The coronavirus pandemic has forced many museums to close their doors for much of the past year. Causing cultural institutions to look to digital technology to serve their audiences.
Although it is fair to say that many in museums began to think about how they could offer digital experiences to their visitors after lockdowns stifled the number of physical attendees, the pandemic merely accelerated what was already going on.
As you will see in the examples of immersive technologies in museums below, many of them started to come to fruition before the world knew of Covid-19.
Consequently, understanding how immersive technology will shape the future of museums has never been more crucial.
Emphatically, digitisation is not just a way for institutions to overcome lockdowns and serve audiences until it becomes possible to accept physically present visitors once more. In the vast majority of cases, it is much more likely that digital technologies providing virtual experiences are going to continue to be offered alongside real-world visits.
How can we make such a claim with any confidence? Won’t the world simply return to normal once vaccines have led to widespread immunity from the virus? The reason is that the public has become accustomed to this sort of technology.
Simply put, there is an appetite for it that museums will need to cater to if they wish to thrive in a post-coronavirus world. As such, it is worth examining the sorts of immersive technologies that are already in place in the sector, both to assess them and to learn from them.
Live Streaming in Museums
Perhaps the simplest way of providing a digital experience within a museum is to live stream from it. Various live streaming platforms exist, such as Facebook and Twitch. Among the most popular, however, is YouTube which supports both live streams and pre-recorded video content.
The Palace Museum, which is part of the Forbidden City complex in Beijing, was one of the most successful institutions to use live streaming in recent times. In an effort to limit visitor numbers to the site and reduce queuing times, it decided to make live streams of the site at the height of the pandemic in China.
Three live streams were conducted initially, each lasting an impressive two hours as every aspect of the Palace Museum was explored. Even taking China’s high population into account, the viewing figures were impressive.
At their peak, some 34 million viewers followed the live streams as they unfolded.
A similar approach was taken in the UK, albeit with lower numbers of followers, when the Manchester Art Gallery decided it would live stream public content curated by the famous artist and TV personality, Grayson Perry.
Working for Channel 4 television, Perry had chosen pieces sent to him digitally as a part of his show, Grayson’s Art Club. Those chosen were placed into a virtual gallery space.
A real-world version was subsequently hosted by the Manchester Art Gallery from which it live-streamed to its audience online, successfully blurring the lines between physical and virtual gallery spaces, live streaming and television.
In London, the Natural History Museum has also used live streaming to stay connect with the public during the pandemic. It has run ‘Nature Live’ every week for much of the period when the museum has been shut. Although the streams are billed as a way to see some of the behind-the-scenes work that is conducted at the museum, they also offer the chance for some online interaction with Q&A sessions featuring at the end.
Creative Virtual Spaces
Some institutions have taken a more proactive attitude to immersive technology than live streaming affords. A good example is the Cleveland Museum of Art which teamed up with ArtLens, a digital interactive studio provider.
Their approach consisted of a physical interaction with art that took place in a digital format. A room within the gallery was given over to screens and other devices which visitors could use as they pleased.
The sort of virtual artworks they could produce using the technology on offer included collages that were made up of digital fragments of artworks found in the gallery. Featured artists in the project could be researched with more information about them and their lives.
Other creative activities people could try their hand at included virtual painting and pottery as well as using digital cameras to create artistic self-portraits.
Interestingly, the interactive studio also made use of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. In this case, it meant that anyone could draw a shape using one of the digital devices on offer.
The AI system would then match that shape with something in the museum’s collection from a database of scans it had in its memory.
Although audio streaming is not often considered to be in the same bracket as other forms of immersive technology, the power of the spoken word can be transformative when handled well.
Podcasts are an increasingly popular way for businesses and performers to market themselves and to begin to lead public discussion and debate. As this is part of the remit of many museums, exploring the role that podcasts can play in the digital age is important.
There are several precedents of museums using podcasts to promote themselves and to educate the public. The British Museum podcast is one of the best-known in the UK, covering many of the topics that the museum has galleries devoted to.
The National Gallery of Art, in Washington DC, also serves up regular audio output on an almost weekly basis, often with outside experts commenting on the gallery’s collection in various historical contexts.
If you’re thinking of starting a museum podcast, this article is a great place to start.
