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Reimagining the Impressionists: A Beautiful Disruption at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

Discover “A Beautiful Disruption: Experiencing the Bloch Galleries an immersive art experience at The Nelson-Atkins Museum, developed with Art Processors, using dynamic lighting and immersive audio to emotionally connect visitors with Impressionist art and artists, transforming the galleries into a shared journey.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art collaborated with Art Processors to create “A Beautiful Disruption: Experiencing the Bloch Galleries,” – a pioneering art experience that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in digital and museum experiences, using immersive audio and light to create an emotional connection between visitors and the art

This innovative encounter leverages existing gallery technology to lead visitors through a hands-free, ‘eyes-up’ experience, guided by dynamic lighting and immersive audio cues.

It blends technology, storytelling, and sensory elements, creating deeper engagement with Impressionist art and, at the same time, disrupting the conventional museum experience.

This immersive experience encourages visitors to actively explore and engage with the art, allowing them to choose their own path and connect with paintings that resonate with them personally. This innovative approach creates a communal and social experience, transforming the way visitors interact with and appreciate art within the gallery setting.

Listen or read my conversation with Rachel Nicholson (Director, Visitor Engagement & Research at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) and Christine Murray (Head of Content at Art Processors) about ‘A Beautiful Disruption: Experiencing the Bloch Galleries


Claire Bown: Hello and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show.

Hello and welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host Claire Bown of Thinking Museum, and this is episode 110. So after our short summer break, we are back. I have two very special guests on the podcast. Today I’m talking to Rachel Nicholson, director of Visitor Engagement and Research at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, and Christine Murray, head of content at Art Processors.

We’re exploring a beautiful disruption, an immersive art encounter at the Nelson Atkins. Created in collaboration with Art Processors. A beautiful disruption uses dynamic lighting and immersive audio to help visitors connect emotionally with impressionist art and artists turning the galleries into a shared adventure.

But before that, in the last episode, before our summer break, I was talking to Jackie Armstrong about trauma-informed practice in museums. This was a hugely popular episode, and I can see why Jackie shares. So much information about how we can make museums more trauma informed, not just for visitors, but for staff as well.

So if you haven’t already, do go and listen to episode 1 0 9 if you haven’t yet. And do make use of the back catalog of The Art Engager with over 100 episodes. This podcast is a great resource for educators, but it’s also quite an undertaking. It takes hours of work every week to ensure that new episodes are ready for you.

So this show does rely on your support to keep going. If you are able to support the show in any way, I’d be very grateful. So go to buy me a Claire Bown. I’ll put a link in the show notes. You can also help this podcast reach more people by leaving a review or sharing with your friends, or by sharing, liking, and commenting on my social media feeds.

Thank you for all your support since we started. So let’s get on with today’s show First. Let me introduce my two guests this week. Christine Murray has been working at the intersection of arts, culture, media, and technology for decades. She currently serves as the head of content at Art Processors. Now, Art Processors are a global experiential design and technology company, and Christine works there to invent new kind of museum experiences that connect people place and story.

In deeply intuitive ways. She’s also a documentary filmmaker and a podcaster. Christine served as the creative lead for a beautiful disruption working hand in hand with the team at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Rachel Nicholson is currently the director of Visitor Engagement and research at the Nelson Atkins.

The Nelson Atkins is in Kansas City, Missouri in the US. Rachel oversees interpretation, evaluation, visitor research and adult programs. Together with her team, she creates experiences that help visitors connect with and make meaning from the art. On display. So I chat to Christine and Rachel today about a beautiful disruption at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.

This experience, a collaboration with Art Processors is a pioneering art experience that really pushes the boundaries of what is possible in digital and museum experiences. It uses immersive audio. And light to create an emotional connection between visitors and the art. It’s powerful because it disrupts the traditional gallery experience and honors the Impressionists as disruptors in art history.

So Christine, Rachel, and I had a great chat and I hope you enjoy it too. Here it is.

Hi, Christine and Rachel. Welcome to The Art Engager podcast. Hi Claire. Thanks for having us. Delighted you are here. So I invited you both on this podcast to talk about a special collaboration between the two of you. But before we talk about that, perhaps you could introduce yourselves separately and explain what you do.

Rachel Nicholson: So thanks so much for having me. I’m Rachel Nicholson, currently director of Visitor Engagement and Research at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art that’s in Kansas City, Missouri. And for folks who are not in the United States, that is smack dab in the middle of the country. Visitor engagement and research means that I have the pleasure of overseeing.

