Museums have been mainstays of the cultural and public life of any city since the 18th century, offering their visitors a portal into the past; a glimpse of the products of human struggle and ingenuity and knowledge of the natural and manmade wonders of the world.
Their main appeal has always been its ability to be a satiating meal for the mind and the senses, making the viewing of art and artifacts both a personal and shared experience. Museums give the abstract concepts like history, nature and identity a sense of tangibility – visitors are able to see, touch and experience the things that inform the culture of a place and contribute to the formation of the world as it is today.
Recent advances in technology affect museum experience
Museums have caught up with advances in digital technology, most notably with the surge in use of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technology. Internet of Things (IoT) technology has also proliferated in use, usually through apps installed in visitors’ smartphones that interact with strategically-placed beacons within the museum. Gamification, information, social media sharing and experience enhancement are the most common uses for digital technology in museums.
Even for institutions that, for the most part, deal with antiquities and the recent past, integrating advances in digital media with exhibits and the overall experience of the museum is necessary. “Museums, offering a portrait of the world in the past or in the artist’s imagination, have to understand how humans interact with the world around them now and in the future in order to succeed in connecting with their audience.”
For those who have a genuine interest in seeing art, artifacts and other showcases of culture the way they are, in their “true” context and without the enticement of digitization, this may seem as more of a distraction than an enhancement of the experience. This is especially true in the more traditional art museums, where their main draw is in providing art enthusiasts the optimal experience of seeing a masterpiece. Every element of the museum experience plays a factor in the viewer’s consumption of the artwork – the placement, the size of the exhibit space, the lighting and the distance between the viewer and the artwork. The personal context of the viewer is also integral to the experience, as is history and information about the artist’s process. However, to purists and formalists, too much intervention, even in the form of supplementary information, can delay the incredible quality of seeing how various elements come together through one’s imagination.
Still, existence of museums is intrinsically linked to their ability to engage the public. What good are fabulous galleries, artifacts and installations if they are unable to draw in visitors of all levels of prior knowledge, from both near and far? Connecting with both the museum enthusiast and the museum novice seems like the obvious thing to do for museums to stay relevant, especially in a world where Instagram, Snapchat and Pokémon Go have normalized the use of adding filters or augmentations to reality. Constant connectivity to the social network is also an aspect of daily life that, while intrusive to taking in the full experience of being in a museum by transporting one’s attentions, it’s now become essential to public life. An uploaded photo about one’s time at The Met can now be considered equivalent to talking about it to the person next to him.
The quest to be digital is a double-edged sword for museums. Place-based augmented devices like VR and AR allow users to experience a plethora of sights and sounds without relying solely on the characteristics or the contents of the place itself, adding to or modifying real sensory input. This begs the question of why someone would have to trek to a specific place for the experience of seeing objects that may possibly be replicated virtually or digitally, perhaps from the comfort of one’s own home instead. As in the case of any technology rapidly becoming more accessible and affordable to the public (already becoming the case with AR), the thought of VR taking over our daily lives and our ways of seeing can be seen as too sci-fi and too disruptive, for better or for worse in the case of museums that pride themselves on a real experience with real things.
An interesting case in the use of VR and device interactivity is the “Wonder” exhibit from the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. The “Wonder” exhibit, running from 2015 to 2016, drew in 100,000 visitors during its first month – nearly the number of visitors that used to visit the Renwick in a year. It became one of Washington D.C.’s most Instagrammed locations. One may argue that taking pictures and adding filters on Instagram while viewing an exhibit may sound counter-intuitive, but the combination surprisingly worked and spurred the creative juices for many visitors. The ability to use a device to interact with the aesthetics of the exhibit in the same way it’s done outside the walls of the museums also changed the atmosphere from being distanced from the art to being inspired to upload and create a “first-person narrative of the experience”. The zoom feature and various camera angles let the art be seen from a myriad of different perspectives.
Later on, a Wonder VR app was released in order to give people the chance to see the exhibit for the first time or to relive their visit. The many layers of this experience of the art installation gives it a complexity impossible within the traditional setting and “no photography” rules. The art wasn’t always in center stage, but one can also argue that not everyone goes to the museum solely for the private contemplation of art, but for the public, social experience as well.
However, VR apps and 3D streaming have yet to become truly immersive, what with the limitations of the smartphone viewing experience. At the moment, these are not yet fully capable of replacing the experience in the place itself, although digital interactivity and social media sharing enhances it. At the very least, they have rejuvenated interest in visiting museums and cultural sites, since they already look amazing through a smartphone, then the real thing must look a lot better.
Integration of VR, AR and IoT into museum’s exhibits have had plenty of success all over the world, transforming the experience of being in the museum’s physical space. The uses have been as varied as allowing people to visualize the Bronze Age (British Museum), have an evolving companion specie in their device (Canadian Museum of Nature), journey through a Brazilian rainforest using the Oculus Rift (New Museum) and visit a glass house in Paris (Jewish Museum in New York). The experience is still location-dependent, such that VR, AR and IoT complement the exhibits and create a narrative around them. The added gamification that many exhibits have also made the experience kid-friendly, transforming the future of school field trips and hopefully better educating children (and even their parents) of the ways cultural and scientific achievements have shaped the world as we know it today. In general, these technological advances in the exhibit space have the potential to create a new type of museum-enthusiast that would keep these vaunted institutions relevant.
VR’s ubiquity in the future could also transform the museum experience to allow for sensory and physical augmentation for those who are less-abled, thereby expanding the reach of the museums’ significance to the general public. While museums have usually been largely an experience for the “average” person, VR could change the landscape for museum accessibility. For example, exhibits in very specific types of physical spaces do not allow for those in wheelchairs to go in and experience them due to space limitations. Exhibits like “Infinity Mirrors” in the Smithsonian have made a VR feature available for those who may not have been able to view the art installation first-hand in its physical space without it. Without the restrictions of physical space, transcendent experiences such as the experience of “infinity” in the Smithsonian exhibit can be replicated, proving that technology can definitely be used to showcase art’s most important feature, which is art’s ability to elevate one’s sensibilities and change one’s view.
Also, given that VR has made great strides as a therapeutic tool for those on the autism spectrum, soon, it will be possible for them to also visit museums without having to rely on sensory-friendly programming outside of normal museum hours. With VR, the museum experience can be made accessible to all who wish to have it and these new developments are only the beginning of what can hopefully be a revolution that would benefit many.
The possibilities are endless for immersive media. “Museums, which are institutions that represent the progression of human civilization and the works that show the boundless creative and intellectual potential that people have, are the perfect homes for innovative technology.” The main challenge would be to find the balance for the many extremes that exist within the walls of the museum - the old and the new, the public and the private and lastly, the traditional and the disruptive.