Laura Steefel-Moore is Head of Educational Programs at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
The newest tour guide at The Ringling weighs only 18 pounds and is made of metal, 3-D printed materials, and a 4K camera. This robot, known affectionately by museum staff as “Arty,” helps us bring the magic of the museum to people who cannot physically visit our galleries.
In 2019, The Community Foundation of Sarasota County generously provided a grant through the Edward K. Roberts Emerging Needs Fund to The Ringling and Sarasota Memorial Hospital. This grant allowed the museum to provide arts-based training for healthcare providers. When that training program went virtual in the face of COVID-19, we realized that there were other ways we could leverage technology to connect the hospital to the museum. Using grant funds, we were able to purchase a robot that allows us to offer live, one-on-one virtual hospital tours to the patients themselves. This initiative became increasingly important as hospitals restricted visitors, leaving patients feeling isolated during the pandemic.
Our tours with Arty the robot allow us to virtually transport patients out of their hospital rooms and into a space filled with beautiful and thought-provoking works of art.
The technology is surprisingly simple: a patient is given an iPad, which places a video call to the robot in the museum. The Ringling educators and the patients converse via video throughout each 30-minute tour. What makes this different from a typical FaceTime or Skype call, though, is the fact that the patient can actually drive the robot through the galleries, mimicking the experience of walking through the museum. The tours take place while The Ringling is open to the public, so patients are able to see other visitors and hear ambient noise, furthering their sense of actually being at the museum. In addition, the robot’s 4K camera has a high definition, wide-angle lens with 3x zooming capabilities, making it easier to get a sense of the gallery as a whole while also allowing close study of the paintings’ minute details.
Arty the robot has facilitated connections between patients at Sarasota Memorial Hopsital and the vast collections at The Ringling.
Every virtual tour is different, depending on each patient’s interests, personality, and state of mind. Our very first tour was with a man wearing a neck brace that severely restricted his mobility. Although he could not physically move his head, he was able to drive the robot through the galleries. He could also move the camera up and down and side-to-side, visually panning the galleries in a way that must have felt incredibly freeing.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, we had two back-to-back tours with patients who were on either end of surgery. The first patient was awaiting a procedure on her back, and our interactions with her kept her mind off her imminent surgery. Following our tour with her, we met a woman who had just come out of anesthesia. She was delighted to see paintings that resonated with her own sense of spirituality, as well as the relief and joy she was feeling at that moment.
When giving these tours, we aim to spread happiness, reduce stress, and provide companionship for the patients. While we begin each tour with an idea of which paintings we’d like to show our virtual visitors, we ultimately follow their lead as to what they’d like to see and discuss.
Since joining the Ringling team, Arty the robot has facilitated school tours with students as far away as California and Indiana. The Ringling plans on continuing to grow their virtual school tour program beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
We prioritize meaningful, personal conversations over following any prescribed tour agenda. For example, when we gave a tour to a woman who was an artist, she was especially interested in seeing examples of our Baroque art replete with dramatic darks and lights. She also mentioned that her artistic practice included botanical works, so we went into a different gallery to show her a painting by renowned flower painter Osias Beert.
Now that Arty the robot has joined our team, the possibilities are endless! We have already facilitated robot school tours with students as far away as California and Indiana, and we plan on continuing to grow our virtual school tour program. As for healthcare, we hope to expand our reach by offering tours to new patient groups, especially to those undergoing long-term, recurring treatments like dialysis or chemotherapy. We feel incredibly grateful to have access to such a wonderful technology that allows us to open up our museum to anyone who would like to experience it.
Take a virtual visit to The Ringling through their "Museum At Home" series at www.ringling.org/MuseumFromHome