Interpretation, visitor evaluation and research and public programs. So really my team gets to think about how do we create experiences that help people connect with the art on view and make meaning from the art on view. Brilliant.

Thanks Rachel. Christine.

Christine Murray: Um, hi. Thanks for having me as well. I’m really excited to be here.

I am the content director at Art Processors, which is a global experiential design and technology firm. So we work with museums all over the world to create new kinds of, Visitor experiences, new kinds of engagement, exhibition design, media design, we do it all. It’s very holistic and my role as the content director is really to be the chief storyteller.

So I am always looking at how we can deliver new way of relating either to art or whatever the subject matter is of the museum that we’re working with. So in this particular case, I had a history with the Nelson Atkins because I have done a lot of work for them in the past, and this project was a very kind of exciting, like experiment for us to take on together.

And I should say I am in San Francisco, and when we were developing this project, it was still covid times. And so we did a lot of this collaborative work remotely. So we got quite clever at how to virtually do walkthroughs of the galleries when we couldn’t do them in person.

Claire Bown: Wow. Even more

impressive. So you know each other for quite some time by getting the feeling.

You’ve worked together on a few projects. You’ve already mentioned that you’ve had some experience together, so perhaps you could talk to me a little bit about how you got together for this particular project. So this one between the Nelson Atkins Museum and Art Processors, and I was immediately struck when I read about this.

Project the way it uses technology, but also uses the original artworks in the galleries to engage visitors in a different way with what they’re looking at. So perhaps you could perhaps tell us a little bit about how the project started and why there was a need for it.

Rachel Nicholson: Yeah, so I’ll say from the museum’s point of view, the Nelson Napkins Museum of Art is a global collection.

So we have collections across many different cultures and many different time periods, and we were very lucky to have some funding from a local family foundation, the Block Family Foundation. For our wonderful impressionist collection, and these are galleries that are a favorite of many visitors at the museum.

Christine has also done work in years past on these galleries, so she knows them well. And so we had some funding and I believe the stipulation was to create, quote, something digital. And so my colleague, Jocelyn Edens, who I will shout out, who is a wonderful collaborator on this project as well, current director of Interpretation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

She and I started talking about what would digital look like in this space, because these are galleries that I will say are heavily interpreted, so. There’s a lot of wall text. There’s audio, some of it created by Christine Pre pandemic. We had touch screens and tablets. So there’s actually a lot of content already here and I think, you know, probably five, 10 years ago in museums, digital really meant screens.

It meant a tablet that you can touch into. It meant an AR experience maybe. And I. I hope I should say that we’re moving away from that a little bit because screens can be wonderful, but they also often interrupt your experience with the artwork. And at worst, screens become a place where we dump a lot of extra content.

And visitors don’t really use it all that much. So Jocelyn and I started talking about how might we create an experience that solves a lot of the issues that we run into in interpretation. So for instance, an audio tour is beautiful, but it’s a singular experience. You can really only experience it as an individual, and we know that people are looking for social experiences in museums.

We didn’t want something that had a lot of text. We already have a lot of text in our galleries. We wanted to kind of tell a different story and we wanted to connect people emotionally. So those were some of our kind of guiding stars for this project. And then at the same time, these galleries were newly, I, I say newly, it’s seven years ago now, but in 2016, they reopened the public.

And as part of that reopening, our exhibition design team installed a pretty incredible lighting and sound system in the galleries that we have used. At certain moments in different experiments that have never really used as a prolonged program. And so I will say, Jocelyn and I were kind of itching to try out this lighting system and say, how can we really make this work?

So we put together a proposal, which I’m sure Christine will say was incredibly vague. Our R F P that we put out to many people was, I think we wanna create something digital. We think that it is social. We hope that it used an existing lighting and sound system to move people through the galleries. And we talked to a few different firms and.

Art processors, for obvious reasons, really stood out to us as, as a firm that could be really creative to help us be kind of thought partners in this, because I think we understood that we had a vision and we had some content knowledge, but we really needed a, a thought partner and a creative partner in, in crafting this.

Christine Murray: Yeah, I think that the initial ask was to do something that had never been done before, that was new, that felt like it would break. Some of the typical visitor behavior patterns in the galleries. And so, you know, things like walk up to a painting, read the text label, or put on an audio headset and listen to a 92nd message and look for those, you know, those clues in the painting that’s being talked about by the person in the audio.

And the ask was really like, could we make something that felt. Kind of wondrous, that would kind of inspire some awe that would be immersive and would use this existing technology that the, that the museum hadn’t really ever. Pushed to see how far it could go. And so this lighting system that Rachel mentioned is a full spectrum of of color.

