App producer Miranda Hinkley gives us a preview in Museum ID Magazine:
30 August, 2010
To enter the V&A’s Quilts: 1700-2010 is to step into a private, inner world created by hundreds of hands. In places this world is centuries old, in others contemporary, but it’s always haunting, complex and quirkily beautiful. My challenge as producer of the exhibition guide was to do it justice on a mobile, digital platform; Apple’s iPod touch.
An ‘app’ is a software programme containing multimedia content, specially created for Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPod touch and newly launched iPad. Antenna Audio have been working exclusively with the V&A for the past eighteen months, but the reasons behind the choice of our Pentimento™ ‘app’ for iPod were, I think, twofold. Firstly, the audience profile for the exhibition is unusual. We always expected a strong, specialist interest, but in the weeks running up to the opening, quilting groups across the world were block-booking local hotels. It has also proved very popular with the wider public; perhaps due to the recession there is a strong interest in traditional crafts and the hand-made. Mindful of this, we wanted an interpretational tool that would provide enough in-depth, technical detail to satisfy the hard-core quilters, as well as the compelling, human narratives that would engage the broader audience. So far, visitor comments have been very positive: “The best audio guide I have ever used. An excellent use of modern technology to truly enhance this inspiring exhibition. Fantastic! And: “Excellent audio guide, particularly the possibility of close-up – almost as good as touching it.” Our Pentimento™ ‘app’ gives visitors an elegant, visually rich experience combining flawless audio and video with zoomable images, that allow them to use the iPod’s Multi-Touch screen to actually zoom in and view the works up close, stitch by stitch.
Secondly, the quilts are displayed as they would originally have been seen; on beds or as wall hangings. This contributes to a wonderfully intimate experience; visitors are literally stepping into the bedrooms and private quarters of the past. But it also throws up an interpretational challenge, as some of finer detail on the works is hard to see. In addition, due to the very fragile nature of some of the older quilts, they need to be shown under relatively low lighting. Using the app, with its zoom function, meant that some of this detail could be revealed. An added bonus was that the app could also be offered for download online. This not only created an additional income stream, but meant that enthusiasts around the world who couldn’t make it to the exhibition could still experience these remarkable objects.
The exhibition encompasses a huge variety of quilts, coverlets and bedcovers; 65 in total. The app covers about a third of these, specially chosen by the curators to represent the full range of periods, styles and techniques, in over an hour of content. The early 18th century Coverlet with Aesop’s Fable is pieced together from hundreds of triangles of silk and silk velvets, embroidered and appliquéd with flowers, birds, animals and sprigs of greenery. Mrs Shepherd’s 1930’s Bedcover is made from a single piece of peach cotton sateen, but stitched with a complex pattern of her own design, which includes the seat of a bentwood chair and scallop shells, probably inspired by her upbringing on Coquet Island. Meanwhile in Right to Life, Grayson Perry uses the classic ‘tumbling block’ pattern to create a stunning quilt, which on closer inspection is made up of foetuses, rotating on a background of vivid velvets.
As many of the quilts included in the exhibition are part of the V&A’s collection, the V&A also holds the rights to the associated images. A visually rich app is a great way of utilising and re-purposing existing digital content. The ability to include detailed, hi-resolution photographs meant that we could show an extraordinary level of detail; the tiny snake at the bottom of the tree of life in Ann West’s Patchwork with Garden of Eden, even the minute stitches that spell out her initials on an appliqué of a minister’s hymn book. We were also able to showcase some of the fresh discoveries made in the run-up to the exhibition. When the linen lining of the Coverlet with Aesop’s Fable was removed during the conservation process, paper templates dating from late 17th and early 18th century were revealed. The app includes a series of images that illustrate this, including an infrared photograph that identifies one piece as a handbill for a popular medicine.
A big part of what makes the content so engaging is the wonderful stories associated with the quilts; the personal, family and social histories that are worked into them, stitch by stitch. The app includes an exclusive video interview with textile artist Jo Budd, who explains how her Winter/Male, Summer/Female pieces were put together in her Suffolk studio, inspired by the life she shares with her partner and the colours of the water meadow that surrounds their home. We discover how a patriotic woman created a celebration of British sea power in her Coverlet with George III Reviewing Troops. The quilt includes a series of forty tiny vignettes, where scraps of coloured fabric make up complex and detailed scenes. One shows a sailor, or tar, holding hands with his love, his ship waiting in the background to carry him away from her. The composition is based on an illustration that accompanied a popular song of the day, Poor Jack, a sort of shanty that tells of the bravery and patriotism of a poor sailor. We were delighted to be able to show a close up of this vignette, together with the original illustration from the collection of the National Maritime Museum. Folk singer Sam Lee gave us an exclusive performance of the song that we wove into a haunting soundscape. But the most moving story is probably that of contemporary textile artist Michele Walker. She describes how her mother’s slip into dementia, and the resulting loss of personhood and relationship led to Memoriam; a challenging work in which imprinted patterns from the artist’s skin are surrounded by thick strands of wire wool, which caused her hands to chafe and bleed.
Working with the V&A on the Quilts exhibition has been a real privilege; to hear the stories at first hand and get close to the works was truly special. What I love about the app is that it gives people their own, personal key to this world; it literally puts these exquisite works in your pocket. Just like the LoveArt app we created for the National Gallery in 2009, Quilts is packed with beautiful images and stories that you can explore at your leisure. What could be more compelling?