Culture, Art & Digitisation

On: October 23, 2018
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About Lucas Prado Amaral


Being art lovers, we’re always looking for what’s new in the world of art. This led us to an article about L’Atelier des Lumieres in Paris which is exhibiting the works of Gustav Klimt in a digitally immersive manner. This article not only made us all want to jump on a train and head to Paris but also led us to research other museums which are using digital media.

The words of Michael Couzigou, the director of L’Atelier des Lumières, Paris (Figure 1) stayed back with us and became a starting point for our research into culture, art and digitisation. He said, “The new media world complements the classical cultural world; this can be the future of art.” (Lowy n.pag).

Source: E. Spiller,

Figure 1: The Klimt exhibition at L’Atelier des Lumières, Paris

Nevertheless, can we seamlessly integrate the classical with the new?

We believe it is possible because museums and artworks are no strangers to change. In fact, they have evolved from “cabinets of curiosities” where art was isolated and stored in the homes of the elite to being housed in museums (as we know it) for larger public appreciation to being digitised in order to appeal to and attract a new digitally native audience.

When looking back at the history of museums, it would seem that the importance of managing change within these cultural institutions was only acknowledged in the mid 1980s, after which museums reached a point of transition (Knell). This evolution of Europe’s cultural institutions was driven by the emergence of increasingly sophisticated technologies, and the “re-examination of the role of modern public institutions in today’s society.” (Knell 132) This links to fast-changing demands and fundamental changes in everyday practices that have emerged in our information society.

Today, the ways in which we experience art and the meaning of visual art have changed. According to John Berger, “every image embodies a way of seeing” (Berger 10). Much of our experience of art is largely shaped by digital strategies which in turn alter our visual relationship with works of art. To appreciate this change, we have to take into account that in the era of ubiquitous technology, most of the content that we consume is mediated through mobile devices that presume dynamism and interactivity. These technologies have even gone as far as shaping a fresh perspective of consuming content through a vertical perspective (Thompson). With all of the above in mind, we can infer that the adoption of such digital strategies by museums could be a way of trying to keep up with all these changes.

However, are museums evolving to remain relevant, and if so, are they evolving in an effective manner? The European Commission in their 2018 report on Innovation & Cultural Heritage says that “the digitalization in the field of cultural heritage is not unequivocally positive or negative” (European Commission 8). Rather, cultural and heritage institutions are to look at “how they can best use the opportunities provided by digitalization in the valorization of cultural heritage” (European Commission 8).

Therefore, what are museums as cultural institutions doing to integrate digital interventions for a more engaging and immersive experience, which will help them remain relevant and custodians of culture and history?

How we tried to answer these questions…

Our methodology is based on “the walkthrough method” which is a method that allows to engage with an app’s interface to analyse their mechanisms and identify its purpose and operation method. “The walkthrough method establishes a foundational corpus of data upon which can be built a more detailed analysis of an app’s intended purpose, embedded cultural meaning and implied ideal users and uses” (Light et al. 1).  Like Mattern says: “Infrastructure systems are not necessarily static; often they are even mutable, portable, transient; and so some infrastructure engagement projects focus on processes or events.”(Mattern 11). So the main aim of this method is to perceive the meaning of how users are guided by the app and how their experience is influenced by the app (Light et al.).

With this approach, we tried to apply the logic of this method to the Rijksmuseum app which was launched this year in January to provide a new user experience that allows people to interact differently through the app and discover the art works with ‘guided virtual tours’ and an ‘explore museum’ features. Moreover, we also tried to focus on the philosophy of Parks and discover “what media are made of” (Mattern 3). She mentioned the importance of being aware of the systems that are surrounding us and visit the infrastructures to get an insight of what the real processes are, and analyse it physically. If we want to fully understand the processes of an infrastructure and, in that sense, see what the app affords, we have to look it at it from the ground up (Parks).

For this purpose, we went to the Rijksmuseum and downloaded the app in order to understand the functions and processes that the app provides. It was important to physically visit the place and take the Rijksmuseum as an example for the use of digital strategies in museums nowadays. Being there and experience it in a way that other visitors would also be able to observe allowed us to understand the use and the main affordances of the app (Davis & Chouinard) that nudges people to use it (Thaler & Sunstein). Furthermore, we got an insight of what sort of interventions are needed to be done to improve certain malfunctions of the application.

