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Will museum VR/AR experiences finally push out the old heads?

Museums, galleries, and libraries are major gathering places for old heads during normal times, but lockdowns in response to COVID-19 have shuttered many of these institutions making way for AR and VR experiences to flourish.

Institutions are trying to bring their collections online and create a decent virtual experience, reaching out to old and new audiences.

Museums’ responses to COVID

In March 2020, three-quarters of museums shut down, including major institutions like NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While most people’s interactions with the museum come from an in-person visit, these places aren’t shutting down entirely.

Even early on during the crisis, museums were developing their online presence and working to stay engaged with their audiences.

MoMA’s Virtual Views with Gordon Parks

In one famous publicity move, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium allowed its penguins and porcupines to explore the museum without human visitors.

Other museums focused more heavily on their social media presence, engaging with virtual visitors in online space.

From #TriviaTuesday to live-streams and virtual tours, museums have been doing what they can to make their collections available via the internet.

Museums already had an online presence before COVID, so virtual programs are nothing new.

Virtual tours of museums around the world, panoramic photos connected to simulate the experience of walking through the halls, have long been available online.

Traveling to see museums is difficult enough at the best of times, but since March, we have a little more reason to use these services.

Museums give access through online, VR and AR experiences

When it comes to museum VR and AR experiences, the internet provides a great potential not only for access but for collaboration. The Cleveland Museum of Art, for instance, as an “Open Access museum,” allows the public to share and remix images of tens of thousands of artworks.

They even created an augmented reality app, ArtLens.

art lens museum vr experiences
ArtLens App Google Play

Other galleries have done online events, putting up slideshows on Instagram and Facebook. Hanna Manninen (of the Galleria MABD in Finland) described her museum’s efforts.

The goal is to “transform the physical aspects of the gallery into a virtual experience” by describing the physical aspects of the art in online exhibitions. That way, you’re not just looking at a picture of a picture. You have something to interact with.

At the same time, museums have increased the messaging surrounding their existing online programs.

The online #MuseumMomentOfZen movement is another angle some galleries have taken. The Museum of the City of NY started it after closing to the public in mid-March.

The hashtag has been picked up by other museums and continued on social media to this day as a way of keeping engaged with the public.

Disadvantages of online-only formats

Of course, this is all just masking the fact that the museum is closed. If museums felt they could justify opening, they would, and these online, VR and AR programs are just a substitute.

One of the main criticisms of existing online tours of museums is that they simply cannot match the feeling of being in the space. And that’s true. Visiting a museum in person is always going to be a more complete experience than an online visit.

Hashtag campaigns by museum curators can reach a wider audience even than most of a museum’s in-person programs, but that reach is wide rather than deep.

Advantages of online-only formats

There are things that an online program is uniquely capable of, though. One of those things is collaboration.

The organization Open GLAM reported on its participation in the Creative Commons Global Summit earlier this year. The Creative Commons organization administers open licenses that people use to share their creative work free of copyright.

This online, virtual summit included experiences like #Hack4OpenGLAM and Translation Sprint. (GLAM stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums).

These asynchronous events ran during the main conference. The Translation Sprint involved open groups translating some of the organization’s core documents “to make the case that digital reproductions of public domain materials should be openly and freely available.”

Hack4OpenGLAM describes itself as “a 4-day culture hack for getting creative with “Open Access cultural heritage.” Participants created digital products or even physical artwork inspired by the organization’s collections.

Another great example is the Brazilian Museu Paulista, a history museum covering the formation of Brazil. Students were tasked with improving Wikipedia’s coverage of events related to the museum.

After they became involved, coverage of these events improved dramatically. The metadata from the museum’s collection was made public and machine-readable.

This collection also matched its photos with OpenStreetMap, a free mapping project. This project demonstrated that the interaction of museums and communities goes both ways.

Museums can offer online, VR, and AR resources to communities. But also, the museums stand to benefit from opening up their processes and integrating old and new methods of understanding their collections.

The above event at the Museu Paulista was run by the group Wiki Movimiento Brasil.

So what’s really good with AR and VR experiences?

Emerging AR/VR technologies offer a new window into an alternate world. This tech can, potentially, offer remote visitors a more immersive, visceral experience of a gallery space. Or, even, of interactive artwork.

However, VR technology is not very accessible. Most people don’t own a VR headset, and most VR software requires a lot of computing power that most people lack.

While VR technology is great for those who can experience it, AR through phones – while less immersive – can reach a much broader audience.

Virtual reality projects from museums include “Beyond the Walls” and “Beyond the Glass.” “Beyond the Walls” comes from the Smithsonian art museum. “Beyond the Glass” is a similar program from the Louvre in Paris.

Meanwhile, museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art use AR instead of VR – through apps – to bring the gallery to the world. AR is resource-cheap and mobile, compared to VR, while still being more immersive than a traditional online offering.

It won’t transport you to another world. But it will bring something from another world into yours, and that’s worth checking out.

Like a series of augmented-reality sculptures by KAWS, for instance.

The pandemic may have us all a bit off our game and our usual routines, but culture doesn’t stop. Museums, for their part, are still trying hard to stay involved in their communities not only using VR and AR experiences but also staying connected with their audiences.