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Museums and Virtual Reality

For many in the museum sector, 2020 was a year of forced digital experimentation and rapid acceleration to online delivery formats.  With the lack of footfall caused by the Covid-19 lockdowns affecting arts and culture organisations across the globe, museums have been working hard to share stories, collections and objects at breakneck speed in a bid to maintain relevance and retain value in the eyes of their audience.

With so much of the mid-pandemic discussion focused on encouraging engagement through greater use of digital platforms, is it possible that some of the longer-term advancements in technology to enhance the visitor experience might have been sacrificed in favour of short-term survival?  Now, with vaccine programmes being rolled out at pace and the museum sector preparing to welcome visitors once more, how can we expect institutions to wow their audiences and remind them just what they’ve been missing? The answer could lie in virtual reality.

Opening up the first-person narrative

Virtual reality (VR) technology has never been more accessible.  From at-home gaming to marketing-led sales experiences, the deployment of virtual reality across a wide range of new and innovative platforms has created endless potential for the arts and culture sector.  Used in the right way, it’s clear that virtual reality can bring exhibits to life in a new and immersive way.  By bringing visitors into the first-person narrative of a collection, VR offers an experiential tool for museum curators interested in digital amplification and a deeper sensory event.

It is this amplification that makes VR such an attractive technology to museums. And the fact that it can have applications both on-site and at home gives it the flexibility to have impact in the “new normal”. While that clichéd term is yet to become entirely clear, one thing that most professionals within the sector are confident of is that pandora’s box has been well and truly opened – and digital is here to stay.

VR offers a myriad of advantages to museums.  By drawing an audience into a collection, exhibit or experience in a deeply visual way, they gain the ability to explore their subject matter in new and inventive ways; providing context to objects and breaking down the barriers that – like it or not – exist in real life, where exhibits are often protected behind glass screens, roped boundaries or even teeming crowds of people.

Whole worlds can be brought to life, taking a collection from interactive to immersive.  The technology has been deployed in many different ways by museums but most notably to date, in the creation of digital walkthroughs of buildings and 360 tours.  All of which have proven useful content during an era of social distancing.

From VR headsets to smartphone apps

More recently, VR has been considered key to making collections accessible beyond the physical reach and lifespan of the exhibition itself. The Musee de Louvre in Paris unveiled their first VR project in 2019 in support of their exhibition to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Mona Lisa Beyond the Glass’ was a VR experience that encapsulated the potential of VR to engage with visitors both within and outside the museum’s walls.  Central to the success of the VR experience was an understanding of how visitors to the Louvre could complement or enhance their visit through digital means.  Given that the Mona Lisa has long been the star attraction at the Louvre, it goes without saying that the artwork spends its life behind a protective casing, in order to protect it from the 20,000 visitors it receives daily.  This layer of protection does not deter visitors, of course. Annual footfall in the pre-Covid era would attest to that. But it does certainly place limitations on the way in which visitors are able to interact with the painting.

The VR exhibition served to build upon the in-real life (IRL) interaction through an up-close-and-personal experience that incorporated the details of the painting and the stories it hides when viewed up close. This particular VR tour took the visitor beyond the partition and its accessibility in the form of a smart phone app, showcasing the longer-term value of this digital masterclass in bringing objects to life through technology.

VR at the V&A: a much-anticipated example of technology in action

As part of its 2021 programme, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London announced that it will be staging a major new exhibition incorporating VR in “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser”.  Due to open in March 2021 (it’s worth noting that due to UK lockdown restrictions and the ongoing battle with Coronavirus this remains to be confirmed) the event has been promoted largely through the use of VR to work with, rather than against, the social distancing rules initiated by Covid-19.  By engaging the public through digital means, the museum is using one of the only platforms available during stay-at-home restrictions to interest an audience and promote the exhibition more widely.

Of course, if ever there was a subject matter that suited the notion of creating alternative or virtual realities, then Lewis Carroll’s story of a young girl’s adventures in a strange reality with a host of unexpected characters would be it. Reality is something that is questioned throughout Alice in Wonderland and by incorporating VR into the exhibition, the V&A elegantly plays homage to one of the key themes of the book by presenting alternate realities to process. As the exhibition’s curator, Kate Bailey, said “From rabbit holes to mirrors and from flamingos to hedgehogs, Wonderland is the ideal thing for VR to explore.”

