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The people behind museums: Kaitlin Fritz and Olga Kravchenko, Musemio

Musemio is a digital platform with a clear mission to help children explore culture through immersive quests. Founded in 2018 by Kaitlin Fritz and Olga Kravchenko, it has been a whirlwind three years for the fast-growing business, which is now working on museum and education projects around the world.

Musemio’s founders took time out of their hectic schedule to chat with MuseumNext in the latest instalment of our “People Behind Museums” feature. We wanted to find out more about their virtual reality platform and their journey in business to date.

“I fell in love with arts at a really young age,” says Kaitlin when asked to reflect on her own inspiration for founding Musemio. “But it probably wasn’t really until I went to university to study art history that I was fully exposed to museums and galleries. Coming to art as an adult I couldn’t help thinking that there were barriers that made it difficult for some people to access this world. That thought just stuck with me and I knew there had to be a way to make art more accessible . . . I just didn’t know how until I met Olga!”

Kaitlin and Olga first met at a University of London-wide hackathon where they discovered a shared passion for engaging young audiences with art and culture. At the time, Olga had already built a prototype museum game known as Museum 2.0.

Kaitlin continues, “The combination of Olga’s game and my own education background enabled us to blend our ideas together into what is now Musemio.”

With a background in visual arts and exhibition production, Olga’s deep interest in immersive experiences and, in particular, the potential of Virtual Reality (VR) helped her to develop her own thoughts around an effective museum solution for children.

She says, “VR was still relatively unexplored in the museum space in 2018 when Kaitlin and I met. Often they were only available to institutions through partnerships with big tech companies. Google Arts and Culture was in its early stages and those museums trying to experiment in VR were seeing big challenges in terms of exhibition management, device maintenance and security.”

Seeing that many exhibitions were struggling to seamlessly integrate VR and immersive experiences, Olga focused much of her research during her masters at King’s College and energies on trying to understand how VR could achieve its objectives within museums. She continues,

“One of the key questions I wanted to explore was how technology-led experiences could co-exist with exhibitions in their real-life forms rather than forming their own ‘attractions’. Too often these can be a bit gimmicky.

“What we are trying to achieve through Musemio is to take children on an educational adventure that builds on the stories within museum collections. Since Kaitlin and I first came together to found the company we’ve tested with children all over the world, getting the feedback and input of more than 3,000 kids with the support of accelerators and UCL’s Institute of Education.

“We’ve also taken the time to understand and check how children react to Virtual Reality – how they reflect on what they see and how they process the information that they are given during these immersive experiences. And we have developed our own movement style to prevent kids from feeling dizzy or disorientated.”

Musemio is unique in that is it’s not providing a VR tour of the museum, but rather a gamified experience that includes interactions, challenges and puzzles to highlight the key narratives of the collection. And, unlike many of the most well-known forms of VR – such as Google Arts and Culture – Musemio does not use the point-to-point teleportation model. Instead, the young audience navigate the environments within the experience in a smoother, less disorientating way. Olga says,

“We want to know that the digital experiences we create actually help children to understand and interpret collections when they then visit collections or exhibitions in person. We always want to make interactivity a key feature inside the experience so that the user is expanding their knowledge. Plus, we are catering for small children and we know that there needs to be stimulation every 6–7 seconds in order to hold their attention.

“Rather than trying to replace the museum, we want to enhance and complement it. Not many of the early immersive experiences and VR tours genuinely succeeded in helping museums with long-term engagement.”

Kaitlin adds,

“We are a cultural education platform. Musemio is about taking those enriching stories from the museum and scaffolding them in a way that allows young users to learn – distilling interesting and complex themes into bite-sized, gamified adventures. We need to situate them back into an appropriate context so that kids can understand and interpret them effectively.”

Tech bedded in research

As you might expect from a platform developed for the schools and family audiences, Musemio’s journey to date has involved working in partnership with institutions like Royal Museums Greenwich.

Described by Olga as “curriculum-led” but not mapped strictly to classroom lessons, the beauty of Musemio is that it allows young minds to explore periods of history or topics of learning across a range of school subjects. As Kaitlin explains, “Children can appreciate the geography, the history and the art of a topic like Ancient Egypt broadly. But the intention of the immersive experiences is still to tap into the whimsy, excitement and fun that characterises those pre-teen years.”

While the pandemic has undoubtedly presented a range of challenges for the Musemio team with the entire workforce moving to a remote model overnight, Kaitlin says that, as a tech business, the pandemic period has without question presented the business with its share of opportunities.

