Virtual Reality: The end of museums as we know it?

Manouevring yourself around a gallery or exhibition is an art in itself. We’ve all pondered the tactics: should I go round the reverse way? Is it better to stand two centimetres away from the artworks (and risk not being able to see the exhibit as a whole), or two metres (in the knowledge that other visitors will almost certainly block your view)?

Museums are not blind to the issues of overcrowding. In fact, there are many initiatives already in place to improve visitor experience. The British Museum, for example, (with its staggering 6.7 million visitors per year) is apparently considering making its two one-metre-wide front doors wider to ease the queues of people trying to get inside. And while the Louvre has optimised the flow of visitors by increasing its number of internal doors, places like the Tate Modern and the Royal Academy of Art have increased their opening hours into the night during very popular exhibitions (Matisse and Ai Wei Wei respectively) to allow more people to visit and enjoy their art. So far, there hasn’t been an outright solution and visitors are still subject to the woes of queuing and overcrowding every day.

Overcrowding in museums is not a new problem

I read an interesting article this week by Adrian Hon who argued (and not without much contention) that ‘VR will break museums’, in the sense that it could be the solution museums need to address their overcrowding. With 3D cinema making waves, Google Glass and an unprecedented emphasis on immersive digital experience in the arts (see Tilt Brush), it could be argued that this is the next logical step for visitor experience development. Of course, there have already been tentative footsteps in the cultural world towards this. The Vatican, for example, is already well on its way to creating a virtual alternative to visitors to the Sistine Chapel. With its  25,000 visitors per day, they plan to create a virtual pavilion: by giving each visitor a set of Google Glass-style viewers and a digital simulation of the ceiling, it is hoped that people will spend less time in the actual chapel and instead enjoy it from a distance in their created digital space. The British Museum too has taken a small step in this direction with their recent Virtual Reality exhibition of the bronze age, which invited visitors to ‘engage with the past not just through the real objects in the galleries but through state of the art 3D headsets, tablets, and a projection of a recreated house’.

Of course, virtual realities can take many different shapes and guises. Defined broadly as a ‘three-dimensionsal, computer-generated environment’, their application in museums or galleries could be within the gallery itself (like the British Museum) or outside (like the Vatican’s plans). However museums may choose to grow their virtual realities, I’m going to briefly explore some pros and cons of VR as we know it.

 

An improved visitor experience?

Firstly, and in direct response to the problem of overcrowding in museums, virtual realities can allow the visitor to be the only person in the room (see, for example, Guillermo Del Toro’s video game virtual realities). VR can provide an environment where no one bumps into you, no one blocks your view, and you are left with no guilt might you accidentally block anyone else’s view. It’s just you and the museum.

In addition to this, VR makes it very easy to add context to a painting or artefact, without the cryptic and malplaced labels. Context and understanding is often a key reason why people visit museums: as an interactive and interesting road to understanding a time, place or subject. Of course, VR isn’t the only way one can add context but as Adrian Hon points out, ‘VR necessarily comprises a superset of all existing ways of adding context plus it adds entirely new context, like simulations and recreations.’ With VR you can even teleport visitors into recreated worlds: after all, viewing the artefacts of Pompei is much more fulfilling when you are in situ on the Amalfi Coast rather than at the British Museum looking at them through a glass case. It’s very difficult to convey a sense of place and space in a museum, but virtual realities can take you that extra bit closer, cutting you off from the outside world and transporting you back in time and across the world to where that artefact was created, used and discovered.

Which would you prefer? The Amalfi Coast or a room in the British Museum?

Built for scale

Of course, virtual realities are not cheap to produce, but the cost effectiveness could come from its combination with the internet. Built to scale, the internet would enable the sensation of being in a museum to be accessible to visitors, in a virtual reality, across the world. Such universal accessibility gives a good case for potential sponsors too. As Adrian Hon says: ‘We can expect Facebook, Google and Amazon to fund VR museum efforts as well. They want attention, and a museum-like educational experience is a good complement to their other marketplace endeavours.’

 

Personalisation

What seems to be the biggest added capability of VR in museums, however, is that – through digital experiences – they will be able to track audience behaviour so much more accurately. No more questionnaires, no more surveys… through VR they would be able to learn their visitors behaviours and, just like Facebook and Google, to A/B test their exhibitions in order to personalise and optimise everybody’s experience. Perhaps a curator thinks that one exhibit is fascinating, whilst the majority of visitors glance at it and walk straight past. It would be much more difficult to the museums to remain blind to these kinds of responses.

 

Digital troubles

Of course, moves into the digital tracking / user optimisation world are not without their disadvantages. As we all know, there is a very fine line between optimising user experience and stalking your every move. If, in a VR museum, we are to look at several paintings by Picasso, will that mean that our Facebook will be littered with adverts to watch the latest contemporary art documentary? Such widespread advertising would probably be a boom for museums’ funding, but this could all be (hypothetically, and in extremis) to the complete detriment of our (previously optimised) visitor experience. Alongside the erosion of privacy is the concern that exhibitions, like our newspapers, will transform into click-bait-only territories. Might our journey around a museum become littered with tag lines such as ‘You’ll never guess what this Roman Emperor did to his wife’ and ‘This 2000-year old ceramic will prove you’ve been eating soup wrong all your life’? VR dystopia.

It’s not the same

In our shiny vision of what VR might entail, with its hyper-realistic simulations of pyramids in Cairo where we can view the hieroglyphic inscriptions in peace, one must also not forget that – and I’m talking from experience thus far – virtual is never the same as the real thing. I’m still yet to be convinced of 3D cinema, and if given the choice, I would definitely choose your bog-standard 2D screening room than an immersive 3D IMAX theatre. The novelity is fun, the techniques are impressive but it hurts my eyes and ultimately this discomfort distracts me from what I’m trying to enjoy. Until virtual reality is a seamless extension of reality, it will always be inferior.

I was also interested to read a piece of research by Katy Newton and Karin Soukup about people’s experiences and behaviours in VR. What they found was that there are a limitless number of intricacies in VR that affect audience experience. Because VR audiences are in an external environment, their senses are heightened because they are aware that they are in a curated reality. In other words, they take on the role of ‘inspector’ looking for clues. While this heightened appreciation and concentration could be deemed a good thing, Katy and Karin reported that actually this led many of their audience members to concentrate on aspects that they as curators hadn’t even given a second thought, and as such their audiences were more easily led off-track. Similarly, they found that the physical positioning of an audience member in a VR environment was very important. They become a part of a story and so are affected by the feelings and the associations of where they are positioned within that environment. These kinds of responses are also entirely subjective. For example, while some people might feel empowered being placed at the front of a VR classroom, others might feel vulnerable. It’s a matter of personality. VR provides a curator with so many more artistic opportunities, but also a lot of responsibility to get it correct for their audience.

 

The role of the museum 

Of course, museums aren’t just about gazing at artefacts. Yes, they are places of learning for the general public but they are also research hubs and university institutions for authors, pHd students and more… Would VR effect this aspect of museums’ identity? Could it endanger them as research hubs? We must also not forget that they are also tourist attractions; places that families visit on days out; buildings of merit in themselves that visitors flock to… They are places of learning, yes, but they are also places to be enjoyed with family and friends. Does VR provide that same social interaction? I’m doubtful.

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While VR is never going to be the same as the real thing, it does provide solutions to some of the problems museums are currently facing. It might solve overcrowding, it could improve visitor experience and it does provide a wealth of curatorial possibilities. In our digital age, VR seems like the next logical step but digital curators must be mindful of both its limitations and limitless possibilities…