Art Maps is a collaborative research project with the Universities of Nottingham and Exeter (Horizon Research Centre) developing a website and mobile application that will allow people to relate Tate artworks to places. As Tate Britain’s Looking at the View exhibition reaches its final week, Digital Learning Curator, Rebecca Sinker, discusses the progress of the demo version of the Art Maps website in relation to the show

Paul Graham, 'Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone' 1985, printed 1993-4

Paul Graham
Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone 1985, printed 1993-4
Colour photograph on paper
support: 680 x 880 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2007© Paul Graham

View the main page for this artwork

We do not live in landscapes, we look at them. Tim Cresswell1

Looking at the View is a free collection exhibition at Tate Britain (12 Feb – 2 June 2013). Juxtaposing artworks from the historic, modern and contemporary Tate collection, the show surveys 300 years of the ways in which artists have pictured and framed the land and so influenced our visual imaginings of the landscape. Whether the artist appears to be outside looking at (John Brett), inside looking out (Tracey Emin), travelling through (Willie Doherty) or offering some other perspective, we see familiar viewpoints and visual conventions that build a picture across time. The exhibition offers commentary through the choice and placement of works but otherwise this is a relatively unguided tour.

We felt this exhibition presented a useful opportunity to present the Art Maps project as a work in progress, because there is a synergy between the focus of the exhibition and certain aims for the project. And it is important to make the research public at a developmental stage, to get feedback that can inform how we progress. We’re interested to explore how audiences respond to art about place. From its initial concept, Art Maps is evolving in a number of directions, partly in response to complexity in the notion of associating art to place:

  1. Crowdsourcing of location data in relation to the collection, viewed on a map.
  2. The addition of rich content produced by online visitors in response to works they view online (including via mobile devices)
  3. The ability to create and follow mobile trails constructed around the artworks in a particular location with additional place-related content

We think these lines of travel intersect but through our research we’re discovering that the impulse for each activity might be different. The current demo website is available for use at Tate Britain, in the adjacent gallery to Looking at the View. This is a desktop activity, offering standard browsing, searching and commenting functions. The version installed here is necessarily refined for the gallery visitor – in ‘kiosk mode’ – to enhance the user experience and secure against the computers being used for other purposes.

The map interface starts from where we are now (London) and reveals hot spots that might contain an artwork or cluster of works. Further searches, by location or keyword (artists’ names, subject terms) can take the user to far-flung locations beyond the local area. On clicking, they can view the work in relation to a place on a map. They are told that we think the work is associated with this place and asked what they think. They are then able to confirm the location or suggest a new one and leave a comment about this. In some instances the artwork has no location data attached and the message onscreen reads: ‘We don’t have a location associated with this artwork. What do you think?’

The rich and seductive satellite view (using the Googlemaps api) is on one level a sublime vista, an extraordinary patchwork of images snapped from space, mapping the planet. Many visitors appear happy just to browse (gaze at the view) on this level, and navigate to places of interest as well as places they know. Responses from interactions so far have included frustration with the technology, enjoyment of the concept and the interface, engagement with the idea of correctly placing the pin ‘where the artist stood’ to make the work and, occasionally, a comment that reveals a deeper knowledge contextualising the place depicted and its significance. Collaborative PhD student, Cristina Locatelli is logging the comments and interviewing a number of gallery participants. One thing we’re seeking from this project is how people’s local knowledge – their ‘being of’ rather than simply looking at a place – might inform views of the work.

Art Maps Hiller Monument Rebecca Sinker

The visitor comment added to this page reads:

This is ‘Postmans Park’ – the site of the original monument. From an idea by the artist GF Watts to celebrate the heroism of ordinary people you can see lots of plaques to commemorate heroic deeds, and a small model of the man himself. There is also a play by ‘Lone Twin’ TC inspired by this, monument. I was a postman at the once ECDO office which used to be nearby. Be your own hero. marka. 2013.

In Tim Creswell’s comment the word ‘landscape’ suggests a place we observe, or visit, a representation of place, as opposed to a place that we inhabit: living, working, being part of. When we look at a view enjoying the scenery, or look at an image of place, we’re not always seeing what’s there.

  • 1. Tim Cresswell, Place: a short introduction Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004. P11.