Reinterpreting interpretation: how the National Gallery took da Vinci digital

Image: Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece, commissioned & produced by the National Gallery and created by 59 Productions © Justin Sutcliffe

Immersive shows have been popping up with increasing frequency at museums around the world of late. The challenge facing institutions holding these exhibitions is how to strike the balance between replacing traditional interpretation with digital alternatives while also ensuring visitors can understand what’s going on.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece at the National Gallery has proven a perfect litmus test for this.

Back in 2017, Stuart Frost, the British Museum’s head of interpretation and volunteers, asserted that the goal for museums was “not about providing information that visitors passively absorb, but more about encouraging visitors to actively engage, to look closer at objects and to reveal something relevant that they might otherwise have missed.”

Developing effective interpretation, he continued, requires detailed knowledge about visitors – something which technology has boundless potential to enhance.

It seems that the sector has, for some time, been cogitating the best ways to implement digital solutions to both understand its audiences and to successfully convey information to them.

Gratuitous usage of digital technologies, however, tends to get short shrift from the sector at large. In guidance to its members, for example, Museums Galleries Scotland states that sites should “not include digital interpretation just because they’ve been told it’s what they ought to be doing”. This, it adds, “could likely lead to an underdeveloped interpretive approach”.

One institution which is working hard to find itself ahead of the digital curve is the National Gallery. Only a matter of months ago the new National Gallery X was unveiled as a site which would serve as a hotbed for digital innovation and research within the sector. This came a few years after the Gallery launched a new Digital division, led by Chris Michaels, to drive its innovative work forward at a greater pace.

How can interpretation be delivered digitally?

tonwelt explores the best ways museums and galleries can leverage audiovisual technologies to enhance interpretation and visitor experience.


Working towards the two-pronged digital target of gathering visitor information and subsequently leveraging it to maximise engagement has brought together a wide range of the Gallery’s departments.

“The data insight team has really grown in terms of its influence over the past two years,” explains Lawrence Chiles, the National Gallery’s head of digital services. “I see this as a really good thing; it means the Gallery is really listening a lot more to its audience.”

Another key strand of the institution’s work has been the development of immersive experiences, something which was “built into the strategy from the very beginning,” according to Chiles. To truly test a hypothesis, however, an experiment must be undertaken. Enter, Leonardo.

A masterpiece reimagined

Based on new scientific research, Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece was conceived to allow visitors a glimpse of the drawings underneath da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks. Abandoned images hidden in the canvas were unearthed by macro x-ray fluorescence maps, along with the use infrared and hyperspectral imaging.

The task facing the Gallery’s staff and production partner 59 Productions was to convey both the scientific and artistic stories in play, all without using words. “Really difficult” was Chiles’ rather diplomatic assessment of the brief.

The space in which visitors get to see Leonardo's painting stripped back, layer by layer © National Gallery

“We did a lot of surveys, both about Leonardo but also about immersive exhibitions and what people expect from that kind of show. We also needed to work out how the National Gallery would put on an immersive show. We wanted to offer something unique that also stays true to the Gallery’s values.”

Chiles revealed that da Vinci had been selected as the focus for the experimental show because his work appeals to a broad range of audiences. Attracting younger visitors [aged 18-35] to a show that would otherwise probably have predominantly spoken to an older demographic was a key consideration.

Similar to the media reception when Bob Dylan cast off his acoustic guitar in favour of its electric counterpart, the National Gallery’s latest Leonardo exhibition seems to have left many arts correspondents puzzled. Several major reviews of the show have been fairly negative, with a few bordering on zealous condemnation.

“We predicted the reviews wouldn’t be great from the more traditional press,” Chiles admitted. “It’s new and it’s from the National Gallery. Given our status we expected questions to be asked.” Given that the show is almost entirely free from traditional interpretation and dedicated to a single painting, the fear was traditionalists may not ‘get it’. These suspicions proved well founded, but exit surveys showed they were also correct that younger people would intuitively latch on to the concept very speedily.

© National Gallery

While press perspectives were taken with a pinch of salt, early critiques from visitors were quickly heeded to enhance the experience. A few written quotes were introduced in the second week, both to help drive the narrative and perhaps even to bridge the gap for some people struggling to connect with the digital interpretation – in the absence of the customary verbiage.

“Those people who have given us a positive assessment are the ones who have really engaged with the interactive side of it,” Chiles continued.

The only media disparagement which irked the team was the “simplistic attachment made between paying an admission fee and the fact there was only one painting,” he explained. This was, in Chiles’ opinion, clearly communicated to visitors and a selling point of the show. “We have a lot of knowledge about paintings. We have a small collection but very deep knowledge. I think it’s natural to take one painting and give visitors a deep exploration of this.

“We can use our scientific expertise to explore these things in so many different ways. This is very different to other shows where you’re dressing a huge warehouse with lots of highly visual media, but you aren’t necessarily providing that same detail curatorially or in terms of interpretation.”

The Gallery’s head of digital services points out that all the reviews, no matter how negative, referenced the fact that the organisation is right to be pushing the boundaries in this way.

Chiles believes there to be a “massive appetite” for immersive shows, but, while major institutions like the National Gallery get to grips with the practicalities, he concedes “there will need to be a few more years for the landscape to settle.”

This was always going to be a learning experience, and one of the predominant lessons has been the invaluable role visitor assistants play in connecting the public to aspects of the digital interpretation. Another has been that there is no reason to play things safe. This, Chiles noted, was where 59 Productions came into their own.

© Justin Sutcliffe

While this show was a huge undertaking for the Gallery, for the production company that Danny Boyle called on to provide the animation and projection design for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, this was far more comfortable territory.

“They’ve got such incredible experience and what they brought was a little bit of theatricality, which is slightly different to viewing things as a tech show or museum interactive,” Chiles stated, full of praise for the job the project partners have done.

“The storytelling element was where 59 brought a lot to the table. It’s something new and different for museums and galleries so we’re all learning very quickly.”

Given that so many institutions around the globe are frantically trying to make this space their own, learning quickly will be essential to avoid being lost in the crowd. For the time being, the success of these formative shows is, perhaps appropriately, open to interpretation.