Rediscovering joy and human connection with the Impressionists

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Visitors exploring impressionist art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; several people pictured with backs facing, they are looking forward at the artworks on the wall, a yellow hue covers the room.

When The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art sought out a partner to disrupt and reimagine the way visitors experienced their renowned Bloch Galleries, they turned to Art Processors. Together, we created A Beautiful Disruption: Experiencing the Bloch Galleries, a deeply sensorial, accessible, digital experience that encourages visitors to personally connect to the Impressionist artworks and artists in their collection.

The project leverages existing technology in the Galleries, including programmable lights and speakers, to create a hands-free, 'eyes-up' journey in which visitors' movements throughout the space are orchestrated by dynamic lighting solutions and cues. An audio narrative accompanies visitors through a series of themed chapters, immersing them in the friendships of the Impressionist artists who created the work.

The resulting encounter connects the stories of these artists to universal human experiences of struggle, resilience, determination, and joy. It's also a modern-day social experiment that transforms the Galleries into a walk-through object theatre experience for friends and groups to enjoy together.

The Bloch Galleries showcase European art from 1750 to 1950, when the arts influenced—and were influenced by—the momentous social, political, scientific, and technological changes that delivered Europe and the world to modernity. Using this historic period as a backdrop, Nelson-Atkins wanted to experiment and explore how to diversify the museum experience beyond traditional interpretation, while also capturing the atmospheric quality of a special program or exhibition. 

Meanwhile, as museums and galleries continue to recover from lockdowns and visitors look to reconnect socially, Nelson-Atkins realised their spaces could support this communal healing and exchange. Amplifying the social dimension of visiting a museum required us to challenge conventions on how people are expected to behave in these spaces.

"We wanted to try something entirely new that breaks the model of a traditional audio tour and creates a social experience in our galleries that people can return to again and again. We're moving away from a didactic mode and instead inviting people to choose their own way to connect with the art, react and discuss with friends, and hopefully see these paintings and the artists in a new way."

– Rachel Nicholson
   Director of Visitor Engagement and Research, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Creating a meaningful social experience in this environment required us to facilitate the emotional, rather than cognitive, aspects of engaging with artwork. We collaboratively sought to create a journey of human connection where the paintings were still the foundation of the encounter, but where stories of deep friendships and personal reflection were at the forefront. 

As part of creating a completely new concept and experience, Nelson-Atkins also wanted to make full use of the programmable dynamic lighting system and speaker arrays within the Bloch Galleries, installed during renovations for its 2017 opening. The wireless network of LED lights gives curators granular control over color, saturation, and brightness, but had never been previously tapped for its theatrical possibilities.

A woman stands in a gallery looking to her left at a painting on the wall, above her the roof glows purple, blue and yellow; a chair is on display behind her.
A group of people standing around in a museum gallery, looking at various paintings on walls; above them, a lighting installation glows yellow.

We drew together a team of experts in site-specific storytelling, immersive sound design, and digital infrastructure as part of a deeply collaborative process, beginning with intensive workshops to delve into the concepts and experiences that could be explored in this project. 

Despite being of a different time and place, we share common ground with the Impressionists in the experiences that are timelessly human in nature. We are all subject to self-doubt, misunderstandings, and criticism—but similarly, we overcome through resilience, community, passion, and grit. Creating a story about the Impressionists based on these very relatable feelings became the core of A Beautiful Disruption.

Aside from their artworks, the Impressionists also left behind a wealth of correspondence to one another, sharing an array of musings, feelings, and messages of encouragement for their peers. We constructed a script from these thoughts, leaning into the expertise of the Museum’s curators and their detailed understanding of this material. We wanted to reveal the joy in community and in being understood, despite the hardships and uncertainties of life and work. 

This script was tested on-site in the Bloch Galleries, with members of our team stepping into roles such as Manet, Cassatt, Gauguin, Van Gogh—and a number of 19th-century critics, providing context to their struggle for acceptance in the art world—with script refinements taking place following each run-through. We recruited professional actors for the final recordings, laid over sound effects and music, with changes in lighting color and intensity choreographed to match the flow of the script.

"This is a giant experiment the Nelson-Atkins has undertaken, to challenge assumptions around what is and isn't allowed in museum galleries. If we take away expected story vehicles like wall labels and audio guides, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. This is something we know that visitors and museums are hungry for – shared experiences that put the visitor right in the middle, enjoying a social experience and the art on the walls." 

– Christine Murray
   Content Director, Art Processors

A group of people standing around in a museum gallery, looking at various paintings on walls; above them, a lighting installation glows yellow.

Every Friday night this unique experience takes over the Museum's popular Bloch Galleries to give guests a window into the insecurities and emotional struggles of the Impressionists through theatrical sound and lighting designed by Art Processors in partnership with the Museum's lighting and curatorial teams. 

As visitors journey through the Galleries, timed lighting, audio, and special effects plunge them into the inner circle of the artists. 

Told through their intimate letters to one another, each space touches on different themes: friendship, joy, connection, self-doubt, seeing and being seen, and embracing the rapidly changing Europe of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

It’s a truly eyes-up experience where visitors are free to choose which artworks they connect with while surrounded by the stories of the artists.

There's no need for audio guides or headphones – visitors let the audio and visual cues guide them into the Galleries and carry them along on the journey.

Making use of the existing sound and lighting hardware in the Bloch Galleries allows the space to continue to function in its normal capacity, but transform itself into A Beautiful Disruption at the touch of a button. Furthermore, the content of the experience is effectively evergreen—no specific paintings are mentioned or analysed, giving flexibility for these Impressionist masterworks to be swapped out or loaned while losing none of the story’s intention or impact.

two women stand with their backs facing the viewer, they are looking at a wall with two framed Impressionist paintings; one on the left of a young boy and on the right is a young girl.

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.