ETH app brings the Graphische Sammlung’s artwork to life

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The app shows how the Copperplate engraving is constructed. (Image: Omar Zeroual
The app shows how the Copperplate engraving is constructed. (Image: Omar Zeroual/ ETH Zurich)

The Graphische Sammlung opened a new exhibition on 9 December. What makes this latest exhibition special is its integration with an augmented reality app for mobile phones and tablets, which allows visitors to interact with the artwork on display.

Step into the exhibition space at the Graphische Sammlung and you’ll find a place where the line between reality and the virtual world is blurred. The works are hanging on the wall in their usual position, but a mobile phone app allows users to experience them in a new dimension. Using augmented reality (AR) technology, the app projects earlier sketches over the final work, translates Latin inscriptions and magnifies details that would otherwise go unnoticed. The Game Technology Center (GTC) at ETH Zurich has developed the app as a way of using augmented reality in museums in order to make art exhibitions more personal and interactive.

GTC director Fabio Zünd admits that the use of AR in museums is nothing new. His experiences with these apps were often disappointing, however, as they did not harness the full potential of the technology. This inspired the GTC to create an app that would make better use of the potential offered by AR. "We wanted to create a platform that can be used by museums to create their own AR apps," explains Zünd. The cloud-based Artifact platform offers curators the possibility to create a customised augmented reality app with interactive offerings that are tailored to their institution’s own exhibitions.

Copperplate engravings used as trial balloon

After around a year of close collaboration between the GTC and the Graphische Sammlung, the platform is now far enough along in its development to test it on real-life works. Both parties benefited from this close working relationship, with the GTC learning about what curators need from their app creation platform and the Graphische Sammlung gaining experience with a new digital method of educating the public about art. "The app offers us a very good opportunity to make art accessible. Our goal is to reach new audiences with this playful way of discovering art and in this particular case, to spread appreciation for the work of the old masters," says Linda Schädler, Director of the Graphische Sammlung.

The new exhibition, which shows the work of Agostino Carracci and Hendrick Goltzius side by side, was curated by Susanne Pollack along with Samuel Vitali from the Florence-based Kunsthistorisches Institut, an art history research institute of the Max Planck Society. The two 16th-century artists created not only their own copperplate engravings but also rendered the work of other artists in this format - a common practice at the time. Considered masters of their craft, Carracci and Goltzius were the stars of copperplate engraving. "The app helps convey the techniques used by these artists," says Pollack. Visitors to the exhibition can use the app to project the original painting over the print, for instance, in order to highlight the details and the differences between the painting and the final product.

The app also can display short informative text about the artwork and play audio and video explanations. Some of the pieces also feature playful extras in the form of advanced effects or animations, such as displaying what a picture of a statue would look like in 3D.

Putting artwork in the cloud

In order to ensure that the app worked in tandem with the artwork, the Graphische Sammlung had to upload the works in the exhibition onto the Game Technology Center’s platform. "All the pieces had already been digitised, which worked to our advantage," says Pollack. Working closely with GTC programmers and designers, she was then able to configure the interactive elements such as adding concise explanatory texts or defining which aspects of each piece to highlight in the app. This meant showing the back of certain pieces, for instance, or sharing interesting anecdotes. "Visitors are especially fond of this kind of behind-the-scenes info," she explains.

The exhibition kicked off on 9 December, but the project is far from complete. The GTC plans to analyse usage data to develop and improve their platform, and the Graphische Sammlung also plans to examine the data and find out how the app performed in real life. Which images and interactions proved most popular? What was of most interest to the public? "We’re excited to find out how visitors react," says Schädler. You can visit the exhibition and try out the app for yourself until 14 March 2021.

Over the public holidays, the Graphische Sammlung will remain closed from Thursday, 24 December 2020, to and including Sunday, 3 January 2021.

Omar Zeroual