Bringing digital tools to the picture in an increasingly connected art world

Technology is playing an important role in art, particularly in education, conservation, archiving and visitor services

Conservation scientists from the University of Perugia examine the National Gallery’s painting by Daniel Maclise, “The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife” (1854)

Conservation scientists from the University of Perugia examine the National Gallery’s painting by Daniel Maclise, “The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife” (1854)


Technology is changing the art world immensely, and most would say for the better, enabling more accurate restoration, revolutionising the ways art is produced and giving art a wider audience.

Rapid developments in personal computers, mobile phones, tablets, the internet and software applications have transformed the way art is created, distributed, marketed and preserved.

Online social networks and sharing sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flikr help bring audiences to artworks and provide a platform to engage in debate and dialogue, while the internet also gives the public access to collections which they may not otherwise get to see.

The internet also allows artists to bypass traditional gatekeepers such as shops and galleries by placing art directly online.

Many visual artists are now so comfortable with the use of technology as a tool that it is the artistic vision in the work that we notice rather than any sense of the technology dominating the work, according to Claire Doyle, head of visual arts and architecture at the Arts Council.

She says examples of this can be seen in the work of Irish artists such as John Gerrard or Ailbhe Ní Bhriain.

“This is when art and technology marry really successfully. The importance of the technology simply lies in allowing the artist to achieve his or her vision.”

Another enormous benefit of technology to the visual arts is how it democratises art, she adds.

“For example, the public can see State collections that belong to them through websites. Not only that, but they can play an active role, creating their ‘own’ collections that they can revisit and enjoy as they see fit or when the time suits.”

The Arts Council hopes to have its entire collection available online by the end of 2013.

“We want people throughout the country to be able to access works that the council has purchased on behalf of the State since the early 1960s. They will also be able to get a real sense of Irish art history by learning about the artists that were bought at a given time.”

Important role
National Gallery of Ireland director Sean Rainbird agrees that technology is playing an increasingly important role across the art world, particularly in the areas of education, conservation, archiving and visitor services.

He says the variety of digital tools and devices available is helping bring art to the masses, providing alternative platforms for members of the public to access more of the collection and allow galleries to engage new audiences.

“Museums will always be places for a face-to-face encounter with works of art but not everyone can get there. New media does not supplant an actual physical visit, but can add immeasurably to the connection between a collection and its visitors.”

“Visitors can plan their visits, look behind the scenes and explore the collection through myriad forms of information, all available on the website.”

Opting to embrace technology as a way to reach and engage with new audiences, the National Gallery this year launched a Masterpieces app featuring content and audio on 80 highlights from the collection including Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, William Orpen, John Lavery and Louis le Brocquy. Using image-recognition technology, the app enables visitors to interact directly with objects and images from the collection.

The gallery’s most recent exhibition, the Sketchbooks of Jack B Yeats, which came to an end in June was also greatly enhanced by technology, with a digital presentation of Yeats’s material on Samsung Galaxy tablets.

Next autumn, the gallery will launch a National Gallery images e-commerce website featuring high-quality digital photographs of collections and buildings to purchase online.

As well as helping the gallery from a commercial point of view, technology has also assisted in conservation, according to head of conservation Simone Mancini.

He says conservation scientists gather information, prior to conservation treatments, on various pigments, techniques and types of materials used by the artist using non-invasive treatments through computerised technologies and X-radiography.

In the restoration of the Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by the National Gallery, X-ray fluorescence technology was used to identify the presence of certain elements found in the materials Maclise used.

“It was not feasible to carry out conservation and analysis on the painting in public, so the conservation department in collaboration with the NGI’s digital media team created a dedicated online resource where visitors would have the opportunity to learn more about the background to the project and to follow ongoing conservation of the painting online,” he added.

Websites are also helping arts organisations reach large audiences online, with numbers accessing the National Gallery website increasing every year. In 2012, these numbers grew 39 per cent to 352,574 visits.

Most significant was the increase in visitors to the online collection, which saw visitor numbers double in 2012, highlighting the demand for digital information on the artworks and the importance of the gallery’s digitisation programmes.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) is also expanding its online presence, with a “collection online” which will be launched this autumn enhancing access to the artworks.

The site will feature a searchable database with details on all artworks in the permanent IMMA collection, a substantial number with images and descriptions, according to head of collections Christina Kennedy.

Broadening boundaries
Social media has also played a major role in broadening the boundaries of what is considered art, according to IMMA, which has recently launched a social media project for teenagers on the topic.

“Participants, using their smartphone, iPad or laptop, can explore this concept, push the boundaries and learn what they can create with the simple tools social media has to offer,” project co-ordinator Triona Brick said.

Technology is also used to protect great works of art from deteriorating, by monitoring the conditions under which paintings are displayed, such as changes in lighting intensity, temperature and humidity, according to the National Gallery.

In keeping with international museum practice, the gallery has in place sensors to record at regular intervals the humidity and temperature of the environmental condition of the collection. It also uses sensors to measure LUX and UV (light) levels.

IMMA also uses similar technology, with Hanwell readers installed in the gallery to monitor humidity and temperature.

Despite making huge changes in the art world, technology is not a vital component, according to Matthew Causey, director of the Arts Technology Research Laboratory (ATRL) at Trinity College Dublin.

“Art works just fine without technology. However, technology gives us another way to communicate and understand art,” he says.

TCD opened the ATLR in 2009 to bring together live art, installation, film, video, theatre and dance in a state-of-the art digital environment for the purpose of interdisciplinary postgraduate research.

However, he admits the combination of the creative arts and science/technology is important for Ireland’s modern smart economy, with technology playing a bigger role in visual art in recent years.

“Take for example, architecture. Architects used to just have sketches on a page. Now they can use technology to bring their drawings to life, creating 3D structures.”