While many museums offer 360-degree virtual tours nowadays with often varying degrees of success, few often go deliberately old school. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the Ayala Museum in the Philippines has done with a creative 8-bit version of the museum it has made to provide online visitors with a virtual touring experience. Named ‘Where is the Filipino?’, the virtual tour looks like an old-fashioned computer game from the 1980s with brightly coloured graphics and characters. The tour seeks to gamify the experience of a museum visit to make it as much fun as possible.
Closure and Virtual Visits
The Ayala Museum is a privately owned institution devoted to the art, culture and history of the Philippines. Located in Makati, part of the metropolitan conurbation of Manila, the museum contains numerous examples of Filipino cultural legacy. The museum is housed in a six-storey modernist building that remains closed due to the coronavirus response in the Philippines as well as some renovation work going on there. Consequently, the museum’s board wanted to offer a virtual tour that visitors could enjoy online as a part of International Museum Day 2021. What was different about their approach was a question of style. The 8-bit tour may seem old-fashioned at first glance but it manages to engage visitors with the museum’s collection surprisingly well.
Firstly, the interactive tour takes visitors around the museum in any way they choose. Visitors can explore Filipino culture as they see fit, encountering indigenous and ethnographic exhibits that catch their eye and ignoring ones that don’t. Neither is this a video presentation of a museum’s galleries where visitors are expected to simply sit and listen. Instead, the tour takes place on a two-dimensional platform known as Gather.Town. In effect, this is an online social platform that allows visitors not just to find their own way but to interact with one another. By controlling their avatar, visitors can explore the museum or stick around in one place and chat with others.
The 2-D platform was launched in 2020 as a way for office workers to interact with one another on a platform other than Zoom or MS Teams. Its developers soon found that it could be used for classes and online workshops just as well. However, few people imagined that it could be adapted to function as a virtual museum tour until that was what the Ayala Museum set out to do. Gather.Town might look like a stand-alone video game from the 1980s but it can also be used in combination with web-based video calls, so it is much more sophisticated than it might appear, a truly digital tool for the 21st century. As well as allowing users to wander around and talk to others, the platform’s creation tools mean that fully customisable maps and interactive virtual spaces can be set up. It is these tools that were utilised by the museum’s team to create the virtual version of the Ayala.
Once the creative team at the Ayala Museum realised Gather.Town allowed users to interact with other visitors as well as multimedia objects in real-time, they set about making a virtual version of the institution. There are now over a hundred different museum artefacts available to explore on the museum’s map. The tour kicks off in the Ayala Museum’s lobby. This is where a tour guide introduces the platform to novices and shows them how to navigate around the space and move into new places. What’s more, visitors can choose the avatar’s name and alter details like clothing to personalise the entire experience. Once they are up and running, virtual visitors can move their avatar and interact with objects and signs with a simple keystroke, just like many of the best video games of yesteryear. In addition, further key commands allow visitors to turn on their microphone and camera with web-based interactions if they wish to have them.
According to a statement issued by the Ayala Museum prior to the tour’s launch, the map features areas of the Philippine archipelago which are marked with various items in the Ayala Museum’s collection at places they are most associated with. The tour’s official brochure said that this approach will help users to become more familiar with the various ethno-linguistic groups that feature in the museum’s collection and their traditions. As such, the platform allows virtual visitors to explore the museum as well as the rest of the country depending on how they prefer to interact with it.
When a visitor reaches any items they’d like to explore in greater depth, they can read captions about them. More often than not these are accompanied by further photos of the artefact concerned. If a virtual exhibit has a small TV screen next to it, this means an embedded video about the object is available for guests to watch. They just need to click on it for it to play on demand. According to the museum, however, these interactive elements are only a part of what makes the virtual tour unique. This is because although online visitors can explore the map and exhibits on their own, they will be taking the tour at the same time as other people. This makes the whole experience livelier and more like a real museum visit where people necessarily interact with one another.
Another important feature of the tour is a hosted mini-game that anyone can play. In it, a host asks trivia questions concerning the exhibits and videos guests have encountered. Virtual tourists are offered multiple-choice options that they need to answer. However, the live version of the guided tour is limited to 15 visitors at a time, so this element will not be available to everyone who uses the platform to explore what the Ayala Museum has to offer.
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.