The digital medium in science and art exhibitions (2014): A retrospect

Several exhibitions contained sections connected with IT, throwing into light its relation with numerous other fields both in time and space. Those on the history of science contained exhibits of inventions which can be seen as precursors, demonstrating the interest of cross-period studies;  those on the history of art used IT as a means of exploring the past, contributing to current research bridging the gap between science and art.

 From navigation to computing – ‘Ships, Clocks and Stars’: The Longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich) – 11 July 2014-4 January 2015.

The longitude problem in the 18th century is well-known – how could a ship estimate its longitude, the latitude being easy to determine by measuring the height of the sun? In a different field, the work of Babbage in the 19th century is equally well-known, his pioneering attempts to build an ‘analytical engine’ now seen as the predecessor of computers. What is less widely known is that these two experiments are linked: the complex calculations that Babbage hoped to process with his machine included the astronomical tables or Nautical Almanacs needed in some of the methods used to find the longitude; thus the search for the longitude did not stop in the 18th century, it was one of the problems that prompted the invention of the early calculating machines in the following century.

This was shown in one of the sections of the exhibition, which positions Babbage’s machines in the history of scientific instuments and of mechanisation; details may be found in the catalogue Ships, Clocks and Stars: the History of Longitude (Glasgow : Collins, 2014), pp.174-75.


Information visualisation ‘Beautiful Science’: Exhibition at the British Library  – 26 February-20 May 2014.

The exhibition on the visualisation of scientific data, ‘from classic diagrams…to contemporary digital displays’, takes sides on the recurrent debate about information visualisation: does it simply communicate discoveries that have already been made, or can it contribute to new discoveries ? it takes the second option, and in a video interview at the entrance of the exhibition hall, David Spiegelhlater, a Cambridge statistician, said ‘It helps you discover things. You may spot patterns that might not be obvious.’ The exhibition ranged from seventeenth-century wind charts to the 19th-century mechanical aids for recording atmospheric pressure and to Florence Nightingale well-known statistical diagrams, and finally to contemporary computer generated data. Two problems emerge: the size and number of data, already seen as unmanageable for one man by Halley in 1686 for his study of the trade winds, and now the object of digital calculations, such as the 2012 chart of ‘700,000 sentiment-analysed social media messages’ on the topic of the weather; the rise of time-based series, now dynamic data fed into supercomputers, for instance the study of the speading of epidemics, and the advent of fractal geometry allowing us to explore graphs at different scales.


The history of information – ‘Information Age’: Permanent new gallery at the Science Museum in London, opened on 24 October 2014.

The gallery presents six topics: The Cable, The Telephone Exchange, Broadcast, The Constellation, The Cell, The Web.

The last ones obviously deal with the digital medium; it is also interesting to discover how some features of the earlier media opened up possibilities now essential to IT, such as the binary system in the electromagnetic telegraph offering black/white options, or the open/closed circuit of the telegraph. Semiconductors were already experimented upon in 1898.


Digital art history ‘Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting’, The National Gallery –  30 Avril-21 September 2014.

The exhibition, in partnership with the Department of History of Art  at the University of York, was accompanied by extensive online material, still available on the website, exemplifying several of the possible uses of digital material in the museology and art-history fields.

It has an online publication on the exhibition, in several sections such as ‘Constructing the Picture’ and ‘Architectural Time’, each containing an art-historical essay such as ‘How artists used architecture to design their compositions’ with subsections such as ‘Putting perspective into perspective’, and images of the paintings each with substantial comments.

It also has five videos meant to show ‘how closely the modern arts of design parallel those of Italian Renaissance painters … how much the modern computer games industry and Italian Renaissance painting have in common ’, by interviewees from the field of architecture or film-making or computer games, discussing the new media as a point of comparison with the Renaissance construction of space, with extracts of films and games emphasing spatial perception as a key to the theme of ‘real and imagined  architecture.’


From painting to interactive experiments on perception‘Making colour’: The National Gallery, 18 June-7 September 2014.

The exhibition, dealing with the history of the pigments used by painters over several centuries, was concluded with an interactive experiment on colour perception (in partnership with the University of Newcastle), in which the audience watched a film showing paintings from the collection under different lighting effects, and were asked to answer questions on their perception of the colours via electronic clickers, enabling the organisers to study masses of results on topics such as colour constancy. This combination of art history and interactive experiment was already present in the Millenium exhibition on Time (2000), where an eye-tracking device recorded the movements of the visitor’s eyes on paintings, in order to study visual responses to art in collaboration with the Applied Vision Research Unit of the University of Derby.


The Georgian tercentenary and digital material –

The Georgian Tercentenary (accession  of George I in 1714 followed by his successors also named George, marking the beginning of the ‘Georgian era’) was celebrated in several exhibitions and events, many of which were documented in digital media.

Historic Royal Palaces events, at Kensington Palace and Kew Palace,  were supported by online material on the Georges and videos.

 ‘The First Georges, Art and Monarchy’ at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace has a detailed website with notes on the exhibits, videos, and the coffee house interactive game.

‘Capturing the Castle: Watercolours of Windsor by Paul and Thomas Sandby’ at Windsor Castle (7 February to 5 May 2014), an exhibition of views of Windsor by the Sandby brothers painted from the 1760s, is accompanied by an app for mobile phones showing a plan of the castle with the viewing points for the watercolours, each point opening both a photo of the watercolour and a present-day photo of the same view, with geolocation enabling the visitors to trace their own positioning on the map and move to the viewing points of the paintings. This superimposition of past views and present-day visitors’ location is also practised in the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app allowing visitors to obtain on their mobile a past view of the place in London in which they are. ‘N°1 Royal Crescent’ in Bath, the period  museum, has an app which makes original use of the Before/After theme; in addition to virtual visits of the rooms, it offers a section where we can see old black-and-white photos of the rooms before restoration, such as the drawing room with only a fireplace and a dilapidated wall,  but if we rub a finger on it, we see it emerge in colour from the mists of time, with a painting and statuettes over the mantelpiece, a sconce to the side, and an armchair.

At Windsor, the Sandby story continues in subsequent years. In 2017, a two-day watercolour workshop is planned (19 and 20 July), where the participants will paint views of Windsor Castle ‘inspired by the Sandby brothers’ iconic paintings’ and ‘learn from watercolour views of the Castle by great masters of the past.’ On the website, the past/present inspiration of the workshop is illustrated by an animated digital image where a view of the Round Tower is shown as a photo to the left and as a Sandby watercolour to the right, with a slider in the middle allowing the viewer to slide it entirely towards one side or the other to have a compete view of either the painting or the photo. The slider here is vertical, sliding horizontally, whereas in the app it is horizontal, revealing either the upper or the lower part of the image – perhaps because the horizontal view is more appropriate to the smartphone format whereas the vertical flipping on the website is reminiscent of a book or flipbook?

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