Search Museum Next

How Museums are using Augmented Reality

Museums use augmented reality to enrich exhibits by overlaying digital content onto physical artifacts. AR offers interactive, educational experiences, enabling visitors to see additional information, animations, and reconstructions. This technology engages audiences, making learning more dynamic and accessible while enhancing the storytelling and contextual understanding of the exhibits.

Apple Vision Pro released in 2024 is the latest device to use Augmented Reality, but people may be more familiar with phone based AR apps.

Augmented reality (AR) is a transformative technology that overlays digital information—images, text, or sounds—onto the physical world, enriching our perception of our surroundings. While traditionally tethered to smartphones and tablets, AR is entering a groundbreaking new era with devices like the Apple Vision Pro.

This cutting-edge headset, introduced in 2024, pushes the boundaries of augmented reality, offering users a seamless and immersive way to interact with digital enhancements directly within their field of vision without the need to hold up a device.

By integrating sophisticated AR capabilities, the Apple Vision Pro not only represents a significant leap forward in how technology can augment our daily lives but also opens up innovative possibilities for applications in various sectors, including education, entertainment, and especially in enhancing museum experiences.

But while the Apple Vision Pro might be grabbing the headlines, phone-based Augmented Reality apps have been popular for several years. For example, Pokémon Go is a game where users can ‘catch’ Pokémon hiding in the world around them.

Animated creatures are superimposed onto what players can see through their device’s camera. The technology makes them appear as if they exist in the real world. The app has been downloaded over one billion times. In the fourth quarter of 2023, the Pokémon GO app generated over 8.5 million downloads worldwide.

This shows that AR is accessible and has the potential to reach a vast audience.

What is the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?

Virtual Reality offers total immersion in a different reality. However, Augmented Reality (AR) shows reality and an altered version. VR replaces what the user sees with an alternate reality, while AR adds to what the user can already see. This means it can be helpful for annotating scenes and providing extra information.

It also puts scenes into context and highlights contrasts with the current reality. VR requires specialist technology, such as headsets, controllers and sensors. AR experiences only need a smartphone or tablet and are downloadable as apps.

How can museums use augmented reality?

There are many possibilities for using AR in museums. The most straightforward way is to add explanations of pieces. This means visitors will get more information when they view exhibitions using AR. Museums could even use it to display digital versions of artists next to their work. These 3D personas can then provide narration.

AR allows adding a third dimension to displays, bringing objects or scenes to life. There are already many institutions around the world using AR. These projects bring something new to existing collections and attract wider audiences. Here are some exciting ways that museums are using augmented reality.

de Young Museum, San Fransisco

Have you ever wished you could try on the fashions you see in museum exhibitions? That’s exactly what the de Young Museum offered visitors with “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style” through an innovative partnership with Snap Inc, the company behind Snapchat.

The exhibition (which opened in January 2024) used the companies interactive try-on installation to virtually dress visitors in a choice of three evening wear ensembles—by French designer Yves Saint Laurent, Italian couturier Valentino, and Bay Area-based clothing artist Kaisik Wong.

Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

The Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris was a pioneer in it’s use of Augmented Reality. A project called “REVIVRE” (“To Live Again”) lets visitors come face to face with digital animals, which are now extinct in the real world.

From the beetle to the giant tortoise, the Revivre experience put visitors face to face with 3D and animated animals that appeared at their actual size.

The National Gallery

The National Gallery in London is another museum that has used augmented reality to take its collections beyond its walls with an experience that members of the public can access through their phones.

Classic paintings and modern works from artists including Titian, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Pierre Seurat and Tracey Emin appeared on London’s busy streets thanks to the Augmented Reality App.

The National Museum of Singapore

The National Museum of Singapore was responsible for an immersive installation called Story of the Forest, one of the most compelling Augmented Reality experiences in museums.

The exhibition focused on 69 images from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings. These were turned into three-dimensional animations that visitors could interact with.

Visitors downloaded an Augmented Reality app and could use the camera on their phone or tablet to explore the paintings.

The family-friendly installation used technology to provide a learning experience. Like Pokémon Go, visitors could hunt for and ‘catch’ items.

In this case, these items were the plants and animals within the paintings. As they walked around the museum, they could add them to their own virtual collection. Once they had been collected, the AR app showed more information about them. Users could learn facts such as habitat, diet, and how rare the species are.

The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings is one of the museum’s most important collections. Created by the Japanese digital art collective teamLab, this AR project brought the drawings to life.

Audiences could interact with and explore the images in an exciting new way.

The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

The Art Gallery of Ontario worked with digital artist Alex Mayhew to create a pioneering Augmented Reality installation called ReBlink. Mayhew reimagined some of the existing pieces in the collection, allowing visitors to view them in a new light.

Visitors used their phones or tablets to see the subjects come alive and be transported to our 21st-century reality. For example, the painting Drawing Lots by George Agnew Reid depicts three characters. Their heads bend over their game together in a peaceful spot. In Mayhew’s modern version, the three are separate and absorbed in their own phone screens. Smoky traffic passes by behind. Mayhew is interested in the encroachment of technology on modern life. In his view, we are constantly bombarded by images, and as a result, we consume art at a more rapid pace.

