Virtual Reality is a big trend in museums, but what are the best examples of museums using VR?
July 31 2021
By Charlotte Coates
Could 2021 be the year that Virtual Reality goes mainstream? That’s what many people are predicting following the launch of the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. This achieved five times projected pre-orders as bored consumers looked to escape the boredom of Covid-19 lockdowns.
Museums have pivoted towards digital during the course of 2020, but many had been investing in virtual reality of several years with some impressive results. Take for example Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. They launched a range of Virtual Reality experiences in 2016. As part of the installation, visitors can use VR to journey to the depths of the ocean, the far edges of outer space or even inside the human body. This technology allows people to be completely immersed in an interactive adventure. The Franklin claims these exhibitions will transform the visitor’s view of the world.
What does VR mean for museums?
Museums aim to bring collections to life and VR is an excellent tool for this. It offers a different experience – that of total emersion in an exhibit. Many museums around the globe are already embracing its potential.
The topic can seem like a daunting one. It’s easy to get confused by technical speak and new gadgets. But the concept itself is not that complex. Simply put, VR places the user inside an experience. It can be interactive or take the form of 360-degree video. VR is being used to create museum tours, make exhibits interactive, and to bring scenes to life. It can help curators to put objects in context and show their true scale.
In the summer of 2021, London’s V&A opened Curious Alice an exhibition exploring the origins, adaptations and reinventions of the Lewis Carroll classic. Alongside galleries of illustrations, films, posters, manuscripts and costumes visitors were given the chance to immerse themselves in a playful virtual reality experience.
In October 2019, Paris’ Louvre launched ‘Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass’, a VR experience that explores the Renaissance painting as part of its Leonardo da Vinci blockbuster exhibition. Through interactive design, sound and animated images, users discover details about the painting, such as its wood panel texture and how the passage of time has changed the way it looks. Available in five languages, the experience can be enjoyed for four months by booking directly at the Louvre and is downloadable on VR app store VIVEPORT, iOS, and Android.
Peterson Automotive Museum
The Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles worked with Microsoft HoloLens in 2017 to create a new exhibition. The result was an exciting VR experience. Visitors were able to interact with a classic American sports car, the Ford GT40.
This supercar is a fascinating piece of history, and winner of several Le Mans races in the 1960s. The HoloLens allowed visitors to see the car up close, alongside a modern 2017 Ford GT for comparison. The exhibition aimed to tell a story, by blending the real and the virtual space. Visitors were further drawn into the experience by the addition of spatial audio, or surround sound. While learning about the history of the cars, they could also hear the roar of the engines and the sounds of tyres racing around a track.
Terry Karges, the museum’s executive director, said the exhibition was a wonderful addition. The museum aims to use more interactive displays such as this, to enhance their storytelling potential.
The National Museum of Finland
The National Museum of Finland in Helsinki opened a new VR exhibit in 2018. Visitors can head back in time to the year 1863, as they explore R. W. Ekman’s painting The Opening of the Diet 1863 by Alexander II.
The VR headset allows people to feel as if they are stepping inside the painting. Visitors find themselves within the scene and can look around at the Hall of Mirrors from a 3D perspective. They can even speak with the Russian Emperor and other characters depicted in the painting. It is part of an exhibit detailing Finnish life and politics in the 1860s, under the Russian Empire.
The legendary Burning Man event takes place every year in the Nevada desert. A temporary city of artists and revellers emerges from the wilderness each August. It is both an art event and a cultural movement. Massive art installations rise up over the course of the festival and are then burned to the ground. The Smithsonian’s collection displayed some of these incredible large-scale sculptures. Visitors were also able to learn about the spirit and origins of the event.
Although the exhibition closed in January 2019, the VR experience is still available. People are able to continue enjoying the exhibition despite the fact the physical collection no longer exists. This is one of the benefits of VR. It can create lasting records of otherwise temporary experiences.
The Tate Modern
In the UK, London’s Tate Modern has been embracing the VR trend too. Alongside their Modigliani retrospective in 2017/18, they created a fascinating VR exhibit. Visitors were able to experience complete immersion in a 3D model of the artist’s Paris studio.
