National Gallery launches immersive virtual experience - Museums Association

National Gallery launches immersive virtual experience

Users can now view The Adoration of the Kings accompanied by ambient sound and poetry
Art Digital Immersive
Frankie Lister-Fell
Detail from Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart) The Adoration of the Kings
Detail from Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart) The Adoration of the Kings © The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery has launched its first ever immersive experience for mobile phones. From this month, Android users can enjoy the London gallery’s Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s Adoration display in intricate detail from the comfort of their sofas. 

A physical version of the same exhibition opened at the gallery on 9 December 2020 last year. Due to rising Covid cases, Sensing the Unseen was forced to close after just a week.

Overcoming the challenges of lockdown, Emma McFarland, the gallery’s innovation programme lead, worked with independent collaborators on a part-time basis to develop the virtual experience over six weeks. She said: “This experimental mobile experience was created as part of our response to the constraints on exhibition visitor numbers as a result of the pandemic.” 

Both the digital and the physical exhibitions revolve around a single painting: The Adoration of the Kings (1510-15) by Northern Renaissance artist Jan Gossaert. 

Acquired by the National Gallery in 1911, the detailed, 5ft-long oil-on-oak masterpiece depicts the birth of Jesus, surrounded by angels, king, shepherds in a crumbling city instead of a stable. Gossaert was so impressed by the finished piece that he signed his name twice – on King Balthasar’s crown and the king’s attendant’s collar. Now Android users across the world will be able to get closer to the details of the artwork. 

McFarland said: “Virtual exhibitions offer the public an exciting new space in which to engage with a collection in new ways; one which is not tied to a geographical location or a specific building or the materiality of the object.”


Making use of the possibilities of digital, the “sonified” mobile exhibition allows users to journey through high-resolution images of different segments of the painting while listening to ambient sound, music and six poems, in the voice of King Balthasar, that interpret the painting’s six scenes. 

The former young people’s laureate for London, Theresa Lola, wrote and voiced the poems. Users can zoom in and out using their fingers on the touchscreen.

“What virtual offers museums is an opportunity to reimagine and reinterpret our collections in new ways, reaching people far beyond their traditional visitor base,” McFarland said.

“But these technologies do come with some downsides; creating these experiences can be risky and resource-intensive, both of which can be barriers for museums, smaller ones in particular,” she added. For McFarland, designing for a specific audience in mind is key to success.

The innovation team is in the process of deploying the beta version created for iOS soon so iPhone users can also experience the exhibition. 

See Sensing the Unseen here.

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