So because these were impressionist galleries, the very first thing that we thought was, well, the Impressionists were really investigating and following the light in what they were doing in their paintings. So let’s use that as. This sort of navigational tool for whatever this experience is that we’re making.

And for a long time we referred to this as whatever this experience is that we’re making, because it wasn’t clear for. For a while, you know, we did a lot of ideation. We did a lot of brainstorming, we did a lot of work shopping and discovery exercises, you know, with a, a big group of stakeholders. So some of the curatorial staff at the Nelson who are real risk takers when it comes to, I mean, that’s a, a real gift for a creative team.

To have subject matter experts that are really willing to try something new. And I think we initially had a talk about, I think Rachel, one of the things that you said was like, how can we tap into all the best parts of a guided docent experience, but. Not make it be a guided docent experience, but make it something else that feels, that feels like something you can do on your own, but with friends.

And so we started looking at all of those immersive Van Gogh, immersive, Frida Kalo, immersive Monet, all of those Immersives that were kind of taking the world by storm in the moment that we were talking about this. And. I think, I don’t wanna speak for Rachel, but I think a lot of people who work inside art museums are concerned about those kinds of experiences being the only experiences that people might have with art that they, I.

And it’s wonderful because it’s reaching people that would never feel comfortable going into an art museum, but it also isn’t giving you a direct relationship with an actual art object, as you pointed out, Claire. So we started talking about what is it about those immersive experiences that seem to be capturing everybody’s imagination and are there, are there things that those experiences are doing that we can.

We can tap into but actually use real art and, and some, some, some substantive storytelling that’s specific to that place. So my job was really to kind of figure out how to choreograph the lighting. The audio or whatever the audio was. First of all, we had to come up with what the story was going to be, then how we were gonna deliver the story, and then how we were gonna choreograph that story between the body, the social group, the gallery space, the technology.

So it was really this kind of marriage of story place people and technology.

Claire Bown: And, and so interesting ’cause I’ve just released a podcast about what we can learn from immersive art experiences. So it’s been top of my mind as well recently. ’cause I, I went to one in London, really enjoyed the experience.

It was the one with David Hockney, where he’s actually narrating the experience. So you feel very much, it’s through his eyes that you’re looking and you’re looking closely. So what did you find? You could take from immersive art experiences and use in the museum

Rachel Nicholson: environment? Well, I’ll say broadly, I think the immersive art experiences were absolutely an inspiration.

I think even before that was also this notion of we know who our audiences at the Nelson Napkins and we are always trying to. Reach out and extend a hand to new audiences and make them feel welcome. And so part of that is we know from visitor research that new audiences are more likely to come to programs than they are to come to our permanent collection galleries.

And as Christine says, take a look at an artwork and read a label and walk around and not really know what to do. And so, A challenge that was put forward to me early in my career was, how do you make a gallery feel like a program? And so that was a really exciting challenge to me. And another inspiration, I will say is actually a James Terrell sculpture, a skyscape that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art down in Arkansas has, and you know, you can go to this sculpture anytime during the day and have a meditative experience, but it’s sunrise and it’s sunset.

There’s a 15 minute light cycle that is truly awe inspiring and breathtaking. And so I think we said you can come to our galleries every single day and they’re an incredible experience. But what if on Friday nights you could come and have this 15 minute experience where we transform the gallery for you?

And so those were also, but I think it in, in terms of immersive that idea of an event. Is exciting for people to think about, kind of going and having a really set moment to look at art. And then I’ll also just say actually what you said, Claire of seeing through an artist’s eyes. I think being captivated by an emotion and we know that Christina as well, audio is wonderful for creating emotional experiences.

So that feeling of being in a special moment. Then also trying to pair that with the creation of an artist themselves to bring someone closer to the artworks were definitely threads for us that we were excited by.

Christine Murray: Yeah, we did a lot of exercises and, and talked a lot about this and we sort of boiled it down on our creative team to three aspects that we took away from the immersive experiences.

One is freedom. There’s freedom of movement. You can talk to your friends, you can drink a cocktail, you can take photos. And some of these behaviors are things that people feel aren’t allowed in an art gallery, in an art museum setting. And so we wanted to really create a sense of. Low stakes kind of behavior, right?

Not that you could roller skate through the galleries, but you know, you could sit down, you could lay down, you could walk wherever you wanted, that you had an agency over what you were looking at. You didn’t, you couldn’t do it incorrectly, if that makes any sense. And so that idea of. Putting that, that sort of social aspect at the, at the forefront and that kind of like everyone’s welcome and you can’t do this wrong, was, was a really important thing that we took away from those.

