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How can museums see beyond the gimmicks in Virtual & Augmented Reality

When is XR (Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality) an asset and when is it a distraction for museums and their audiences?

In his 2000 memoir On Writing, the master of spooky storytelling himself, Stephen King, wrote:

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

This advice was, of course, intended to guide aspiring authors and wordsmiths, but the rule is also a useful one to apply to other areas of arts and culture. That includes those who may be tempted to indulge in immersive experiences that satisfy their own tastes and preferences rather than those of the intended audience.

XR is a new and exciting field of technology, offering endless possibilities for cultural institutions around the world. We’ve seen it dominate exhibitions in recent years, but of course, some instances have been more successful than others.

So when is XR necessary in a museum setting, and when is it simply too much? When do AR and VR distract from the core content, rather than enhancing or complementing to overall experience?

These are the questions that institutions around the globe are tussling with in 2021 – and will no doubt continue to contemplate as this technology expands and evolves.

XR as a necessity

XR isn’t only used for entertainment purposes. As the capabilities of the technology grow, it’s seen use across a range of industries for a variety of reasons. In healthcare, studies have tested the use of VR by doctors as a way of recreating the experiences of their patients, in order to better understand them and promote greater empathy. According to the BBC, the success of these trials has led to them being considered for social workers, carers and assisting family members as well as healthcare professionals.

In other instances, VR is used to create role-played medical scenarios in order to help clinicians learn remotely. Film maker Lucy Baxter also used VR to create an immersive film to help those dealing with domestic abuse victims improve their understanding of domestic violence.

For museums, XR has also proven its worth time and time again, particularly during the forced closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the world’s leading museums made use of virtual tours and assets in order to keep their connection to their visitors alive, giving users access to the artefacts within the museum from the comfort of their own homes.

The Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, was one such institution, offering virtual natural history displays, interactive science features, art exhibitions and more. Their ‘Bees! Diversity, Evolution, Conservation’ exhibition was made fully available online in a special virtual exhibit. Ultra-high resolution images were accessible to users as a way to demonstrate the importance of bees to all plant and animal life.

And while virtual tours took on a new level of necessity during lockdown, they shouldn’t be written off as a temporary measure. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, XR represented an opportunity to make art more accessible to the masses. Back in 2017, Prospects worked alongside young people in London to provide educational EyeSpy360™ virtual tours for young people of all abilities, in order to address issues of accessibility among those with mobility concerns.

What about full scale, showstopping VR?

It’s clear that XR has many viable uses both within and outside the museum landscape. However, when we think of VR, our minds tend to conjure up grand scale exhibitions utilising the latest and greatest technologies with breath-taking results. These kinds of XR exhibitions are always eye-catching, but are they always impactful?

The key here is that XR, no matter how showstopping, can never be the star of the show. Instead, it should act as a tool that brings the viewer closer to the art, artefact or message on display.

Take the National Museum of Natural History in Paris as an example. Their exhibition, ‘The Cabinet De Réalité Virtuelle’, was the first museum room in the country dedicated to VR, opening in 2018. Visitors enter a room and are immediately transported into a unique adventure: Journey into the Heart of Evolution. Using five VR stations, soundproofing and dynamic lighting, visitors are brought closer than ever before to the story of human existence. Links between different species can be explored in depth, bringing the Earth’s fascinating and labyrinthine history to life like never before.

Conversely, Unreal City – an AR art tour of London developed in Seoul in Korea – was criticised for favouring aesthetics over accessibility and depth. In a review published in The Art Newspaper, art critics berated the app for its functionality issues and distracting use of technology. Los Angeles artist Eron Raunch commented:

“Most of the works feel as if they have little interest outside of looking like a cool Snapchat filter or purikura sticker.”

Whether you agree or disagree with this particular interpretation, the point still stands that XR is at its best when art wins the day; not the technology itself. When XR is done right, it should be used to brighten the spotlight on the art it is displaying, rather than taking the spotlight. XR technology has the potential to make us feel closer than ever to art, history and humanity as a whole, even possessing the ability to broaden our horizons and increase our understanding.

But in order to do this successfully, XR must simplify rather than complicate. When XR succeeds in highlighting works or the world in a new and exciting way, there can be no doubt that it is necessary.

The use of VR and AR in museums and gallery spaces is quickly becoming the norm, but what does this mean for the future of the cultural sector as a whole? We’ll be discussing this and more at the MuseumNext XR Summit taking place virtually this July. Make sure you don’t miss out.

Tickets are still available here.

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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