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Earlier this year, the National Gallery, London released its first augmented reality experience. The mobile-based The Keeper of Paintings and the Palette of Perception invited young visitors on an AR-powered quest through the London institution to locate the lost “Palette of Perception.” Guided by the titular Keeper of Paintings, players were asked to solve puzzles, uncover secrets, and collect gems related to works in the galleries, effectively immersing themselves in the National Gallery’s collection.

Now, that onsite experience has now gone offsite, having been adapted as an at-home experience on Roblox, the virtual gaming platform that’s beloved by kids and increasingly, brands and museums.

What happened

The National Gallery, London x Roblox

The Keeper Council sends players on a quest to collect paintings, which they can then use to curate their own in-game galleries. Image: The National Gallery, London

The Keeper Council was unveiled on July 19 on Roblox, building on the research and offering of the National Gallery’s first AR project. As ever, education remains a key focus, with participants or “aspiring museum keepers” sent on a quest to collect paintings, which they can then use to curate their own galleries. Throughout, they’re overseen by the Keeper of Paintings, who issues challenges and guides them through the ranks from Apprentice to High Keeper.

Like the preceding The Keeper of Paintings and the Palette of Perception, this immersive program was built out by digital studio Arcade and co-created with children, with help from researchers at StoryFutures at Royal Holloway and Brunel Design School. Throughout design and development, which reportedly began during the pandemic, schoolchildren from London, Brighton, and Bournemouth were consulted about gameplay and enlisted to test The Keeper Council. “The way the project has evolved with the children through the design process,” noted Lawrence Chiles, Head of Digital at the National Gallery, “is really special.”

Why it matters

For cultural organizations, Roblox and similar virtual environments have presented opportunities to create educational and interactive programs to reach digital natives. Image: The National Gallery, London

Roblox has seen an influx of projects as the metaverse has boomed. Alongside other virtual environments like Fortnite and Cryptovoxels, the gaming platform has lately teemed with activations by luxury brands (including Burberry and Gucci) as much as cultural institutions (namely, the Museum of Science). And for good reason: Roblox represents an opportunity for organizations to create educational and interactive programs with gamified elements to reach digital natives, per the metaversal promise.

The National Gallery, however, has not gone as far as to claim this as its first Web3 outing. Instead, The Keeper Council is the latest in a line of technology-enabled projects that the museum has embarked on to boost its onsite experience. The Keeper of Paintings and the Palette of Perception trails 2021’s ​​Sensing the Unseen, the National Gallery’s first mobile-based exhibition, and Virtual Veronese, a recent VR exhibition created in partnership with StoryFutures. The institution has also planned an upcoming community festival, Summer on the Square, set to feature “a new participatory set of experiences and activities.”

These new approaches to cultural engagement may have been in the works prior to or during the pandemic, but they arrive at a post-lockdown moment when in-person visitorship remains wan. The National Gallery, in particular, saw a downturn in footfall of 41 percent between 2020 and 2021. So yes, these tech-powered ventures could potentially encourage onsite visits. But even outside of that urgency, they also serve as stellar examples of digital storytelling that revitalizes and reimagines the museum’s collection for next-gen audiences. 

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What they said

“We are always looking to extend the opportunity to take the Gallery’s collection to audiences in new and innovative ways. The fact that they can learn about the paintings on a platform they find familiar, fun and engaging is great to see.” — Lawrence Chiles, Head of Digital, The National Gallery, London

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CultureTech, Museums & Cultural Institutions