of 400 year-old, illegible books about Rembrandt, place them in an exhibition space usually frequented by people over the age of 60, and give them some tech they wouldn’t know how to use?

That is in a nutshell, what design firm Synergique and developer Orb Amsterdam did for the Amsterdam City Archives. Augmented reality was used to bring alive 17th century documents about Rembrandt van Rijn, the greatest Dutch master of the Golden Age, in our exhibition The Private Life of Rembrandt.

Rembrandt Augmented Reality

During 2019, The Rembrandt Year, which marks the 450th anniversary of Rembrandt van Rijn’s passing, many museums throughout the Netherlands dedicated an exhibition to Rembrandt. The Rijksmuseum, Rembrandthuis, both in Amsterdam, and the Mauritshuis in The Hague displayed all the Rembrandt paintings in their collections.

The collection of Amsterdam City Archive calls for a different approach. The shelves of the archive, with a combined length of about 50 kilometers, hold over 60 documents touching on Rembrandt’s life. They consist mainly of archival documents, signed by the painter himself, his wife or children, and notary documents about his inventory or work.

During The Private Life of Rembrandt, 29 of these documents were on display at the Amsterdam City Archives. The exhibition took place at the very beginning of the 2019 Rembrandt Year, and rightfully so, as it is a wonderful introduction to the active life of Rembrandt van Rijn.

“It’s a hard-core archival exhibition.” the Head of Presentations of Amsterdam City Archives Ludger Smit repeats like a mantra. However a hard-core archival exhibition faces unique challenges, when exhibiting 17th-century documents, handwritten in old Dutch. The average visitor is incapable of transcribing and translating them. Therefore additional materials are necessary when displaying the seemingly boring documents; however, there is nothing boring about the stories that are hidden within them. The challenge was to bare the unboring.

The main focus of the exhibition was to tell the beautiful and interesting stories that are written in these 400+ year-old documents. But to achieve that, we had to help visitors reading and understanding the documents. And since we’re relatively young and very cool, ordinary translations wouldn’t suffice.

We wanted to make the documents come to life, enlarge certain passages, emphasise others, dive deep into some of the signatures and show relevant paintings next to the document as large as possible. That wasn’t possible because of the limited exhibition space. And due to the Rembrandt Year, most other museums already scheduled the paintings from their collections to be a part of their own exhibition. So there wouldn’t be any physical paintings to work with, but that wouldn’t matter as much, as the unique collection holds enough stories by itself.

The documents are often found in thick bound books so visitors needed some help to decipher the texts. in the past, archivists stumbling upon the Rembrandt documents proudly marked the pages, either with an X in the corner using a bright red pencil, or with an archive stamp. Those destructive methods are unimaginable today, but back then it was acceptable practice. For this exhibition, we still wanted to be able to mark the documents to emphasise where to look. But surely not on the document physically.

So… we wanted to show paintings we didn’t have, and mark pages without actually marking them. What could go wrong?

augmented reality archives

If only there was another reality to be put on top of the one we live in, one where we could digitally manipulate the carefully protected documents. Together with the Amsterdam City Archives, we came up with the idea to use Augmented Reality (AR).

AR was chosen over VR to keep the beautiful documents in sight and to prevent shutting visitors off from the exhibition space. Just add a digital layer on top of the physical layers without touching them. This technique is real and accessible, though it hasn’t often been used in museums. And certainly not in museums where the average visitor is 60 years old.

It needed to be an extremely robust and user-friendly Augmented Reality experience, so we built a custom viewer that we called The Rembrandtviewer. It consists of an iPad in custom-made wooden case with custom-made AR-software installed.

When entering the exhibition space, visitors were able to pick up one of the Rembrandtviewers. The app allowed them to watch the documents via the camera of the viewer. When they pointed the Rembrandtviewer to a document, the AR content started to appear around the document, along with a voiceover that tells the story behind the document.

AR was being used in different ways to enrich the documents. With eight documents, the AR consisted of animations that appeared around the physical document and audio explanations in two languages. The animations contained paintings and drawings from Rembrandt of people close to him. A 17th century map showed where he lived and where he went in Amsterdam and handwriting and signatures were enlarged and recreated.

