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Does XR have a place in a cash-strapped arts and culture sector?

With purse strings tighter than ever, is XR investment worth it in 2021?

Museums have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. With forced closures lasting months at a time, it became increasingly clear that many of the world’s most beloved cultural hotspots were going to struggle to get by. Indeed the sad irony of London’s Florence Nightingale Museum was threatened by closure in 2020 is not lost on anyone within the sector.

The road to recovery from COVID-19’s impact will be a long and potentially tortuous one, yet museums are still feeling the pressure to advance their services and innovate their exhibitions even in these delicate times. After all, if the public are to be coaxed back out after a 14 months or more of lockdowns, venues and institutions will need to put on a show.

One thing that that has been universal over the course of the pandemic is the growth in digital content delivery. From online gallery tours to apps, games and complete immersion, museums around the world have been exploring the limits of their digital capabilities in order to keep would-be visitors engaged.

So, should we expect to see XR solutions take centre stage in museums and galleries over the coming months and years. Or, with tighter budgets than ever before, should institutions look to avoid further investment when their on-site collections and exhibitions are in great need of a little tender loving care.

The financial impact of COVID-19

According to research by UK charity ArtFund, six out of 10 museums, galleries and historic houses are worried about their long-term survival right now.

ArtFund director Jenny Waldman said recently: “The latest lockdown is a body blow and is leaving our museums and galleries fighting for survival. Smaller museums in particular, which are so vital to their communities, simply do not have the reserves to see them through.”

And the UK is not alone in its suffering. A report published in The Guardian earlier this year revealed that visits to the world’s top 100 museums and galleries dropped by a record 77% due to COVID-19, with the survey suggesting that a full recovery from the pandemic could take years.

The world’s leading cultural institutions have suffered catastrophic losses. The Louvre lost €90 million in income last year, while the Tate Modern lost £56 million in revenue during its 173 days of closure.

XR can come at a price

Last year, MDPI published an in-depth study into the experiences of museums who have introduced virtual reality into their exhibitions. The study’s aim was to “offer a more critical and holistic examination and assessment of the use of VR in museums and provide suggestions for designing and developing VR projects in the future.”

The study’s researchers interviewed museum professionals to gain an insight into whether virtual realities are a permanent step forward for museums, or simply the latest temporary trend. One of the main criticisms the study uncovered about VR was that it was “labour intensive and very costly” for museums investing in the technology.

There have been plenty of incidents of successful museum VR experiences making headlines, including the National Museum of Singapore’s Story of the Forest exhibition. The display turned 69 images from the William Farquhar Collection of National History Drawings into three-dimensional animations that visitors could interact with. The result was a breath taking and truly immersive museum experience that was unlike anything seen before.

However, this sizeable and undoubtedly expensive exhibition isn’t realistic for all museums and galleries. And, as the MDPI study highlights, deep pockets may not be a necessity or a permanent issue. Researchers commented that “participants expect that many current challenges in terms of cost and equipment will be solved, since museums will rely more on the personal devices of their visitors, which will become ever more sophisticated in the future.”

In fact, AR has fast-emerged as the solution of choice for museums looking to layer additional content on top of the physical exhibitions, as well as deliver at-home and remote experiences beyond the walls of the museum itself.

Missing the XR boat may not be an option

XR is undoubtedly changing the landscape of arts and culture, and there are plenty of examples of museums thriving due to the implementation of smart tech.

The J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles was one of the first to provide a virtual museum tour in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown last spring. The tour allowed visitors to get up close and personal with masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s Irises and Renoir’s La Promenade. The set-up was simple; using Google Arts and Culture to provide a ‘museum view’ that lets users look inside gallery spaces and click on artworks for more information.

Similarly, the Vatican Museums offered its own virtual experience for users, who could spend time with the intricate murals and soaring vaulted ceilings. Tour guides also offered narration for each interactive space.

The thing that these examples have in common is that they don’t intend to deliver the same blockbuster museum experiences as the Singapore’s Story of the Forest exhibition, instead they have used immersive experiences on a more economical scale to simply continue the relationship between visitor and institution at a time when they aren’t together.

Even once the pandemic has faded into a distant memory, the message is clear: engaging with audiences through digital content, online experiences and accessibility initiatives will be critical to the survival and long-term success of museums of galleries in the future. Those that can’t connect with an audience beyond their walls will have a much harder time drawing visitors in to enjoy their in-real-life exhibitions and collections. 

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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