In addition to testing out the Rijksmuseum app, we studied and analysed the websites of  “L’Atelier des Lumières, Paris” and “MORI building Digital Art Museum, Tokyo” (Wood) (Figure 2)  to understand how museums across the globe are beginning to integrate digital art which is dynamic and immersive to cater to the digitally native audiences. Michael Couzigou, director of L’Atelier des Lumières goes on to stress the possibility of digital art in creating new environments when addressing the opening of the art centre’s latest set of exhibitions: Klimt, Hundertwasser and Poetic_AI.  (Lowy).

Source: teamLab Borderless Tokyo Official Site,

Figure 2: An immersive art exhibit at MORI building Digital Art Museum, Tokyo

Millennials are using social media to get information about arts and events, so with such type of exhibitions not only the older generations come in their favour also the younger generations are more likely to visit museums or other cultural institutions if there is something new that they can discover (Plautz). Many museums are therefore trying to target all age groups and make their art collections attractive. “It is obvious that managers and curators need to take seriously the interest and retention of these generations so as to secure a bright future for their organisations” (Hillier n.pag). Using digital technologies in galleries that are physical can help provide more interaction among users and help them discover it from a different perspective (Hillier).

Museums in The Netherlands

Figure 3: Museums with educational programmes and activities 2017

It may come as a surprise, but museums are doing well. At least, in the case of The Netherlands. According to the 2017 report by the Dutch Museums Association, its 435 members have collectively received 700,000 more visitors than the previous year (Museum Vereniging). Financially, general museum performance is equally impressive, as museums are receiving more in revenue than they are in subsidies for the first time in years (Museum Vereniging).

A notable contributing factor is the number of education-related visits, primarily primary and secondary education, which has risen by at least 100,000 visitors (Museum Vereniging). An explanation for this rise could be improved provision of educational programmes and activities, which cater largely to primary schooling, Groep 3 t/m 8 (Figure 3) (Museum Vereniging 20-22). Efforts have been made recently to cater to older students, as demonstrated by Rijksmuseum’s Snapguide’s provision of guided tours by Dutch digital influencers, but it remains limited. Nonetheless, it is an example of the possible utilisation of digital in the museum experience for educational purposes (“Rijksmuseum Lanceert Snapguide”).

Figure 4: Trends in the number of museum visits, youth and adults, 2013-2017

Additionally, the report discloses that in 2017 internet users could see 50 million digitized museum objects online before visiting any Dutch museum, which makes up 59 percent of the entire collection on display in Dutch museums (Museum Vereniging).

What this indicates is that museums are making a considerable attempt at digitizing their collections, as well as influencing the museum experience using digital media. However, what findings also suggest is that the general positive trend is not representative of the medium to small museums, nor does the increase in education-related visits match the decrease in overall visits by youth, after years of gradual growth (Figure 4) (Museum Vereniging 3, 16).

Exploring Rijksmuseum

As mentioned before, the idea was to zoom in on a specific digital intervention, the Rijksmuseum app, to explore how museums could utilize digital media to optimize the museum experience.
While strolling through the museum, an instant discovery was Rijksmuseum’s provision of free and high-speed WiFi, to be used by any visitor throughout the entire building. No registration is necessary, nor does the visitor need the Rijksmuseum app to be able to connect. The connection simply requires visitors to accept its terms and conditions after which unlimited use of WiFi is granted.

The existence of the Rijksmuseum app is considerably less obvious. Other than a reference to the app on the booklet received upon entry, there is minimum promotion of the app in the museum itself. From observation, it appeared that a large number of visitors continued to use physical maps provided in the booklet, information sheets available at different sections of the museum and audio devices with headsets to be rented for five euros. One could take from this that the Rijksmuseum is clearly not (yet) the most popular source of information and guidance.

In terms of the functionality of the app, two options are given as you open the app: to “explore the museum on your own” and to “take a guided tour”. There are some minor differences between these two modes of discovery, namely that the guided tour was divided thematically, whereby the app-user could choose to explicitly explore Rijksmuseum’s ‘Highlights’, or perhaps works on the Dutch ‘Colonial Past’. Alternatively, exploring the museum on your own enabled the app-user to be directed more generally through different time periods (and allocated floors). For instance, if one desired to see art from the 18th century, the app would provide a map of the allocated floor. What both options have in common are their provision of directions, requiring you to enable location services on your mobile device, but also information on specific artworks that you can select while following the routes.

Lastly, information on artwork provided by the app is audio based, requiring the user to use their earphones. Otherwise this would be missed out on. Additionally, the app does not have a search function that allows you to look for a particular work, requiring the user to follow the entire exhibit or tour as visualized on the app. Adding to which that, for example, in the museum itself, there is a large main hall of which the floor, walls and ceiling contain artworks, which are easily overlooked when trying to find areas on the app. Based on the findings on the app and museum in particular, what digital interventions could be implemented in order to optimize the digitized museum experience?

