This month, the use of Facebook’s popular Spark AR platform to create a virtual wing for Tate Britain spotlighted the role of augmented reality as a tool for visitor engagement. The message is clear: however large or small the museum or gallery, the priority is always the quality of visitor experience and interactive AR deepens and enhances this.
Using their smartphones, visitors access the virtual wing via the Tate Instagram account. Through using different AR approaches and eight very diverse artworks, the visitor is able to frame themselves within the art, exploring the narratives behind the images and creating their own personal connections.
The works include some of the best-known and visited artworks of the Tate. Through the transformational lens of AR, the glowing lanterns in John Singer Sargent’s work Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose shine in the dark, fade away and return, marking a symbolic transition from life to death and back again.
John Simpson’s portrait Head of a Man, representing the actor Ira Frederick Aldridge, reveals the emotions of the subject as the camera moves, creating a character who is both powerful and yet vulnerable at the same time. The image touches the viewer at a deep level, creating the desire to discover more about Aldridge’s story.
The enigma of The Cholmondeley Ladies, with their similar but not identical expressions, clothing and infants in swaddling gowns, is deepened as the visitor watches them move through life’s events together. The finery of the rich gowns and decorative ruffled collars suggests wealth and status but also hints at predetermined lives.
Harmony and discord are represented in Edward Francis Burney’s Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music, also known as Musicians of the Old School. Brought to life by AR, the visitor is entertained by a barking dog and mischievous parrot as the rivalry between traditional music (presided over by Handel) and the avant guard (Beethoven and Mozart) is played out before their eyes.
The indescribable blues and greens of The Farm at Watendlath by Dora Carrington literally rise before the viewer, hinting at the power of the feminine in the strong lines of the hills that dominate the scene. Watching the animation, the viewer may wonder whether strength comes from the land, or from the human in the landscape.
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s work Fishing upon the Blythe-Sand, Tide Setting In resonates with other applications for AR, as that most popular of social media animals, the cat, puts in an appearance by jumping through the torn canvas of the painting. Extraordinarily, this event has a basis in reality – it is believed that Turner had torn the canvas into pieces to create a cat flap for his seven cats. Viewing artworks using AR takes “art imitating reality imitating art” to new and dizzying heights.
Gwen John’s Self-Portrait, like Simpson’s portrait Head of a Man, raises questions of vulnerability and rawness in portraiture. Whether subject or artist, the process of creating art is a sensitive one, as well as being painfully revealing. Watching John at work allows the viewer to experience some of the emotions of the artist themselves.
Finally, Simeon Solomon’s A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies has taken on deeper and more charged meaning since its creation in 1870. The struggles and dangers facing Solomon himself, and his ostracism by the rest of the art world because of his sexuality form a poignant subtext to this painting, which augmented reality reveals.
This creative project between Tate Britain and Facebook is a welcome reminder of the potential of AR software to open up new levels of engagement to visitors via their smartphones. For museums and galleries, AR is the equivalent of John Masefield’s “Box of Delights”, making all the magic in the world available at the touch of a fingertip.
Most significantly, it opens up art to a diverse range of visitors, helping them to relate to artworks in a new and deeper way. Revealing the hidden histories of art and artists through AR uses the augmented power of the visual to strengthen the images in the mind of the visitor.
Best of all, the visitor controls the process through their own smartphone. The use of AR in art is an organic development with exciting possibilities for both professionals and visitors to collaborate and curate together.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.