The infinite gallery: V&A app unveils hidden treasures

What do you do when you have an unrivalled archive brimming with great content but not enough space to display it? How do you bring that content to life in a way that reaches far beyond the core base of typical museum visitors and inspire them to get involved with the arts?

There’s an app for that.

Played in Britain: Modern theatre in 100 plays 1945 – 2010, an app created by the Victoria and Albert museum, Britain’s premier museum of Design and Performance Arts, is lifting the curtain on Britain’s theater industry. The iPad app brings the sights and sounds of Britain’s best-loved plays to life through exclusive video and audio from their casts and creators. It can be enjoyed by visitors both in the museum and from the comfort of their own home.

Displayed alongside more traditional exhibits such as costumes and props, the interactive tablets provide visitors with a completely new way of experiencing the Theater and Performance gallery. By combining digital and physical elements in the same space, the V&A can choose the best way to showcase content on a case-by-case basis while ensuring that the full breadth of the archive is available to interested visitors.

Highlights include Patrick Stewart talking about his role in the 2009 version of Waiting for Godot and a collection of essays by industry experts.

“Creating a great app is a cost effective way of showcasing content that’s not on permanent display,” notes Malcolm Sutherland, Head of Digital Projects.

“The app gives the V&A an opportunity not only to expand our audience, but to bring together our vast collections of photographic stills, audio-visual material and production photographs.”

While the benefits of using tablets to expand the exhibition were clear from the start, the V&A still had questions about the durability and security of the devices in such a high traffic environment that it had to solve. How could they provide the interactivity that visitors would expect without the risk of damage from heavy use? To answer these questions, the V&A partnered with Bouncepad, the market-leading designer of iPad enclosures.

Using the Wallmount system, the V&A was able to provide visitors with an attractive and natural experience designed to be inclusive for a wide range of visitors, such as children and adults with accessibility requirements. The tablets were transformed into listening posts with the addition of headphones plugged into the iPad enclosures.

For the V&A, Played in Britain: Modern theatre in 100 plays 1945 – 2010 is just the start. As curators discover the possibilities of digital tools, the potential to engage visitors will grow exponentially. What is certain is that the melding of physical and digital is likely to become a feature of all museums as they continue to open up their archives while dealing with space constraints.

Download the app on iTunes to take a tour of the exhibition on your own tablet.

Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays, 1945-2010. By VAE (V&A Publishing)

‘Played in Britain’ uses the V&A’s rich collection of photography to illustrate 100 Key Plays of the postwar period. Unique essays explain each play’s significance, impact and afterlife; first night reviews from the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers show what critics thought at the time. Many plays feature extracts from the texts. A third have audio interviews with theatre practitioners.