The other thing was this idea of, we called it feelings, freedom, and fun, so, In terms of feelings like those immersive art experiences and what we wanted to create here when we were really talking about what story are we gonna tell, was really eliminating the divide of time and space and making a direct emotional connection to these human beings who made these.

Quirk of art, and so that was really important, especially to, I think to the curatorial staff. That was one of the things that really came out early on, that we wanted to bring these artists forward in time so that they would be relatable, just like you and me. Even though obviously they’re like super talented humans at, at that time, they were struggling with a lot of the things that we struggle with in contemporary life.

You know, doubt, self-doubt, you know, struggles with money. They are just, Gone through quite a big war plague. The world was in turmoil. It felt very weirdly related to the moment where we were making the work. And so we started really just thinking about all those feelings and how we could connect visitors emotionally to the artists themselves.

And we really wanted to do as much as we could, expressing that through sound. And with these lights, we wanted to create visceral experiential moments versus sort of intellectualized ones and, and music sound effects. And then hearing the artist’s own words that we captured from their letters and their journal entries, really struggling with some of these universal themes of struggle and resilience and community and friendship and, uh, joy and struggle.

And. So we were really thinking Sensorially, which is another thing that we took away from the immersive. Experiences. And then the last thing was just to have fun, to just actually create something that felt special and different and new and fun. So feelings, freedom, and fun. And the fun aspect I would say is like, I think we signaled that pretty early on.

If you walk into an art gallery and it’s suddenly saturated in like a psychedelic purple light. The message is very clear that this is not your typical museum visit, that something special is gonna be happening here. So we really leaned into that as well.

Claire Bown: Uh, I love that thinking about taking away the white cube and making it, you know, psychedelic different colors, rainbow hue, whatever you need, just to create that atmosphere so people feel at ease and feel that it’s a sociable event as well.

So, I’m getting a great sense of the creative process, how you work together, how you came up with ideas from all sorts of sources and how you narrowed it down. I’m also getting a sense of kind of the things that were really important for you both in this project. I. Now, perhaps we could move on to how it actually works.

So perhaps you could kind of take us through it and explain how this experience works in the museum. How does light and sound, for example, Christine, tell the story of the artist.

Christine Murray: So the experience itself is divided into several chapters and they one follows the other end. Every time a new chapter begins, a sound effect and a lighting signal comes from the new space that you should move to.

So everyone gathers and the light sort of dimm, it’s very theatrical, and you start hearing a sort of meditation on what an impossible task it actually is to the ambition to try to capture light. And as you’re sort of hearing this narration, the lighting is growing and glowing and becoming like a sunrise.

So the, the experience actually sort of begins with this experience of almost dawn and, and then in the next gallery as that chapter resolves. You’ll hear, say, a thunderstorm in the next gallery and, and it’ll sort of capture your attention or a church bell ringing, uh, or footsteps on cobblestones, or there’s some kind of audio signal and then some kind of lighting change.

And, you know, to move as a group more sounds more deeply. We have a very, very talented sound designer named Jason Rainier who did this. Multiple track, multiple track, very, very rich and layered soundscapes. And so we, as we went along and we were iterating, we kept actually pulling. The voices out and just really enriching the sound because we found that that really put people in the present moment, in a way with the paintings.

There is a funny visitor behavior that we didn’t really expect was so deeply ingrained, but we have all trained visitors to when they hear something, look for that thing in a painting. We really wanted to break that behavior and be like, you can look at any of these paintings. This theme of friendship or this theme of dawn or dreaming applies to all of these paintings.

So it doesn’t matter which one you looked at. But that was really, as we were doing user tests, that was a big thing Rachel discovered.

Rachel Nicholson: Yeah, I, I mean, I think we were breaking, we called it a beautiful disruption for a few reasons, and I think one is, The Impressionists disrupted this notion in art history.

I mean, there’s this moment, I think my favorite, one of my favorite chapters in the experience is you have this overlay of all of these critics from the time, and they’re saying things like the paintings are more bad than good, which is a real thing that critics said of the Impressionists, which we don’t think about because they’re beloved.

And who doesn’t love Monet and who doesn’t know Van Gogh? You know, it’s these. And it’s amazing that in their time they wouldn’t have been adored. And then we also really disrupted. So we wanted to kind of honor them as disruptors. And then as Christine keeps saying, we wanted to disrupt the gallery experience.

