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Connecting with art, on screen and face-to-face

April 25th, 2013

How Gallery Guides are animating the Art Gallery of Ontario with digital content and conversation

Screen shot from the iBook Small Wonders for the Thomson European Collection of Art, which is available on Gallery Guide iPads.

Screen shot from the iBook Small Wonders for the Thomson European Collection of Art, which is available on Gallery Guide iPads.

For galleries and museums around the world, digital and mobile technologies are opening up endless opportunities to enhance visitors’ experience and form new connections between the art within our walls and the world outside. In this post Elyse Rodgers describes an initiative she has been working on during a year-long Education and Public Programming internship at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It combines mobile technology and the interpretive skills of our Gallery Guide volunteers to create rich and engaging conversations about art.


Valerie, a Day Gallery Guide shows visitors Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker in its intended placement above Gates of Hell (Musee D’Orsay).

Valerie, a Day Gallery Guide shows visitors Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker in its intended placement above Gates of Hell (Musee D’Orsay).

Over the past year I have been working with the AGO Gallery Guides to pilot iPad-enhanced discussions for visitors. “iPad Interactions” will have content appropriate for all visitors, so it is the Gallery Guide who customizes the experience. Visitors will see all kinds of information on the iPad — from prompts that facilitate art discussions to more kid-friendly content. Together with Doris Van Den Brekel, Coordinator of the Gallery Guides and Special Access Programs, I have encouraged the Gallery Guides to use images and videos that only enhance the experience. By that I mean the iPad should not take over the conversation, but instead it will show the visitor elements of the artwork that are not immediately apparent. Some examples include the back of a portrait miniature, the details in an ivory diptych, the artists’ influences and the connections to works in other collections. The iPad can even put sculptures in their original context (location) or show a video of the artist’s process. These are the best practices required of the Guides and the form of the content offered to them.

The iPad content that I have helped produce for the Guides is focused on our own collection. However, some Guides found it helpful to use an iPad in Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art since they remain stationary, seated next to one piece and discussing it, rather than touring visitors around the exhibition. One of our weekend guides gathers some images and stands near a work of art and asks visitors as they approach, “Would you like to know more about this artwork?” She shows them the back of the birthing tray in the exhibition, because it is two-sided, and she also shows the original context for the relief sculpture of on its original building, which wasn’t completed until later because it was interrupted by the Plague. The discussions are about the artists, the time period and how the painted manuscript medium declines after the printing press is invented but imagery in print returns when a method for printing images is developed.

Reverse side of a work included in Revealing the Early Renaissance. The iPad content allows visitors to see this side, which is not visible in the exhibition. Image: Lorenzo di Niccolo, Desco da Parto (Birth Tray), about 1400, tempera and gold leaf on panel, unframed: 48.9 x 49.5 cm (19 1/4 x 19 1/2 in.) object: 63.8 x 64.5 cm (25 1/8 x 25 3/8 in.) Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Income Fund

Reverse side of a work included in Revealing the Early Renaissance. The iPad content allows visitors to see this side, which is not visible in the exhibition. Image: Lorenzo di Niccolo, Desco da Parto (Birth Tray), about 1400, tempera and gold leaf on panel, unframed: 48.9 x 49.5 cm (19 1/4 x 19 1/2 in.), object: 63.8 x 64.5 cm (25 1/8 x 25 3/8 in.)
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Income Fund

Many of our daytime Gallery Guides have embraced iPad technology and taken to offering visitors iPad-enhanced tours during our Highlights Tour at 11:30 am, which begin in Walker Court. The high times for Gallery Guides and iPads are weekday afternoons.

The galleries that house the Thomson Collection of European Art are also a good place to find iPads, because this is where I have focused much of the content. The Galleries are dark to preserve the art but donor Ken Thomson loved to collect small and contemplative objects, and in order for the AGO to enhance visitor experience I created content in the form of an iBook that would show close-up images of some of these objects on display and from multiple viewpoints.

This program is very new to the AGO, and we are learning as we go. There are more than 100 Gallery Guides in total at the AGO and we have done iPad pilot training sessions for about 30 Gallery Guides. At this time, nearly 20 Gallery Guides are actively using the iPads on a daily basis, while at least 16 have attended sessions and want to try using iPads in the future. However, the program is only in its initial phases and we hope to see iPad Interactions and the content continue to grow.


Elyse Rodgers is a graduate of the Master of Museum Studies Program at the University of Toronto. Elyse’s focus of study has been in art interpretation, technology in art museums and educational programming. It is her personal goal to provide visitors with the tools to find their own meaning in art museums by making art approachable and easy to interpret. As her graduating exhibition related project she has been working as an intern for the Education and Public Programming Department to help facilitate an iPad enhanced Gallery Guide Program.


National Volunteer week runs April 21 to 27, 2013! Learn more about volunteering at the AGO.

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One Response to “Connecting with art, on screen and face-to-face”

  1. [...] it out AGO’s Art Matters blog has posted this article “Connecting with art, on screen and face-to-face” all about my work over the past year developing iPad Interactions with the Art Gallery of Ontario, [...]

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