Though fictionalized, the beautifully-lit and narrated relief transitions in “Ryse: Son of Rome” could be an excellent and simple method for telling the narratives behind works of art. (screenshot by the author)

The internet is a visual space, where virality comes most frequently to media rich in images, whether videos, animated GIFs or simple memes. Connecting these new forms of media with all the classic ways that human beings have told visual stories is a powerful way to reanimate them, sometimes literally, for the digital age.

The relief transitions as part of the video game Ryse: Son of Rome bring the Greco-Roman tradition of columnar reliefs to life without fanciful animation. We zoom in and out and pan across the visual narrative while a gruff speaker tells us what we’re looking at. Although the images are fictionalized and shot to tell the story of the game, they could perhaps serve as inspiration for museums and archives that are trying to find ways to show the powerful storytelling that is often not apparent in classical works of art. Simple lighting and a powerful narrator can enrich the telling without the need for special sound or visual effects.


A Naval Battle Between Gillion’s Troops and the Soldiers of the Saracen Prince in Romance of Gillion de Trazegnies, after 1464, Lieven van Lathem. (image via The Getty Iris)

Another strong example comes from The Getty Iris’s feature on a medieval manuscript called the Romance of Gillion of Trazegnies. Framing it as a “Medieval Soap Opera”, writers Elizabeth Morrison and Bryan Keene take us step by step through the work. They explode images and extraploate on the tale to guide us through what might otherwise be a narrative too foreign for contemporary readers. “The artist so cleverly captured the chaos of battle that you can almost hear the clang of sword against sword, the screams of the injured, and sound of bodies falling to the water below,” they write. “Gillion is taken prisoner by the Sultan of Egypt, tossed into prison, and slated for execution.” It’s easy to imagine these images with sound effects and perhaps a small video component a la Ryse of Rome.

Aquamanile (Hand-Washing Vessel). Late 12th Century. Via.

Aquamanile (Hand-Washing Vessel). Late 12th Century ACE (via museumgifs.tumblr.com)

Another favorite is the Museum GIFs Tumblr, which at times reveals gimmicky uses of GIFs but at times shows that the simple animation format can be surprisingly effective at mimicking the experience of seeing three dimensional objects in person. As museums and libraries work to bring their historic collections to life in new ways, it seems important to me that, despite the new technologies involved, the historic items should remain the central focus. The internet — and a clever understanding of internet-native media like GIFs, blogs, and short videos — helps these images spread faster and farther than a traditional physical museum, but we never lose sight of the work itself.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.