Behind the scenes at the National Gallery provides plenty of food for thought.

I recently had the pleasure of attending an event which took a group of analysts and journalists ‘behind the scenes’ at the National Gallery to see some of the work HP is involved in.

Combining new and old has always fascinated me. The sight of a Victorian frontage hiding a glass and steel interior may horrify the purist, but for me, the contrast and aesthetic effect created is simply fantastic. (I was on a stag weekend to Dublin recently. The Guinness storehouse is an example of this on a grand scale).

Hence, on that premise alone, the National Gallery trip seemed like a pleasant – but only vaguely relevant – way to spend an afternoon. In hindsight, not only did it remind me why technology is so important for adding colour to our busy lives, it was also relevant to my interests in information management and sustainability.

The topic of the day – restoration and analysis of the collection at the National Gallery, is relevant but only to a point – highbrow art is not to everyone’s taste. However, combining technological advancement with ‘traditional pastimes’ is relevant to us all. And, as we seem to find less and less time in which to enjoy ourselves, we need all the help we can get.

So, the two sides of the day. First we were treated to lectures on the restoration work being carried out on some of the paintings. HP provides the equipment (and sponsors a doctoral post) to carry out non-invasive studies (imaging) so that the gallery can learn more about composition; x-ray imaging reveals the artist’s original plans -many paintings are altered during their creation- and other information on colour pigments and so on. All fascinating stuff, if that’s your thing.

The second part of the day was about creating new applications and communities by liberating information. Or at least, that’s what I now see it was about. A sizable investment in on site technology and the National Gallery’s website has created a resource that allows the user to access practically any work in the collection. High resolution zooms (useful if you are into studying the actual painting, as opposed to admiring it), and a whole load of useful search and referencing capabilities are now at the user’s fingertips.

Having only had a short time to play on it, I know I’m hugely underplaying the features. However, the net result is a system which creates opportunities for a range of activities; from tourists planning gallery visits, to scholarly groups carrying out research or sharing information.
In short, the gallery has extended the reach and influence of its entire collection to a global audience. The collection can be scrutinised in infinitely more detail than ever before, without actually being there.

The gallery has to address information storage and management as knock-on effects. While it applies new ideas to old works, it also creates new, but not insurmountable challenges for itself. One of the solutions the IT department is currently playing with is virtualisation. Interestingly, although there are limitations on the use of images from its collection, the gallery seemed relatively relaxed about its ’IP’ being disseminated globally. Perhaps the knowledge that the real thing hangs on its wall helps somewhat.

As an example of how moving bits instead of atoms can enrich work and play, I believe this one deserves thinking about. The fact that the example stems from a relatively surprising source makes it even more interesting.

Technology, when applied thoughtfully and appropriately can improve the way we interact with the world, and lessen the impact of us doing so.

It is this sentiment that all organisations should seek to apply to their people, products and processes, instead of charging into the data centre and seeking to reduce power consumption before really thinking about what the business wants to achieve.

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