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You Can’t Visit the Museum. But Your Robot Can. | Press "Enter" to skip to content

You Can’t Visit the Museum. But Your Robot Can.

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LONDON — On a recent weekday morning, a robot was investigating the art on display at the Hastings Contemporary art museum.

Guided by the museum’s director, Liz Gilmore, the machine — an iPad-sized screen mounted on a thin black pole, attached to Segway-like wheels — zoomed past works by the English painter Graham Sutherland before turning to a rainbow-colored sculpture by Anne Ryan, the American abstract expressionist. Then, moving a little too enthusiastically, it collided with the table on which the sculpture stood.

“No harm done,” Ms. Gilmore said brightly. “Just back up, swing left and try again.”

She was actually talking to this reporter, controlling the robot via a laptop from London, some 70 miles from the seaside town of Hastings, England. It isn’t often that one needs driving lessons in an art gallery, but these are strange times.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced museums and galleries worldwide to innovate as never before. Closed to prevent the spread of infection, many institutions have rushed out offerings such as virtual viewing rooms, podcasts and online art classes. Others have turned to social media to maintain their connection with the public (the Royal Academy’s “daily doodle” challenge has been a hit on Twitter after its surprise invitation “who can draw us the best ham” caught on).

But Hastings Contemporary — which, like all similar spaces in Britain, has been closed since mid-March — has a different trick up its sleeve: Robot tours, using a mobile, Wi-Fi-enabled “telepresence” device that prowls the gallery, sending a video stream back to viewers who stay isolated at home. It appears to be the first time a British cultural organization has attempted a remote art-viewing experience like this.

Ms. Gilmore explained via the robot’s video interface that the idea had come via one of her trustees, the artist Esther Fox. Telepresence robots are increasingly used in the medical and care industries, or for interactive videoconferencing, “and we thought, well, if we have to shut down the gallery, maybe here’s a solution,” Ms. Gilmore said.

Prof. Praminda Caleb-Solly of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory agreed to loan one of their devices, a $4,000 model manufactured by the Californian firm Double Robotics. It arrived just before Britain went into lockdown.

“Art is a shared experience,” said Ms Gilmore. “A lot of people are missing it right now.”

Operating the robot is simple: Using a web browser linking the robot’s camera and your own, you pilot it with the arrow keys on your keyboard. Stairs are out, but with human assistance the machine could use the elevator and seemed disconcertingly nimble. Cruising around a deserted gallery, silent apart from the trundling wheels, was initially surreal, but within a few minutes felt normal. With practice, it was possible to zoom in close enough to read a wall text.

“Catalogs and online galleries are great,” Ms. Gilmore said, “but they don’t allow you a sense of the spacing of an exhibition, how it’s paced.”

Starting this week, Hastings Contemporary is trying various types of virtual visits using the robot, all for free, including tours with an in-person guide, a remote curator and prerecorded videos. The hope is that people from overseas will check it out, extending the gallery’s reach far beyond Britain.

“Technology like this has the ability to connect us, even in normal times,” Professor Caleb-Solly said in a Skype interview. “Think of how you could use this at museums like the Louvre, if you couldn’t afford to travel.”

Ms. Gilmore said: “The main problem we have is how we’re going to schedule all the requests we’ve had.”

Behind the novelty of using gee-whiz technology like this to view art lies the threat coronavirus poses to many galleries and museums, especially smaller ones. Hastings Contemporary, a tiny nonprofit space in a deprived town, receives around 130,000 pounds (about $160,000) annually in state subsidy, and gets the other 80 percent of its income from other sources: Ticket sales, membership fees, venue hire, fund-raising.

Ms. Gilmore has already put nine of her 13 staff on furlough, and many volunteer docents are self-isolating (a number are retirees, especially vulnerable to the virus). Although Arts Council England, the country’s main funding body, has promised emergency cash for many organizations, the hole deepens every day. Some British arts institutions have announced that they will remain shuttered until the end of June at least.

“It’s a medical emergency, of course that comes before everything, but closing our doors was the last thing we wanted to do,” Ms. Gilmore said.

In the meantime, she and her skeletal team are busy keeping the building and its displays safe, and planning for the day when reopening finally arrives.

As the robot cruised toward the gallery’s foyer, a technician was installing the gallery’s next show. It features new work by the artist Quentin Blake, best-known for his madcap illustrations of children’s books. The current plan is to have a virtual opening in early May, with the robot playing a starring role.

The show’s title is “We Live in Worrying Times,” Ms. Gilmore noted.

“Right now,” she said, “that feels fairly appropriate.”


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