Taking the Collection Out of the Gallery

Rose Cardiff, UK, Kirstie Beaven, UK, Rebecca Sinker, UK


Using mobile technology we now have the opportunity to take artworks from the Tate collection out into the real world. Over the last year we have been developing three apps that address this in different ways – Art Maps, Pocket Art Gallery and a William Blake walking tour app.
Art Maps is a mobile application and research collaboration between Tate and Horizon research centre at the Universities of Nottingham and Exeter. The project is developing and examining the use of a mobile app allowing users to relate artworks to place. Users can geo-locate artworks from Tate’s online collection on a map and move, tag, comment on or annotate these, providing crowd-sourced data. They can also use the audio-visual documentation features of their smartphones to record their own responses to being in the places inspired by or depicted in the artworks. In effect they are both mapping the artworks and orientating themselves through the art, on location. We will describe the project from the perspective of the museum and from that of the users, drawing on the participant interviews from two public engagement workshops in spring and autumn 2012. We will describe how these have informed both the iterative design process as well as our emerging understanding of how and why people might want to engage with the collection in this way.
Pocket Art Gallery is an augmented reality app that uses marker technology to enable people to hang artworks from the collection wherever they are in the world. The app was developed as part of the Great British Art Debate partnership project and includes artworks from Tate, as well as three other British museums. Users can select up to four artworks from a selection of one hundred paintings and can position them in their own environment, using a marker of their choice. The available markers are commonly found objects such as bank notes, road signs and logos. A user can choose to ‘hang’ a famous painting in their living room through their smartphone and then take a photograph of it to share via social media or the Pocket Art Gallery map. We will describe the thinking behind the project and the challenges of using cutting-edge technology. Various choices and compromises had to made around technology platform, software licensing, choice of markers, and user experience that will give other museums plenty to consider if they’re thinking about using augmented reality in this way.
We are also in the process of developing a William Blake walking tour app that guides users on a walk around London, visiting locations relevant to the life of William Blake. Using geo-location services, the app will deliver rich content such as images, video or audio to the user’s phone when they reach one of the locations on the tour.
Our paper will explore the challenges and pitfalls as well as the successes of these projects and share the knowledge we have gained about engaging different audiences outside the gallery walls.

Keywords: augmented reality, mobile technology, geo-location, user engagement

1. Introduction

Tate holds and acquires the United Kingdom national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art. Currently Tate holds around 70,000 artworks, and much of this collection is already digitised and available to search and browse online at www.tate.org.uk/art.

Tate has four physical galleries in the UK: in London, Liverpool, and St. Ives; however, part of Tate’s vision for the coming years is to explore the future of museums through technology, and specifically to take the collection outside of the gallery walls: to find ways to make artworks relevant to existing and new audiences in their daily lives.

Over the last year, we have been developing three mobile applications that aim to research and pilot the possibilities of mobile technologies in taking the collection to audiences rather than aiming to bring audiences to the galleries: Art Maps, Pocket Art Gallery, and the William Blake Tour. Each has had its own set of ambitions and findings, pitfalls and learning, and this paper will explore both challenges and successes and share the knowledge we have gained about engaging different audiences outside the gallery walls.

2. Art Maps

fig 1  Art Maps Screen shotFigure 1: Art Maps screen shot

Project overview

Art Maps is a research-led project, exploring how the public might relate artworks to places. The initial aim for the project was to develop an application (both mobile and in-browser on desktop) that would allow Tate to improve “fuzzy” geographical data on collection works, through crowdsourcing more detailed information. However, in early discussions, the complex and varied relationships between artwork and place, the experience of viewing the work “on location,” and the possibility of using the audiovisual documentation tools on smartphones all suggested an opportunity for inviting more expressive responses in addition to the locational data.

The aim of Art Maps, currently in beta, is for anyone to find works in Tate’s collection located on a digital map using a smartphone or desktop computer, and then share local knowledge by confirming or suggesting new locations as well as adding tags, comments, and photos. In addition to helping pinpoint and enhance location information, participants can respond creatively to the collection through the app, perhaps creating trails for others or sharing images, experiences, and memories associated with the location or the artworks. In effect, users can both map the artworks and orientate themselves through the art.


