Touch Van Gogh and Be Touched – How New Media Are Transforming the Way We Present Complex Research
Marthe de Vet, Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands, Jolein van Kregten, Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands
This paper will show how our curation and interpretation of new research findings on Van Gogh have been influenced by new media, such as multitouch tablets, and the new modes of communication they foster, and how this leads to new workflows between researchers and educational interpretators. We will explain how we take advantage of new technological ‘habits’ to promote immersion and engagement among visitors and non-visitors alike, and how this has affected our range of educational tools on site and online. We will reflect on the choices we have made—with regard to storytelling, modes of presentation, interfaces, tone of voice, look and feel, languages, and technical issues—to make technical information widely accessible and appealing to various groups.
Keywords: tablet, multitouch, exhibition, 3D prints, interpretation, on-site, online, workflow
For the past eight years, the Van Gogh Museum (VGM) has conducted cutting-edge research on Van Gogh’s working methods, together with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) and Shell. This multidisciplinary team investigated questions like: Where did Van Gogh find his painting materials? How did he use them? Who or what taught him his techniques? Interim findings were presented in museum displays, and in 2013 the project culminated in the major exhibition Van Gogh at Work, with an accompanying book (Vellekoop et al., 2013).
The VGM has been investigating the art of Van Gogh and his contemporaries for decades, but thanks to new advances, materials research has taken off in recent years. While past curators and researchers had just a few research techniques at their disposal, today we have more options, both new techniques and refinements of old methods. Research techniques developed for other users, such as the chemical industry, have been successfully used for research on drawings and paintings. Besides x-rays, curators can now use techniques such as x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) or subject paint samples to scanning electron microscope energy-dispersive x-ray analysis (SEM-EDX). Paint samples—the tiniest parts of a painting—often yield an abundance of new information.
These new research techniques produce tables and images that only experts can understand. Additional explanation is needed to interpret these results. Traditional educational tools, such as wall texts with images or short videos, often proved insufficient to engage the public with our research. We looked for more inspiring ways of presenting research to the public. We suspected that developments in new media might be helpful. In this paper, we share our experiences.
2. Striking a balance among content, context, and users
The VGM seeks to make the life and work of Vincent van Gogh accessible to as many people as possible, to enrich their lives and inspire them. For this purpose, the Education Department interprets the content of collections, exhibitions, and research and makes it accessible to our target groups through a coherent set of tools and activities, both inside and outside the museum. To find the most effective educational mix, we constantly seek a balance between content (in this case, the research findings we wish to present), context (packed galleries with crowd control requirements, in the middle of the permanent collection), and users (the target groups that we hope to reach and inspire, but who mainly come to see the masterpieces) (Figure 2).
Educational tools are most effective when adapted to the learning styles, motivations, and prior knowledge of the users. We know this from experience, and research confirms it (e.g., Fadel & Lemke, 2008). The better we understand our target group, the better we can adapt our educational tools.
We serve an audience numbering millions: in the museum, online, and through outreach. Annually, more than 1.5 million people from around the globe visit the VGM in Amsterdam. About 15 percent of our visitors are from the Netherlands. The others come from abroad (Figure 3). For most, it is their first visit, and for many, it is the only time they will see Vincent van Gogh’s masterpieces.
The average age of our visitors is 32 (Figure 4). A recent study found that 79 percent use smartphones (Apple products are popular), and 27 percent check social media in the museum using wi-fi (Klooster & Vlek, 2012). This means many of them are accustomed to new media and intuitive touchscreen interfaces. Figures 5 and 6 show that our online audience is also large, still growing, and more and more using mobile devices. In short, our visitors are numerous, international, young, multimedia savvy, and often paying their first and only visit.
To reach and serve our visitors better, we have had detailed studies of their motivations and behaviour conducted in recent years. Van de Wiel & Brocx (2013) showed that VGM visitors are diverse, with all sorts of motivations and learning styles (Figures 7 and 8). Although our visitors have diverse motivations, they tend to see the VGM as an easygoing “connector” that is:
- Open to everyone
- A shared experience
- A relaxing group outing
- Inviting and approachable
- Simply and clearly organized
- Friendly and welcoming in atmosphere
Our visitors expect a broad range of tools that are clearly organized, easily accessible, and consistent with our image as an easygoing connector. They expect the museum to be inviting and approachable for everybody, which means we have to make our interpretation available to all learning styles, engaging all senses: looking, hearing, seeing, doing, and experiencing.
