Naturally, the museum domain has always been quite traditional, as its focus is on treasures of the past. However, in today’s world, dominated by digital stimulation and a growing addiction to screens, museums are fighting for relevance, especially with the younger generation. Museums have accepted and embraced technology, based on the understanding that the way people interact with displays has been transformed, which necessitates an adaptation in the concept and nature of displays. This has also been driven by public demand for immersive experiences, the decline of VR content costs and new user-friendly VR creation tools.
The need to engage more visitors could receive strong support from Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), and many museums are opening their gates to this trend. VR and AR can widen public access to the museum’s valuable assets by bringing these assets to life. A 3D tour can help connect visitors with the exhibit, assist them to absorb the information, and revive the display. In historical exhibitions, for instance, it can serve to communicate the reality of ancient times and humanize the displays. Surprisingly, VR tours don’t appeal just to younger people but also strongly entices audiences over 60.
VR can also provide a new kind of access to the exhibition, for people who are limited or disabled, and can’t visit the display in person. Google Art & Culture app, for instance, provides VR tours to anyone with a headset to experience a variety of museums and historical sites worldwide.
And it’s not just bringing people with limitations to the art, but also bringing art that is inaccessible to the people. Works that usually lie in the darkness of archives and cold storage rooms for lack of available display space can finally see the digital light of day. Curators are no longer limited by space, distance, transportation cost, mobility or robustness of the pieces. Entire schools from England can now visit a museum in Thailand without even leaving their seats. Accessibility is the name of the game.
Building virtual reality tours can be costly for museums, which often rely on municipal or national budgets. Most projects are funded by technology giants; companies such as HTC have stepped in and initiated VIVE arts, which supports and develops VR exhibits and content for museums and cultural enterprises. Fortunately, the growing public demand for integration of advanced technologies in museums, the gradual decrease in the prices of 360 cameras and editing software as well as the availability of friendly tools for building and hosting VR experiences for very reasonable costs indicates a brighter and more digitized future for museums. This will help them easily create exciting new experiences for their visitors, young and old alike.
VR has a richness of applications for museums, the most popular being a 3D tour of a gallery that can be experienced through a web browser on a mobile phone or a VR headset. At the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, in a permanent VR installation at the museum, visitors can explore links between different species and view animals in close-up, simulating the real life experience of an animal. The museum features a space with 5 permanent VR devices and is building a sea diving simulation using VR.
In London’s Tate Modern museum, VR has been integrated into the Modigliani show, allowing visitors to experience Modigliani’s studio in Paris. The studio was recreated from photographs, historical records and data, and the imagination of the team. In London’s Somerset house, there’s an exhibition about Bjork that uses VR to let visitors experience her music from inside her mouth as she sings or on a deserted Iceland beach. This level of engagement would have been impossible using traditional mechanisms.
For centuries, the museum has been a well-ordered territory where curators designed and staged the exhibits, and visitors experienced them according to preset rules. Now things seem less definitive. At the MOMA, for instance, a few artists have virtually hacked the Jackson Pollock Gallery, creating the MOMAR app which virtually remixes paintings, replaces them or makes them interactive.
Elsewhere, an initiative called Cuseum aimed to virtually restore stolen artworks to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Owing to the museum’s less-than-enthusiastic approach, the project was frozen, although there wasn’t any legal issue with it, as it broke no laws and didn’t harm the museum’s activity or property. Virtual trespassing is still a fuzzy concept – the law is still inexplicit about the legal boundaries of AR and VR, not specifying whether it’s acceptable to position a virtual experience on private property.
These initiatives challenge the elite culture of museums, under which only a select few determine what will be displayed and how, and allows greater degree of involvement by other audiences who can help shape the experience of the museum. It also raises potent questions about the museum’s ownership of its virtual space, the status of the public’s role in the space, and the pros and cons of non-regulated virtual intervention.
While some fear the possibility of VR rendering museums obsolete, most agree that these technological advancements are here to enhance the experience and not replace it. In any case, VR and AR tours open up so many new channels, experiences and ideas that many believe these technologies will soon become as indispensable to museums as their official websites.
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