Digital reviews - Museums Association

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Digital reviews

A virtual exhibition, a new podcast and a video streaming site to check out
Digital
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Rachel Ellis
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The National Gallery, London | The Director's Choice virtual exhibition

If there’s something that really turns me off about online experiences it is having too many bells and whistles. Technology, I reckon, should always try to be as invisible as possible, simply enabling the experience to take place.

If I don’t get which button to press or which way to swipe, or where to navigate to next, then whatever digital experience that has been cooked up for our attention has, to my mind, failed.

If you want to have a digital mooch around London’s National Gallery without any of the visible technological bells and whistles, then I would wholeheartedly recommend its Director’s Choice exhibition, which was launched in the summer. It is simply beautiful and a super slick online experience that feels like having a gentle stroll around an actual gallery, without the crowds and the trouble getting there.

As the title suggests, it is a selection of director Gabriele Finaldi’s favourite finds from the gallery’s vast collection. Zoom in on the 20 paintings with ease and take the time to see what you’d not see if you were standing right in front of them surrounded by the pull of the rest of the vast collection. Read about why Finaldi thinks they are special and marvel at such an eclectic group of paintings being displayed together.

I love that lockdown closures have allowed museums and galleries to experiment digitally and do things we’d never normally see in the real world – imagine a gallery director having the ego to dedicate a whole exhibition to the things they love. The digital world somehow allows us to get closer to the people who care for our nation’s art – closed doors have allowed a lightness of touch and perhaps a more human approach. There is no intellectual chin stroking here – it’s just a bunch of great art presented in an exceptionally simple way. I hope opening museum doors in real-life doesn’t stop this kind of project happening again because it’s a real joy. 

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Science Museum, London | A Brief History of Stuff podcast
Common household objects such as moon cups come under the microscope in the Science Museum podcast

It feels like the whole world is either listening to podcasts or making them right now. Their popularity is off the scale. I’ve always presumed that museums would be the first to get in on the podcast act as they have so much stuff to talk about, but I rarely hear any. Maybe it’s because the skill sets in museums are often about presenting things visually, or through the written word, and broadcasting (as podcasting basically is) doesn’t fall naturally into our sector.

The Science Museum in London has sidestepped that problem by employing a professional broadcaster – Radio 5 Live’s Nihal Arthanayake – to host its new podcast series. It’s called A Brief History of Stuff and it feels just like a great radio programme – which is my favourite broadcast medium. Themed around pretty ordinary museum objects – anything from bath toys to moon cups and microphones – Arthanayake and the curators, plus the other enthusiasts he talks to, take you on a 30-minute journey, revealing the remarkable stories about the stuff we see around us.

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To me, this represents the best bit of museums – taking objects and using them as a starting point to tell us about the past, the present and the future – helping us discover how the things we find ordinary have often had the most extraordinary impacts on us and our world. 

Los Angeles Hammer Museum | Hammer Channel video streaming

If the pandemic has taught the museum sector anything, it is that a museum is so much more than its bricks and mortar and the collection that it houses. It could be argued that the pandemic has finally shone a light on what we’ve all really known forever (but we were too busy being distracted by the bricks and the mortar) and that is that museums are really all about ideas and inspiration. 

The University of California’s Hammer Museum in Los Angeles has reflected this beautifully in its Hammer Channel, launched earlier this year. The video platform is filled with more than 1,000 conversations with artists, writers, filmmakers, academics, scientists and activists. It represents the museum’s public programme and exhibitions from 2005 to 2021. It is vast and I’ve barely touched the surface – it feels like having access to a whole new streaming service – and one that I don’t need to subscribe to and pay for. I may be some time. 

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