Many people make the mistake of seeing museums as stuffy, traditional spaces. They are perceived to be institutions that look backwards and cling to the past rather than embracing the future. But, as many people who work at museums around the world will happily scream from the rooftops, this couldn’t be further from the truth in so many instances.
If ever there is a clear example of how museums are challenging themselves to innovate, it likes in their digital efforts – and particularly in the field of Virtual Reality.
So, how exactly can VR find a home in the museum experience?
Getting up close and personal – Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass
Virtual reality, as the name suggests, can make the impossible possible. From education to entertainment, VR opens up new avenues of opportunity in order to eradicate limitations and practical obstacles.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the Musée du Louvre in Paris during their first foray into VR. Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass allowed visitors to see the museum’s – and indeed the world’s – most famous painting in a new light.
Because of the sheer fame of Da Vinci’s masterpiece, it’s practically impossible to view the Mona Lisa in solitude. A crowd of viewers constantly surrounds the painting during opening hours, and the work itself is held behind layers of protective glass. This makes it difficult to get up close and personal with the piece.
Yet the VR exhibit brings the painting to the forefront again, showing viewers “the woman inside the painting” and proving “exactly what makes the Mona Lisa a masterpiece”, according to the exhibition itself.
Three years in the making, the exhibition perfectly highlights the potential that VR can realise. It shows the crossroad where art and technology meet – the curational contribution was “enormous”, explains Head of the Louvre’s Interpretation and Cultural Programming department Dominique de Font-Réaulx, and everything from the hairstyle of the subject to the panoramic Italian backdrop were carefully consulted on.
Boosting engagement with virtual reality
Museums need to engage visitors – that goes without saying. If a cultural institution fails to engage with a modern audience, then it is in effect failing to stay engaged in contemporary conversation.
VR and AR can increase interest in a museum’s valuable assets by bringing those assets to life. In historical exhibits, for example, VR can communicate the realities of the past and in turn humanise it, drawing a deeper connection. Similarly, a 3D tour can help connect visitors to an exhibit by helping them absorb information and digest its meaning more clearly.
VR opportunities can come from the most unexpected places. This is evident at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which suffered the theft of 13 invaluable masterpieces in 1990. 30 years later, the crime remains unsolved and the frames remain empty, but VR has allowed the museum curators to use this to their advantage.
Visitors can now project virtual versions of the stolen works into the empty frames. A statement from the team behind the project says: “We hope projects like this inspire people to think of how art and technology intersect, how precious our world’s culture is, and how fortunate we are to have institutions that preserve, protect and make works available for the public to enjoy.”
Museums are supposed to bring culture to the masses, but for people who have issues with accessibility, making the trip to museum can be difficult or even impossible.
VR has given life to a new kind of exhibition, providing access to people who are limited or disabled and can’t visit the display in person. Platforms like the Google Arts and Culture app bring the exhibition to them – surely an important and invaluable use of technology.
Not only does the app make art more physically accessible, but also more accessible on an emotional and cultural level. President of Google Arts and Culture, Amit Sood, described how, growing up in Mumbai, he had seen “art as a posh experience, and not something that was for me or my people.”
Sood added: “If you want to reach people like me, or at least how I used to be before, you have to find a reason for them to want to engage.”
But VR isn’t just about bringing art to the visitors, it can also bring visitors to the art. Portraits, sculptures and artefacts that usually lie in the dark archives and storage rooms can finally see the light of day, at least in the digital sense.
This opens up a whole new level of creativity for curators, who will find themselves no longer limited by the confines of the four walls of their premises. Space, distance and transportation no longer have the same meaning when everything can be summoned at the tap of a screen or touch of a button.
Schoolchildren from the UK can visit an Australian exhibition without ever leaving the classroom and likewise those from far flung continents can step on to these shores without any travel at all.
Fully realised 3D experiences
There are many applications for VR, but one of the most popular is undoubtedly the 3D tour. This provides the ability for visitors to be transported from one location to somewhere entirely different, without ever moving a step.
Through a web browser, mobile phone, projector or headset, visitors can experience locations that would otherwise be out of reach. At the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, a permanent VR installation allows visitors to explore the links between different species. The exhibit simulates the real life experience of being near animals, and the museum features a space with five permanent VR devices. It is currently building a sea diving simulation using VR.
Similarly, in London’s Tate Modern, a Modigliani show incorporated VR in order to recreate the artist’s Paris studio. By using photographs, historical records and data, the exhibit transports users into the studio and allows them to walk around and take it all in on a close and personal level.
One of the concerns critics have about VR is the fear that it will stop people from visiting museums in person if exhibits are made available online. After all, why come to a museum at all if people can see objects virtually?
But often, the opposite is true. VR can act as a source of inspiration or as a marketing tool. As a teaser or taster of what can be found by visiting a museum, VR can serve to spark interest and curiosity in individuals who otherwise would not have considered visiting the establishment.
This was certainly the case at the British Museum, whose 2015 Bronze Age VR project enhanced the experience of its visitors. VR added context to the objects on display, fostering the audience’s curiosity and making them want to see more and seek the information in real life.
Similar results came from the implementation of VR at the Natural History Museum in London, where visitors can experience an underwater environment at the dawn of life on Earth.
Head of Audience Development at the Natural History Museum, Emily Smith, told the BBC:
“The VR experience has been hugely popular with visitors. We’ve increased the number of slots and are now running the experience daily in response to demand. Visitors have even been bursting into spontaneous applause at the end of the showings.”
Enlivening exhibits with VR
Critics will claim that museums are nothing but mausoleums made public. While many people are fascinated enough by the presence of ancient artefacts and long-dead species, AR and VR can help bring these elements to life.
Through technology, museums can bring life to static objects using sounds, visual content and special expansions. A smartphone can act as a personal guide, delivering both information and entertainment. For example, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, a special Skin and Bones AR app can be used to add flesh to the bones of creatures on display.
A similar experience can be enjoyed by visitors to the Jinsha Site Museum in China. Around 3,000 years ago, the site was the capital of the ancient Shu Kingdom. People would gather here and bring offerings, which explains the archaeological site discovered in 2001 which contained over 5,000 gold, jade and ivory artefacts.
Visitors can now use AR to view each item up close. By downloading an app, visitors can see each artefact in 3D and discover more information about what they are and what they were used for.
Creating global waves
Like it or not, VR is becoming more and more commonplace in museum spaces. From the Helsinki City Museum’s Time Machine to the Heureka Science Center’s Excavation in VR, technology is constantly pushing the limits of what’s possible.
Institutions from all over the world – including the Norwegian Maritime Museum’s Nobody will drown exhibition and the Danish Castle Centre’s Ghost Hunt and VR Guide – are using VR as an opportunity to draw in more visitors and increase engagement.
VR means opportunity. When done right, VR can provide people with, as one British Museum visitor described, “a fantastic, interactive way to learn.”
About the author – Rebecca Carlsson
Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.