National Gallery Singapore’s digital transformation

Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

In 2015, Singapore’s old Supreme Court building, together with the original City Hall, was converted into an establishment that combines the old with the new. When combined, the two national monuments form National Gallery Singapore, an art museum that oversees more than 9,000 artworks from across Southeast Asia.

One of the decision-makers behind the institution is Assistant Chief Executive Chris Lee, who leads National Gallery Singapore’s Museum Experience & Services business unit. In addition to being responsible for the overall visitor experience, Lee’s team also manages the Gallery’s digital transformation and innovation, technology infrastructure and platform services, marketing and communications, as well as business development.

Frontier Enterprise recently got in touch with National Gallery Singapore’s Assistant Chief Executive to talk about digitalisation, the art museum’s IT infrastructure, technology plans, and more.

National Gallery Singapore is turning 6 this November. When did your digital transformation begin? Did it start after the Gallery opened, or was digitalisation part of its establishment from the get-go?

Even prior to opening our doors in November 2015, our management team clearly identified digital innovation and transformation as a critical part of our vision and operations. Since we opened, National Gallery Singapore remains committed to continually harnessing technology to enhance our offerings and visitor experience. Technology also enables us to improve our organisational efficiency.

With the pandemic accelerating the need for digital innovation even further, we are using digital technology to enable artists and museum professionals to inspire connections between art and the public, and cultivate an art-loving community. We are working towards promoting art beyond the walls of the Gallery to broaden the public’s engagement with art.

This is observed not only in museums around the world, but also in other industries such as music and sports, which was discussed in Singapore Tourism Board’s SingapoReimagine Global Conversations online series on the future of travel and tourism, where our CEO Chong Siak Ching spoke about integrating digital and virtual elements into our exhibits.

The Gallery continues to explore the use of artificial intelligence (AI), mobile apps, and most recently, augmented reality by launching various tech-enabled pilot initiatives to bring novel art encounters to the public.

Technology will continue to be in the heart of all our efforts, complementing the physical museum experience that remains important and irreplaceable.

Did you face any challenges in your digital adoption efforts? How did you deal with them?

We had to remain agile and adaptable to overcome several challenges, such as working with emerging technologies and creating a cohesive offering in either a fully digital or a hybrid “phygital” format. This required the need to change our mindset towards technology across all parts of the organisation, reviewing and developing new work processes, and finally, adopting new enabling technologies. All of these had to be rapidly accelerated in response to the pandemic.

To do so, we identified and empowered digital champions within the organisation to go beyond their formally-assigned roles, and partnered with other organisations and vendors to help us not only with delivering new solutions, but also with digital capability-building. The result is a series of digitally-enabled initiatives and exhibitions.

Could you talk about the IT infrastructure that supports the operation and management of National Gallery Singapore?

We are constantly reviewing our IT infrastructure and capabilities alongside the organisation’s evolving strategies and operational plan. While we continue to optimise our existing systems, we also actively scan for new emerging technologies which we can integrate into or upgrade from these systems. This includes a holistic look at front-end, user-facing systems and applications, to middleware and back-end systems as well. We are also increasingly adopting design/user-centric thinking and agile methodologies to gain quick wins while working on longer-term transformative projects.

In terms of how we are organised–our Digital Infrastructure & Technology team focuses on delivering important foundational infrastructure that dynamically serves the organisation’s current and future needs; our Experience Design and Co:Lab X teams implement our Smart Museum vision (more details below); and our Y-Lab team works with startups to catalyse “Art Tech” as a new industry in delivering products and services for the culture sector and beyond.

What are some of the innovative ways in which technology is being used at the Gallery?

As part of our Smart Museum vision and framework, we see three broad areas where we can meaningfully harness technology – i) how we curate and present art, ii) how we deliver a welcoming, guided and personalised experience, and iii) how we enhance organisational efficiency and productivity.

For digitally-enabled art initiatives, we have launched:

  • A dedicated chatbot on Facebook to complement the Gallery’s 2018 exhibition Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay. The chatbot leverages on the personal and on-the-go interactions on social media to prompt users to look at paintings shown at the exhibition and get bite-sized information even when they are not at the Gallery.
  • Mixed reality 360˚ experiences with Juan Luna’s painting “Spoliarium” to complement its exhibition Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna which was running at that time, as well as a 360˚ experience of the Gallery’s first travelling exhibition, Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960 – 1969).
  • A variety of phygital experiences in response to the pandemic: We launched #GalleryAnywhere, a portal that gives access to digital and virtual experiences, and #SmallBigDreamersAtHome, an online children’s festival and the virtual-only exhibition titled Stories in Light. As restrictions slowly eased, we also launched hybrid events and exhibitions this year, such as the phygital Light to Night Festival – the annual art festival in Singapore’s Civic District – and the phygital edition of the Gallery Children’s Biennale.

To enhance the museum experience, we introduced:

  • The Gallery Explorer App – a digital guide of the Gallery which features long-term displays and special exhibitions for all audiences, as well as audio guides and information of the artworks.
  • TEMI, an autonomous robot guide that brings visitors to different artworks in the Gallery. As it stops in front of the various artworks, it can share more information about the piece through multimedia playing on its screen.

To improve organisational efficiency and productivity, we have implemented several AI systems, such as:

  • EVIE.AI – an AI personal assistant that schedules meetings for all Gallery staff to allow staff to focus more on productive tasks.
  • SalesWhale – an AI sales agent for the Gallery’s Venue Rental Team and other business units to respond to email enquiries and filter prospects
  • Technology to track visitorship at entrances and map visitors’ movement within the Gallery so as to provide insights on their behaviour. These insights will then inform the Gallery when refining its offerings and operations on an ongoing basis.

What are some of the exciting IT developments at National Gallery? Do you have plans to deploy emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, or augmented/virtual reality?

We will be launching Y-Lab, the Gallery’s art-tech incubator, very soon at the museum’s basement level. This incubator lets organisations evolve their existing products with the Gallery, to either create experiences that make art more accessible, or inspire useful technology with artistic sensibilities. Y-Lab will be an incubator for start-ups, patrons, museum professionals, investors, culture sector talents, and visitors alike to help promote cultural production and consumption.

We are also revamping certain spaces and ticketing processes at the Gallery to introduce more digital touchpoints and improve visitors’ overall museum experience. This seeks to improve the visitor journey through decentralised ticketing and a guided omni-channel experience that is personalised and differentiated to our visitors.

On top of exploring innovative tech to deliver more seamless experiences on-site, we are working towards bringing art closer to the public and facilitating everyday art encounters wherever they are. Recently, we launched The People’s Gallery, an exhibition that uses augmented reality to transform more than 25 void decks across eight neighbourhoods into art galleries and to “hang” art on blank walls.

As technology continually evolves, the Gallery will be keeping pace with these developments and will be led by its Smart Museum vision as we continue to progressively use technology to complement and enhance our audiences’ physical experience with art.