This conference paper aims to demonstrate the role and the effectiveness of Augmented Reality (AR) technology as a powerful engagement and communication tool for art museums. The chosen case study that will be examined is an AR smartphone app designed for the Bandini Museum in Fiesole, near Florence, Italy. The app, called Bandini Icon, conveys to the public a wide range of information about Italian late-medieval and renaissance painted panels. Intangible digital elements are virtually represented in the physical space though AR technology, enhancing the experience of the museum and the overall message conveyed by the collection. The birth of the project and the essential User Experience elements of the app will be also taken into account, trying to highlight good practices and to identify the challenges that we faced during design and development.
Written by: Giovanni Pescarmona
The Bandini Museum in Fiesole (part of the wider “Musei di Fiesole” network), displays a collection of late-medieval and early renaissance paintings – mostly painted with gold and tempera on wooden panel – and of glazed terracotta and marble sculptures [Figure 1]. It is a small museum, with less than a hundred works. Nonetheless, it represents a rare example of an almost intact eighteenth century collection gathered by Angelo Maria Bandini since 1752 until his death in 1803. Bandini, an enlightened librarian and important scholar, was one of the first collectors with a specific interest in the art of the late Middle Ages and Tuscan gold ground paintings.
Art historical research at the Bandini Museum
The Bandini Icon app stems from a research project of the University of Florence. Information provided by the app is based on studies made by MA History of Art students under the supervision of Professors Sonia Chiodo and Andrea De Marchi at SAGAS (Department of History of Art of the University of Florence) [Figure 3]. Each painting has been thoroughly studied over the course of three yearly seminars (2015, 2016 and 2017) and, therefore, the app represents an opportunity for the dissemination of unpublished research results.
The birth of the project
In 2018, I dedicated my MA thesis to the design of the app. In the same year, I partnered with Marcello Massidda, app developer and communication designer, who coded the first prototype using Unity engine and the Vuforia SDK for deploying Augmented Reality features. The project then received a funding from the Fondazione CR Firenze, a private foundation aiming at supporting social and cultural development of the Florentine area with an investment plan aiming at fostering digital transformation in lesser-known museums. The final development of the app, based on the Author’s and Massidda’s Master’s thesis, has been carried out by Maggioli Cultura.
The app is free, with no advertisements or registration required, and is available for Android and iOS in Italian and English. Only a personal device, like a smartphone or a tablet, is needed to run the app. The Bandini Museum has used part of the funding to implement a Wi-Fi connection, so that visitors can download the application on-site for free. The app is also ad-free, with no registration required.
Most of the paintings in the Bandini Museums are just fragments of complex artworks composed of many parts. This type of painting, very widespread in Italian medieval and renaissance art, is called polyptych. Many single painted panels once part of polyptychs are now separated, scattered in faraway museums. Using Bandini Icon, users can recompose polyptychs that have been dismembered in the past centuries, bringing together, through the use of AR, fragments of artworks that were originally part of a unique context, but are now dispersed in different museums. By applying the principles of Engagement Design and Gamification, Bandini Icon has been developed to provide an engaging and entertaining experience, appealing to a heterogeneous museum public. All the art historical content has been edited by the Author, and is therefore curated to fit the specific communication needs of the museum.
We will explore how Bandini Icon works using screenshots taken in the museum while running the app. Framing a painting with the device camera, the software recognises the image – and the AR experience unfolds [Figure 5]. A virtual image is displayed on the screen to the left side of the real panels in the museum, painted by Lorenzo di Bicci and displaying Saint James and Saint Nicholas. The augmented image represents a panel with Saint Julian and a Bishop Saint that, originally, was part of the same polyptych. Currently, this digitally added panelis stored in the deposits of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, and is not visible to the public.
Only the side panels (or wings) of the polyptych by Lorenzo di Bicci survive, and the central element (generally depicting the Virgin with the Child) has yet to be identified, and could be possibly lost forever. Therefore, we tried to represent this absence by recreating the empty volume of the central element at the centre of the virtual polyptych [Figure 6]. A UI (User Interface) switch element allows the user to switch from one visualisation to the other, hiding or showing the missing central element. The artwork in the museum (the marker that activates the experience) can be always seen by the user during the experience, and provides a dimensional reference for the virtual elements. The result is a perceptive illusion, stimulating the imagination of the beholder, who is encouraged to engage with artworks from a new perspective.
The app was launched on 29 February 2020. The Bandini Museum was closed soon after due to the Covid-19 emergency, and remained closed for the majority of the year. Therefore, it has been impossible to create an education programme targeting schoolchildren for instance and likewise to collect data and feedback from users. Bandini Icon works not only with the original paintings, but also with reproductions: so we printed and distributed playable cards, and published on social media accounts hi-res images to be used by people that could engage with the museum from the safety of their homes [Figure 2]. More recently, a bespoke Marker Album with a selection of images from the Museum has been created to foster the use of the app while museums are closed (you can download the album for free as a .pdf file here). Using this kind of curated Extended Reality digital interpretation, even small art museums can play the role of innovation hubs for young researchers, bridging the gap between scholarly research and public knowledge.
Giovanni Pescarmona is a Digital Art Historian, currently a PhD candidate at the University of Florence. His research interests focus on innovative digital technologies for the enhancement of Cultural Heritage. He works as an advisor for Italian and foreign museums (Fiesole, Florence, Cambridge) for the creation of digital products and experiences.
Pescarmona, Giovanni. “Un’esperienza digitale in realtà aumentata per gli affreschi staccati di Santa Maria Novella a Firenze”. Kermes, year 32, no. 116 (October-December 2019), pp. 83-86.
Pescarmona, Giovanni. “Augmented Reality and Renaissance Painting. An AR Experience for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge”. Kultur und Informatik. Extended Reality, edited by Johann Habakuk Israel, Christian Kassung and Jürgen Sieck, Werner Hülsbusch, Glückstadt, 2020, pp. 229-242.
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The Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites, edited by Hanna Lewi, Wally Smith, Dirk von Lehn and Steven Cooke, Routledge, London and New York, 2019.