Our visitors expect shared experiences—in keeping with the findings of Simon (2010)—in which museum objects (Van Gogh’s masterpieces) and the unique man who made them (Vincent van Gogh) inspire social interaction. Accessibility is therefore an important criterion in choices about interpretation, tone of voice, tools, and design. So we accompany the Van Gogh collection with a broad range of tools: text, audio, multimedia, talks, guided tours, and workshops. Since 85 percent of our visitors come to the museum just once, we have to find effective ways of inspiring and provoking visitors to spend more time engaging with Van Gogh. Unfortunately, language is sometimes a barrier for our multilingual public. We wondered whether hands-on tools—both “analog” and new media—could help us to give them access to the complex research into Van Gogh’s studio practice.
It is a tremendous challenge for us to make specialized materials research accessible to a broad public that mainly visits us to see Van Gogh’s masterpieces, especially considering that the museum is sometimes very crowded. Interactive and participatory tools can therefore conflict with crowd-control requirements. To make sure that we would reach and serve our public effectively, we performed two tests with hands-on digital tools. We evaluated these tests and put our findings into practice in the exhibition Van Gogh at Work.
Test 1: Adding the Digital
In 2011, we mounted a small-scale but in-depth display about a subject with great imaginative appeal: Vincent van Gogh’s re-use of canvases (“Canvases re-used”). We hung five paintings in which earlier pictures are hidden beneath the top layer of paint, presenting them both in the traditional, “analog” way with text and images, and with the help of digital tools (Figures 9, 10, and 11).
For the digital display, we requested assistance from the Augmented Reality (AR) Lab at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague. They designed an iPad app that visitors could use in the museum. We installed one iPad for each painting, on which visitors could virtually scratch off the top layer of paint. The tactile usability of iPads offered a playful wayto direct their attention to the X-ray and infrared photographs, which showed an older painting concealed underneath the visible paint layer.
What was the visitor’s response? Figure 12 from the visitor study by Klooster and Vlek (2012) showed that the analog display with the paintings received just as much attention as the digital one beside it: 45 percent of the visitors went to them. But the general wall texts—not close to the paintings—were used by far lower percentages of visitors: 30 percent, even dropping to 4 percent. A closer look at this study shows the figures are influenced by the routing. When visitors entered the gallery, they looked directly at the analog presentation with the paintings. This attracted them. The iPads were not immediately in view. In-depth interviews showed that more people wanted to use them than the registered 44 percent, but the gallery was small and crowded. People complained there were not enough iPads, nor enough room for them to use the iPads. This meant the iPads were popular and needed more space.
We wondered whether using the iPads made visitors so curious about the subject of re-using canvases that they then sought out the extra information on the panels with text and supporting illustrations. We worked with the AR Lab to set up a small qualitative survey (see Kolstee & Van Eck, 2011).
The survey showed that two-thirds of the visitors had not used an iPad before in a museum. Nevertheless, they found the “just touching and discovering” easy to use. Two-thirds also said the iPads added value to the museum experience, calling them: fun, refreshing, and surprising. One visitor commented, “Nice that I can see it for myself, and discover for myself [things] I didn’t know before.” Nevertheless, three-quarters mentioned the touching triggered their interested, but once they got interested they did not get explanation on what they had found. The iPads offered only limited explanations. Visitors who wanted to understand the meaning of their intuitive discoveries on the iPads could find answers in the analog presentation. Due to the place of the installation and the routing, people did not always see the interconnection between the iPads and the wall texts clearly enough to seek more information in the wall texts. Still, we did succeed in using a hands-on tool, an app, to make visitors want more information beyond what they had originally come to the museum for.
