If the purpose of museums is to reflect on our reality, can virtual reality interpretation add a new and valuable dimension?
How can people experience culture in new ways? That is a question many museums are asking themselves when considering how to deepen their visitors’ engagement with exhibits.
People think they know what to expect from a trip to their local museum: they’ll walk from room to room, look at a few paintings or artefacts, perhaps read a couple of the accompanying information placards, and then head to the gift shop to buy a commemorative mug or postcard. But if museums want to contribute to the cultural conversation, rather than just showcase the cultural past, is this really enough?
As a tool to reflect and reimagine, many institutions are turning to a new and exciting medium: virtual reality.
Virtual reality installations certainly make people consider art, history and science in new ways. Want to know how the Mona Lisa was painted? Virtual reality can show you the entire history of that iconic painting. Want a tour through Modigliani’s studio? VR can do that as well. These installations sell themselves by bringing exhibits to life in an entertaining and immersive way, all while raising footfall and funds for the museum.
But VR installations are not without their challenges and drawbacks. How can museums utilise this potentially revolutionary technology in a meaningful, successful way?
How is virtual reality being used in museums?
There have been many highly successful VR exhibits in recent years, in museums across the globe. Their success illustrates the potential power and impact of VR technology.
In 2017, the VR installation entitled The Enemy opened at the MIT Museum in Massachusetts. Part art installation, part journalism, The Enemy was developed by Belgian-Tunisian war correspondent Karim Ben Khelifa as a way to help people understand war in a deeper way than they would by simply reading about it in an article, or watching a news report.
By donning VR headsets, visitors would come face to face with combatants (the titular ‘enemies’) from one of three war zones: in Israel and Palestine, in the Mara in Salvador, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Visitors were then asked one of the six questions the combatants were asked when they were filmed for the installation, which included “What is peace for you?’ and ‘Who is your enemy, and why?’
Hearing their testimony and seeing their body language gave visitors an opportunity to understand the mindset of people who have been defined by war and violence, and observe the real consequences of war. The Enemy was widely accepted to be a powerful and thought-provoking piece that used technological innovation to challenge visitors.
The Louvre in Paris used virtual reality to help visitors gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of one of its most beloved masterpieces. Since 20,000 people visit the Mona Lisa every day, seeing the famous artwork in person can often prove an underwhelming experience, surrounded as she is by crowds of amateur photographers, and set back behind a layer of protective glass.
Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass enabled visitors to get up close and personal with the painting as never before, seeing brushstrokes that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye, highlighting the techniques used by Leonardo da Vinci in its creation, and revealing the identity of the sitter. This experience gave visitors a greater sense of connection to the painting, making it more than a mere icon. In many ways we can VR as a tool for disruption, helping to peel back our preconceived ideas and challenging us to see things from a different perspective.
Virtual reality is also a useful tool for museums wanting to increase their reach. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the most famous galleries in the world, but not everyone has the time, money or ability to visit its collection. The Met 360 Project is a series of six videos that allow viewers to see the museum’s art and architecture from their own homes.
The viewer is guided through the museum from different angles, which includes a bird’s eye view that not even visiting the museum would provide. They can get much closer to the exhibits than is usually possible, seeing individual cracks in a marble statue and the minute details of an intricately decorated suit of armour, without having to elbow their way through any crowds. Through VR, the experience of standing in a deserted Met for hours on end is available to all.
Is virtual reality a positive trend for museums?
All the exhibits mentioned above show how VR installations can give new meaning to artworks and narratives we think we understand. They grant viewers a hitherto unimaginable experience, regardless of location or physical limitations, challenging perceptions of what a museum can and can’t do in the process.
Museums like the Louvre have used VR for educational purposes; to further highlight the work of old masters (to great effect), but as an art medium in and of itself, VR offers huge potential for experimentation and play. Over the coming years we can expect a greater number of artists to experiment with this technology as a technique for entertaining, informing and even shocking people.
Are there limitations to what VR can achieve?
Of course, no medium is without its limitations, and VR is no exception.
The hardware required for a VR installation is large, cumbersome, and expensive. It would therefore be impossible to stage a successful VR show for a crowd of hundreds or thousands at one time. VR artists and the museums who work with them are thus forced to rely on video platforms like YouTube and mobile apps to share their work with a wider audience.
While virtual reality projects may be immersive, informative and engaging, they are also, at heart, an artificial experience. Seeing how the Mona Lisa was painted is interesting, but it only works as an accompaniment to the painting. So, can VR be said to be a truly engaging artistic experience? That’s up for debate, but it can help museums to move the needle on what engagement through innovation might look like over the coming years.
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.