Using AR for this project, the artist hoped to turn technology into a way to engage rather than distract. The exhibition aimed to use the app to get people to look up rather than down. According to the AGO’s Interpretive Planner, Shiralee Hudson Hill, 84% of visitors to this exhibition reported feeling engaged with the art. 39% looked at the images again after using the app.

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, turned to AR technology to bring a new dimension to one of its oldest and most loved displays.

Many skeletons in the museum’s Bone Hall have been on show since 1881. Visitors could download an Augmented Reality app called Skin and Bone, which showed these pieces in a new light.

13 skeletons featured in the app, which superimposed images to reconstruct the creatures.

Users could see how skin and muscle would have looked over the bones and how the animals would have moved. This gave them a unique glimpse into the pieces’ history and helped to bring the display to life.

Visitors could use the app to see a vampire bat take flight or an anhinga demonstrating how it would have been fished.

“This app is all about sharing some of the untold stories behind one of the museum’s most iconic collections,” said Robert Costello, the producer of the app and national outreach program manager at the Museum of Natural History.

The Pérez Art Museum, Miami

The Pérez Art Museum worked with artist Felice Grodin. Together, they created the first fully augmented reality-powered art exhibition, ‘Invasive Species‘.

In the examples above, AR adds to existing works. However, Grodin’s work for this project is entirely digital. It is intended to be a complete AR experience, conjuring images into an empty space.

The installation involved a series of digital images and species, including eerie 3D models evoking creepy crawlies, jellyfish, or cryptic signs. Felice wanted to interact with and transform the building’s architecture. The exhibition comments on the fragility of our ecosystem and the threat of climate change. It transports visitors to a future version of the building, taken over by invasive species.

For example, ‘Terrafish’ invades PAMM’s hanging gardens with a 49ft tall jellyfish-like structure. It is reminiscent of a non-native species currently populating the waters around Miami.

PAMM curator Jennifer Inacio believes that art can be a pathway to debate. She wanted the exhibition to lead to conversations, to engage viewers in a dialogue, “The uncanny works that the artist created are meant to pull viewers into the serious discussion of climate change but engagingly and interactively.”

The Kennedy Space Centre, Merritt Island

AR can help visitors to understand historical events by making them appear in 3D. The Heroes and Legends exhibit at the Kennedy Space Centre is a great example. Here, an AR experience shows a critical moment in the history of America’s space programme.

In June 1966, astronaut Gene Cernan performed the second spacewalk in history. He later called it the ‘spacewalk from hell’. His spacesuit overheated, and he went into an uncontrollable spin, unable to see. The display shows the Gemini 9 space capsule and uses AR to project a hologram of Cernan over it. Visitors can view the ordeal as he struggles to return to the capsule. There is also a voiceover from Cernan himself, describing his experience.

The exhibition uses AR holograms throughout. This technology gives faces and voices to the people who worked on the space programme. Visitors can hear stories from NASA legends told in their own words.

Are there any risks of using augmented reality in museums?

One of the concerns that PAMM had around its use of AR was the notion that technology can be isolating. Having visitors absorbed in the world on their phones and in their own bubbles would have contradicted what the artist wanted to achieve. In actual fact, it found that people were using the technology together. Groups were sharing screens and discussing what they could see. The exhibition even had the potential to engage strangers in conversation.

Another risk is that this new technology could exclude older generations. Digital natives and millennials are likely to take such installations in their stride, while older people could potentially struggle or feel left out. Again, PAMM found that this was not the case. Many of the visitors to their AR exhibition were aged 55+, and this age group reported having a positive experience.

There have been some cases of unauthorised augmentations. The most famous example is 2018 when a group of artists ‘took over’ MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Gallery. If visitors downloaded the app, they could see how these artists had reimagined the paintings. This included showing one piece as an Instagram post touting for likes. The concept is not too different to some of the examples above. But in this case, the artists did not have permission from the museum. They sought to comment on the museum’s position as’ cultural gate-keepers’.

Curators also need to ensure that AR installations don’t impact the work of other artists. PAMM was careful to only place Grodin’s works in areas of the museum that were free of existing pieces to avoid overwriting them.

What could the future hold for Augmented Reality in museums?

There are many exciting applications for augmented reality in the museum space. Virtual reality is still costly, prohibitively so in some cases. It needs a lot of specialist equipment. AR can provide a cheaper way to bring displays to life.

Museums and curators are already full of knowledge and the desire to engage people in a dialogue. Augmented reality is another tool that can communicate this knowledge. It invites visitors to find out more. A virtual rendition of an artist narrating his work has the potential to encourage more engagement. A skeleton that comes to life can help visitors understand new concepts. AR can even help contextualise history by blending the old and the new. For example, it can show historical scenes superimposed onto modern ones.

This technology can capture people’s attention and keep their focus on exhibitions longer. Before opening their AR installation, the AGO did a survey. It discovered the average visitor to the museum’s collections spent only 2.31 seconds in front of each image. In a busy modern life where visitors are not always inclined to linger, museums can use AR technology to reach out and grab their attention.

MuseumNext offer online learning for museum professionals striving for engaging, relevant and flexible professional growth content. Find out about our upcoming events here.

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week