Augmented reality is the process of using technology to superimpose images, text or sounds on top of what a person can already see. It uses a smartphone or tablet to alter the existing picture, via an app. The user stands in front of a scene and holds up their device. It will show them an altered version of reality. There are many ways that museums could be using augmented reality.
A few of the most well-known applications of AR technology are from the gaming world. For example, Pokémon Go, the 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 are existing in the real world. The app has been downloaded over one billion times. This shows that AR is accessible, and has the potential to reach a huge audience.
What is the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?
Virtual Reality offers total immersion in a different reality. However, AR shows reality and an altered version side by side. VR replaces what the user sees with an alternate reality. AR adds to what the user can already see. This means it can be useful for annotating scenes and providing extra information. It is also used to put scenes into context and highlight 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 the use of AR in museums. The most straightforward way is to use it 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 are then able to provide a narration. AR gives an opportunity to add 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 interesting ways that museums are using augmented reality.
Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
In June 2021, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris launched an Augmented Reality experience using Microsoft’s Hololens. The project called “REVIVRE” (“To Live Again”) let visitors come face to face with digital animals which in the real world are now extinct.
The National Gallery
In 2021, The National Gallery in London looked to take the collections of the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy of Arts beyond their walls of the museum with an Augmented reality experience which members of the public could access through their phones. Users used an app to activate the artworks which were marked with QR codes on busy streets in central London.
The National Museum of Singapore
The National Museum of Singapore is currently running an immersive installation called Story of the Forest. The exhibition focuses on 69 images from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings. These have been turned into three-dimensional animations that visitors can interact with. Visitors download an app and can then use the camera on their phone or tablet to explore the paintings.
The family-friendly installation uses technology to provide a learning experience. Much like Pokémon Go, visitors can hunt for and ‘catch’ items. In this case, these items are the plants and animals within the paintings. They can then add them to their own virtual collection as they walk around the museum. The app shows more information about them once they have been collected. Users can 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 brings the drawings to life. Audiences can interact with and explore the images in an exciting new way.
The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
In July 2017, the AGO worked with digital artist Alex Mayhew to create an AR installation called ReBlink. Mayhew reimagined some of the existing pieces in the collection. This gave visitors the opportunity 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 phone screens of their own. 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.
In 2017, the Smithsonian introduced AR technology to bring a whole new dimension to one of its oldest and most loved displays. Many of the skeletons in the museum’s Bone Hall have been on show since 1881. Now visitors can download a new app called Skin and Bone which shows these pieces in a new light.
13 skeletons feature in the app, which superimposes images to reconstruct the creatures. Users can see how skin and muscle would have looked over the bones, and how the animals would have moved. This gives them a unique glimpse into the history of the pieces and helps to bring the display to life. Visitors can use the app to see a vampire bat take flight, or an anhinga demonstrating how it would have fished.
“This app is all about sharing some of the untold stories behind one of the museum’s most iconic collections,” said Robert Costello. He is the producer of the app and national outreach program manager at the Museum of Natural History.
The Pérez Art Museum, Miami
In December 2017, PAMM worked with artist Felice Grodin. Together they created the first fully augmented reality-powered art exhibition, called ‘Invasive Species’. In the examples above, AR adds to existing works. However, Grodin’s work for this project is completely digital. It is intended to be a full AR experience, conjuring images into an empty space.
The installation involved a series of digital images and species. These include eerie 3D models evoking creepy-crawlies, jellyfish or cryptic signs. Felice wanted to interact with the architecture of the building, and transform it. The exhibition is a comment 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 in an engaging and interactive way.”
The Kennedy Space Centre, Merritt Island
AR can help visitors to understand historical events by making them appear in 3D. A great example of this is the Heroes and Legends exhibit in the Kennedy Space Centre. Here, an AR experience shows a key moment 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 get back inside 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 phone and being in their own bubble would have run counter to 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. 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+. This age group reported having a positive experience.
There have been some cases of unauthorised augmentations. The most famous example is from 2018 when a group of artists ‘took over’ MoMA’s Jackson Pollock gallery. If visitors downloaded the app, they were able to 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 the permission of the museum. They were seeking to make a commentary on the position of the museum as ‘cultural gate-keepers’.
Curators also need to be careful that AR installations don’t have an impact on 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 of 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 for longer. Before opening their AR installation, the AGO did a survey. It discovered the average visitor to the museum’s collections spent on average 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.