This test taught us that:
- Conservation topics are popular among our visitors
- New digital techniques such as touchscreens make effective tools for presenting complex research
- Effective interpretation and presentation of materials research requires close contact between the educator and conservators
- Clear choices about subject matter are required (what is said, what is left out)
- Information should be offered in layers, from simple to complex
- When people make their own discoveries by intuitive hands-on installations, they want to know what exactly they have discovered and ask for more information: an extra layer of information is needed
Test 2: App Prototype Stage
The test with the iPad installation was successful: intuitive touching created curiosity in technical research findings and triggered our visitors to want to know more. We decided to continue on intuitive hands-on media but to add an extra layer to give people answers to what they discovered.
We changed our interpretation from Touch → Show into Touch (activate) → Show (create interest) → Give answers (engage and deepen the experience).This led to the idea of an app that would let users examine Vincent van Gogh’s works themselves, at their own pace. We wanted the app to provide the feeling of looking over the artist’s shoulder. It had to be usable both in the museum and by Van Gogh admirers worldwide.
The chosen medium for this app was the tablet. The multitouch input methods for this device—swiping and pinching—invite playful, intuitive exploration. We contracted with the multidisciplinary design firm Fabrique for the prototype stage. Together with Fabrique, we wanted to figure out how the new app might look and how it would work.
Our requirements for the app:
- Suitable for use in the museum and elsewhere
- Suitable for multitouch screens (iPad or larger)
- Emphasize techniques (both Van Gogh’s painting techniques and modern research techniques)
- Present individual paintings (case studies)
- Layered presentation of information, starting with an action or interaction (intuitive interface, not much language) and giving context or explanation in a second layer
- Web-based (programmed in HTML5) and therefore device- and platform-independent
- Capable of connecting to the multimedia tour
- Capable of connecting to social media platforms
- Fully copyrighted by the VGM (both the content and the system)
- Be in English
We made a working prototype for the iPad, with one painting. Then we divided the stories about this painting into chapters, indicated with Google Maps-style markers on a full-screen image of the painting (Figure 14). By tapping the markers, users could launch interactive features. For example, they could “rub off” the top paint layer to reveal an x-ray image of the painting underneath (Figure 13). Once this interaction was complete, an informative layer appeared with explanatory text. It was not possible to programme all this in HTML5, because that markup language does not support the complex interactions required to present the content effectively. Ultimately, the prototype stage did not include a connection to social media or a revenue model, but we did make great progress with the design and organization of the app. We decided to test it on our public.
We developed two test versions: a simple one for use in the museum, and a more elaborate one for home use. Both were tested in the museum through qualitative sampling. This showed that people used the simple gallery version for three minutes on average. The elaborate version for use outside the museum was used for five minutes. Four of five people questioned said they looked differently at the painting due to the app experience. Depending on the interaction, between 60 percent to 90 percent of the people clicked also on the explanatory layer. Of course, exciting topics and images such as x-rays through which people could discover what was underneath the paint were popular. Most used words to describe the app were: new perspective, fresh, useful, or adding depth (Figure 15).
Also, the usability had a huge influence: virtually scratching away the paint to discover what’s underneath was easy to do and highly rewarding. Other interactions appeared to be too complicated: people did not intuitively understand what it would bring to them. They complained the markers did not show what kind of content they could expect. The richness of the content became clear only during the interaction. In other words, the intuitivity of the design left room for improvement. We did notice that the clearer the connection was between the interaction and the information, the more users liked the chapter.
The prototype taught us that:
- The layered structure of first doing and discovering, then basic explanation, and thirdly in-depth explanation was successful.
- The link between the interaction and the context was essential to the experience.
- The stories about the paintings could not be forced into a standard model but required a customized approach. We had to let the content lead the way.
- Device- and platform-independent design was not yet possible.
- Connecting the app to our collection information system was too ambitious at that stage, or extremely expensive.
4. Putting tools into practice in the exhibition Van Gogh at Work
In 2013, the Van Gogh Museum transformed all four floors of its permanent collection into one large exhibition focused on Van Gogh’s working methods: Van Gogh at Work (see Van Gogh Museum, 2013a). This was a challenge: we had to present the highlights people were coming for in the context of new research findings.
The Education Department’s strategy was to let our target groups (85 percent tourists, 15 percent Dutch visitors including school visits, families) discover for themselves, whenever possible, by looking, comparing, and doing, how Van Gogh approached his work (the primary message) and how the VGM discovers his methods through research (secondary message). This implied we gave a new and major role to hands-on tools in our educational mix (Figure 16).
