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How Are Museums Putting the AR into Arts and Culture

children looking at augmented reality dinosaur

The Gartner Hype Cycle has long been applied to a range of innovations and technologies. Whether the cycle takes place over a matter of months or even decades, the same principles are borne out, time and again.

As anyone familiar with the five phases will know, the Hype Cycle entails:

  1. An innovation trigger
  2. A peak of inflated expectations
  3. A trough of disillusionment
  4. The slope of enlightenment
  5. The plateau of productivity

While there’s plenty of room for speculation about where on this particular graph AR currently resides – be it working its way out of the trough or even moving beyond the plateau – there’s one thing that most of us can agree on: that the events of 2020 have accelerated that progress.

It’s arguable that the inflated expectations for AR peaked in 2016 as a result of the Pokemon Go craze that swept through countries around the world. Who can forget the news footage in the summer of 2016 as huge crowds of gamers converged on central park in New York in search of a rare Pokemon?

While many in the museum sector saw great crossover potential and an appetite for applications in arts and culture, there’s no doubt that the technology has also experienced its share of disillusionment since 2016 and that widespread adoption didn’t follow in short order.

Nevertheless, the last 5 years have given curators and programming teams the opportunity to experiment with AR and explore different ways to enhance and complement the traditional in-person experience.  Without the hardware investment required of Virtual Reality, this more straightforward and less costly approach can make use of the hardware already in a visitor’s pocket – smartphones.  With the simple download of an app, scanning of a QR code or similar entry point, AR can be incorporated into any museum experience or virtual visit.  And it is this feature that has now made augmented reality particularly appealing as institutions look towards their own post-Covid futures.

In an environment where contactless visitor experiences are in demand across ticketing, shop purchases, guided tours and exhibition experiences, the value of AR in supporting both in-person visits and contributing to online content is almost certainly set to grow.

In fact, the pandemic has served to accelerate AR to such an extent that it has now officially left Gartner’s hype cycle – making more ground in the last 18 months than it perhaps has in the previous 5 years. By this methodology, the conclusion we can draw is that AR is now considered to be in a mature state. Or to use Gartner’s own explanation it has graduated from a “technology to watch” to “one to use”.

Augmenting the reality of a museum  

For those less familiar with AR and its sibling technology VR, it’s worth a quick recap of the difference between the two. Some of the confusion between virtual and augmented reality is logical.  It’s still relatively new technology in terms of its everyday application in public settings and as the technologies develop, there is often some element of overlap, which takes us into the realms of using the umbrella term: XR.

The main difference lies in the delivery.  Augmented reality should be considered as an ‘alternate’ version of reality whereas VR is a completely immersive experience designed to take the user away from their present reality to somewhere completely different.  It is the ‘alternate’ version of reality that makes AR more flexible when considered as part of a museums suite of engagement tools.  AR can add new layers to what the user can already see, thereby helping deliver one of the main goals of any museum’s output – a layered experience to see, hear and feel.

For museums, the extra layer that of AR represents an additional dimension in which it is possible to provide complementary or supplementary information, new ideas, experiences and interactive elements.  For example, museums can use AR technology to help visitors see how a dinosaur skeleton might have looked as a living, breathing animal through the lens of a smartphone. Or how about viewing a painting in person but also being able to access a 3D visualisation of the artist talking directly about the work using AR.

Whereas VR is about immersing visitors in a different world in which the exhibition exists, AR exists to enhance engagement through better understanding, greater access to information and digital tools to bring a subject into the visitor’s present reality.

Bringing the AR to ART

The Akron Art Museum in Ohia, USA, is one much lauded example of how AR can be used in a playful and community-focused way to help local residents access public art during the recent Covid-19 shutdown.  Although the idea was actually dreamt up pre-Covid, the museums use of AR in the launch of Interplay: Art Play for All created the perfect lockdown activity for the 200,000 inhabitants of Akron.

The art gallery installed a range of freely available art posters throughout the city, enabling members of the public to interact with each piece of art using a QR code.  Once scanned into a tablet or smartphone, each poster offers up different ways of interacting with the art on display.  For example, the poster by Akron artist, Adana Tillman, allows users to play with elements of the original design to transform the final artwork and allow the public to use their own creativity and blend it with the artistic displays created by Tillman.

Interplay: Art Play for All has proved to be an engaging way to offer up a public-platform to experience AR technology in the arts.  It proved a welcome respite for culture-starved residents looking for ways to keep themselves entertained during the repeated lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.  Moreover, the fusion of technology and art showcased how creativity can be incorporated into AR to create a two-way sharing of information and ingenuity.