Art Maps is a research collaboration between Tate and Horizon, a digital economy research centre funded by Research Councils UK. The research collaboration involves three departments at Tate (Research, Online, and Learning) and Horizon researchers in Computer Science (University of Nottingham) and Performance and New Media (University of Exeter). This transdisciplinary project allows us to consider the technical, design, and UX aspects of the project, as well as the museological and art historical aspects of knowledge creation, copyright, and audience participation.

Research methods and focus

The initial research questions were identified as:

  1. How can mobile technologies support both individual and group learning in relation to users’ understanding of and engagement with artworks in relation to place?
  2. To what extent and in what ways are users motivated to use mobile devices for more associative and creative responses to art and place?
  3. What is the user experience of these applications?
  4. To what extent are users willing to upload and share their materials under a creative commons licence?
  5. What are the values (scholarly and other) of crowdsourced geographical data and of associative/creative responses of art and place? How might the values be described and demonstrated?

The project has used iterative development to evolve the desktop and mobile applications and has been informed by user feedback early in the process, primarily from two public engagement events in 2012.

Summary of public engagement events

The first Art Mapping engagement event, held early in the project in April 2012 at Tate Britain, was advertised as a workshop exploring the relationship between mobile technology and landscape. Marketed through Tate Online and using Tate’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, it was deliberately framed as an event for people interested in (and by implication comfortable with) this technology. The key aims for this event were:

  1. To understand the motivations for searching, browsing, and engaging with Tate artworks through a mobile device
  2. To see how people might creatively employ the documentation tools on their smartphones in response to exploring the Tate Collection on location

Both the app and website were at a very rudimentary stage in development, so this event used an existing blogging site (Posterous) as the platform for participants to collect and curate multimedia responses to the works they encountered and the places they moved through.

fig 2  Art Mapping PosterousFigure 2: Art Mapping Posterous

In the first foray, participants were sent text prompts to explore smartphone documentation tools in the field. The following week, they were asked to create their own journeys. With two exceptions, the thirteen participants came as individuals and preferred to work solo. We began to extrapolate what the app should offer different audience groups and integrate this into our thinking and development.

Art Mapping 2 was held in October 2012, also at Tate Britain. The iPhone app and website were further advanced, and it was an opportunity to test their functionality as well as investigate the possibilities for group activity.

fig 3 Art Mapping family
Figure 3: Art Mapping family

This event was aimed at family audiences: parents or carers with children aged between 5 and 13. These families were not art or technology aficionados (though half the families had a smartphone, only one used any of its “smart” capabilities), but they were familiar with both the gallery and the surrounding environment. The aims for this second event were:

  1. To observe how well the app and mobile browser functioned for a non tech-savvy user group
  2. To explore the app and the activities as a catalyst for family learning
  3. To get feedback on their user experiences and note any technical or design adaptations needed

At this stage, a Google map showed collection works as pins and allowed users to search by location and artwork key words, view the artworks, and suggest relocations. Using an Art Maps app, built using WordPress, they could also add comments as text or image. However, the functionality from the mobile app was not fully integrated to the Art Maps Web browser at this stage: users could comment, but these comments did not appear on the map within the blogging app, and users could not search within the app either. In effect, they had to keep switching between the functions supported by the website (searching, viewing artworks, and pin moving) and the functions of the app (commenting, adding photos). For this reason, we also provided a paper map of the area, highlighting a suggested final location for their journey, depicted in or represented by a Tate artwork.

fig 4  locating artwork
Figure 4: Locating artwork

Key findings

The two engagement events revealed that mobile technologies offered these audiences the capacity to search, browse, capture, and share digital content in the field in ways which suited both self-led and directed individuals and groups. Being out in the environment while looking for artworks that related to that particular place was appealing as both a treasure-hunt and a psycho-geographic experience, and also illuminated and extended people’s knowledge of the area.

