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Most art galleries are closed, but you can still tour this one — with a robot

Hastings contemporary robot default 2

Museums and art galleries have long encouraged an air of monastic silence so that visitors can enjoy the artworks and other offerings without being disturbed. But the curators running these places probably didn’t want total silence at the cost of any and all visitors coming through their doors. That’s one of the many scenarios unfolding as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, however. To keep in line with mandated social distancing, museums, and art galleries throughout the world are either finding themselves shuttered by law or, in the rare cases they remain open, with drastically reduced footfall.

An art gallery in the United Kingdom might have the right idea, though — and it’s one that, should it be adopted by others worldwide, could allow people to continue enjoying the beauty of great artworks without risking their health or curfew laws. The country’s Hastings Contemporary art gallery has teamed up with the Bristol Robotics Laboratory to carry out tours of the museum using a telepresence robot. These two-wheeled robots, which resemble iPads mounted on Segways, let people tune in to view real-time guided tours of the currently closed gallery.

“Our initial idea was to help people who lived in places like care homes to have access to the gallery,” Will Barrett, communications and marketing manager at Hastings Contemporary, told Digital Trends. “When the pandemic first started to roll around, we thought it would be good to bring this forward and accelerate the use of it because, while we’re in lockdown, it would mean that people can still come into the gallery.”

Hastings Gallery telepresence robot 1

Barrett acknowledged that art galleries can simply shift to presenting artwork online, but stressed that this is not the same experience as a curated gallery, in which artworks are carefully placed in a physical environment. He also said that it makes an important point, harking back to the inclusive origins of the project as an attempt to widen participation.

“[Right now], many people are living or sharing lived experiences very similar to [that of] many disabled people in that they can’t easily leave their houses,” he said. “So it’s a means of exploring and sharing the problems and difficulties of being someone who has to stay home. From an operational point of view, it’s really inspired us to think about how everyone should have the opportunity, as a publicly subsidized institution, to experience art.”

Currently, the museum is preparing to launch its first tours. There will initially be two tours on a Tuesday afternoon and two on a Thursday, with people able to tune into online. The feedback from these will then be used to further hone the experience.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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