These new hands-on tools had to:
- Use methods familiar to our young visitors, from popular communication devices such as smartphones
- Be inviting and preferably intuitive and easy to use
- Not present language barriers at the start (not much language)
- Engage more senses than sight alone
- Playfully encourage in-depth exploration
- Invite dialogue and interaction between visitors
- Respond to the public’s desire to discover Van Gogh
- Fit into our strict rules of crowd control and security
How to measure the results?
The museum’s Marketing Department conducts a large-scale quarterly survey of our visitors with assistance from the Dutch survey agency TNS NIPO. Last August, we asked visitors for the first time to rate the item “trying things out, touching, or doing things yourself in the museum.” The survey showed that this was unimportant to visitors, scored below average, and had a medium impact on the visitor experience. We had not expected that. Perhaps this is not yet what visitors are looking for in an art museum: most important are the paintings, not the tools to discover them. Interestingly, the age group from 21 to 30 (one-third of our visitors) rated “trying things out, touching, or doing things yourself in the museum” more favourably and as having a larger impact on their experience. The Marketing Department therefore describes our hands-on tools as an “almost hidden opportunity.”
To better understand the appreciation of the hands-on tools by our visitors, we conducted a small-scale qualitative study in November 2013. We measured the proportion of visitors who used the tools. One researcher counted the number of visitors entering a gallery over a 20-minute period. The other counted the number of people who used a hands-on tool at the same time and in the same space. We defined “using” to include looking, reading, and touching, for any length of time. We investigated three tools: the three-dimensional prints, the microscopes, and the perspective frame (see detailed descriptions below). We found that they were used by four out of ten visitors, a high score for an educational tool that’s new and unexpected; for comparison, our highly appreciated multimedia tour has a pickup percentage of 15 percent to 18 percent (Figure 17).
5. Description of four tools
Tool 1: The App “Touch Van Gogh”
The informative prototype stage (test 2, described above) gave us sufficient confidence to continue developing the app. We had decided to call it “Touch Van Gogh” (Van Gogh Museum, 2013b), a tongue-in-cheek reference to the touchscreen interface and an invitation to touch the paintings in the app, as well an allusion to being touched emotionally by Van Gogh’s work. Working from the prototype, we made some adaptations to the basic ideas of the app. Most importantly, we moved from platform-independent design to designs for iOS and Android. The app was built in Adobe Air. It retained its magazine-like formula, with “issues” for each painting. The storyline guided the way.
One new feature was a main menu with images of the paintings to choose among (Figure 18). At the painting level, the menu was improved; the pin markers were replaced by icons with images and key words indicating the subject of the interaction and the back story (Figure 19). This allowed better-informed choices. Interactions were improved, and new ones were added (Figures 20 and 21). The in-depth information layer was included only in the online version. We decided to present twelve paintings in the app, publishing them in stages over two years. We made sure that the app would provide user statistics, so that we could use this data for interim adjustments or improvements.
In the May–September 2013 period, we installed the app in the museum as a hands-on tool next to the three paintings for which it provided context (Figure 24). The tool is in almost continual use, usually with one person touching the screen and another one looking on. The tool inspires interest in and dialogue about Van Gogh’s working methods, and people go back to the painting to have a better look. It therefore fits our visitor’s image of the museum as an easygoing connector. In early October, we released the app to the stores, accompanied by an (inter)national press release.
Downloads of the Android version lagged behind because of problems with metadata in the Google Play Store, which prevented installation of the app on tablets with small screens. Furthermore, we made the app for Android version 4.1 and up, and many people still have an older version.
Observations and reactions
In addition to download information, we monitored the number of page views. It is still too soon to draw conclusions, but it seems that the placement of a chapter in the app menu (whether the icon is visible right away or only after swiping) is the main determinant of popularity, along with the keyword for the subject.
Press reactions generally mention the unique experience of “touching” the paintings and the detective-story quality of discovering yourself and, by doing, getting into interpretative content. The intuitive interface is also appreciated. For example, the iPadclub wrote, “The methods of providing information are well chosen throughout the app. When explanations require text, they use text, rather than an out-of-place button or interactive game” (Van der Velden, 2013).