Seeing the digitized artwork in an on-screen context was a trigger for ideas and for making work but was not a substitute for seeing the original. Being able to view the work “on location” offered a different experience of the city and a new insight into the work. Being able to share this immediately among the participants and with others beyond the group via social media offered feedback and further stimulus. The mobile-learning experience placed the learner in the environment with its perceptual and sensual elements, while simultaneously offering new stimulus in the dynamic form of data capture and information access through the mobile, including the experience of virtual, real-time communication.

Both these public workshops were organised as free events, rather than specifically as user-testing groups, and were facilitated by an experienced creative producer. In each instance it emerged that the event was clearly a strong motivator in itself.

In the first event, participants described the process of seeing the artwork, making their own work in response, doing further research, and then coming back to Tate or going to another gallery to seek out other works of interest:

The artworks themselves are a trigger that set any number of processes in motion.

fig 5 artmapping bessborough_st
Figure 5: Artmapping Bessborough Street

In the family event, one mother described her surprise in how the activities opened up conversations and gave them new insights into a familiar area:

I was surprised at how little we used the app, but how much it generated…  I thought it would be much more engrossing for the children to be … gazing at the screen all the time, but actually it took you outside of that digital world and to the world around you and we talked about things we hadn’t talked about before.

The first event seemed to encourage the group to be creative and imaginative in their uses of the available features and functions, including spending time editing or styling their images, sound, and videos.

There was clearly an appetite to use the mobile and the blogging platform as a sort of audiovisual research tool, as well as to learn from and be inspired by what others were doing. With the family groups, the mix of digital and physical creative tools worked well since it suited different ages or abilities and offered a range of activities for group learning. Parents with young children felt a purely digital experience might have excluded their younger children, while adults who themselves felt unsure about the technology were happy to let their older children take the lead:

We did find that if anyone was gonna work it out it was gonna be the seven year old…  so we just decided we weren’t gonna worry about it very much, we just enjoyed using the phone to take pictures…

For a significant number of participants in both public events, their unfamiliarity with the technology, coupled with the unfinished state of the app, was frustrating and distracting. Some saw the technology as a potential impediment—they described it as getting in the way of seeing or listening—particularly when receiving text prompts to change activity. In the second event, the less-confident adults and youngest children gave up the technology quickest and let other family members take over. But the 7- to 13-year-olds were persistent and curious, using the phones to search, explore, and document their journeys, including, in one case, finding an alternative solution to one of the problems within the demo app.

Several participants posted on social media during the workshop and even continued working on or sharing their blogs beyond the time frame of the event. One participant also noted that in sharing their work in this way:

…it takes art to people that wouldn’t necessarily access it, you know, and it broadens other people’s horizons. I’ve now got friends on my Facebook that have probably never been to an art gallery. So by doing projects like this, you are actually taking the art to them without them realising it.


Key challenges

The strength of the academic–cultural–technical partnership, funded and framed by research, has ensured that the project has developed in a highly collaborative, iterative, and reflective way. However, without the client/service-provider relationship, deadlines were more elastic, and the research opportunities sometimes took precedence over the need for a high-quality, finished, and usable application.

The initial research period was identified as twelve months (January to December 2012), and at the end of this there was an untested but functioning Web-browser application but no usable mobile app. Additional funding has been sought to continue the project and the research to January 2014, when we aim to release an Art Maps mobile app. Research into how users engage with the site and supply crowdsourced geographical data, comments, and photos has been postponed to this second phase.

3. Pocket Art Gallery

Project overview

Pocket Art Gallery is a free iPhone app that uses augmented reality to enable users to explore artworks, make their own selection of up to four artworks, and then virtually “hang” the artworks in the real world. Users can search through one hundred paintings from art galleries across England. Each painting also includes information about the artist, place, or artwork origin.

The app is based on software that enables users to select from a range of familiar objects to use as a marker for the artworks to be placed in relation to. For example, a user can select a UK £5 banknote. When they view the £5 note through their phone camera in the app, their collection of artworks will be displayed above the note as if they were hanging in the surrounding environment. Users can then take a photograph of their art collection in the real world and share this image via Twitter, Facebook, or the Pocket Art Gallery Google map.

