MuseumNext sits down with Tilman Thürmer, Design Director and Vice President of the Shanghai Museum of Glass, to find out how the museum is taking its visitors on a cultural adventure into the digital realm.
The Shanghai Museum of Glass (SHMOG) is considered to be one of the most important private, non-profit cultural institutions in China. Over the past 12 years it has built a reputation for its unique approach to audience engagement, offering what the museum calls a “rich tapestry of art, design, science and innovation”.
And in SHMOG NXT – a virtual experience that utilises game engines and AI-backed programming to deliver virtual exhibitions – it will continue to embrace and reflect its audience’s highly-digitised lifestyles when the project launches in May 2023.
“There is perhaps not such a sharp line between commerce and culture here in China,” says the museum’s Design Director and Vice President, Tilman Thürmer. So, in some respects we compete more directly with shopping malls, entertainment venues and other attractions, as well as just other museums. This means we perhaps need to embrace change and adopt new technologies earlier than we might otherwise.
“Shanghai’s audience is also very picky and keen to see new, innovative and exciting things in their free time. This is particularly true of the under-25 age group.”
As part of the museum’s remit of appealing to a young, tech-savvy and forward-thinking audience, SHMOG has placed significant emphasis on extending into the metaverse – something which will follow soon after the on-site launch of SHMOG NXT.
Designed to offer an “engaging yet educational cultural adventure”, SHMOG NXT delivers an interactive experience to visitors across its 50,000 square metre “phygital” exhibition space. Importantly, this is not prescribed interactivity but instead leaves room for freedom and creativity as visitors explore the physical and digital spaces of the museum.
Tilman says, “The first step is to integrate immersive elements into our physical museum – to create an extended museum experience, really.”
By transcending the limitations of the physical realm, SHMOG NXT aims to provide truly immersive environments for storytelling and visitor guidance. This elevation of reality with the aid of technological solutions is an exciting first step into a digital future that cultural institutions are only beginning to scratch the surface of.
From the stunning main exhibition hall to the Lab, SHMOG NXT combines physical artworks with virtual versions of multimedia exhibits and brand new immersive experiences to produce a layered, non-linear experience full of wonder and potential.
Once in the digital space, visitors are assigned an avatar and given freedom to roam – interacting with the artworks, other visitors and truly immerse themselves in the meticulously recreated museum space.
Virtual experiences with purpose
One aspect that Tilman is keen to reflect on is the emphasis that has been placed on developing a smooth and seamless transition between the physical and digital realms.
“The motivation was not to try to act on a digital trend for the sake of it. Instead, we’ve observed how visitors explore our museum and we see many younger people navigate physical and virtual worlds with the same ease and freedom. For that reason it feels natural to extend our real-life environment into the digital.
Interestingly, recreating glass in the virtual world is something of a challenge in itself. Hand modelling of each artwork was required in the creation of SHMOG NXT, due to the fact that 3D scanning does not work on a reflective surface like glass. Nevertheless, the technology utilised in creating SHMOG NXT is impressive – powered by Unreal Engine 5.1, which is said to be the world’s most advanced real-time 3D creation tool for photorealistic visuals and immersive experiences. Tilman explains,
“There has been a big technological leap in recent years in the development of game engines and AI tools, which have made the development of this project possible. As things get smoother and faster, the quality of the experiences we can achieve gets higher. We are also moving towards being able to do what we want to do; not what the tools and technologies limit us to.”
A new way to look at things
“Our museum revolves around a certain material – and quite a complex one – in glass,” says Tilman. “And our in real life exhibitions are very physical. After all, glass making is a very physical procedure and our exhibits are all very tactile and tangible. So, the transfer of this into the digital world may sound like a strange one. But it actually gives us the opportunity to show artworks became what they are.”
A prime example of this is the installation which places visitors in a sandpit before heat turns the sand into glass before the glass is then broken again. Tilman says,
“It makes it much easier to create an experience, rather than simply read about the chemical process. We’ve chosen to only use effects where it serves a genuine educational purpose.”
Asked what the museum team have learned so far about the creation of a phygital museum is that “Planning exhibitions in the digital realm gives us greater flexibility in curation and space adoption. We can combine exhibits and draw connections between artworks in ways that are more restricted in the physical world.”
In case of immersion, break glass
One particularly interesting application of the museum’s immersive extended reality experience can be seen in the reimagining of the Arribas Brothers Fantasy Castle. Back in May 2020 the stunning yet fragile artwork was damaged by two children who hit the artwork as they were running through the exhibition.
Having chosen to keep the piece on display in its damaged form within the physical museum, SHMOG NXT serves to take this particular turn of events one step further, by crafting a new chapter to the story in the digital realm.
Tilman explains, “When the Fantasy Castle was damaged we saw this as an opportunity to not only tell the story of the artwork but also provide education around the importance of protecting and preserving exhibits. As it turns out, leaving it on display made it even more popular – particularly with parents looking to warn their children about the dangers of being unruly.
“In the digital museum, we are able to take this story further. In the virtual experience, visitors are told to take care around the castle but then we tempt them closer and the digital recreation of the castle shatters.
“That direct link to what happened in the physical museum is part of what makes the story and our storytelling technique so interesting, I think. We didn’t want to create a digital world that had no connection to the real world. So, by replicating the Fantasy Castle and having it smashed in the virtual space we can generate a sense that what happens in that environment is still consequential.
Tilman suggests that it is this theme of consequence and meaning that will inform SHMOG’s next phase of digital development as it moves NXT fully into the metaverse. He says,
“In this phase one we are delivering experiences that still have physical touch points and stations on site at the museum. But the step after that will be creating a fully accessible at-home museum experience.”
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