Growing up in a refugee camp means missing out on formative experiences - like your first school trip. But what if there was a way to bring some of the art world’s greatest masterpieces to you? Here’s how virtual reality made 6,000 miles disappear in an instant for a group of Kenyan refugee students.
If you live in a big city it can be easy to take access to museums and art galleries for granted.
London for example is a hub for art and antiquities. Founded by the UK parliament in 1824, the National Gallery remains a cornerstone of the British city’s identity as a culture capital.
From Leonardo da Vinci, to Van Gogh and Monet, the gallery tells the story of European painting from the 13th century to early 20th century, masterpiece by masterpiece.
One of their aims is to encourage the widest possible public access, which is why the gallery is free of charge for visitors 361 days a year. Between March 2018-19, 5.9 million people visited from around the world.
But the museum recently opened its door for a very different kind of visit – a group of young students, who live in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
Art in life
The students have been part of Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network Schools (INS) programme, which is providing them with a quality digital education, in partnership with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, since 2016.
INS connects classrooms to the internet, and provides tablets for the students, a laptop for the teacher, high quality and localised digital educational content and teacher training, along with access to online content and resources.
To date, the programme has benefited more than 86,500 students and over 1,000 teachers across 36 INS schools and eight refugee camps in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In Kakuma, this connectivity also opens up access to art classes, giving students the opportunity to develop their creative skills.
“Art is not in the curriculum in school. It’s not a subject you do often, you do it from time to time. It isn’t permanent,” says Michael, a teacher in the camp.
It’s also popular with the students.
“In art, I really enjoy painting, and also the colour mixture,” says 19-year-old student Ayen.
“That is what I enjoy most. It’s relaxing, so it’s enjoyable. It’s not like when you are writing in class. It’s fun.”
That still leaves the issue of distance – it wouldn’t be possible to bring a whole class of students living in the refugee camp to London.
Many of these students, aged between 13 and 22, have spent their entire lives in Kakuma Refugee Camp under the protection of the office of the UNHCR.
The camp – one of the largest in the world – is home to more than 190,000 people who have fled conflict in neighbouring countries.
So the students were given a close-up look at some of the gallery’s paintings during a 360-degree live virtual reality (VR) tour, led by artist Lisa Milroy.
Since 2015, she has given practical ‘Hands on Art Workshops’, for primary and secondary students in Kakuma, streamed from London.
Nyagoa was born in the camp after her mother fled the war in South Sudan. She’s now 18.
“It was really wow! I really enjoyed it. It felt like I was there with Lisa, together,” she says.
“When you look at the virtual reality, your mind is set there, like you are just beside that person. When you are using a book, it’s just beside you.”
A 5G Gigacube connected wirelessly to a camera was used to stream a 360 view using real-time image stitching.
So students almost 6,000 miles away in Kakuma could move from gallery to gallery, looking around – on either an Oculus GO VR headset or tablet. Just as if they were actually there.
“Vodafone Foundation especially created the live VR tour for Kakuma Refugee Camp art students. This is what connected education is all about for Vodafone” says the Vodafone Foundation’s Andrew Dunnett.
“Through our technology we can provide connectivity to connect young refugees to the wider world and opportunities that exist beyond the camp.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, says Ravi Ruparel, a creative technologist who also serves as technology governor at Finton House School. A key part of bringing this VR experience together, he faced a number of challenges.
“The reality is, when you try and connect all of these things together across continents, you come across hurdles, whether it’s firewalls or latency issues,” he says.
“We encountered most of them, and luckily overcame them. Over the last few years, there has been huge advances in the way VR can be captured and distributed.”
“The platforms are available, the cameras are now world-class and affordable. In theory, this experience we delivered should be happening much more frequently.”
“It’s wonderful to be able to share an experience of the National Gallery and my thoughts about the paintings with the students in Kakuma through technology,” says Ms Milroy.
“The live virtual reality tour makes it possible for the students to get a feeling for what it’s like to wander through the galleries and enjoy the paintings as objects in a space, to get a sense of their fabulous material form, and encounter them each with its particular setting.”
Caroline Campbell is director of collections and research at the National Gallery.
“When I look back to my childhood, I think my goodness! An experience like this would have just been unbelievable. I never visited a gallery like this until I was in my 20s,” she says.
“When I think of what great inspiration I got from looking at images of paintings, it is so much better for children to actually see those pictures in 360. It’s just incredible.”
She says it made her consider what great artists like Manet, and Van Gogh would have thought.
“The fact that you could experience their pictures, not only many years after their deaths, but also in forms across the world – I think they just would have been incredibly excited, and probably humbled, that their work was talking in that way, across the centuries and across geography.”
Pay it forward
Emerging technologies like VR can give students an experience that is much closer to reality than they would ever achieve with books in the classroom.
“Psychologically it is helping them, because it’s also keeping them away from negative influences, and keeping them occupied,” says art teacher Michael.
“Practicing art is nurturing their talent, and they are becoming better at the skill than before. Some of the girls have a passion for art. Most of them want to try it out.
“With a bit of support we can deliver that.”
Technology is reshaping ways in which art is experienced by the students in Kakuma in other ways too.
“Before, art used to be more painting, sculptures and maybe clay work. But now there is digital artwork like graphic designing and digital photography,” says Michael.
“Now, there’s many more things you can do digitally which the girls like getting involved in. Many of them like graphic designing which they do using the computers and phones.”
With technologies like VR reimagining how we manage education, doors are opened – and they aren’t just virtual ones.
See more images from the day here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmKViQrW