Preserving and promoting art through technology?

Visits to my hometown, Kochi, are synonymous with my love for the arts. Not only music or dance, but also painting by a few great persons have never ceased to tickle my mind. Then again, it is unfortunate to see how a state like Kerala, that speaks highly of its cultural heritage, fails to take steps towards its preservation.

When the UK changed my perceptions

The National Gallery in London. Photo: Wikipedia

I was 16-years-old when my parents decided to make a quick trip to the United Kingdom. Although the architecture seemed rather repetitive in style, the art galleries left me dumbstruck. My father and mother decided to take me to the National Gallery in London, which was spacious and rather crowded. Each visitor used a walkie-talkie of sorts. What is that I wondered? Upon receiving one for myself, I decided to explore the gadget. It was not long before I had dialed a number, mentioned beside each painting, on to the gizmo. Soon, there was a pre-recorded piece of information that had described a painting before me. It was one of Rembrandt’s finest work, of a horse rider and a cavalry following him from a distance. Had it not been for this audio recording, I am confident that this picture would have never left an impression.

Back in India

In the summer of 2007, I had a rather contradictory experience at the famed Chitra Art Gallery in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram. Though it houses some of the most popular artworks of the legendary Raja Ravi Varma, the experience was less than satisfactory. There were no art experts, and no app or audio guide to help a viewer understand the painting.

Could India’s museums or exhibitions consider implementing technology to enhance a visitor’s experience? Could India’s museums or exhibitions consider implementing technology to enhance a visitor’s experience? Could India’s museums or exhibitions consider implementing technology to enhance a visitor’s experience?

What does research say?

A research paper published in 2011 by the University of Oregon, USA, (titled: Interactive technology in Art Museum Exhibitions states that audio walky-talkies were the earliest methods used in museums. A visitor would see a code number near a painting, enter those digits on the walky-talky – and hear a recording related to the details of the artwork.

Today, however, mobile apps have become an essential part of many guided tours in art museums abroad. Visitors can also access pre-recorded audio files, also known as podcasts, to gather more information related to the displays that they see. These are similar to the audio recordings on the walkie-talkies but are supported by smartphone technology. 

London’s National Gallery, for instance, employs the SMARTIFY, a mobile-app that can give visitors all the information they need about a painting displayed in the gallery. So, if you wish to learn more about Rembrandt’s self-portrait, you could merely point the mobile phone at the painting and would be able to find out more about the era is which the painting was created, the painter’s frame of mind, his source of inspiration for the artwork and so on.

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has developed an easily downloadable mobile app catering to the works displayed.  The Louvre in Paris, too, has employed such techniques as part of the experience of looking at the works of art displayed in the museum.

A ‘museum culture’ unlike any other

Artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari believes that unlike other countries, India lacks the funds required to promote and sustain art. He also said that India does not have a “museum culture” and people seldom visit art galleries.

What did he mean by that?

Krishnamachari explained that visits to a museum are not encouraged or popular. He added that there is a general lack of awareness about art and the need for its preservation. The primary reason, according to him, is ignorance and the attitude that the public depict towards art. This is unlike places like Netherlands, France and the likes. He goes on to say that these places promote art and the public are aware of the work of their artists. “Weekends in a foreign gallery are different, for you would see many people exploring the place. This is unlike India,” he states. 

A new style of art in India? Street art in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
Photo: Gitanjali Diwakar

Visits to an art museum abroad are often educative. “This is not the case for children in India. Children are not given a chance to observe the work around them and engage in discussions,” says Adwaita Gadanayak, Director General, National Gallery for Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi. As a result, he adds, many of the nation’s treasured artwork go unnoticed. Lately, the gallery has begun to organise outreach programmes for schools and the response, according to Gadanayak has been favourable.

Mobile technology in Indian galleries?

Having dwelled deep into the world of mobile apps for art museums abroad, I decided to try my luck at downloading an app of the NGMA in New Delhi. After all, India’s mobile phone penetration has been on the rise for a long time. More importantly, this gallery has some of the best works on display. To my surprise, there was nothing!

Any reasons to substantiate this discovery?

Artists in India – such as Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta — agree that while technology can make art more interactive, what is needed is a human interface.  “Technology will not help strengthen the connection with the society,” Gadayanak adds.

Museums can introduce apps, but there seems to be long way to go before turning hi-tech. Internationally-acclaimed artists, like S Elayaraja said that live painting demonstrations and open discussions help strengthen the rapport between a painter and a viewer. This helps to bridge the gap between the artwork and viewer.

Street art in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Photo: Gitanjali Diwakar

Elayaraja also believes that such platforms will also be instrumental in breaking stereotypical notions associated with art – such as the belief that art is a critic’s or collector’s forte.

He explained that when an artist demonstrates the way in which he or she completes a picture — say that of a garden — it will help the audiences understand the techniques and procedures involved. This could lead to discussions about alternative ways of recreating the same image.

‘Need a cultural policy’

Krishnamachari stated that an effective cultural policy is needed for art to be sustainable. This policy should address various factors such infrastructure required for cultural programmes as well as funds for art and culture institutions.

The funds could be used to maintain galleries, hire qualified art experts to curate exhibitions, developing apps, employing different yet apt types of technology, and even assure the artist of a fixed source of income. He said that a higher percentage of the corporate world should allot a larger part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets towards art and culture.

The ‘street art’ photographs were shot using a Samsung S4 mini