Living Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery
Ahead of December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit, MuseumNext is learning more about the National Portrait Gallery’s latest collaborative project aimed at reaching an unengaged audience.
Discussions around the theme of museum closures have not been lacking in recent years. But while this has largely been a response to Covid challenges 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 transformation project, Inspire peoplethe gallery already had a schedule of national 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 figures in a “unique and authentic way”.
The first portrait in the series to benefit from the Living Portraits treatment is that of 19e bare-knuckle boxer and butcher of the century, 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 project’s goal is to bring this historic work of art to life “using technology and theatricality. while retaining historical authenticity.
She says, “The real driving force behind this project is to explore how technology can be used to appeal to under-engaged audiences. . . particularly the younger ones. This is something that excites all partners involved. To do this, Athena Art Foundation and Megaverse came up with the idea of taking the portrait out of the frame and having it speak to people in a way that doesn’t compromise historical authenticity.
“That authenticity is really important to us as we seek to find a balance that helps people better engage with portraits – perhaps works they may not have resonated with before – without distorting the original picture.”
In order to bring Jem Belcher to life, the team brought in the National Youth Theater and screenwriter/director Edem Kelman. Creating a Belcher monologue voiced by an NYT actor allows Jem to speak to the audience and offer insight into his life.
As Katherine will explain in her next lecture, Jem’s life is particularly interesting for this treatment. His working-class background and early days as a butcher stand in stark contrast to his later reputation as a champion boxer, eccentric pugilist, and an early example of sports stardom.
“When it came to identifying a suitable portrait for this project, Jem Belcher ticked all the right boxes. We know the sport is a great leveler and his story was one that would resonate with an under-engaged audience.
“From a technical point of view, the composition of the portrait, the simplicity of the background and the proportions of the face made this work a good candidate.”
Katherine continues: “The involvement of the National Youth Theater is also particularly important to us because of their experience in engaging young people in arts and culture. Their established forums have been an important part of our feedback network for Living Portraits.
“Add to that the technical expertise of Megaverse and it has created a really interesting and exciting collaboration.”
Katherine explains that in future Living Portraits, the team could explore how this form of treatment works with different artworks that present different opportunities and challenges:
“We are already thinking about how we can use this form of motion capture technology both online and on location, providing a new way to immerse audiences, without compromising the traditional experience of enjoying the original portrait.
“But we are also aware that there is no single model for all works of art or for all people. No matter how we choose to integrate a technology solution, we should always be aware that it’s not for everyone.
“The past few years have shown us that our online audience is quite different from our traditional in-person visitor, which is something we need to consider with any form of hybrid initiative.”
She continues, “What we’re looking to do is create moments where something a little bit unique makes the experience more magical and immersive for people who otherwise might not engage in a work of art. This is where this kind of project adds value.
Asked how the National Portrait Gallery is approaching a new digital initiative, Katherine says: “We find that partnering with organizations like Athena Art Foundation and Megaverse has worked well for us. Certainly, there is no shortage of ideas put on the table for these first meetings. And what’s refreshing is that all of these ideas come from a different place. I guess the challenge is just to boil those ideas down into a cohesive proposition.
“What we are doing now is testing. We ask people if they like what we do. And we’ll continue to discover what people are interacting with once we reopen next year and have the opportunity to bring digital experiences into the gallery itself. It is important for us, at this stage, not to lock ourselves into preconceived ideas about the direction we want to take in the years to come.
Learn more about Katherine and an exceptional array of other museum professionals at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit taking place on the 5e – 6e December 2022. Learn more about the conference here.