Figure 6: Artworks displayed in the surrounding environment using a street sign as a marker


The Pocket Art Gallery app was developed as a result of the Great British Art Debate project. The Great British Art Debate was a partnership between Tate Britain, Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service, and Museums Sheffield, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by the MLA’s Renaissance programme. It sought to explore and debate ideas around Britishness and art through a project website, social media, and a series of nationwide events and exhibitions. Part of the project funding enabled the regional partners to digitise works in their collection for the first time, and one of the aims of the project was to provide a lasting digital legacy that would enable people to explore these newly digitised artworks.

The original funding proposal for the Great British Art Debate project was submitted in 2006, and at this time it was thought that online elements would be created that would enable people to explore artworks in all four partner museum collections and curate their own collections of works; however, technology moved on a great deal between 2006 and 2011, when the partnership team started to look into creating a digital legacy for the project. A cross-collection Web search no longer seemed like the best solution.

The partners had digitised works in their collections, but these were stored in different management systems and not necessarily available through their websites. Tate was also in the process of reworking their online collection, and it would have been risky to build something dependent on this. Instead, it was decided that a standalone solution that did not try to link the partner collection management systems would be a more realistic proposition with the available budget. In addition, since the original proposal was put together, smartphone usage and the production of apps had increased hugely. The partners decided that developing a truly innovative smartphone app would be a good way to use new technologies and provide users with an exciting way to explore the artworks digitally. Unlike the Art Maps project, there was no specific budget for audience research or testing pre-development.


The project team put together an invitation to tender and invited a number of different digital agencies to submit proposals for the production of a smartphone app that used augmented reality to bring together the project partners’ collections and enabled users to explore and use them in a unique way. The team selected the agency AllofUs for the project, and the first phase was an investigation into the different types of augmented reality software available and the pros and cons of each. At the time, there were essentially two different approaches to augmented reality. One approach used markers; the other used the smartphone’s geolocation services to provide digital content to the user based on their position and their movements.

Key Challenges

Using geolocation did not seem to be a stable enough solution to give a great experience of the art in this initial investigation. While mobile network coverage was still patchy, GPS-based engines (such as Layar) did not seem to provide a slick and enjoyable experience of the images—one of the key ambitions for the project. AllofUs explored other located options, such as having the phone output its own virtual space and framework to hang the works on. This would have enabled users to place artworks around them so that they could see them when they looked through their smartphone camera as if the artworks were hung on an imagined dome around the user. However this dome would move with the user if they walked around the room, so if users walked towards the artworks, they would move with them rather than being able to get close to them. The artworks were floating in space around them rather than being hung on the walls.

Marker-based technology therefore seemed to present a more reliable way for users of the app to have a good experience of the artworks. The project team felt that it was very important that the app was not reliant on users having to download and print a special marker to use, as we were keen to retain the idea of being able to view the artworks in your environment wherever you were and whenever you felt like it. This immediately ruled out much of the software available.

Eventually the team decided to use software developed by Obvious Engine that would allow us to define a selection of everyday objects that could be used as markers. These markers could then be placed wherever the user wished, and their collection of artworks would appear when viewed through the camera. This approach had the advantage that users would not need to print a special marker to use, but they could attach a marker to a wall if they wished to create the effect of hanging their artworks in a room. Users could also walk towards the artworks and see them in more detail, as you could in an actual gallery.

The process for deciding which commonly found objects to use as markers was quite lengthy. The team spent some time looking at items that people may have in their pockets that could be used as markers, as well as common signs and symbols that appear outside in both urban and rural environments. AllofUs provided specifications for images or objects that would make suitable markers. They needed to have a certain level of complexity so as not to be confused with anything else, and they also needed to be asymmetrical so that it would be possible to detect their orientation and be a consistent colour.

The team quickly decided on using banknotes as one of the markers, as most people would have these on their person and the imagery is suitably complex. The greater difficulty was finding images and symbols out in the street. While many corporate logos would have made excellent markers, it could have suggested the partnership was advocating particular brands; there was also a danger that companies would change their logo and the app would no longer work. Instead, the team focused on UK street signs and the logos of the partner organisations.

