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How virtual reality is bringing historical sites to life

If the purpose of museums is to build a bridge between the past and present, then VR is surely one of the most innovative construction tools at their disposal.

Virtual reality, or VR, is exactly as the name suggests: technology that audibly and visually transports you to another place or time. It’s a powerful tool that has become commonplace in industries like video gaming over the last few years, but there are also a growing number of museums and heritage sites putting VR to good use, too.

I want to take a look at some of the most innovative uses of VR in heritage sites around the world, asking exactly what benefits this technology can bring for both museums and, most importantly, their visitors.

Visitors can now experience some of history’s defining moments for themselves

One of the most popular VR platforms of recent years links directly to museums and heritage sites. Timelooper is an application designed to give individuals the ability to immerse themselves completely in important historical events, experiencing the past from a first-person perspective.

Always wanted to step into the past and walk in the shoes of a citizen from a bygone era? Then VR is right up your street.

From the comfort of your own sofa you can join George Washington’s inauguration ceremony, seeing the historic day accurately recreated in glorious VR detail, complete with period costumes and commentary.

The app also allows users to travel back to more recent moments in history, such as the John Lennon Memorial in 1980. Through this 360-degree experience, viewers can actually experience the memorial first-hand, seeing scenes filmed at the time through the use of impressive remastering technology.

But Timelooper isn’t the only way to history is being made real through VR. YouTube is constantly increasing its collection of cultural VR content among its listings, including the 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbour. Uploading the content to their official YouTube channel, TIME magazine lets viewers hear retellings of veteran accounts while 360-degree visuals hammer home the devastation this incident caused.

TIME also created a similar experience for the battle at Dunkirk, which places users on the beach with British forces as you wait to be picked up. Both haunting and breath taking, this VR experience was actually created as a preview to the successful film about the battle by Christopher Nolan, showing how VR, history, culture and entertainment can all work together.

National Geographic have also dipped their toe in the VR waters, creating a fully immersive video project that places viewers in the centre of a Viking fighting pit, c.800-1050. With 600 reenactors all armed with real axes, this is one of the most thrilling and vivid ways to get a taste of what Viking life may have been like.

Lithodomos: seeing Rome as it once was

Rome is undoubtedly one of the most historical cities in the world – a place where the past greets you around every corner, with sites like the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Colosseum and more standing as eternal moments to the fascinating journey this city has taken over the centuries.

This is what spurred Australian archaeologist, Simon Young, to bring the past to the visitors of Rome like never before, by using VR. Young’s company, Lithodomos VR, creates immersive virtual recreations of iconic ruins via smartphone headsets. Ruins like the Temple of Venus and Rome and the Arènes de Lutèce, both located in Italy’s capital.

“It’s 360-degree 3D virtual reality,” says Young. “It really helps you to place yourself back in time […] One woman swore, she was so amazed by the experience.”

But as an archaeologist, Young also touches on what he believes to be the risk of VR in cultural sites, as the medium becomes more popular: “Some game developer in Silicon Valley who has no idea thinks, ‘Oh, a column would look great there.’ The real danger is that, because VR is such a powerful medium, if someone visits the Colosseum, they walk away with an idea that this is what it was like.”

This highlights an important point about the use of VR in heritage spaces. As well as being immersive, it must be accurate and faithful to reality; Simply using entertainment value as a way to rewrite the history books and use creative licence can open up many pitfalls.

The Open Heritage Project

This balance between entertainment and accuracy was something at the heart of the Open Heritage project – a collaboration between Google and a non-profit from Oakland, California called CyArk. Team members used VR in order to post online realistic 3D models of 26 heritage locations across 18 countries, including parts of the Roman city of Pompeii, Native American cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde in southern Colorado, and the 1000 year old Temple of Kukulcan in the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá.

But what makes the Open Heritage Project different is that its main hurdle is space, not time. The project recreates heritage sites as they stand now, rather than how they might have looked centuries or even millennia ago. Enormous effort goes into making these models as accurate as possible.

So why introduce VR to a heritage site if it isn’t to create a bridge with the past? In short, for accessibility. Many of the locations in the Open Heritage Project can be hard to visit in person, because of their remoteness or because of limits set in place by authorities. And this becomes even more difficult for people from poorer backgrounds or with disabilities. Through VR, the project is able to bring these sites directly to viewers, no matter where they are based in the world.

Coronavirus and the rise of the virtual museum

In recent months, the use of VR by heritage sites and museums has exploded, and this is largely due to the spread of the coronavirus, which has turned the world on its head. Thanks to community  or nationwide-lockdown rules, most museums have had to accommodate a period of forced closure. To counter this, many museums offered visitors virtual tours and video content through their website and social media.

When used responsibly, with accuracy at the forefront of its purpose, VR can help to build a bridge not only between the past and the present, but between the site and the visitor. And, of course, institutions around the world will be hoping that their VR efforts will also prove to be a useful marketing tool that can help to draw greater footfall in the long term – even when the short-term prospects look somewhat bleak.

Whether tackling issues of time or space, we’re likely to see increasing numbers of heritage sites and museums putting VR to good use in the next few years. Watch this virtual space.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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