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Lara Chapman puts art – and emojis – in a new light
A critical design-research project, Through the Emoji Looking Glass sees museum-goers scan items in an institution’s collection with their smartphones to reveal themed emojis.

Your proposal for ‘The Challenge’ is a continuation of your graduation project from DAE…

LC: Yes. Through the Emoji Looking Glass developed from the realization that although emoji and museum collections seem to exist in different worlds, they’re actually very similar in some ways. Think about who gets to decide what is included and excluded, for instance, and how these decisions shape our broader culture. I decided to develop an augmented tour that merges classical art and objects with the contemporary symbolism of emojis – imagine it as an extension of a traditional audio tour, but instead of an audio guide you use your smartphone to obtain an audio-visual reading of the work. Bringing these seemingly disparate things into conversation highlights hidden or unacknowledged narratives, and reveals how visual symbols and collections can define the time we live in. Emojis become a playful way to examine the museum and interpret its collection while, in turn, the museum’s collection sheds light on the politics surrounding emojis.

The project examines the collection of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Why did you choose this location?

The Rijksmuseum faces many of the challenges confronting museums today, such as addressing and overcoming colonial and patriarchal roots. That said, the proposal can be applied to any other museum or collection. In each institution, the comparison between its collection and emojis can generate new research and insights.

How does it work?

Users download the Artivive app on their smart device and are given a map of the works within a museum that they can activate. When the device is held in front of an object, the app plays the object’s associated augmented layer with sound. The works of art can also be reprinted and disseminated beyond the museum to be activated in other ways.

What has the project taught you to date – and what’s next?

Interestingly, although the work functions within the Rijksmuseum, I did not ask for the institution’s permission to create it. The project therefore also looks at how much agency the public has to intervene in collections, confronting issues of hierarchy and authority in the interpretation of cultural artefacts.

After also presenting the concept at Dutch Design Week, I observed that the project invites a younger and more diverse audience to relate to works of art in a way that is relevant to them.

I’m currently collaborating with the V&A in London to activate and interpret its painting collection through emojis.

Why do you think your concept represents the museum of tomorrow?

As worldviews shift over time, collections and their content face cultural dilemmas. The augmented tour raises such questions as: Can a collection transcend its origins in colonialism or other structures of inequality? How should collections deal with violent objects such as weapons or hateful imagery? What role does appropriation play? These dilemmas traverse the contexts of all collections, from the institutional to the digital, and must be acknowledged and interrogated by a diverse audience.

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Initially trained as a product designer, Lara Chapman holds a Master’s degree in Design Curating and Writing from DAE. Her recent work has involved examining the power of collections and guerrilla interventions in museums.