“…This can be the future of art.”

What a bold statement, huh? But as we have mentioned before, integrating digital strategies in museum spaces is getting more and more common. Couzigou saw the integration of new media techniques with classical art as “the future of art”. So, we cannot help but to wonder: how can we think of new ways to experience a museum through digital media? Proposing an intervention like this is not easy. Thinking of cultural institutions in general, we can talk about art exhibits, personal expositions, installations, and so on. And even between classical museums, we can find different approaches to archiving and displaying their artworks, especially when considering that every museum hinges on trained people, curators, who act upon the display and organization of these artworks. With that in mind, we are framing the space of this proposed intervention as classical museums housing historical and artistic artefacts, such as the Rijksmuseum. This restriction is necessary, so we can have more accuracy in our analysis – additionally these propositions could be applicable to other cultural institutions!

With that in mind, how can we think then of a good and articulate way to formulate a digital intervention in museums? Our intervention is proposed in two levels: (a) at a museum level, which apart from having its classical art collection, will also experiment with rooms dedicated to digital installations; and (b) at a mobile level, taking the Rijksmuseum app as our primary reference and suggesting improvements to its functionality.

Drawing inspiration from the digital museums in Paris and Tokyo, we propose that museums start experimenting with digital techniques for representing art. That does not go to say that the classical art collection from the museum would be affected in any way, as it is still an extremely relevant cultural experience in itself. Now imagine after seeing Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”, you go into this futuristic, digital room that is projecting art on the walls, ceiling and floor? We agree that a good strategy would be to create digital rooms, dedicated to representing art in interactive and immersive ways, with light projectors and ambient sound effects – a process contingent on specialised art curation. With this, the museum could cater to different audiences, offering a new experience to those who might prefer more immersive and visually stimulating experiences, while still maintaining the classical museum interaction. In addition, we also stress the importance of museums taking the initiative of digitising their art works and uploading them to their websites, so that users can previously get acquainted with the work that is displayed in a museum.

Now what about museums taking on mobile app strategies to enhance our cultural experience? The first thing to have in mind is the necessity of adopting efficient ways to raise awareness about the app, whether by social media ads, visual banners at the museum or through suggestions from the museum staff. We took the Rijksmuseum app as our visual reference in terms of its interface, and we propose new additions to its properties, so we can better illustrate what we feel would be a good mobile app approach. First, the app should cater to different ways of exploring the museum, by offering guided tours based on different categories and themes of art collections.(Figure 5) Having a search bar allowing to filter specific results by keyword search (Figure 6). This way, visitors could look for specific artworks they are interested in seeing and would be directly redirected to the location of that art piece, being shown the exact route in order to get there. Moreover, this app would also provide the options of either watching interactive videos or/and reading through textual information (Figure 7), all encompassing the same information about the art works in the museum – that way, you can either learn through videos, texts, or both. And you will not be left in the dark if you do not have a pair of earphones with you!

Figure 5: The red lines delimit the first intervention. Those are some of the new categories that we propose for exploring the museum through the app

Figure 6: The red arrows point to the second intervention which is the addition of a search bar

Figure 7: Within the red lines is the last intervention which is the addition of textual information about the artwork













Figure 8: The QR codes at the entrance of each room

As a final suggestion, still in terms of spatial recognition, we also propose a feature to the app which also involves an intervention on the physical space of the museum: the introduction of QR codes at the entrance of each room of the museum (Figure 8). By scanning the QR code with the app, the user will get access to a map of that room, with the artworks that are displayed in it – that could facilitate the navigation within the physical space of the museum. This feature would also provide a summary of the information about that artwork, as well as a digitised copy of it, allowing the user to zoom in and pay attention to details that could otherwise go unnoticed from a distance.


As art lovers, we’re always looking for what’s new in the world of art – as we think you are too. We are very much interested in seeing the ways through which art reinvents itself, how it can cater to new experiences while still maintaining its original intended essence. By proposing digital interventions to museums, we are not in any way trying to undermine the importance of classical art collections. On the contrary, we are precisely interpreting them as ways to enrich this museum experience, and also recognising that this is already a trend across many different cultural and artistic institutions around the world. As Couzigou said, “Digital art can create different environments, different worlds, different emotions, sensations.” Should we not take advantage of that then?




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