Further South, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach in Florida, has also launched a new AR app to help open up its art collection to visitors.  Known as Norton Art+, the app will be available to anyone wishing to explore the art work of the museum using the AR format but will be delivered through tablets loaned to visitors as part of the entrance fee.

Although not necessarily conceived as a way to create new virtual entry points into the collection of the Norton Museum of Art for non-visitors, the app instead aims to enhance the visitor experience through a novel form of technology and focuses initially on a select number of artworks, including ‘Soundsuit’ by Nick Cave and ‘MOONRISE. East. April’ by Ugo Rondinone

Like in Akron, the app utilises AR technology to encourage users to fuse their own creativity with the displayed artwork and interact with pieces.  It encourages users to play with textures or alter expressions of a sculpture’s face as well as move the piece to new settings to see how it can change the artwork itself.

It is hoped that Norton Art+ will help encourage greater engagement with contemporary art pieces and modern art in general – particularly amongst younger visitors.  By transforming the gallery experience with augmented reality technology, it has helped developed an interaction with the piece that is not always possible in traditional gallery settings.

Black History and AR technology

In 2020, the global drive to increase awareness of the significance of Black history has inspired a new way of helping Black voices be heard in society.  The Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health (BLAM) charity is a British organisation dedicated to history education and improving mental health through the UK’s primary and secondary schools.

To assist in their mission, they developed a unique AR app exploring the lives of key figures in black history that had been overlooked or misunderstood in terms of their contribution. Called History Bites, the app uses AR to present virtual statues of historical black figures in key locations as well as present information about their lives and achievements to help redress what BLAM feel is the omission of black figures and their contribution to history in the national curriculum.

It is hoped by using AR to create digital representations of key figures, users can engage with black history in a more accessible and digital format and hopefully opening up opportunities to learn more.  Although traditionally delivered in school settings, BLAM’s initiative served to accommodate the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 in the UK.  London design studio Landmrk created the app on behalf of BLAM to deliver the narratives associated with black history without detracting from the message with gimmicky or unusual technology.  The app is freely available to download and offers a blend of forward-thinking digital technology with a strong educational grounding to balance a need to both engage and inform.

Bringing AR to the ‘Gram

While museums have been successfully deploying AR technology across exhibitions for a number of years now, Instagram is using its own existing AR technology to help broaden access and improve visitor engagement on behalf of museums worldwide.  Less of a bespoke feature and more of a broadening of its use, Instagram’s Spark AR platform was launched to help brands utilise AR tech in enhancing the customer experience to drive social-led sales. The flexibility of the technology has allowed Instagram to deliver a universal software solution to arts and culture organisations interested in exploring AR through 3rd party platforms.

Spark AR has traditionally been used to create filters for beauty and cosmetics companies to allow customers to effectively ‘try on’ products and looks using the in-app camera function.  Applying this to museum settings has allowed the likes of the Palace of Versailles, Grand Palais and Smithsonian to offer AR functionality to millions of users through Instagram.  The AR feature supports a close-up look of museum content and displays by accessing the museum Instagram profile and using the camera from its effects section.  It allows users to virtually visit museums (particularly useful during the current lockdown situation) or enhance an in-person experience by drawing AR-led additional information and angles that may not be possible.  All that is required Is an Instagram account to obtain an up close and personal look at the various content displayed throughout partnership museums.

The potential global application of Spark AR through the Instagram worldwide user base makes this a more universal example of AR for museums through a 3rd party application. Where it is restricted is in the level of access offered by museum partners to the likes of Instagram (owned by Facebook).  Currently the number of exhibits available is limited and with museums more than likely looking to retain control over their own AR-led offerings in future, it is unlikely that we will see a full opening up of all exhibits and collections to receive the AR treatment via Instagram in future.

For now, however, the option to use Spark has created virtual access to museums using AR tech at a time when closures threated to close off access to visitors for an indefinite period of time.  It might be AR light when it comes to the number of museums and exhibits available, but it’s a step in the right direction for a sector still settling into the right way to balance AR with the expectations of a visitor base it can’t wait to welcome back in full.

Want to learn more about advancements in digital technologies and the roles that AR, VR and other innovations are likely to shape the future of museums? Don’t forget to sign up for this summer’s Culture Geek virtual conference.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now splits his time between delivering consultancy, innovation workshops and keynote presentations.

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