As It Happens

You can use a robot to tour this British art gallery

Just because there's a global pandemic, doesn't mean you can't spend an afternoon strolling around a little art gallery in England. 

'It has opened new horizons for people from around the world,' says Hastings Contemporary director Liz Gilmore

Artist Esther Fox uses a robot to look at Graham Sutherland's oil on canvas Thorn Head at Hastings Contemporary art gallery in England. (Will Barrett/Hastings Contemporary)


Just because there's a global pandemic, doesn't mean you can't spend an afternoon strolling around a little art gallery in England. 

The Hastings Contemporary is allowing people to take virtual tours of its space in Hastings, England, using a teleconferencing robot that is essentially an iPad-sized screen and a camera, mounted on a pole with wheels. 

"The wonderful thing is it's not just to replace the visitors that come through the door; it has opened new horizons for people from around the world, and that's just incredible," Liz Gilmore, the museum's director, told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"I had someone from Dubai, someone from Melbourne, Australia, and a woman who lives down the road all in my kind of virtual golf buggy together. And we had a lovely conversation."

Fox uses a teleconferencing robot to observe Edward Burra's watercolour, War in the Sun. (Will Barrett/Hastings Contemporary )

Users can control the robot from their keyboards at home and move themselves around the museum, taking a look at the art along the way.

"We have one of our staff members there to accompany and chat to the people as well, just to make sure nothing terrible goes wrong," Gilmore said. "But it hasn't."

The gizmo can be hard to control at first, Gilmore admits. But, she says it's a resilient machine, and its big rubber wheels prevent it from doing any real damage. 

"I've bashed into a few things," she said, "but nothing dramatic happened."

Liz Gilmore is the director of Hastings Contemporary. (Hastings Contemporary)

The robot tours were the brainchild of museum trustee and artist Esther Fox. She uses a wheelchair and had already been working with the robot in other ways. 

"It was her idea to think about at this point of the lockdown, as we could see that this terrible global pandemic was happening, how might we continue to engage with our visitors?" Gilmore said.

When the museum's doors open again, Gilmore says she hopes to continue to offer the service.

"We're all experiencing isolation in a way that none of us would ever have imagined. But imagine if that is your everyday reality. And for some people, that is. So I think we feel a mission now to think about how we sustain that contact with people," she said.

"I feel like we can't go back now we've tried."

Not only does the tour give you a chance to look at some art, Gilmore says, but it also replaces two pastimes that people are craving during this period of physical isolation — travelling and hanging out with other people. 

"[Hastings is] the most amazing coastal location. You can use the robot to go up in the lift and look out of the windows. It's really great. You can see our views. You can see the arts," she said.

"And what is really benefited is not just seeing the art; it's the social experience. It's the interaction that happens, and let's face it, at a time when everyone wants it."

People interested in taking a tour can go to the museum's website. Each tour can accommodate five people. Because of the high demand, Hastings is giving priority to people who are most vulnerable and at-risk due to isolation. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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