So a big challenge. Our curators are fantastic. A big challenge for them was that this was not a chronological experience. So actually where the content starts is technically at the end. It’s like post-impressionism and then we walk you back through the gallery to towards the earlier parts of Impressionism.

And that was because of logistics of the gallery and what would make sense for crowd control and all these things. But it was really a challenge, I think, for our curators to pull away from that. So as Christine said, the content became these voices and really thematic. Without kind of adhering to that like linear history that we so often tell in museums.

One of my favorite moments of the process though, was when Jason came on site to do our final sound mix. And I think a big challenge for us, speaking of collaborating during C O V D was we were in the space trying to explain to the content, the creative team kind of. How this was working and, and one of the big problems we were having is people still kind of wanted a one-to-one experience with a painting.

So like they got into a gallery and they’d go, where am I supposed to look? Or which painting? And we, we thought about a few different things. We said, should we spotlight some paintings? Should we kind of make it more one-to-one as a traditional audio tour? And we were really having trouble. And when Jason was on site, he kind of brilliantly started mixing in other layers where he’d say, like, I saw a rocking chair.

And so I, if you look in, listen closely, I put a squeak of a rocking chair in here. And it was almost just enough that I think it gave people some comfort without it being didactic in nature, which was kind of an exciting moment to say, you can build enough of that comfort. With the audio so that people kind of know where they’re looking, but you still have that freedom that you talked about, Christine, of people can move around and experience it as.


Christine Murray: think that’s really

Claire Bown: interesting as well. Sorry to interrupt, but I think it, it is really interesting because people are behaving in certain ways in the museum and you are trying to change that behavior, but also change it in a way so that they still feel comfortable. Yeah. Because disruption sometimes can be very uncomfortable and you are wanting your visitors to feel comfortable in that space so that they can gauge with it, because otherwise they won’t have the same experience.

So yeah. That’s really interesting.

Christine Murray: Christine, I think one of, yeah. One of the things that I found really exciting about once we were able to kind of break those more conventional behaviors, it’s one thing if you hear somebody say, you know, look for the small sailboats in the corner, and you’ll see, you know, the distant ocean.

And, and then you look for it. And so that, that’s a very satisfying experience. There’s something wrong with that. But what happened in this beautiful disruption was you would just be looking at a painting and you would maybe suddenly hear some water sounds or the wind flapping a sail. And if you were looking at a painting that had any kind of water, it would suddenly be this moment of like great discovery.

Mm-hmm. So it made it actually. Oddly made people really look closely and kind of make these wonderful associations for themselves that was a little less guided and I think so a little bit more surprising. And, and then they’d be like, oh, look at this. And like, tell their friends that they’re, they’re with, right?

So that was a really lovely thing to see.

Claire Bown: More. More in, I guess, in the sense of suggesting things and the very subtle suggestions through audio cues or lighting or, but very subtle suggestion. And in doing so, you are encouraging them to see things perhaps that they’d never noticed in those artworks before as well.

So tell me how, how long does it take, when does it happen, any kind of logistic detail so people can get a real sense of what it would feel like.

Rachel Nicholson: Absolutely. So the whole experience is 15 minutes. Um, I think the content pieces itself are about 12 to 13 minutes and then there’s kind of an outro to help people exit the gallery.

I will say it is not completely unac facilitated. I think as someone who works in interpretation, I have this dream that we could just run this program and it would be amazing. And when we took staff through for the first time, we kept hearing. I kind of need someone to give an intro. I kind of need someone to set this up.

So we partnered with our wonderful volunteers. Our museum guides are a very dedicated group of volunteers, and they give about a 32nd intro to the experience. So they gather the group of people. We’ve capped the group at about 20 people per slot. You can book tickets for now. We’ve changed the hours a little bit, but it’s, you can book a 6:00 PM, a six 30, a 7:00 PM or a seven 30 and it’s 20 people per experience that the gallery doesn’t feel too crowded.

And our museum guide will give an introduction that really is this kind of, feel free to experience this as you would like. There’s no wrong way and I. People that freedom at the beginning would build some comfort. Christine knows I always get very excited whenever I, I’ll sometimes shadow the group sometimes, and whenever that first lighting cue happens where the intro comes down and the first gallery goes up, People just immediately move towards the light.

I feel so excited because you’re like, ah, we did it. It worked. You know, like that’s all people need, but it’s free. I’ll say our museum is free to the public, which is really special, and we kept this experience free, so people do need to reserve tickets, but it’s been so wildly popular in its first iteration that we.