Some common symbols could not be used because they were not complex enough or were too variable. There are many different versions of the fire exit sign, for example, but the app could only be programmed to recognise one version, which may have been very confusing for users. Even the Tate Britain logo presented some problems, as there are a number of different versions of it and it appears in a variety of colours.

As AllofUs investigated the different options, it became clear that the available budget of £45000 would not be enough to develop the app for both iPhone and Android (part of the initial ambition to make it available to as many people as possible), and so the decision was taken to develop for iPhone only. This was based on the fact that a higher proportion of visitors to the Tate website use iPhones than Android devices.  It is also more cost effective to develop apps for iPhone, as you are only developing for one type of device; whereas for Android there are a number of potential devices, screen sizes, processor power, and so on, and a bigger investment needs to be made to deploy and test apps across multiple devices.

The team also discovered potential problems with hosting the back end and content management system for the app. It had initially been decided that the CMS would be hosted on the Tate’s servers, but this turned out not to be possible. The CMS was built in software that the Tate IT department did not support and required a platform that was not available on the Tate servers. This meant that the team had to find additional budget to pay for external hosting for the app for the next three years. Another unexpected cost was the fee for licensing the augmented reality software from Obvious Engine. We were able to secure a license for a vastly reduced fee in order to use the app in Europe, but a worldwide license would have been well beyond the budget of the project, meaning that the app is only available in the European app store.

However, the project team was happy with the designs for the app and the way in which users could view and select artworks from the partner collections.

iOS 5 GUI PSD (iPhone retina)Figure 7: Pocket Art Gallery – viewing and selecting artworks

There were some technical issues with the app before release and during the testing phase. When using a marker such as a street sign, if the light is not perfect, the sign could be too dark against the background for the software to pick up the marker. The team made a number of changes to the messaging within the app to make it clearer if the software was unable to detect the marker, and to provide tips on how to get the best results.

Key findings

The initial testing of the app highlighted some issues with using augmented reality in this way. Some users were confused by what the point of the augmented reality was. We had expected users to place the marker objects in unusual places and create images showing famous artworks in their living rooms or the local park. However, many users were not so interested in the ability to take a photograph of the artworks in situ. Some said that you could create better results by manipulating the images in a software package such as Photoshop.

Others enjoyed the experience of looking at the artworks in their environment. In particular, the ability to zoom in on the images to a high level of detail was popular.

The app launched in September 2012 and was promoted via social media and through a press release. The app was downloaded 1,216 times between September 2012 and January 2013 by people in 32 different countries across Europe. The initial response to the app was positive, with one reviewer commenting:

Fascinating artistic treasures at your finger tips. Really fun to hang your own curated collection digitally in the real world

and one blogger wrote a post about how the app could be used to hang British Masters in your bedroom. The project team would like to have carried out more extensive user testing and had the option to develop the app further, but this was not possible under the constraints of the project funding. The project partners are committed to maintaining the existing app, but there is no budget available to develop it further, though we do have the ability to add more artworks via the content management system.

The process of developing the app highlighted the issues with using new technology and providing a consistent user experience. The process of selecting a marker and using augmented reality is unfamiliar to many users, and some people found it difficult to understand, especially if the digital content did not immediately appear above the marker. One of the options available in the app is that a user can type the word ART in large Arial font and use this as a marker. However, some users tried to write ART on a piece of paper by hand and were then disappointed when this did not work as expected. It is difficult to set user expectations of an experience that is completely new to many.

A number of compromises also had to be made by the project team through the development process, such as only developing for iPhone, only having a European licence, and the restrictions in the selection of possible markers to use.

Developing an app in this way proved to be relatively expensive, and it is unclear whether it really represents value for money given that the app is only available to European iPhone users and therefore has far less potential reach than a website solution would have provided.

4. The William Blake London tour

Project overview

Conceived in an entirely different way, the William Blake walking tour has taken a different approach to exploring works in the collection and an artist that Tate (and Tate Britain) is strongly associated with.

