How To Keep Museums Alive In The Age Of Minecraft

The Tate Britain is remixing the museum experience with robots and immersive gameplay. Instant classic or instant headache?

How To Keep Museums Alive In The Age Of Minecraft
[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

If you’ve ever found museum to be a snore, then you’ll be glad to hear that at least one–the Tate Britain in London–is adding robots, animation, and Minecraft to their repertoire.


It’s part of a brand new competition that better marries the in-person feeling of museum-wandering with the immersion of digital. Called the IK Prize, it pits four groups of digital artists against one another in a contest to change the way you interact with museums.

“We wanted to bring some of the best minds in the digital realm to the table–people who raise the game,” says Jane Burton, Tate Creative Director. “They’ll recognize a truly original idea.” For example, instead of just looking at a spooky painting of Victorian England’s streets, why not actually enter the painting, walk down its alleys, and poke into its pubs–all on your tablet, while sitting on your couch in sweatpants?

That 3-D jaunt, fueled by the popular video game Minecraft, is one of four potential exhibits that the Tate Britain could showcase this August. The Tate seeks to bridge new media and the fine arts–a challenge that museums across the world face as they strive to boost audience numbers.

Digital artist Adam Clarke is behind that Minecraft tour, and he’s competing against three other finalists for the Tate’s £70,000 prize. Those projects: web-streaming robots roaming the museum’s halls at night, an interactive animated film in which visitors explore Tate as a curious child would, and a social media initiative that makes tweeting historical details about still-life paintings as commonplace as snapping selfies on the beach. The victor nabs a £60,000 production budget to showcase their work at Tate Britain, plus an additional £10,000 prize. The contest names its first winner on February 6.

In Clarke’s TateCraft proposal, visitors will actually enter a video game-like realm where they explore a 3-D-rendered version of a classic artwork. Viewers can “enter” a painting, for example, and solve puzzles, open doors, turn corners, hear sounds. (Minecraft is the best-selling survival video game that lets players, among other things, build huge universes using blocks). Clarke’s Carroll-esque portals would be readily downloadable Minecraft maps, bringing the Tate straight into museum-goers’ homes. He hopes to spark art appreciation among kids, as well as viewers who aren’t particularly deft in art. His goal jibes with the IK Prize’s: to gin up new Tate audiences, online and in-person, by offering fresh and surprising ways of experiencing art.

A pantheon of six tech luminaries will cast their votes to name the first-ever champion. Panelists include Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Tom Uglow, creative director from Google Creative Lab. Acting as the seventh and potentially tie-breaking juror is the general public, who voted up until last month.


For finalists Kim Plowright and Matt Locke, the IK Prize’s existence “feels like validation.” Plowright adds: It’s “the hunch that a lot of us old Internet types had around the importance of digital creativity–it’s officially acknowledged.” Plowright and Locke’s entry is #TateText, which will encourage Tate Britain’s patrons to tweet and hashtag artwork-related factoids. It’s a much more accessible and shareable way of learning about art, as opposed to skimming the hifalutin, jargon-ridden, accompanying placards commonplace in museums. For example, a tidbit or an opinion about a painting might be released on Reddit or Tumblr or Facebook, complete with links that could whisk readers to the work that inspired the text message.

Fellow finalist Evan Boehm agrees that an esteemed body like the Tate not only brings gravitas to the digital art arena, but helps digital art exhibitions exist in the first place. “We need bigger types of institutions to fund these projects because, I hate to say this, they have more money,” says Boehm, a coder and digital director. “Usually the award amount doesn’t even cover the cost of equipment rental. Thankfully, the Tate has the heft to support this type of work.” Boehm’s entry–Through the Eyes of an Eight-Year-Old–would be an online, animated, interactive romp through the museum, filled with color, humor, illustrations, and playful interpretations of works that the artistically uninitiated might deem staid or boring.

Tate Britain, settled on the banks of the River Thames in central London, first opened its doors in 1897, and houses 500 years’ worth of work: painted pastorals, oil snapshots from Shakespeare, centuries-old portraits of frilly Elizabethans. Impressive collections, to be sure, but they’re not necessarily guaranteed to reel in audiences like teenagers whose eyes are glued to a stream of Snapchats.

To attract folks who wouldn’t normally spend an afternoon visiting an art gallery, Tate Britain (along with Tate Modern) has begun implementing what it calls a digital strategy. For example, there will be installed touchscreens that feature artist scrapbooks, interactive comment walls linked to social media, and omnipresent Wi-Fi. “The digital space is one of the most dynamic and fast-changing areas of contemporary life,” says Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, who says the new IK Prize “has reverberations in the creative industries as well as the fine arts.”

The final group of shortlisted competitors envisions a mini-troupe of lantern-equipped robots crawling Tate Britain’s Millais-decked halls in the dead of night. The custom-built machines will beam first-person video feeds to a web app where users will take turns steering the bots through one of the most famous collections in the world. “It’s experiencing the thrill of freely driving a robot through a forbidden and monumental space outside of visiting hours,” says Tommaso Lanza, who pitched After Dark with co-creators Ross Cairns and David Di Duca. “It is by no means a replacement of being there. But we hope it will create a deeper connection between the public and Tate.”

And that’s what the new prize is all about. The more technology changes the way people consume information, the more museums need to adapt, if they want to widen their audience and beef up existing patronage. The Tate calls the IK Prize an “art-tech mashup.” Not a phrase many might associate with a 100-year-old museum. But as museums become more and more wired, those mashups are set to become the new normal.