5 Perspectives – Engaging Underrepresented Audiences

John Harte and Anne-Gaelle at the National Gallery, London

John Harte and Anne-Gaelle at the National Gallery, London

by Anne-Gaelle LeFlohic

Tuesday 4 November -  It’s a lovely autumnal morning, and the façade of the National Gallery, London, with its majestic columns and pediment overlooking Trafalgar Square, appears in all its pomp and glory. I’m on my way inside the gallery to attend Antenna Lab's event on; How best to engage underrepresented audiences in Ancient Art and cultural heritage, and how technology can play a role in defining news forms of engaging’. Here, experts in museum learning and education have gathered to talk about how they each bring art to those who don’t have the chance to appreciate it, those who feel intimidated and not knowledgeable enough, who are too old, too isolated, or too marginalized. 

1. Huei-hsien Lin (National Palace Museum, Taiwan) shares with us her experience of taking museum education behind the bars and working with juvenile correction schools. It’s fascinating and incredibly moving. The other speakers on the panel, too, strongly believe that art and culture can sooth and comfort, improve communication skills, enable the exploration of one’s own potential, talents and skills. Listening to Huei-hsien Lin, to Sophie Martin (National Gallery), to Pamela Kembers (Asia House) and Morwenna Rae (Dr Johnson’s House), but also to the people in the audience today, I realize that all museums’ educators face the same challenges – How to measure the success of these programs and how to make them sustainable? How to get support from funders and trustees? How to be creative when there is no budget? – but also share the same hope, which is to tear down the museum’s walls and take art to the street. If not literally, at least virtually.

2.Helen Ward (Ashmolean Museum) argues that the use of technology is a fun way to engage school audiences with collections: ‘Digital Sketchbooks’ on tablets make children look, draw and think using devices that are completely part of their life – the success is guaranteed! Could technology do just that, and be a bridge between the inside and the outside? That is certainly what more and more museums’ educators believe.

3. For Tijana Tasich (Tate), the idea of participation is key. Whether it’s on Tate’s website, on screens available in the galleries or via social media, visitors are invited to play an active role in the museum’s life. For Simon Talbot, freelance writer at Antenna, tapping a screen to animate a character on a painting or swiping to reveal the real colours of an ancient sculpture are a real opportunity to enhance the museum experience. Technology is not a gimmick: if used intelligently and sparingly, it can bring history and artefacts to life.

4. Ancient art is not easy to access, particularly for young visitors, as Shelley Mannion (British Museum) explains: it’s broken, it’s complex, it involves languages we don’t understand. That’s precisely where she believes technology can be a great accompaniment to a museum visit. It can fill the gaps by showing the missing elements of a broken statue, the hidden part of a round vase, by allowing to decipher signs and their hidden messages, etc.

5. Technology could even let us enter inside a work of art or within the most sacred rooms of an Egyptian pyramid: welcome to Adam Clark’s 3D Minecraft world, where video game and traditional art meet. Thanks to Adam Clark, using Minecraft Lego-type blocks allows you not only to re-build iconic buildings or heritage sites, but also to learn in a fun, creative and unusual way.

When I leave the conference room at the end of the day, it is dark outside. I look at the illuminated façade of the National Gallery but, somehow, it seems changed. The columns look fragmented and the building a bit less impenetrable. I can fly over it, break its columns into Minecraft’s blocks, change the colour of the dome - maybe others will be seeing the museum this way, too.

- author