The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has announced that it will stage a major virtual reality (VR) event in the museum to support of one of its new exhibitions. Due to take place in 2021, ‘Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser’ is a much-anticipated exhibition for which tickets have now gone on sale. To promote the show in a world which still faces many social restrictions that limit visitor numbers at museums and galleries, the V&A’s management team decided that the use of VR is the best way to engage a public which – at the moment, at least – is largely experiencing major institutions through their computers.
It rather begs the question of what Lewis Carroll, the man who wrote about Alice’s famous adventures in a subterranean Wonderland, would make of the use of such technology. After all, many of Alice’s encounters with the characters in the book pose metaphysical and sometimes nonsensical questions about the nature of reality as it is usually perceived. Perhaps the use of VR is the very thing for a major exhibition that is devoted to the story, rather like following the white rabbit down the proverbial virtual hole?
Although Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865, it has remained at the forefront of the public’s imagination, not least because it has been adapted into stage plays and films so many times. That said, the VR Wonderland the V&A has come up with takes the story up a level in terms of adapting it for a truly modern audience.
The VR event has come about thanks to the V&A partnering with HTC VIVE Arts and a game development studio known as PRELOADED. The museum said that it wanted its partners to help it to host a truly immersive event which would include a curator presentation, visual effects that played out in real-time as well as wanting to offer a unique exhibition preview to promote it. Following the development phase of the project, the V&A has now announced that numerous digital activities will be available to audiences with VR smart devices. Crucially, the VR exhibit will be open to anyone, regardless of where they live in the world thanks to the use of internet connectivity.
A Far-Reaching Project
Victoria Chang, director of VIVE Arts at HTC said that the aim was to bring the fantasy and imagination of Carroll’s book to audiences across the globe ahead of the exhibition’s expected opening next year. “The unprecedented circumstances of this year have shown just how technology can be deployed to inspire us,” she said. “We are proud to support the V&A,” she added. Chang went on to say that she thought it was great for an organisation like hers to help the V&A to further its mission in making the museum more accessible in the current climate. “[We are] using bold new models to transform how art and culture are experienced,” she said.
Nevertheless, the project has shied away from only being accessible to people with the right sort of VR equipment. To optimise their reach to the public, the V&A decided that its content should be available to people via its YouTube channel. Therefore, anyone can view a video of a session that was recorded live to get a flavour of what is going on. For the full VR experience, however, the public will need to use VR headsets through a virtual reality platform, known as ENGAGE.
A Virtual Wonderland
The exhibition’s curator, Kate Bailey, said that she approved of the idea of making the preview events accessible to audiences whether or not they had access to a VR headset. Her show, which is due to open in March 2021, is expected to now get much more attention as interest in the VR previews begins to ramp up. Indeed, it seems as though the subject matter of the exhibition and the technology being used to preview it go hand in hand.
“From rabbit holes to mirrors and from flamingos to hedgehogs,” Bailey said, “Wonderland is the ideal thing for VR to explore.” Bailey went on to say that she was delighted that the V&A had pioneered its first ever VR event to promote her exhibition. However, the story does not end there because there is more the V&A is planning to do with the technology.
Following the aforementioned preview events, which are due to begin from late October, ‘Curious Alice’, another VR experience will become available. This is based on the specially commissioned illustrations produced by Kristjana S. Williams. The Icelandic artist was commissioned to illustrate the exhibition’s official publication, and the VR show will include enriched animations as well as some extra scenes and additional narrative elements. Unlike the VR previews, however, there will be a charge for Curious Alice.
Finally, VR will be included in the exhibition itself when it opens. ‘A Curious Game of Croquet’ will afford visitors the chance to take part in a VR version of the game. It may just be like a trip into Wonderland itself if the V&A is able to get the tone right. Many visitors are already waiting to see for themselves.
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.