How Dept brushed up Van Gogh Museum's virtual experience for a remote Covid-19 world

How Dept brushed up Van Gogh Museum's virtual experience for a remote Covid-19 world

Normally open 365 days a year, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum welcomed 2.1 million visitors from 110 different countries in 2019. These numbers have plummeted in pandemic-hit 2020, but by a stroke of luck, one year ago the museum invited Dept to brush up its website for those unable to physically step foot inside. Its completion couldn't be more timely.

Given art is often a visceral experience that demands the viewer be in-situ, when that option is no longer available, how close can a website get to the real deal? This was the challenge Amsterdam-based agency Dept took on when it won the brief to redesign the Van Gogh Museum website.

“The core proposition was ‘Van Gogh is for everyone,’” explains Franklin Schamhart, UX lead and head of design at Dept on the brief the museum delivered. “It wanted to make sure everyone had access to his work.”

The museum in Amsterdam is normally open all year round, with visitors queuing up in droves to stare intently at Vincent Van Gogh's brushstrokes, with the aim of gaining a glimmer of his psychological state at the moment his brush smacked the canvas.

Arguably the most famous artist in the world, for centuries Van Gogh's paintings have transfixed people, and this allure has inspired many to usher his work into the digital age, including the animation Loving Vincent, a fully painted film done in his style, alongside sites like Google Arts & Culture that offers a database of his work. With the knowledge that it alone holds the widest and finest examples of his work (more than 1000), the Van Gogh Museum recognised that it needed to up its digital game in the aim of broadening its overseas audience.

Part of this digitalisation strategy saw the Van Gogh museum open its doors across the globe early this year, in the form of an experiential pop-up. The exhibition was designed to gain new audiences, offering an audio tour of the artist's life as told through his letters and three-dimensional reproductions of his masterpieces.

A year ago, in a world where Covid-19 did not exist, the museum asked Dept to pitch its ideas for a new website that would recreate the experience of the exhibition, online. This journey had, in fact, began two years prior, when Studio Dumbar (part of Dept) developed a new identity for the museum that focused on the combination of colour within the work of Van Gogh.

“The pitch focused on accessibility that was lacking on the website because it was not optimised. So we pitched story formats to work with stories about Van Gogh's life," Schamhart recalls. "We also pitched right to left text for Arabic speakers and WeChat integrations for its Chinese visitors."

After winning the brief, Dept set about making the website more accessible alongside tech agency Q42, leading the concept and creative direction of the project while the latter did the development. However, at this point, no one was working under the assumption that the museum, that has not had a day off in years, would have to endure a long hiatus.

Schamhart says one of the first things the team uncovered was the museum's strong social presence that drove a lot of traffic to the website. "So we decided to not just focus on the website, but to look across the whole of the digital experience," he says, detailing how the team took inspiration from Instagram's story experiences to provide website users with an interactive storytelling format.

With a colossal amount of content available, the team set about converting all the paintings in the collection into digital formats. It developed a feature titled 'Vincent for Scale' to demonstrate the size of his masterpieces using the artist as a measuring tool. To give viewers an in-depth look at his seminal brushstrokes, the team worked with the ultra-res storytelling tool Micrio, which enables visitors to zoom into the smallest details of the painting.

The agency also introduced a new structure that allows for richer stories, with interactive images and videos, as well as shorter stories enabling the museum to quickly respond to current events.

"When the museum closed, it immediately stopped 100% of its income stream. One of the funny things about the original brief was the museum didn't even think to ask us to help sell more tickets because it's usually filled up all year round," Schamhart explains. Taking a locked-down not locked out approach to Covid-19, the pandemic accelerated the project, to ensure any art-sick fans could enjoy Van Gogh's work from the comfort of their homes.

Prior to the revamp, the website that only hosted visitor information received more than 8.5 million visits annually, which was more than four times the actual amount of museum visitors. Now, the museum hopes its digital showcase of Van Gogh's work will engage new audiences.

Despite reopening its doors in June, the museum is currently dealing with 90% fewer visitors, with the ongoing pandemic getting in the way of numbers returning to normal this year. Although no technology could ever truly recreate the pondering experience of an art gallery visit, thankfully this fortuitous project will help quench the thirst of many an art lover across the globe.

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