Art and technology bust mental health myths at the National Gallery

October 10, 2019

The next evolution of cultural experiences is heartfelt—it’s genuine, and it matters.

A lot of challenging questions are often asked about mental health: Are people genetically destined to develop mental health issues? When do mental health disorders develop? Can they ever get better? Answers to these questions tend to be contradictory and vague. That’s because, despite more people talking openly about it, mental health is still widely misunderstood.

As part of the growing global movement to raise mental health awareness, the National Gallery London and King’s College London were adamant that engaging the public with this topic was of great importance. In collaboration with the McPin Foundation and with funding from the Medical Research Council, part of UK Research & Innovation, they wanted to use art to tackle misconceptions, open up dialogue, increase awareness, and reduce stigma.

Intent on being part of this movement, Antenna worked with the two UK institutions to create an unexpected, reflective experience that promotes greater understanding of mental health. And with the aim as being as accessible by as many people as possible, it utilizes Progressive Web App (PWA) technology (more on that below).

Real-life experiences, raw responses

Antenna was invited to create the experience to meet this challenge. Together with our project partners, we were inspired by the idea that hearing people’s real, raw experiences firsthand could open up visitors’ minds to what mental health issues are really like. The question was: How do we create a compelling, moving audio tour based on this idea? And then, how do we ensure as many people as possible are able to experience it?

Space to reflect, feel, and change

The National Gallery already has an in-depth and informative audio tour for its permanent collection, but this new audio experience is something completely different. It is free-flowing and dynamic; it responds to the different spaces—including the colours of the walls and the overwhelming size of some of the artworks. Rather than providing facts and figures, it promotes reflection. It’s less a physical guide and more an auditory prompt for the user to consider new ways of thinking.

Fresh perspectives

As younger people are so often adversely affected by mental health issues, the audio tour is based on the stories of a group of people in their teens and twenties who told us of their experience of mental illness.

The National Gallery’s Young Producers were a key part of the project. This dedicated group of 18–25 year olds work to build the relevance of the gallery’s collection and spaces for younger audiences. These collaborators narrate the tour, bringing their own fresh perspectives rather than relying on curators or other more formal experts.

Room 57 of the Sainsbury Wing, looking through to rooms 58, 59 and 60. Photographed following a rehang

Accessible to all via Progressive Web App (PWA)

In order to make taking the tour easy and enticing, we needed to create an intuitive and seamless experience that could be accessed through visitors’ smartphones. We chose to deploy the tour through a Progressive Web App (PWA), an extremely efficient way of deploying an app to any mobile device via a mobile web browser. Not OS-dependent and totally self-contained, a PWA doesn’t require downloading or installing. It even works offline which means there’s no need for internet or Wi-Fi once it’s running.

Some of the most common reasons visitors cite for not taking an app-based tour is not wanting to download another app or use their data allowance to be online, so a PWA platform makes the tour much more attractive and available to a wider group of visitors.

From the heart

Fiona Houston, Antenna’s Head of Creative Production, UK, Ireland & Benelux, is particularly passionate about this project.

“I used to go to the National Gallery as a child with my mum, and I instinctively felt it was a special place. We have a responsibility to make the most of such amazing spaces so when the National Gallery approached us, I knew we had to create something really unique. It’s important to support our communities, get more people into the galleries, and talk to them about the things that matter.”

 

Dr. Helen Fisher from King’s College London believes art has the power to make real change.

“More needs to be done to increase public awareness of mental health problems and provide a space for reflection on these issues. One way to achieve this is to use art to engage the public—this medium can open up dialogue about difficult issues and reduce stigma.”

The audio experience is available from October 10, 2019—World Mental Health Day—and the following six months.

Want to know more about the tour or how to develop your own PWA?
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We are innovative storymakers and creative technologists devoted to visitor-first experiences.

We make audio tours, mobile apps, multimedia guides, podcasts, interactives, and superior story-driven content for the museum and cultural sector.

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