Reviewed October 2017
Alyssa Vincent, Information Services Librarian
Ronald Williams Library, Northeastern Illinois University
Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces is a sweeping multimedia exhibition jointly launched by The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (RMFAB) and Google Cultural Institute ahead of the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death in 2019. While the RMFAB has a physical exhibition of Bruegel’s works, with museum space supplemented by new technologies, the accessible highlight is the digital exhibition on Google’s platform.
Much like Bruegel’s obsessively-detailed paintings, the key marker of this exhibition is cacophony. Vast amounts of information are available in different formats (text, video interviews, virtual reality, etc.) and at times, it is difficult for the eye and mind to land. There is little doubt that the technological capabilities of Google’s platform serve museums in unique ways, but with Unseen Masterpieces, it is as though the exhibition creators tried to do everything at once. At best, this allows for long-time Bruegel lovers to learn something new from the exhibition. At worst, viewers may be left confused and desiring of context. The zooming capabilities are unparalleled and put to excellent use, considering the infinite details in a Bruegel work. RMFAB and Google capitalized on this aspect of Bruegel’s work by creating a slideshow of highly magnified images of Bruegel’s paintings for the digital exhibition. When presented with a detail view, users can click through to the full view of the painting with descriptive information on Google’s Cultural Institute platform. However, this incredible attention to detail could leave someone who is not as familiar with Bruegel disoriented, as one cannot be entirely sure of what the zoomed-in view is portraying.
One design choice that falls flat, at least for someone inexperienced with Google Cardboard VR, is the virtual reality video of Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Save for a title image with the exhibition’s name, it is the viewer’s first interaction with the exhibition. Depending on the Internet connection, this could make for a choppy first impression. The text accompanying the video is quick to explain that it functions best on a smartphone and Google Cardboard. Launching the video without Google Cardboard leads to a disjointed flight through the numerous characters in this work. Virtual reality may be an exciting frontier for Bruegel enthusiasts who have Google Cardboard, but it is frustrating when a tool otherwise accessible to those with computer skills and an Internet connection requires supplemental components. The experience, which should have felt immersive given the scale of the painting, instead felt sloppy and forced.
The exhibition as a whole assumes a familiarity with Bruegel. There is little introductory text about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, except for a sentence that states that he is a Netherlandish artist. Viewers gain more insight into Bruegel once they scroll past the virtual reality video and the slideshow of zoomed-in views of his paintings. A series of sub-exhibitions showcasing specific paintings and stories about Bruegel accompany Unseen Masterpieces, providing insights into commons themes in his work, myths about the painter, and his legacy. These painting-specific exhibitions and stories are easy to navigate and include images, text, and video commentary from art historians.
Though certain aspects of the design of this digital exhibition are overwhelming, a brief disorientation is a small price to pay for the ability to probe Bruegel’s work in this unique way. As the exhibition text notes, a comprehensive Bruegel show has not occurred since 1980, primarily due to the fragile state of the paintings. By digitizing these objects, millions of people will be able to view and interact with this extraordinary body of work in ways that many would never have imagined. While some of the technological components feel overwrought, the exhibition ultimately meets its goal of exposing a great number of people to Bruegel’s work.