Digital activities as explorations of the past and the future (July-September 2015)

Creation is increasingly a means of exploration: exploring history by learning to produce a digital creation inspired by scenes or objects of the past – thus discovering the past and acquiring digital techniques as well. Several museums offer activities such as workshops in digital creation based on their exhibits.

Two major types of guiding techniques and aesthetics may be differentiated:  those relying on compositing (montage, collage) and those based on selection – obviously there are interactions, since compositing implies selection, but the difference is one of focus: ‘montage’ emphasises the figure/context spatial relationship, whereas ‘selection’ emphasises the temporal narrative of successive choices.


Past and present

The two Museums of London – the London Wall museum and the Docklands one- offer such workshops in their e-learning studios:

  • The Museum of London (London Wall)  offers ‘My family’s museum adventure:
    Create your own family museum adventure using inspiration from the museum’s collection and the app Comic Life at this digital workshop for families’.
    The museum staff presents ipads to the participants and helps them create composite images. The learning process is dual:
    – learning to use apps on ipads
    – combining images, texts, pairing places and dates, moving them around: creating convincing views of objects situated in place and time.
  • At the Museum of London (Docklands), starting from the current exhibition ‘Soldiers and Suffragettes’ (19 June – 1 November 2015) on Christina Broom, a press photographer active 1904-39, workshops teach participants to create collages combining past and present: ‘Enter the world of Christina Broom by exploring her striking images of London from over 100 years ago. Then, use blue screen technology to dress up and place yourself in one of Broom’s photographs.’ This is an exploration of
    – Edwardian photography and early 20th century society
    – collage techniques, including ‘blue screen’ (sometimes ‘green screen’) technology – taking a photo of a person against a blue screen (or green screen, the colour with the maximum contrast with human colours, used since the early days of the cinema) so as to extract the portrait and paste it into another background.

Self and historic objects

Digital workshops are given at the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre at the British Museum: on a computer screen, participants select an image of an object from the Museum, and learn how to add their photo – for example picturing themselves riding the statue of a lion.

Selection and simulations

Simulating graphic design

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a ‘Victorian hands-on discovery area’ (room 122b), with several games on Victorian arts and objects (i.e. a construction kit to rebuild the Crystal Palace), including a digital activity : ‘design your bookplate’, where on a computer screen you first select a border among the motifs offered, then a background, and write your name choosing a font among those available – then send the finished bookplate to yourself by email.

Other games based on choices are to be found in the ‘Theatre and Performance area’ , where the visitors can choose between different lighting effects on a miniature stage, such as general illumination or spotlight on one character, with different colours, to experience a variety of dramatic effects which may form a narative sequence.

For the exhibition Luxury (25 April-27 September 2015), an online game asks the visitor to create decorative objects according to a pattern, for instance to complete a symmetrical crown where only one side is given by adding the corresponding motifs – a test for a keen eye trained to distinguish between decorative forms.

The educational booklets available at the V&A emphasise that the role-playing trails suggested relate several areas: design, art, technology.

Simulating engineering procedures

The Science Museum has a section Engineer your Future’ where participants have to make choices to build complex machines, a space rover or an electrical grid; the test is not only one of invention across areas, but also one of compatibility between the components chosen.

Discover history, discover yourself

The discovery games may be classified into objective and subjective ones: numerous online museum games are meant to present a series of quizzes on historical events; a few, however, have the purpose of making the users reveal their subjective tastes.

The Kensington Palace website has a game with a series of quizzes on Queen Victoria, so that visitors can test the knowledge they have acquired in the display ‘Victoria Revealed’ held in the Palace.

In The ‘Painting Paradise’ exhibition at the Royal Collection (Buckingham Palace, 20 March-11 October 2015), the Millar Room in the exhibition has an online game (also available on the website) where the answers required are not about historical facts as in other games, but the purpose is the self-discovery of the user. ‘Gardens throughout history have reflected the owners’ status, personality and artistic flair. Take our quiz and discover your painted paradise’; you are asked to make a series of choices,  such as ‘What plants would you most like to grow in your garden?’  choosing from images of paintings and drawings of plants from the exhibition, or ‘ How would you like people to feel when they enter your garden?’ again choosing between paintings showing garden scenes. According to your selections, the final page will reveal what type of garden most suits your personality – the aim is to reveal your dream. This suits an exhibition in which the symbolic language of nature conveying sentiments is emphasised: among other, it displays a fan decorated as a birthday present for Queen Victoria by her daughter Victoria, Princess Royal, adorned with flowers whose first letters spell the name ‘Victoria’ (1856).


— Such digital practices interact with current aesthetic interests. Digital photo compositing techniques, now widespread, are now attracting retrospective interest towards collage as practised in earlier forms of film photography. At the Tate Britain exhibition on Barbara Hepworth (24 June-25 October 2015), in addition to her sculptures, visitors may view her photographic collages, rarely studied previously, in which she added a colour photo of her sculptures positioned in a prospective setting in black and white, to show the intended effect.

Tate Britain also has a display on the stereoscope – a 19th and early 20th century predecessor of our 3D landscapes (7 October 2014-1 November 2015).

The interaction between images and time appears in the exhibition ‘Revelations’ at the Science Museum (30 March-13 September 2015), showing the artistic potential of early scientific photography – i.e. the cycloid photo by Berenice Abbott.

Early forms of simulation of intellectual activities are presented in the ‘Churchill’s Scientists’ exhibition at the Science Museum (23 January 2015-1 March 2016): the CORA electronic circuit that could produce complex behaviour and model action, in the early days of operational research.

Such restrospects throw light of the origins of the research areas that we now associate with digital media.


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