Emma Elsom

Virtual Reach

Article Detail

This article appears in Art Toi Magazine, March 2021


Using panoramic photography, 360-degree video and virtual reality software the Gallery has been working on a project to digitise and bring to your screen Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art, the largest and one of the most significant exhibitions presented in our 133-year history.

Toi Tū Toi Ora includes the work of 111 artists and collectives, and with more than 300 artworks it spans 70 years of art-making from the 1950s to the present day. The exhibition almost entirely fills the Gallery, which is alive with visitors connecting with curator Nigel Borell’s vision of contemporary Māori art. This is not a typical survey show. Toi Tū Toi Ora uses a completely unique framework – it steps away from a Western chronological approach and brings te ao Māori to the fore through the Māori creation narrative. The opportunities for storytelling and learning that Toi Tū Toi Ora provides are extremely rich, nuanced and diverse, and this was the primary catalyst behind our digitisation project. Audiences around the world will be able to visit the exhibition and get up close via a virtual reality (VR) tour that concentrates on the narrative underpinning Borell’s curation. This project will also keep the core of the exhibition alive as an experience long after the artworks have come down.

Surprisingly, given our digital-infused lives, experiencing art online is still uncommon. However, throughout the global Covid-19 pandemic digital exhibitions began to take centre stage, with many museums and galleries reporting large increases in the number of people visiting their websites. Catering for this has been a costly adjustment for many institutions, but it has arguably made art more accessible than ever before. One example is the Louvre’s, Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass exhibition, which used VR and digital platforms to allow remote fans a close-up view of the world’s most famous painting and to explore it in astonishing detail. Through VR, viewers could spend as long as they liked in the company of Mona, when in real life you join a crush of tourists with their extended iPhones for a time-limited viewing.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently launched The Met Unframed, a series of virtual art and gaming experiences based on their collections, which provided free digital and augmented-reality access to the museum’s many masterpieces. And the Natural History Museum in London utilises the Google Arts and Culture platform to offer several virtual tours, including an immersive augmented-reality exploration of the blue whale, and a virtual journey through the museum’s entry hall narrated by Sir David Attenborough. In New Zealand, VR technology in the arts and culture sector has not been widely implemented – it’s more commonly used in real estate marketing.

Two weeks before the country went into lockdown in March 2020, the Gallery opened a major ticketed exhibition of historic art: Enchanted Worlds: Hokusai, Hiroshige and the Art of Edo Japan. We quickly needed to develop an alternate way to deliver the exhibition to our audiences. The resultant online experience at virtual.aucklandartgallery.com was the Gallery’s Covid-19 crisis response and became the first in a planned series of virtual exhibitions built off a new digital platform.

The virtual Enchanted Worlds was the first time the Gallery had offered the digital presentation of an entire exhibition free to the public online. Our goal was to deliver this via a bespoke and standardised virtual experience that is owned in perpetuity by the Gallery, rather than through a third-party supplier such as Google Arts and Culture. To build and launch the digital platform, we worked with an external Auckland-based media production and publishing company, Post Mag, in collaboration with Benji Taylor of Break The Fourth, a digital media production company specialising in moving image and immersive visual content.

Creating a VR tour begins with photography. Each sphere or viewpoint in the tour is composed of 30 high-resolution photos that are graded and stitched together to form a single panorama. Capturing these photos is an extremely exact and painstaking process: the camera must rotate precisely around the nodal (no-parallax) point of the lens. When this position isn’t maintained, it makes stitching the edges of each image together very difficult and can result in noticeable artefacts within the experience – imagine walls not lining up correctly, and other ‘glitches’. This requires the use of specialised equipment – some of which has been developed in New Zealand – that automates the rotation of the camera, ensuring the nodal point is maintained. The panoramas are then imported into specialist software to link them together in a way that allows you to navigate the exhibition just like you would in the physical space.

Once this production stage was complete the next stage was to consider the user experience design, interface elements, such as icons, navigation, the floor plan and tutorial guides, as well as all of the interpretive content. When designing a digital exhibition, the visitors’ needs are at the centre of our planning. Learning accessibility and universal design principles that consider visitors’ behaviours and motivations, are key factors for any effective experience.

The opportunity to build connections from different types of stimuli and interactivity, including music, activity prompts or open-ended questions, are some examples of how we can engage with audiences online. We want the experience to be fun and also to connect with those who would not usually – or can’t easily – visit the Gallery. We also want virtual visitors to discover new ways of approaching an exhibition or, on a deeper level, to critically question their role as the audience.

For the Enchanted Worlds VR tour visitors can at the outset can choose to take the tour in English or te reo Māori. Once you click to enter the tour, you can use the navigation tools to virtually ‘walk’ through the exhibition or click on any room in an interactive map to instantly move across gallery spaces, click on artworks, and explore intricate details in high-resolution definition. We offer three different guided experiences: a family tour with fun facts and art-making activities; a curator’s highlight tour that covers insights and stories on the Edo-period; and an in-depth exhibition experience with extended artwork labels. An immersive soundtrack was created by local artist Christoph El’ Truento and audio guides are also available.

Through the launch of this platform, we were able to continue amid a global pandemic to deliver to our vision, purpose and values which place audiences at the heart of all our activities and offer experiences that strengthen and enrich our local and overseas communities. By applying technology to enable access in a new and innovative way, we remained engaged with exhibition partners and stakeholders and brought a high-calibre international exhibition to our audiences – from the safety and comfort of their homes.

Coming back to this project a second time for Toi Tū Toi Ora, and working again with Post Mag and Break The Fourth, our joint mission concentrated solely on removing barriers to access. Our intention is to share the invaluable stories and teaching of this exhibition with Māori and all New Zealanders, and to reach an extended global audience. The challenge presented by Toi Tū Toi Ora was how to best represent the huge scale of the exhibition digitally while optimising it for an online experience. How could someone digitally tour over 300 artworks when the average time of online engagement is seven or eight minutes? We decided to focus exclusively on the section in which the exhibition’s curatorial frame – the Māori creation narrative, Aotearoa’s oldest philosophy – unfolds. With the help of an external UX designer, Benek Lisefski, we have created an experience that mimics the feeling you get in the first few gallery spaces of Toi Tū Toi Ora, but with additional layers of insight and interpretation that you would otherwise only get by walking through the Gallery with the exhibition curator himself.

Speaking about their motivations behind the project Post Mag and Break The Fourth commented:

As a team we are most interested in projects that create, sustain and uphold mana. The responsibility of presenting this exhibition in a virtual space is immense, and not one we take lightly. It is a project that will give the world unprecedented insight into contemporary Māori culture, and we feel privileged to be playing a part in that. It means a lot to us to be at the forefront of bringing such a significant exhibition into the digital realm. With this tour of Toi Tū Toi Ora, we hope to raise the standard globally for what people expect when they think of a ‘VR art experience’ while also creating tools for educational resources. The added beauty of capturing an exhibition in this way is that it is also archived for future generations to experience. 

The digital Toi Tū Toi Ora exhibition reveals to audiences around the world both the wairua (spirit) and the whakaako (teachings) of the Māori creation narrative as articulated in the work of contemporary Māori artists. Expect to find well-known, unknown and many more hidden details highlighted beyond what the naked eye can see. Engage with this tour via your phone while visiting the Gallery or from the comfort of home, where food and drink are allowed and touching is expected.

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