Augmented reality (AR) technologies have been used in museum contexts before but now the approach has been utilised by one of the world’s biggest social media platforms, Instagram. The tech giant, which is owned by Facebook, has teamed up with the Smithsonian Institute in the United States to bring AR to its millions of global users. As well as the Smithsonian, Instagram will make its in-app camera function with some of the exhibits currently on display at the Palace of Versailles as well as the Grand Palais, both in Paris.
The AR feature will mean that Instagram’s account holders can obtain a close look of all sorts of museum content and displays. All users have to do is to access the app’s camera from the effects section of each of the museums’ Instagram profiles. Not all of these museums’ exhibits will be accessible via the augmented technology but some of their most famous ones will. A good example is the Discovery Space Shuttle that is in the collection of the Smithsonian. It can now be viewed by virtual museum visitors in all of its AR glory. There is also a much-viewed triceratops skeleton that the Smithsonian owns which has been given the same AR treatment in its social media profile.
A Sparky Approach
The digital effects are possible because of Instagram’s much-vaunted Spark AR platform. In the past, this has allowed beauty and cosmetic brands to generate AR experiences for would-be customers, effectively meaning people could come up with their filters to try out different looks. It is hoped that Spark will allow a growing number of AR exhibits to be shown to the public and to create a new channel for virtual visitors to access museum collections in a way that would otherwise be impossible.
The AR content is not only available globally, thereby potentially reaching a much wider audience than the museums concerned would be able to reach, but it allows people to enjoy content in a much more hands-on way than would even be possible if they were to visit in person. This is because the social media content that has thus far been selected would not be available to so many people during a time of social distancing when visitor numbers – even where they are allowed at all – are severely restricted.
Instagram has also gone on the record to state that the AR platform allows users to get a much closer look at the featured exhibits because they can use the Instagram camera to alter the perspective at will. For example, Instagram users can use Spark to zoom in or out and to do so at multiple angles for each exhibit, thereby allowing them to explore in a very natural way.
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The Wider Uptake of AR
At the moment, the Palace of Versailles only has one exhibit that users can enjoy using the technology, its famous Fountain of Apollo. That said, more exhibits could be added in the fullness of time. The Grand Palais, on the other hand, has made a modest part of its statue collection available through Spark. Located on the Champs-Élysées, the Grand Palais has well over half a million Instagram followers while the Palace of Versailles has in excess of 850,000 users following its account.
While the move to connect AR technology to the museum sector is not new, the role of a big social media platform, such as Instagram, in this field is likely to be of interest to the digital marketing teams of many institutions. Earlier in 2020, Google’s Arts & Culture app went into partnership with the Natural History Museum in London to bring AR to some of its prehistoric displays. The same technology has also been deployed at the State Darwin Museum in Moscow. In the United States, another popular social media platform, Snapchat, has said that it has teamed up with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to create AR artworks that can be viewed remotely.
Interested in how museums are using the latest technology? We’ll be hearing how museums around the role have pivoted to digital during the pandemic at the MuseumNext Digital Summit. Find out more about the event and get your tickets here.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.