Are now doing Friday evenings and Sunday mornings, so we’ve doubled the amount of time that people can come and something we also tweaked, it was originally every 20 minutes, and people we found wanted to be in the gallery afterwards and have conversations, talk with their museum guide, or talk with their friends, or go back and see the paintings.

And so we extended it to, even though the experience itself is 15 minutes, There’s now 15 minutes before the next group comes in. So people have time to kind of continue those conversations or go look at a painting that, as Christine said, they might have discovered something and that they hadn’t seen before.

Claire Bown: Yeah. And what are people telling you about how they’re engaging with er, how, what are they telling you about what they

Christine Murray: experienced?

Rachel Nicholson: Uh, I, I have been blown away by the visitor feedback. It’s, it, It’s really moving, I’ll say, to have people say that they felt, they truly felt an emotional experience in our galleries.

I think that that is rare in an art museum unless it is in kind of direct contact with a work of art that moves you. But to have a piece of interpretation move you is exciting. So actually when Christine came to visit and, and did the experience herself, I had a woman pull me aside during the experience and.

She was with an elderly gentleman and she said he has early onset dementia and I can see him. Connecting with these paintings in a way that I haven’t seen him connect with, and I can see those emotions coming forward. I had another piece of visitor feedback where they said I was in a really terrible mood, like I came on a Sunday morning for some reason, I was in a really terrible mood.

And I went through it and I just felt so calm and also inspired at the end of it. One thing that’s exciting for us is we played a lot with how long should this be, and I think it was maybe longer, and then we kept cutting it down because we’re trained in museums to say like, people look at a work of art for 10 seconds.

You know, if you’re lucky, people listen to an audio tour, maybe for 90 seconds, they might skip after that. And so I think we’re so used to needing to cut things down and majority of people who I have taken through this experience and every week when we get visitor feedback, they say, I wish it were longer.

I wish I had more time. And I think part of that is it maybe takes people a minute to really understand what’s happening and to get comfortable in it. ’cause you kind of learn as you go, maybe what you’re supposed to be looking for. But I think people also just feel as though it really is captivating and it’s emotional and it’s immersive, but you know, not with projections of art, but with real art.

Yeah. Which is wonderful.

Claire Bown: Yeah. And have, has anyone done it twice? Have people come back

Rachel Nicholson: for more? Yeah, people definitely have done it twice, which is great. And a lot of people say when they get to the end of it, I can’t wait to do it again. Because I think for that reason of you discover things based on what you’re hearing.

And I think originally we thought. Because it’s a mix of narration, quotes from the artists themselves, and then this very rich soundscape. And I think originally we were really relying on the quotes from the artists as a way to direct people to the paintings. And as Christine kind of alluded to, that started to fall away.

And now there’s a really nice balance between soundscape and artist voices. So, The artist’s voices bring this beautiful texture to it. But I actually wonder if the thing that’s making people look closely at the paintings is the soundscape itself, which is kind of an interesting challenge for me working in interpretation to say, what is the thing that actually cues people to look at at works of art more closely or feel a connection with them if it’s not words necessarily.

Christine Murray: Yeah, and

Claire Bown: music can play such a, such a big role in that. Voices can play such a big role and go back to our emotions as well. Christine, you’ve experienced it yourself firsthand. So you helped create this experience and you’ve experienced it. So what did you notice as you walked through

Christine Murray: it?

Well, I mo I have to say because I was so familiar with. What was going to happen that I was mostly watching my fellow visitors. So I was, I was paying more attention to how people were experiencing the, the thing than it being a personal experience for me. But I did feel. So, and in that respect, I was like, oh, look, it’s working.

You know, they’re, they’re exploring all the paintings and they’re talking to each other and they’re smiling. And so I was very pleased with how I saw my cohort, the group of people I was with behaving and, and engaging. But for me, there was one moment where there’s a, a Monet. I think it’s Monet talking about his process.

He’s actually talking about, he’s giving advice. It’s a letter to another artist giving advice about how to get this paint on the canvas and how important it was to him. Am I butchering that, Rachel?

Rachel Nicholson: No, that’s, that’s right. It’s towards,

Christine Murray: yeah. Yeah. And, and I felt as a, as a, just a viewer, I. The, the painting that I happened to be looking at when I heard him talking about his process actually made me see strokes in the painting.

I’ve looked at these paintings, as Rachel said, I’ve worked in this gallery in the past. I’ve looked at these paintings a lot, and I saw them anew myself, especially when I heard that kind of, it felt so personal. He was sort of, It was so intimate what he was saying about what he was trying to do, and I think that was the moment where I was like, oh, we did kind of crack this thing that we were trying to do, which was to really humanize these kind of vulnerable people.