For three other documents, different types of AR-experiences were implemented. While one of them reconstructed a life-size version of Rembrandt’s work shop, another opened a portal to the 17th-century version of Amsterdam North where we join Rembrandt on a trip to the gallows fields. The last one allows you to physically walk down a timeline where you see Rembrandt gradually getting older, based on his own self-portraits.

Most visitors would be experiencing AR for the very first time. Even though many of the elderly visitors are accustomed to touch screens and iPads by now, exploring virtual content isn’t a part of their daily life yet. The last thing we wanted was to shadow the essence of the exhibition with some geeky tech. Therefore, the AR had to be as effortless and intuitive as possible.

Synergique and Orb created the augmented reality-app simultaneously with the spatial design of the physical space; rather than as a later-on addition to the exhibition. This allowed making choices on both sides, and improve the overall experience.

One of many choices to be made was about the physical space. The documents with AR-content, contained enough physical moving space, so people wouldn’t bump into another display or each other while taking a step back to see the document with the AR content floating around.

For our situation, AR works best against a dark background, so the exhibition space was lined with free-standing anthracite walls. Furthermore, to give the sense of imagery that isn’t actually there (like in AR) semi-transparent wall-dividers scattered the floor with Rembrandt’s work printed upon. Based on your position and the lighting, these images seemed to appear or disappear. Confusing? Well, you kinda had to be there.

Another important decision was about the colour of the display lining. The AR app needed as much reference points as possible for the best tracking and the space is rather dark. So the documents were placed on a light coloured display lining to contrast with the overly dark exhibition space. This helped the app tremendously in knowing what the edges of the display were.

Extensive visitor research has been conducted by the Archives. Combined with the analytics gathered from the usage of the application we have a clear indication of how the visitor experienced the exhibition. Overall, 95% of the visitors rated the exhibition as a whole as ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’. We know that 88% of the visitors picked up an iPad and used Augmented Reality during the exhibition and over 90% of those visitors scanned the first document. The average ‘scans’ per session is about 12, where the augmented reality experiences are scanned the most, which indicates that the iconography in the exhibition space was clear enough. People who used the application rated the addition on the exhibition with an average  of 8 out of 10.

augmented reality museums

The elderly visitor did have some trouble with handling the Rembrandtviewer. This was the most voiced critique which taught us to work with either a lighter material, or a smaller action radius in which the visitor has to use the device. The guestbook provides some interesting and sometimes flattering feedback from visitors, like: ‘Very good, other museums could learn from this’ or ‘The documents are poorly lit’, ‘Beautiful how his life is made visual, like you’re watching over the shoulder of the artist’ and ‘I found it very moving’.

What was interesting is that some visitors wrote how much they hated the used technology, and other visitors commented on that specific critique saying that they loved it and want more of it.

Lastly, someone wrote: ’Interesting exhibition, but since I’m deaf, I couldn’t really use the iPad’, so adding the option of a subtitle in addition to the spoken voiceover would be highly recommended.

We learned a lot during this project. We found out that everyone, even your (grand-)father is fully capable of using the latest technology as long as you instruct him well enough. We learned that LED lighting, which is more and more common in exhibition spaces, acts up weird with iPad camera’s if you’re using it wrong, and we found that we can make a seemingly boring old book interesting and burst into life, as long as you know how to tell the right story right. And as with every technology: some people just want printed text on paper, so always keep a couple of handouts as a fallback.

Your average visitor might have heard of virtual reality by now, some even know the term augmented reality, but few have experienced either one of them. We’re still in the early stages of these technologies and need to educate our visitors. But if we do so, slowly but steady, there’s a new world opening up that can make your collection shine in a completely new way.

About the author – Pepijn Borgwat & Doruk Eker

Pepijn Borgwat is co-founder of multidisciplinary design firm Synergique, which focusses on exhibition concepts, activation and motion graphic design. 

Doruk Eker is on a journey as a creative developer at Orb Amsterdam. AR, VR and public space installations form his current playground. He enjoys collaborating with other creators to bring engaging experiences to life. 

The Amsterdam City Archives is the largest – and many say, most beautiful – city archive in the world. Located in the historic De Bazel building, it houses a historical topographical collection that includes millions of maps, drawings and pictures, a library and extensive audio, film and photo archives. Visitors can delve into Amsterdam’s history and learn more about how today’s city was made in the past. The Archives also offer guided tours and put on temporary and permanent exhibitions.

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