“During the early lockdowns of 2020, we saw many of the museums we were working with closing. That caused significant delays in some of the projects we were working on. But with more people homeschooling we have seen in increase in interest in Musemio in other areas. We’ve found ourselves partnering with libraries and different organisations to get valuable educational content into the home.

“We were also fortunate enough to receive funding from Innovate UK, which allowed us to re-platform Musemio so that it wasn’t limited to hardware.”

Now heading up a team of 7 and expanding quickly to meet the demand from the museum sector, the future is bright for Kaitlin and Olga. Although, the two joke that running a tech business of this nature isn’t entirely conducive to a good work–life balance – “I don’t think we’ve had a single break for most of the last year”, quips Olga – Musemio is certainly building itself a strong reputation.

Indeed 3 of the team were actually added during the pandemic: a great achievement at a time when so many businesses across a range of sectors are being forced to lay off employees

Not satisfied with only working on the development of the Musemio platform, however, Kaitlin and Olga have also used the last 12 months to host two digital summits called Culture Reimagined. Through these events, which attracted more than 700 delegates, the Musemio team have been able to share the tangible insights from their work and discuss best practice with others in the sector.

Developing digital tools for all museums

While there is a growing understanding within the museum community of the value of immersive technologies in delivering content and enhancing exhibitions, Olga suggests that many smaller institutions are often deterred from investing in VR experiences because of the perceived costs and challenges of the technology:

“It’s true that most organisations that have historically experimented with VR have been large museums with substantial resources. I think a lot of smaller institutions have struggled to see where they fit and how they can amplify their collections in an immersive way. But this is one of the gaps that we are hoping to close. We are releasing a guide, or a playbook, to help museums of all shapes and sizes understand where they are on this journey and how they can build low-cost prototypes or test innovative ideas in a cost-effective way. And, with our platform museums can develop immersive for less than £15K.”

Kaitlin adds,

“What we’ve seen developing is a more open, curious audience for VR, AR and XR in recent months. We’ve seen the steady development in the narrative around these technologies that’s beginning to dispel some of the myths that had previously surrounded them. We’re also seeing institutions developing their understanding of how immersive experiences might play a role in future monetisation models, international engagement and ways to tap into learning programmes.”

As the Musemio team look towards the future, Olga says she is particularly excited about the rapid development of AR for applications both on-site and in the home:

“Where this technology is heading is to create tools that enable the physical experience in the museum (once that is possible again, post-Covid) and continue that experience when they return home. Or, alternatively, museums may look to on-board users onto the experience at home in anticipation of a physical visit.

“I think there is a lot of value in creating this dialogue between the spaces and how they shift our perceptions of museums as a rare treat into something that can be experienced regularly, either in real life or through virtual delivery.”

The key, both agree, is to change the preconceived idea that immersive experience and digital content is designed to replace the museum experience. Instead, they speak passionately about how platforms like Musemio have the ability to complement, enhance and deepen the museum experience for people – in this case, children.

Paving the way for women in tech

Speaking on the support they’ve received since Musemio was first founded, Kaitlin says,

“As two female founders entering the entrepreneurship space from an Arts background rather than a more traditional business or management background, having access to partners and mentors through the programmes we’ve been part of has really helped us to flourish, grow and develop over the last three years.

“Whether it’s been Google’s Female Founder Residency, the Sky Women in Technology scholarship or Bethnal Green Ventures, which helped us to secure pre-seed funding, we’ve been very fortunate to be surrounding by good people who’ve helped us to level up our company, business structure and, of course, our product and experiences.”

As two female tech business leaders, Kaitlin also says that it has been gratifying to see a shift in the narrative around women in STEAM, even in just the last 3 years. Kaitlin suggests that both her and Olga have embraced their responsibility as women who can help to accelerate and advance that change:

“Olga and I are passionate about changing the dialogue and changing what it means to be a woman in tech today.”

Olga adds,

“We’ve spoken to many women who are now considering a career in the tech or innovation space. And what I typically advise is that nobody should really focus on tech for tech’s sake. Instead, working in STEM or innovation is a powerful enabler for people to simply pursue their passion or bright idea.”

The result of this incredible story is that the two have been named in Forbes Art & Culture 30 under 30 list for 2021. Such a commendation comes from many, many hours of hard work. And it is a sure sign that we can expect big things from Musemio in the future.

You can find out more about Kaitlin and Olga by visiting the Musemio website here.

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