Do touch the art: Tudor Jenkins talks about making an app for Houghton Hall

By Mark Sheerin | 02 July 2013

Photographer and iOS developer Tudor Jenkins discusses the creation of an iPad and iPhone app for Houghton Revisited: Masterpieces of the Hermitage.

Oil painting of two woman from mythology with a flying putto
© Courtesy Tudor Jenkins

A collection of masterpieces which have spent more than 200 years far beyond the reach of gallery goers in the UK have now been brought to your fingertips with a museum app for iPad and iPhone. The show is Houghton Revisited – Masterpieces from the Hermitage and its new home is still quite far from the beaten track.

Set in rural Norfolk, Houghton Hall’s free app will be for some the only way they can experience the rarely seen works by Poussin, Rubens, Rembrandt and Velazquez. iPad users in particular will find that the seamless fly-through which unfolds on their screen is a very close second best to a visit in real life.

I spoke to Tudor Jenkins about the challenges of creating an app for the current show at Houghton. And the iOS developer and photographer tells me that, thanks to lighting and high quality shoot, his app “sometimes makes it easier to see artefacts than actually in the room”.

This is borne out by my own explorations on an iPad. The app is engrossing, immersive and loaded up with curatorial info. You could spend as long here as you might do in the Hall itself. The playability of Jenkins’ product reflects his belief that the technical side, “should be unnoticeable and an app should reflect the quality of the exhibit and the exhibition”.

Colour photo of a bronze sculpture of a gladiator in a stately home
© Courtesy Tudor Jenkins
And although the technical requirements must be daunting , Jenkins makes his role sound easy. “I use an SLR and a panoramic grid,” he says. “You can do it in a very mechanized way like Google Street Maps but then I think it’s better to do the job in a very manual way because with any one of those photos of the interior, it requires the craft of an interior photographer to do that.”

He admits that existing software can be “really flaky”, so that pushing the quality of the app means pushing the technology.

Jenkins has experience with an interactive guide to the gardens at Nymans House in West Sussex and believes in recycling technology. “Then you’re getting a more reliable product each time and also you’re bringing down the costs,” he says.

Those costs, he points out, can range from £5,000 to £30,000 and beyond. Houghton are giving away their app for free as part of a marketing drive but museums may also charge for bells and whistles in a similar vein as a way of generating revenue. The British Museum, for example, is charging £3.99 for an app to complement their current blockbuster Pompeii.

Clearly app consumers are paying for a keepsake as well as a guide. But Jenkins is quick to point out that apps like his are only ever complements to an exhibition catalogue. ”They offer a different functionality; the catalogue will be consumed in different ways.”

There are already signs that magazine readers are turning to iPads for a comparable experience of turning glossy pages, but Jenkins doubts they have the patience to read extensive text on screen. “It’s better to provide more textual material in the catalogue format,” he admits, whereas an app is clearly better for interactivity and is “very good for installations”.

Colour screenshot of an iPad app displaying paintings in a room
© Courtesy Tudor Jenkins
While you might peruse the iPad app at home before or after the show, the smaller version for the iPhone has meant that curators at Houghton Hall can dispense with signage in what is, after all, a domestic gallery space. So visitors can see the home as it once must have been.

But as well as access to information, apps can help overcome what might be limited disabled access. Jenkins’ has done work for Hampton Court, who, “commissioned a virtual tour to help supplement their access, to allow people to get as close to the experience of the exhibition as possible where they were not able to physically get into it”.

As costs come down and developers recycle more of the technology, more and smaller museums will be able to provide apps to bring their shows to life. It’s good news if you’ve got an iPad, or an IPhone. If not you’ll just have to visit the show in person, browse the catalogue, and look at old masters art the old fashioned way.
  • Houghton Revisited iPad and iPhone apps are availiable free from iTunes.
  • Houghton Revisited runs until 29 September 2013. Admission £18 (£10). Open 11am-6pm Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays.
Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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