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Virtual Reality Is A Big Trend In Museums, But What Are The Best Examples Of Museums Using VR?


Is this the year Virtual Reality (VR) finally achieves mainstream success? It seems so, with the tech giants Apple, Microsoft and Meta all betting on “spatial computing” in 2024. However, let’s not forget that museums have been harnessing the power of VR for quite some time, delivering awe-inspiring results.

Take Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, for example. In 2016, the institute launched a range of Virtual Reality experiences. 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. Franklin claims these exhibitions will transform the visitor’s view of the world.

The Franklin Institute back in 2016

What does VR mean for museums?

Museums have always sought to breathe life into their collections, and VR is an exceptional tool for achieving that goal. It offers a unique and captivating experience that transports visitors to new dimensions within an exhibit. 

The global museum community has eagerly embraced VR’s potential, employing it to create immersive tours, interactive exhibits, and breathtaking visual narratives. VR allows curators to contextualise objects and showcase their true scale, revolutionising how visitors engage with art and history.

Immersive Examples from Museums:

V&A

London’s renowned V&A museum unveiled the “Curious Alice” exhibition, exploring Lewis Carroll’s enduring classic. Complementing traditional galleries, visitors were invited to partake in a playful VR experience, immersing themselves in Alice’s whimsical world.




Louvre 

The Louvre launched ‘Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass’, a VR experience that explores 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 its appearance. 

Available in five languages, the experience could be enjoyed for four months by booking directly at the Louvre and is downloadable on the VR app store VIVEPORT, iOS, and Android.

 

Peterson Automotive Museum

The Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles worked with Microsoft HoloLens to create a new exhibition. The result was an exciting VR experience. Visitors could 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 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 adding 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.

The museum’s executive director, Terry Karges, said the exhibition was an excellent addition. The museum aims to use more interactive displays such as this to enhance its storytelling potential.

The National Museum of Finland

The National Museum of Finland in Helsinki opened a new VR exhibit in 2018. Visitors can return to 1863 as they explore R. W. Ekman’s painting The Opening of the Diet 1863 by Alexander II.

Virtual Reality bringing history to life

 

The VR headset makes people feel like they are stepping inside the painting. Visitors find themselves within the scene and can view the Hall of Mirrors from a 3D perspective. They can even speak with the Russian Emperor and other characters depicted in the painting. The painting is part of an exhibit detailing Finnish life and politics in the 1860s under the Russian Empire.

The Smithsonian

In 2018, the Smithsonian Institution included a VR component alongside a new exhibitionNo Spectators: The Art of Burning Man was installed in the Renwick Gallery until January 2019.

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 throughout the festival and are then burned. 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 can continue enjoying the exhibition despite the fact that the physical collection no longer exists. This is one of VR’s benefits. It can create lasting records of otherwise temporary experiences.

The Tate Modern

In the UK, London’s Tate Modern has also embraced the VR trend. Alongside their Modigliani retrospective, they created a fascinating VR exhibit. Visitors could 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 thorough research, the museum recreated 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 connect with an artist. It’s a different way of absorbing that information, making 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. The installation dealt with evolution as part of the museum’s wider scope.

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. Its goal is to make the concepts behind it more accessible. The museum aims to develop its permanent VR collection further in the future.

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum, in partnership with broadcaster Sky, developed Hold the World, an educational VR experience that allows you to meet Sir David Attenborough face-to-face.

The interactive experience takes you to London’s Natural History Museum. It puts you in reach of a few rare specimens from its world-famous collection, letting you handle and resize the objects. At the same time, Attenborough teaches essential facts about how the animals must have lived, eaten, 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 viewer’s perspective. But like any new technology, it does bring challenges.

At MuseumNext Australia in February 2017, a panel discussion examined 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 adding value when used with a curator’s existing tools. He pointed out that it has some unique traits, for example, the ability to create an actual first-person perspective. This could be a huge draw when creating a new exhibit. Although he believes that VR is helpful, he does concede 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 of VR programmes can be costly. Depending on the size of the project, costs can escalate quickly. There are many factors to consider, from paying for bespoke content design to replacing broken headpieces. Pokel talked about how his Aukland War Memorial Museum exhibition 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. Several people use headsets over the course of a day. Things like skin, hair, and grease can quickly build up, potentially causing infections. Many museums have opted to have staff or volunteers to clean the devices between uses. Disposable hygiene masks are also available.

Pokel also touched upon the issue of Simulation Sickness. Some users find their first experience of VR unsettling or even nausea-inducing. This is because of the disconnect between their physical body and the virtual world that their minds are 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 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 enjoy exhibitions from the comfort of their homes, for example. VR can transport visitors to collections housed on the other side of the world without having to set foot on an aeroplane.

Some may worry that VR can potentially stop visitors from attending in person. Despite projects like the Kremer Museum, VR experiences seem unlikely to completely take over. Bruno David is the president of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Talking to the New York Times about 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 genuinely 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.

 

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

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