The lifestyle news website on tech and design Bright.nl wrote, “Through playful exploration, you get to know the Dutch painter, learning by doing. The supplementary information is very detailed, and because everything is touch-controlled, the app is very pleasant to use. Recommended for art lovers and anyone who wants to learn ‘the painter’s secret’” (Bright.nl, 2013).
Museum professionals in the Netherlands and abroad responded to Touch Van Gogh with enthusiasm. Our conservators are pleased that their research findings are receiving so much attention, and they show the app to associates at other institutions. Louise Rice, former head of Publications at the National Gallery, London, emailed us, “Here at Touch Press we’re loving your Touch Van Gogh app. It appears so simple yet covers so much ground—congratulations.” (Rice, 2013).
Tool 2: High-tech 3D prints (Relievos)
The Van Gogh Museum and Fuji have developed a remarkable new printing technique that permits exact replication of both the colour and the surface texture of a painting: Relievo. Two sections from Relievo prints of Van Gogh paintings were displayed near the original paintings, so that visitors could feel the contrast between Van Gogh’s famous thick, “swirling” brushstrokes and more thinly applied paint, thus gaining a tactile sense of his materials and how he used them (Figures 25 and 26). Our qualitative survey showed that fewer than half of the visitors used this tool and mostly just to read the texts. The design may not have been eye-catching enough for people to notice the Relievos.
Tool 3: Microscopes in the Gallery
One of the exhibition galleries included three professional-quality research microscopes for use by visitors (Figures 27 and 28). A screen above each microscope allowed other visitors to watch. Adjacent panels explained what you could see through the microscopes. One of the three showed original paint samples from Van Gogh’s paintings on re-used canvases. The other two showed small, painted reconstructions of sections of paintings. Visitors could select a reconstruction to examine under the microscope and make the same kinds of discoveries as conservators: newsprint or grains of sand in the paint, yellowed varnish, or an underdrawing. We had a two-part goal: offer visitors a new perspective on the paintings, and give them a sense of looking over the researcher’s shoulder, in a kind of CSI: Van Gogh.
The microscopes were in constant use. Our qualitative research showed that they were very popular, but also that visitors used them in a wide variety of ways. The balance between doing and reading favoured doing: half of the visitors of this gallery looked through the microscope. One out of three looked along with someone else. And when the microscopes were occupied (which happened a lot), people left the room. Only one out of four seemed to read the explanatory text. Did they miss the explanatory text, or was it too complicated? Or were they satisfied with just exploring independently? Since the microscopes are part of a large exhibition, it is hard to draw conclusions. At the moment, we are developing another installation with the microscopes with fewer objects underneath each microscope and shorter texts. We will also put the microscopes in the same room as the paintings they give added information on. We will test visitor behaviour on this adapted microscope installation.
Tool 4: Perspective Frame with Drawing App
An adjustable perspective frame containing a grid offered a view of a landscape photograph that filled one wall of the gallery. Using the perspective frame, visitors could draw the landscape on a touchscreen marked with the same grid lines (Figures 29, 30, and 31). The goal was to show visitors that Van Gogh was not a born artist but learned his skills through long practice with artistic aids. At first, he had difficulty accurately rendering proportions and the illusion of depth on canvas, so he began working with a perspective frame. Van Gogh traced the grid lines of the perspective frame on many of his canvases. These lines are visible to the naked eye or under infrared light. In the past, we had to explain how the perspective frame worked in words, or with confusing infrared photographs. That demanded a lot of imagination from our visitors. The hands-on tool made words unnecessary; when you use the perspective frame yourself, it is easy to understand.
This component was more popular than expected; it was continually in use. Visitors worked hard on their drawings, while others briefly looked on. Some took their time, even though others were waiting in line. Since the installation was next to the painting, we got more people looking at the painting than in the regular presentation. Since the perspective frame invited interaction between visitors, it fit our image as an easygoing connector.