The exhibit used the actual studio space as a template. The room itself still exists but is not as it was then. After painstaking research, the museum created a faithful recreation of the artist’s final studio as it would have been 100 years ago.
Hilary Knight, head of digital content at Tate, thinks that VR is a valuable tool. She said “It’s a way of conveying feeling, helping people feel a connection with an artist. It’s a different way of absorbing that information, and it makes the artist a living person.”
The National Museum of Natural History in Paris
The National Museum of Natural History opened its first permanent VR exhibition in 2018. The installation deals with evolution, as part of the wider scope of the museum.
When they enter the “Cabinet of Virtual Reality” and don the VR headsets, visitors are fully immersed in a journey of discovery. They can explore the links between species, viewing a variety of creatures up close and to scale.
The museum turned to technology to help visitors better understand the collection. It is intended to make the concepts behind it more accessible. They aim to develop their permanent VR collection further in the future.
Natural History Museum
In 2018 the Natural History Museum in partnership with broadcaster Sky developed Hold the World an educational VR experience that lets you come face-to-face with Sir David Attenborough.
The interactive experience takes you to London’s Natural History Museum, and puts you in reach of a few rare specimens from its world-famous collection, letting you handle and resize the objects while Attenborough teaches you important facts about how the animals must have lived, ate, breathed, and more.
What challenges do museums face around the use of VR?
The above examples show that VR has the potential to enhance museum exhibits. It allows curators to bring subjects to life and change the perspective of the viewer. But like any new technology, it does bring challenges too.
At MuseumNext Australia in February 2017, a panel discussion looked at the topic. Nils Pokel from the Aukland War Memorial Museum spoke about his experience with VR in a museum space. He talked about his hope that VR will continue to add value when used in conjunction with a curator’s existing tools. He pointed out that it has some unique traits, for example, the ability to create a true first-person perspective. This could be a huge draw when creating a new exhibit. Although he believes that VR is useful, he does concede there are some downsides.
One of the most limiting factors currently is cost. VR equipment itself is not cheap. In addition to this, the design and management or VR programmes can be very expensive. Depending on the size of the project, costs can escalate quickly. There are many factors to take into account, from paying for bespoke content design to replacing broken headpieces. Pokel talked about how his exhibition at the Aukland War Memorial Museum ran into hardware issues. In fact, they had around 15 broken headsets after just a couple of weeks.
Hygiene is another issue to be aware of. Headsets are used by several people over the course of a day. Things like skin, hair and grease can easily build up. There is potential for this to cause infections. Many museums have opted to have staff or volunteers on hand to clean the devices between uses. Disposable hygiene masks are also available.
Pokel also touched upon the issue of Simulation Sickness. Some users can find their first experience of VR unsettling or even nausea-inducing. This is because of the disconnect between your physical body and the virtual world that your mind is immersed in. Symptoms can include headaches, eyestrain, disorientation, vertigo and even vomiting.
What does the future look like for VR in museums?
The Kremer Museum has gone one further than the examples above. In fact, it does not exist as a physical museum at all. It showcases over 70 17th Century Dutch and Flemish old masters. They are only available to view through the VR experience and do not exist together as a physical collection.
Projects like this go a long way in making the modern museum experience more accessible. They can help people with mobility issues to enjoy exhibitions from the comfort of their own homes, for example. VR is able to transport visitors to collections housed on the other side of the world, without ever having to set foot on an aeroplane.
Some may worry that VR has the potential to stop visitors from attending in person. Despite projects like the Kremer Museum, it seems unlikely that VR experiences will completely take over. Bruno David is the president of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Talking to the New York Times on the topic of VR in museums he said, “People are coming to a museum to see real objects because real objects are emotional.” VR exhibitions are not intended to replace the existing model, but to enhance and complement what is already there.
There could be a danger of using VR for the sake of it, as a gimmick or to appear more modern. But when implemented thoughtfully, it can truly bring collections to life. The above examples show how Virtual Reality can enhance the museum experience. These institutions have created innovative exhibitions that make a genuine connection with visitors.