Digitally Led In-Person Experiences
Unlike live-streamed video or podcasts, both of which are consumed remotely, immersive digital experiences take place within museum settings.
The big difference with this sort of technology is that it offers something new and that might not even be physically possible to experience in the real world. A good example of the sort of digital in-person experiences offered by some museums nowadays is to be found at the National Museum of Singapore.
Put together in 2017, this digital exhibition brings to virtual life a vast array of natural history drawings in three dimensions that visitors can interact with in unique ways.
By exploring a virtual forest landscape without the need for headsets or handheld smart devices, the Story of the Forest exhibition effectively puts people at the centre of a purpose-built animation.
The exhibition was rendered possible by a Japanese digital art collective known as teamLab. It takes place in the museum’s glazed rotunda, the perfect environment for being able to look up and see the animations taking place all around.
According to the museum, visitors can learn more about the various flora and fauna on show in the exhibition by downloading an app that accompanies it.
Although the focus of the entirely digital show is on the natural world, it takes people on a journey through Singapore’s colonial past right up to modern times when the natural world coexists with people in a busy metropolis.
A similar approach was taken by the Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience, a temporary digital installation that popped up in London in early 2020.
This exhibition aimed to make people feel as though they were really in the world the Dutch artist created in his paintings. It allowed visitors to step into life-sized renderings of some of his most famous works and to explore the emotions of his brushstrokes through some state-of-the-art digital techniques.
Although it is now closed, the show is likely to pop up elsewhere soon so long as social distancing rules allow.
Virtual Reality in Museums
Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, virtual and augmented reality technologies have been brought to bear in a number of institutions recently.
Early in 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced that it had partnered with one of the United States’ leading telecommunications companies, Verizon, to produce games and virtual art experienced using augmented reality (AR). Essentially, AR blends traditional virtual reality (VR) landscapes with real-world ones to enhance or augment them.
The idea the Met ran with was to make use of the city’s 5G roll-out so that superfast connections could be made with the virtual galleries it had made. This allowed visitors to explore their art collections with a stunning degree of realism through their tablets and smartphones even though they were not physically present.
Interestingly, the Met decided to make their AR offering backwards compatible with older technology. As such, anyone with a 4G connection or device could also gain an augmented visitor experience even if it was not rendered in quite the same level of detail.
Although the virtual exhibition, known as Unframed, was in some ways nothing more than a glorified online tour of some of the Met’s galleries, the AR elements meant that it broke new ground insofar as immersive technology is concerned in the museum and art gallery sectors.
These included animations that looked like they were taking place in a real space as well as games that were aimed at keeping virtual visitors entertained as well as being informed.
Similar levels of interactivity were offered at the Louvre in Paris a few years ago. Partly to address the large crowds of visitors who had to queue for some time to see its most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, the Louvre took the then-unprecedented step of utilising VR.
What this boiled down to was a scanned version of the portrait that visitors could take their time viewing – not just the brief moment they were allowed in front of the real masterpiece of Renaissance art.
By using x-rays and other high-tech scanning technologies, the Louvre was able to put on show a three-dimensional VR version of the Mona Lisa.
This included some of the background of the painting which could be seen in stunning detail. The Louvre decided to make the VR experience available to people in their own homes and even went on to produce other VR renditions of Da Vinci’s artwork.
It should be said that the Louvre’s VR representation of a famous work of art was not new. Before their project got going, the National Museum of Finland had already used VR to make ‘The Opening of the Diet 1863 by Alexander II’ come to life.
This historical image by RW Ekman depicts an important part of the country’s political life in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The VR version of it allowed people to walk through and explore the room depicted in Ekman’s work, almost transporting them back through time as well as in space.
Of course, there are numerous other examples of VR – and other immersive technologies – currently being put to use in both museums and art galleries around the world (find more examples here).
They may all have their different approaches and nuances but one thing is for sure – the public has enjoyed them whenever they have been offered. As the sales of digital equipment, such as VR headsets, have shot up over the past year, so those museums and galleries that make use of them for their digital offerings in the future are more likely to continue to be relevant to the public.
Of course, none of this means that traditional museum and gallery spaces are a thing of the past. It does mean, however, that immersive technology in museums will become more widespread in the coming years.