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Living Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery

There’s been no shortage of discussion surrounding the theme of museum closures in recent years. But while this has largely been as a response to the challenges of Covid for museums and galleries, the National Portrait Gallery is one of the few institutions to have actively planned for a period of closure. Having committed to turning off the lights between 2020 and 2023 due to its major transformational project, Inspiring People, the gallery already had a programme of nationwide activities, partnership activations and digital projects planned when Covid hit.

One such project is the “Living Portraits” series, which launched in November 2021. A collaboration between the Athena Art Foundation, Colnaghi Foundation, National Portrait Gallery and immersive storytellers, Megaverse, the goal was to tell the story of historical characters in a “unique and authentic way”.

The first portrait in the series to get the Living Portraits treatment is that of 19th century bareknuckle boxer and butcher, Jem Belcher. As Katherine Biggs, Head of Digital at the National Portrait Gallery, will explain in her upcoming presentation at the MuseumNext Digital Exhibitions Summit, the aim of the project is to bring this historic artwork to life “using technology and theatricality while retaining historic authenticity.”

She says, “The real driver for this project is to investigate how technology can be used to attract under-engaged audiences . . . particularly younger people. That was something that all the partners involved are extremely passionate about. To do this, Athena Art Foundation and Megaverse had the idea to bring the portrait out of the frame and make it speak to people in a way that didn’t compromise the historical authenticity.

“That authenticity is really important to us as we look to find a balance that helps people to better engage with portraits – perhaps artworks they may not have resonated with previously – without misrepresenting the original portrait.”

In order to bring Jem Belcher to life, the team enlisted the help of the National Youth Theatre and writer/director Edem Kelman. The creation of a Belcher monologue voiced by a NYT actor enables Jem to speak to the audience and offer an insight into his life.

As Katherine will explain in her upcoming talk, Jem’s life is a particularly interesting one for this treatment. His working-class background and beginnings as a butcher are a stark contrast to his later reputation as a champion prizefighter, eccentric pugilist and an early example of a sporting celebrity.

“When it came to identifying a suitable portrait for this project, Jem Belcher ticked all the right boxes. We know that sport is a great leveler and his story was one that would resonate with an under-engaged audience.

“From a technical perspective the composition of the portrait, the simplicity of the background and the proportions of the face all made this artwork a good candidate.”

Katherine continues, “The involvement of the National Youth Theatre is also a particularly important one for us because of their experience in engaging young people with arts and culture. Their established forums have formed an important part of our feedback network for Living Portraits.

“Add to this the technical expertise of Megaverse and it has made for a really interesting and exciting collaboration.”

Katherine explains that in future Living Portraits the team may explore how this form of treatment works with different artworks that present different opportunities and challenges:

“We are already thinking about how we can utilise this form of motion capture technology both online and on-site, offering a new way to immerse audiences, without compromising the traditional experience of enjoying the original portrait.

“But we’re also aware that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for all artworks or for all people. No matter how we choose to incorporate a technological solution, we will always need to be conscious that it isn’t for everyone.

“The last few years have shown us that our online audience is quite different to our traditional in-person visitor, which is something we have to consider with any form of hybrid initiative.”

She continues, “What we’re looking to do is create moments where something a little unique makes the experience more magical and immersive for people who may not otherwise engage with a piece of art. That’s where this kind of project adds value.”

Asked about how the National Portrait Gallery approaches a new digital initiative, Katherine says, “We are finding that working in partnership with organisations like Athena Art Foundation and Megaverse has worked well for us. Certainly, there’s no shortage of ideas brought to the table for those initial meetings. And what’s refreshing is that all those ideas are coming from a different place. I suppose the challenge comes in simply narrowing down those ideas into a cohesive proposition.

“What we are doing now is testing. We’re asking people whether they like what we’re doing. And we’ll continue to find out what people engage with once we re-open next year and have the opportunity bring digital experiences into the gallery itself. It’s important to us, at this stage, that we don’t lock ourselves into any preconceived ideas of where we want to take things over the coming years.”


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