We were made aware of a small start-up company that was working on an app called the Aleph Project, which allowed iPhone users to unlock content (images, audio, video, or text) by visiting specific locations. Based on WordPress, it is an iPhone app that uses GPS to log if a user steps into a location and then offers them the chance to view or download a piece of content. The company had also developed a new file format, which meant the content was only viewable through the app and not shareable by default (often a problem with copyrighted content).

The company had been thinking of it as a way of getting a “virtual souvenir” of a location, or even a reward for attending an event, but for a museum it seemed that we could potentially deliver artworks or other related content serendipitously to users in relevant locations, and also create specific trails for them to follow in certain locations if they wished.


Tate already had an online resource that mapped a series of locations in London biographically related to the artist William Blake—from his birthplace, various homes and workplaces, and the location of his grave and headstone—but it was some years old, and we needed to update this resource with the redevelopment of the website.

In initial tests of prototypes, it seemed that it was very stable and already had a functional user experience. The two owners of the Aleph Project had the unlikely combination of a fine art background and skills in development, design, and UX. This has proved very beneficial in communication and discussion, as there has seemed to be a strong synergy between the institution and the developers’ understanding of the project goals. The possibility of using the location-based software of the Aleph Project to deliver interesting content about William Blake in relevant London locations was proposed as a pilot to explore the possibilities of the platform and the audience interest.

With a very small budget available, rather than using the Aleph Project as the overarching banner for the project, it was decided that it was better to skin the technology with a bespoke design and some customised functionality as a Tate-branded app, both to leverage Tate’s reach and allow the Aleph Project to continue pursuing other avenues for the technology.

Using the initial map locations, a small content audit was undertaken to identify where we already had good content and where we might need to licence or create new content to provide compelling experiences at each location.

Key Challenges

Though to date the project has not been released publicly, we have had to think carefully again about delivery platforms and systems. Again the app is for iPhone only. Our experience has been that many developers and designers remain wary about developing native apps for Android, as they cannot ensure user experience in the same way as is possible in iOS.

Knowing that our content (video, images, and audio) could potentially take up a lot of space on users’ devices presented another challenge. Should we give them the choice to download content on location, which could potentially give a very slow experience, or should we create a “heavy” initial download and just unlock the content on location?
It was agreed that in order to give the very best experience while taking the tour, downloading heavy content on location was not the best way to deliver, and that the initial download of the app should have the content already embedded. Users would then have the option to delete the content from their devices (though it would remain unlocked and available to download again from the cloud storage).

We also have had to discuss what the options are for non-London–based users. Creating an app that is location specific to a city is not ideal, as its global or even regional release can often disappoint users who are not able to access full functionality. The decision was made to have some key content already unlocked, both for users who would not be visiting London and as a teaser for those who might visit.

We aim to test this app with a group of users in London in February 2013, and then make final changes. Release is planned to coincide with the opening of a new dedicated William Blake room at Tate Britain in May 2013.

5. Conclusion

These projects have their own modes of engagement and challenges, but common to all are some key issues and questions about the status of user-generated content and experiences, and the benefits of native apps versus Web-based technologies. Although we have not yet arrived at firm conclusions based on our research, these projects did allow us to formulate some key questions that we and other museums need to bear in mind when commissioning such projects.

  • Who is the target audience, and does this correlate with the demographic of people using smartphones? Bear in mind that by making smartphone ownership a a requirement, you already restrict your potential audience.
  • Apps can be expensive to develop and maintain, and do you have the budget to develop for both iOS and Android? What can an app provide that a mobile-optimised Web solution could not? Are you making good use of device-native technology—location-based services, the camera, people’s ability to customise their own experience? Remember to factor in the costs of hosting and licensing when using new software or technology.
  • What value and status does crowdsourced content have in relation to curatorial scholarship? Where and for how long will you store content submitted, and under what license? What expectations do you raise for users in how you will use or credit their contributions?
  • What do your current or new audiences want to do with your content? Do they want to remix or reposition it, or are they more likely to want to consume it in a more passive way? Can you find a need for your potential users, or are you piloting something for the needs of your organisation? Success will look different depending on your initial ambitions.

Cite as:
R. Cardiff, K. Beaven and R. Sinker, Taking the Collection Out of the Gallery. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 30, 2013. Consulted .

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