College of Liberal Arts

UT Austin Professor Launches Time-Travel Portal To 18th-Century Shakespeare Gallery

Wed, Dec 16, 2015
Illustration by LAITS Development Studio
Illustration by LAITS Development Studio

The first museum dedicated to William Shakespeare reopened today, more than two centuries after shutting its doors. The Shakespeare Gallery has been digitally reconstructed by The University of Texas at Austin — just as it looked in 1796, when novelist Jane Austen took lodging around the corner while visiting London’s sites. 

London sightseers paid a shilling entrance fee, but the digital reconstruction is free at to modern visitors wanting to experience, just as Austen did, the Georgian equivalent of binge watching all of Shakespeare in one emotional go.

“There are things to learn from seeing these pictures in situ that cannot be gleaned from even the smartest book about the gallery’s history," said English professor Janine Barchas, who lead the “What Jane Saw”digital project and has garnered attention for her innovative use of digital tools to teach classic literature in its original historical context. 

Enterprising print-dealer, publisher and alderman John Boydell opened the first-ever Shakespeare museum in 1789. Before closing in 1804, his popular “Shakespeare Gallery” showcased many life-size contemporary paintings of well-known scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, commissioned from the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, Henry Fuseli, James Northcote, John Opie, Angelica Kauffman, James Barry, Benjamin West, and many others.

Boydell’s gallery occupied the building at No. 52 Pall Mall that would later house the British Institution — host to the 1813 Reynolds retrospective that “What Jane Saw” reconstructed in 2013. Because most of Boydell’s paintings, which were dispersed at auction in 1805, are now deemed lost, and the building itself was destroyed in 1870, a digital reconstruction is, once again, the only way to see what Jane Austen, along with thousands of 18th-century London visitors, witnessed first hand.

Barchas worked with a team of students and staffers at the development lab of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology (LAITS), a technical unit in the College of Liberal Arts that helps teachers harness digital tools for use in their classrooms and research. 

“We hope the interdisciplinary appeal of our e-gallery will make it a crossover tool — a site that can be used by an expert to test a theory or interpretation of art, culture, or literature and happily visited by the curious as a heritage tourism site,” Barchas said.

Barchas admits that the “Brobdingnagian feel” of the original canvases does not fully translate onto the small computer screen, so a virtual reality version of the gallery is underway with the help of the Texas Advanced Computing Center’s Visualization Lab.

For more information, see today’s story in The New York Times.

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