NARB, Taking the temperature of the art world

Issue no4
aug- sept 2020
NARB homepage

—Erik van TuijnFirst things first. What is your background?

—Tijs TeulingsI’m a software engineer who worked for a few web- and advertising agencies before deciding life would be better without bosses. So I started freelancing, coöperating in, and starting up some open source projects. I founded a portfolio website called, before ending up working with James on NARB.

—James BurkeI have a very diverse background: archaeologist, chef in a restaurant and now interaction-design-and-user-experience-architect, working together with Tijs at NARB. I’m also working on government related policy and practice issues at as well as researching what's happening to cities at

One of our goals is to get visitors off their sofas and into museums

—ErikNARB is a relatively new online platform for visual arts that combines several existing elements in a novel way: an agenda, a micro blog (like twitter), a rating service. Summing it up like this, does not do the platform justice though. How would you describe NARB yourselves?

NARB iPhone app screen

—TijsNARB is an online art guide for visitors and for exhibition designers and curators, a set of tools for adding interactive social commentary to cultural objects in museums and galleries. Our platform consists of both a regular and a mobile website and an iPhone app, but also an 'on location' component for installations.

We help people interested in art keep track of which exhibitions are currently showing and help them add these to their agenda's, enabling them to keep a record of the shows they like or liked, and offering the possibility to leave comments about their experiences. We also rank art and exhibitions so people get a simple overview of the hottest exhibitions around.

—JamesOne of our goals is to get visitors off their sofas and into museums, while another is to expose new audiences to contemporary art. The tools offered by NARB are -in our eyes – still primitive, but we will continue to develop them. Our aim is to link people with culture wherever they are, help them share their experiences and provide them with background information to deepen their understanding.

—TijsFor museums, we are a way for to engage with their visitors in new ways and across different social networks. Different exhibitions appeal to different groups of people. We try to reach across the web and bring new audiences to museums. Recently we did some work for Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, powering the Rotterdam Design Prize 2009 inside the museum itself, on the Design Prize website and at the same time in the NARB community. Museums can easily use our technology to launch a competition across different entry points, essentially using their digital medium of choice. We are currently reviewing the year and preparing for upcoming exhibitions with a number of museums across the Europe.

Website of the Rotterdam Design Prize

—ErikLooking for possible meanings of the name NARB, I stumbled upon the ‘Nederlandse Adventure Race Bond’ and the ‘National Advertising Review Board,’ which, I’m guessing is not what you’re about. So, what does NARB mean?

—JamesNARB is pre-Swedish (early-Finnish) word used to refer to all objects, it's a single phoneme that derives its meaning solely by use of an object and its context. Some say, NARB was the only real word used amongst early hominids in North Western Europe, now known as the Nordic region. Over the years the meaning has changed.

—ErikWell. I’m glad we cleared that up. How did NARB come to be?

—TijsJames visited to the end-of-year show of an art school in Cologne. He wanted to take notes on the art works and leave comments on a few that would not have fit in with the usually congratulatory guest book left by many artists next to their art works. Tools like Flickr had just appeared and it was essentially a no-brainer realizing that there was potential for a mobile service that could personalize your cultural footsteps providing an easy to find record of what you had seen over time.

Roomware RFiD project

—JamesWe were already working together on the open source Roomware Project which aimed to create software to make rooms interactive - a way to connect a bunch of sensors in a room to make interesting installations and visualizations at parties, conferences and the like. So from there it was a small step from having the idea, to actually starting to build it.

—ErikHow does it work?

—TijsThe NARB platform gets its Dutch data through a feed from the Uitburo. On the one hand this feed contains some things that are silly and which we filter out, on the other hand it's missing some cool stuff, which is usually added by people using the site or the exhibition venues themselves. Once uploaded the data can be enriched by its users, who can add individual art pieces, comments, ratings and more. We ourselves can reuse that data in the mobile website or the iPhone app or for installations we do for individual museums.

—JamesThe ‘Hottest Art’ around is visualized by a temperature rating, which is created via an algorithm that weighs different social signals. The more people interact with an exhibition – leave comments, add it to their agenda and so on - the more we assume it will be interesting to other people as well and the higher it’s temperature will become, boosting it up on the Hottest Art list.

—ErikWhat is your ultimate aim?

—JamesThis is a tough one. I think you can best say that we want to connect people with culture wherever they find themselves. This connecting leads to learning, appreciation and perhaps even respect for our cultural heritage, while keeping us in touch with the latest forms of human endeavor and expression. It's fascinating to watch how digital technology, wireless networks, data storage and open collections or open cultural data in general lead to a personalization of culture. It touches humans through their different interactions. There are some unprecedented and frankly weird things to come, for instance when our genealogical data gets mashed up with our cultural historical records.

—ErikHow would you describe the average NARB user?

—JamesSomeone between eighteen and 50, with a long nose, and a small beard. …No, seriously, we attract both old and young, the common denominator is a lack of fear of technology. For museums, it's an even wider audience, as whoever visits museums we’re working with will have the chance of using our platform to help host social interactions.

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