The art of apps: Archives & 150-year-old paintings

Painting menu - 2_bigPost by – Vanessa Finney

Late last year the Australian Museum Archives got involved with the apps4nsw initiative, a competition run by the Department of Finance and Services to bring data and creativity together by partnering government agencies with app developers.

Our challenge to the winners, Beaconmaker, was to bring fresh appeal to the Scott sisters’ collection of natural history illustrations and social histories from colonial Sydney and link the specimens to current scientific data on Australian butterflies and moths from the Atlas of Living Australia

The tight deadline meant that a market-ready app had to be produced within 51 days. After a lot of “love, sweat and, well, more love” – the words of our developers – we’ve just launched an app where you can:

  • View 100 beautiful paintings and early drawings
  • Learn about 195 species of butterflies and moths
  • Explore the lives of the Scott sisters through biographies and the places that inspired them
  • Watch videos featuring our scientists, conservators and archivists

And coming soon, a drag-and-drop butterfly puzzle game and an Android version – both released in mid April.

We are really proud of the app and this project for a couple of reasons:

  1. We got someone outside the Museum (and the museums and cultural sector) to back our ideas and fund them. As a small but significant heritage collection within a VERY large and significant science and anthropology collection, the Archives sometimes struggles for oxygen at the Australian Museum. We know we hold an amazing historical, art, photographic and documentary collection and sometimes we have to make external connections (strategically and for our collection content) and re-think the context of our collection beyond the Museum to get the attention it deserves. The apps4nsw project were looking for NSW government data sets to re-purpose for the people of NSW – ours just happens to also be beautiful!
  2. Again, because we are a small unit with few staff, and this project had a VERY tight deadline of only 10 weeks to develop and deliver the app, we had to work with a collection we already knew well and with existing content. The Scott sisters exhibition ‘Beauty from Nature’ was shown at the Australian Museum in 2011 and in galleries across regional NSW. Most of the app content comes from that show – but we knew that as beautiful as the show was, there was more detail and colour and depth to the paintings that only high resolution digital scans could unlock. And that the link to scientific data would add a layer of content that the exhibition narrative, based on the lives of the Scott sisters, missed.
  3. The app creatively visualises the deep connection possible between art and science – both acutely visual activities, one based in fact, the other in imagination and creativity. Letting go of our material to a talented designer (who knows little about science or archives), let us see possibilities for communicating both in an app that combines beautiful historic collections with contemporary scientific data about the specimens from the Atlas of Living Australia.
  4. Again, because of the tight deadline, decisions were made quickly, documented, and we stuck with them. At the Museum end, the project had a dedicated and very efficient part time coordinator but everyone else was also doing their regular roles. We simply did not have time to change our minds or over-think the app. The design and architecture were kept simple and clean, the bells and whistles removed and the most important part of the content – the paintings – allowed to shine.

We hope you’ll enjoy the exquisite artwork and explore the science.

Download from the App Store now

The Android version will be out in April.


One thought on “The art of apps: Archives & 150-year-old paintings

  1. lyndakelly61 says:

    Thanks so much for is post Vanessa. I like the way you approached the app and the key learning for me is your comment “don’t over think the app”. Wise words there! Congrats and look forward to seeing it in April.

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