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Anything you can do in a museum, VR can do better . . . discuss

Is Virtual Reality making the physical museum space obsolete?

In an article from 2016, CEO of Six to Start, Adrian Hon, penned an article for Medium titled: “VR will break museums.”

After a positive experience of VR with 2015’s Oculus Rift D2K headset, and a negative experience of a physical museum – based largely on the large crowds which made for long queues and difficulty getting up close and personal with many of the exhibits – Hon declared virtual reality to be an improvement on the “very imperfect reality” offered by museum spaces.

We are on the precipice of the “Netflix of Museums”, according to Hon, within which the act of visiting a museum will be largely replaced by streaming museum content at home, as has been the fate of the film industry and others in recent years.

Hon writes: “It may seem absurd to be worrying about the ‘Netflix of Museums’. Barely a million people even own high-end VR headsets today! But in the space of only two decades, we saw the internet effectively destroy the entire newspaper industry. It’s not hard to see VR museums going from a laughable curiosity to wiping out museum attendance numbers in the same time.”

And, of course, this was before the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted all forms of XR from niche accessory to high priority. For the past 18 months, cultural institutions around the world have been utilising AR, VR and mixed reality options as a way to maintain their relationship with their visitors, offering digital content that users can enjoy from the safety of their own homes.

So is Hon right? Are we looking at a future in which VR museums provide a better experience than the actual museum itself?

The problem with museums, and how VR can solve it

A common criticism of VR is that it can’t replace the joy of seeing an artefact or artwork in the flesh. After all, why settle for a virtual replica of the Mona Lisa when you have the opportunity to see the actual painting itself?

Well, the answer is that, more often than not, a trip to the Louvre doesn’t guarantee a good look at the masterpiece at all. The Mona Lisa is encased behind a thick layer of protective glass, a barrier, and an ever-present crowd of clamouring viewers. In many instances it is a challenge to get anywhere near the painting and, if you do, loitering for long periods to soak up the exquisite detail of arguably the world’s most famous artwork may well be frowned upon.

That’s why home experiences like the extended Mona Lisa: Behind the Glass VR exhibition have captured people’s imagination in recent months. This home version of the on-site VR experience gave Da Vinci fans the chance to see every tiny detail of the painting, and explore it to their heart’s content, without jostling against 20,000 other physical visitors in the Louvre.

Of course, this heightened virtual encounter also layered additional moving images, sound and interactive designs over the top of the core experience, transporting viewers through time and theme.

In these instances, it can be argued that VR has the upper hand over the traditional museum experience. So, why are you unlikely to find a museum’s senior digital professionals advocating XR over the traditional museum experience?

There’s nothing quite like the real thing

As we all know, visiting a museum is, and has always been, about so much more than a room with pictures and artefacts hanging from the walls. Far more goes into the creation of a museum experience to ensure that it entertains, informs and inspires – whether alone or as a group. No matter whether it is a day out with the kids or an enjoyable day spent meandering alone through a gallery alongside other visitors speaking in hushed tones, the value of a physical museum visit is as enticing as it has ever been – perhaps more so as we begin to gain our freedoms back after the enforced closures of the Coronavirus pandemic.

And anyway, who said that we should have to choose between the real world and the virtual world? As Chris Cloud, Director of Communications and Marketing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego said in a recent interview with MuseumNext, digital technologies have a crucial role to play in driving physical footfall.

“It’s not to say that digital experiences and online museum work will replace or reduce demand for IRL [In Real Life] visitors. When it’s safe to do so, I see a lot of folks wanting to gather in meatspace again . . . I believe it will be a lot easier to generate a sense of anticipation and make people want to visit in person if they feel a sense of belonging.”

That “belonging” can be generated at home or anywhere else with an internet connection but, importantly, all roads ultimately lead back to the museum itself.

Without the firm foundation of a museum, VR can focus too much on the gimmick and less on the actual objects and artworks on display. Even Hon admits that, when attending the virtual S518 Nazario submarine at the Galata Museo del Mare, he “didn’t really learn all that much from the visit, other than ‘submarines are small’”.

Lockdown taught us that VR is a useful and often necessary tool for museums, but it also taught us that people miss the experience of visiting a museum in-person. A survey by Tiqets asked respondents what they missed most in lockdown, and 50% said museums and attractions were top of their list.

Surely then a hybrid experience that gives visitors choice and flexibility is key. VR will be crucial to the development of this richer, more immersive future, in which people can both visit spaces in-person and delve deeper through digital means.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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