They were not the Avengers of. You know, modern art, they were reviled for the most part, and so that they found each other and supported each other, and you know, that, that I, I thought a lot about that. About what it must feel, what it feels like to be working at something you believe in, that no one understands, and to keep going.

And then to find one other person, two other people that see you and. Understand like how validating that is just one person understanding that what you’re doing isn’t slap dash and just dots and all of the terrible things that the critics were saying, or you know, you’re being rejected left, right, and center by every place you’re trying to enter your paintings.

And then one other painter says, I get it. And that was incredibly powerful. Emotional,

Claire Bown: emotional experience as well, and connecting, connecting really to the stories and the, the, the, the, the history behind the, the artworks as well. I’m interested in. What your future plans are. I’m interested in what you’ve learned as individuals throughout this process of working together and creating this beautiful disruption, but also as a museum, also as an organization, Christine, so perhaps you could share what kind of your next steps are.

Christine Murray: Oh, well, I hope a lot of of things

Rachel Nicholson: I think, I think Christine is, is stuck with me for a while. So I will, I’ll say in terms of your question of kind of what we learned, you know, Christine and I are, are representatives of a much larger team and so I will just say our. Lighting designers were so key in helping us create these moments in the galleries.

Our director of IT actually figured out how to make it all work such that a museum guide can just press a button on Friday night and the program plays and that is incredible. And our curators to the beautiful story that Christine just told, we actually didn’t originally plan to kind of end on that Monet note and our curators as content experts just brought so much.

To this of helping us find where could we really find the content from these letters. I mean, they know these paintings so well, but they also know these artists so well. And so I think part of this was when I have the pleasure of talking to a curator about these paintings. They talk about these paintings is though they know the people behind ’em.

And so we kind of, to be able to bring that to visitors was exciting. So I think we learned a lot as an internal team about kind of. Breaking the system and experimenting. I will say I am very lucky to work at a place like the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. I have talked to other museum colleagues about this and they are in shock, but we are allowed to do things like this.

It’s, it’s really one of a kind. So I think we learned that we can keep pushing the boundaries and something that was exciting when Christine went through this. We looked at each other at the end and we said like, there’s certain moments where, you know, we tweak, right? Like, and this is, I think we both see this as kind of as round one.

Like, what could you do for the next one? Knowing that that Monet quote, when you read it on paper, doesn’t actually do a whole lot, but when you put it into this whole story, That that is the thing that feels so emotional and again, I think cracks a code and, and pushes us a little bit further. There are things like timing, you know, that we’d wanna play with and switch, but I think this, I’ll go back to what I said at the beginning, which is digital and museums used to exclusively mean screens.

And I think we’ve moved away from that to say, What is the digital that you build around the artwork, but the artwork remains the center, and that to me is audio lighting systems. Maybe some really incredible video and projections kind of leading you into the experience. I’m iffy on vr, but that’s a different podcast conversation.

But I, I think we, there are a few other spaces in the museum where we have this lighting system installed, so Christina and I have been in conversation about maybe trying something there. But I think just continuing to also not be afraid to learn things from experiences that are not happening in museums.

So, A lot of people in the art world have derided these immersive experiences, myself included, even though I have been to them, you know, I, I’ve been very skeptical of them, but maybe it’s time for us to, as Christine so beautifully puts it, kind of boil it down to what are those values or those pieces of the experience that are so important, and then what can we learn from them.

And so to me this feels like an invitation to continue to find that inspiration in other places and then bring it into the museum field in an authentic way. You know, we’re not putting projections on our walls necessarily, but we’re trying to help people see in a new way and be, be guided by the content that we have.


Claire Bown: And Christine, your plans next steps.

Christine Murray: Uh, well, I’m very much looking forward to sort of taking this to the next level at the Nelson in some of these other galleries. We have some really interesting and fun ideas. I think that, you know, for us at Art Processors, I, I think what I would say is that we approach every project from the story first, and so we’re not just.

Applying back to this idea of digital and screens and projections and all that kind of stuff, like the challenge that the Nelson gave us with this when they brought us into the project wasn’t. We wanna figure out how to do some like amazing technological feat that everyone’s gonna pay attention to.

And I think the, maybe one of the reasons why we fit so well is that we are very technology agnostic. We’re very, we’re focused on the experience and the story, and. So we’ll use whatever, we’ll go, we’ll go analog, we’ll go flip chart if that’s gonna give you the best experience, you know, and the outcome that you’re after.