The V&A has partnered with HTC VIVE Arts and a game development studio, PRELOADED to create the VR aspect of the exhibition as well as unique digital previews to help promote it.  Anyone with a VR smart device can access the online previews and the exhibit itself will be open to anyone with access to the internet.  All content is available via the V&A YouTube channel but for the full VR experience, the public will need to use VR headsets.  By using VR for the previews of the exhibition, interest in the collection is high – in part thanks to the mode of delivery being considered against the circumstances of the audience.

The use of VR does not just extend to the previews.  VR plays a central role in the exhibition itself with a ‘A Curious Game of Croquet’ allowing visitors to place a central role in playing a game.  A trip into an alternate reality using technology that complements the subject at heart.  Advanced promotional technique and engaging visitor attraction in one – the V&A have really incorporated the potential of VR in every aspect of the Alice in Wonderland exhibition.

A Fragile Reality

Whilst there is no doubt that VR has a place in the future of the arts and cultural sector, it doesn’t come without its problems.  As with any technology, new or old, hardware issues in public access settings can limit the benefits.  VR headsets are fallible and not immune to the kind of breakages or faults that could limit their use – particularly in a busy and open access setting.

Nils Pokel, the digital experience manager at Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand spoke at length about the value of VR in museums at the MuseumNext conference in February 2017.  Drawing on his first-hand experience of managing an exhibit using VR technology, Nils was confident that when used as part of a curators existing tools, VR could add real value in a museum setting due its unique traits and ability to draw in a crowd.

“Technology is increasingly catching up with the vision,” he said. ‘We’ve had the peak of inflated expectation . . . down into the trough of disillusionment, making our way up the slope of enlightenment until we finally reach that plateau of productivity.”

Where it was limited, however, was in the hardware itself. VR technology is by no means a small investment for any museum.  From the headsets to the creation of bespoke content unique to the exhibit in question, it requires a good understanding of budget demands and an even better understanding of the difficulties in managing public use of pricey hardware items.  And putting them into the hands of the public can lead to regular breakages, which make servicing and maintenance costs substantial.

Nevertheless, one point that Nils picked up on in 2017 and appears to be coming to fruition now in 2021 is the capacity for a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) format to help tackle many of the issues that previously presented barriers to adoption by museums.

Another major factor often cited as a barrier to the adoption of VR is particularly pertinent to the current climate.  VR headsets are worn as repeat use hardware that by their nature, need to cover a large portion of the head to work effectively.  With hygiene and virus transmission a key issue during the current Covid-19 pandemic, it is difficult to see a time when sharing VR handsets will once again be a normal aspect of using the technology. Again, this suggests that the use of BYOD will help to push the limitations and objections to the technology to one side – all facilitated by the impressive capabilities of modern smartphones.

VR is an additional experience NOT a replacement

Of course, any discussion around the adoption of technology in the museum space will always face criticism from purists about the role of digital in undermining the in-person experience. Yet for many digital experts this is to misrepresent the argument.

As Hilary Knight, Director of Digital at Tate recently stated in an interview with MuseumNext,

“Digital isn’t there to compete with, replace or detract from the in-person experience. That never was the intention and it never will be, so we need to understand how it can provide a complementary, supporting or even standalone experience to lovers of art and culture.

“It can make it deeper, more immersive and better informed. Digital enables us to build relationships with audiences over a longer period of time – with the end result often being an in-person visit further down the chain.”

If Covid has taught us anything, it is that we cannot now do without the convenience, flexibility and agility that technologies like VR afford the museum sector. But that does not mean that it represents direct competition with the sights, sounds and smells of visiting a museum. Indeed, if we are reading the temperature of the public correctly, there is a greater appetite than ever before for a return to in-person experiences and collections and exhibitions that have been out of reach for much of 2020 and 2021.

Visiting a museum in the company of a crowd is a privilege we all treasure now more than ever. But the advent of VR should not be feared as moving away from the objective of the sector. Used correctly, it should be just one part of an exhibition to deliver a layered experience with other tools to improve on the experience and provide added depth to the content.  VR is, in essence, another delivery platform in the pursuit of a truly immersive museum environment that makes digital technology just one part of the multi-layered museum experience.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. He writes extensively for Culture Geek and MuseumNext. Manuel has a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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