6. Peer review
Many education curators, conservators, and art historians from the Netherlands and abroad visited Van Gogh at Work. Our peers, especially the conservators, were full of praise, particularly for the appealing presentation of complex research findings to the public. Museum Ordrupgaard even asked if they could borrow one app, emailing,
Yes, it can be tricky indeed to make technique and content come together in a meaningful way. We are always hassled by technical challenges, it seems. However, I saw the exhibition and was very impressed with the mediation and education side of it. I must congratulate you, you did a great job on the education part of the show! Very inspiring! (Krogsgaard, 2013)
Technical art historian Elisabeth Reissner (2013), a lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute, commented,
Not only was the research so comprehensive, but there were so many good ideas with respect to ways of conveying the new knowledge in an engaging and stylish manner—all of which will provide a fantastic exemplar in my seminar this year to the curating students on “The display and dissemination of material relating to an object’s physical condition and how it has been made” . . . The chance to look down a microscope was I thought particularly innovative but the room explaining the layer structure in some of Van Gogh’s paintings was also really well conceived. I particularly liked the chance to look through the perspective frame! Having the information about lake fading in the display cases in the centre of the room—giving the viewer the choice either to engage with the content and thus understand what they were seeing or to simply look at the paintings without the distraction of interpretive material—was also very clever.
CSI: Van Gogh
By combining looking and doing in our educational toolkit, we inspire more people to take a closer, shared look at Van Gogh’s techniques and our research into them. By turning visitors into fellow researchers, we make them eager for more information, even if that was not what they originally came for. This increases visitor engagement. We will continue to combine looking and doing.
Use the familiar
Our visitors are used to smartphones and new media. When they see a touchscreen, they almost automatically want to touch it. Museums can use these habits to engage visitors more deeply. By using familiar touchscreens, we motivated them to take action. Once they were motivated, they proved eager to find out more. Visitors are not yet used to touching other objects (like the Relievo’s) in an art museum.
The more education curators know about the research agenda, the sooner they can think about how to present new research, and what tools, images, or videos to make early on. Then they can document and use not only the final product, but also the intermediate steps (which can improve visitor understanding).
Hands-on tools support the experience and understanding of an art work. Hands-on displays should be considered from the start of exhibition conception and planning. But if they are placed too far from the works of art, visitors cannot see the connection, and the educational goal is not achieved or is very difficult to measure.
Keep it simple
Do not overwhelm your visitors with every facet of the research. Focus on the essentials, and consider their interests. In our case, that means keeping text to a minimum and not using one tool for too many messages. That helps the message to stick in visitors’ minds. Remember that you are developing tools to enhance the experience and appreciation of art. The tools are not the goal of their visit. This is a fundamental difference between art museums and museums of science and technology.
To scrum or not to scrum
Managers, directors, and project leaders: dare to assign responsibility to lower levels. Have educators and researchers plan together early on, and let them make the important decisions. We learned for the future that a designer should be involved early on, working with the educator to interpret complex research, both graphically and in animations or interactions.
Share your work from an early stage, so that other departments can benefit. For instance, our Education Department produces images suitable for use in public relations and communications. Our interpretive tools provide insight into complex research, making it easier for the Communications Department to get the message across. And our commercial team develops 3D replicas (Relievos) that we use for educational purposes, so that visitors can feel the impasto quality of Van Gogh’s brushwork.
Learn by doing
Dare to admit that innovation requires trial and error, improvement and adjustment. Design digital tools to generate user data, and evaluate that data. Raise awareness of this process among managers and directors. Consistently measure what the public is doing, and listen to feedback. For example, we will use the lessons we have learned when we redesign our permanent collection, starting in the summer of 2014.
We would like to thank our colleagues at the Van Gogh Museum, especially Marije Vellekoop (Van Gogh’s Studio Practice project leaders), Ella Hendriks, and all the other researchers, for their inspiring contributions and for not getting too tired of our questions. We also thank Nienke Bakker, Geeta Bruin, Pieter ’t Hart, Tess Klijnman, Mirjam Eikelenboom, Ann Blokland, Adrienne Quarles van Ufford, René van Blerk, and our museum’s ICT and Facilities departments for their patient and generous assistance in developing, testing, and installing these tools. Many thanks to Laurine van de Wiel, Edith Schreurs, and Charlotte Bosman for providing survey results and user statistics, and René Gerritsen and Lara E. Tompa for their photos.
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