So we can go all the way to VR and we can go all the way to, you know, turn over a, a book. So I, my personal desire with, with creating digital experiences is for the technology to disappear and. For it to deliver some kind of amazing experience without you ever realizing it’s, it’s there. And I think that this, this lighting and this, this programmable AV sort of approach, which was lighting and speakers, it was not vr, it was not a 360 degree video shot with a drone, you know, like it was.

Lights in the ceiling and speakers in the walls and, and yet we could really, thinking creatively could center the artwork and also have this immersive experience. So I think, you know, I learned on this project how important testing, testing, testing, testing is. We tested this over and over and over, even though we were kind of developing this.

Virtually we were, Rachel was leading groups through and then giving us feedback, and then we were, we were making video models and doing all kinds of, we were using a lot of technology behind the scenes to do the orchestration and programming and choreography, but without people in the space giving us their real feedback.

Like I just. This, this is too long. I didn’t understand what they were saying. This doesn’t make any sense. I think we had an original arc. Our narrative had an arc that we completely dismantled after one of our tests and reconfigured in an entirely different way. And that all came from, you know, just real people in the galleries giving us their honest opinion about whether it was working

Rachel Nicholson: or not.

I. Christine, it’s a good point. ’cause I actually remember you, I think like early on were sending us full like kind of just audio track recordings and we would listen to them and then we realized quickly like actually it doesn’t totally mean anything unless we’re see like we can give feedback on the story.

But once we got it to a place, we were like, no, we, we need to actually put this in the gallery. And we, you know, we had our wonderful lighting designers, Jake and Becky, like physically pushing buttons when we were taking people through, you know, this was not a programed experience. And to the point of testing, I remember taking our, we got it to a point where we were like, okay, we’re gonna show it to our c e o and director.

And we showed it to him and I looked at him and I said, what do you think? And he said, I’m underwhelmed. And for me, you know, I’m going like, oh no, but it, but to Christine’s point, you know, we, we tweaked, we found what the moments were and now he adores it and is so excited. But you, of course, you have that moment in the process where it’s not really coming together and you have to find how do you, how do you actually hit those emotionally resonant points to make people walk away and think about something.

Claire Bown: Well, thank you both so much for sharing so much about the creative process that was involved in creating what I think is a really magical experience and one that encourages visitors to really look in a different way at the artworks in a gallery. How can listeners find out more about the project or reach out to you, Rachel?

Rachel Nicholson: Well, if you happen to be coming through Kansas City, I would say please book a ticket on our website.

Some folks will be able to come in and see the experience myself. You can find me through my LinkedIn, I would say is probably my easiest, Rachel Nicholson. And then we’ve had quite a few articles published about us and Christine has also written some blogs about us and we’re hoping to be presenting the work at some conferences coming up in the fall.

So hopefully a lot more time to talk about the process from all different sides. Brilliant. And

Christine Murray: Christine. Well, for us to learn more about Art Processors, the best place to go is our website Art You can find me as well on LinkedIn under Christine Murray, and I would just say that the, it’s worth a trip to Kansas City to go to the Nelson Atkins.

It is one of my favourite museums in America, and it’s a little bit of a… You know, it’s like a lot of people know about it, but a lot of people don’t, and it’s a little bit of a under the radar, just treasure. So,

Claire Bown: It’s on my list already. I would love to come and experience this for myself as well. I’ll put all the links in the show notes so that everyone can find you and find out more information as well.

But I just wanted to say thank you to both of you for spending the time chatting with me today and for being on the podcast.

Rachel Nicholson: Thanks. Thank you.

Christine Murray: Thanks, Claire. It was great to be here.

Claire Bown: So a huge thank you to Christine and Rachel for being on the podcast today. Hope you enjoyed our chat. Go to the show notes to find out more about a beautiful disruption.

If you’d like to connect with Rachel and Christine, follow the links in the show notes too. And don’t forget that registration is open for my three V T M O courses starting in September, October and November, 2023. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced, there’s a course for you. Go to the show notes or my website thinking to find out more about my online courses, teaching you my approach to engaging audiences with art and objects.

That’s it for this week. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time. Bye.

Thank you for listening to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my website, thinking And you can also find me on Instagram at Thinking Museum, where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share with others and subscribe to the show on your podcast Player of choice. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.


Nelson-Atkins website page

Rachel Nicholson LinkedIn

Art Processors 

Christine Murray Linked In

Rediscovering joy and human connection with the Impressionists

Christine’s recent documentary “Feelings Are Facts