How Virtual Reality Could Give New Life to Museum Exhibits

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, October 10th, 2016

WONDER - Plexus A1

Virtual reality and augmented reality are helping organizations do everything from memorialize and mirror deceased relatives to transform the marketing process.  These technologies have made their way into the museum world in a variety of ways, from guided tours to learning aids. The Smithsonian recently released its first virtual app that offers a unique twist on the typical museum tech story. Now, thanks to an app that’s available on both Apple and Android, guests can revisit the wildly popular exhibit WONDER. Although the physical exhibit closed in July, the experience is now being extended digitally.

The app’s approach raises a critical question for museums, which are often constrained by the real limitations of space, financial resources and staff time. Could digital curation be a viable option to bring something new and engaging to life for diverse audiences, creating in essence a virtual extension of a museum’s physical space and experiences? And could it be a sustainable way to help museums extend the life of expensive, complex and popular exhibits that can only be displayed for weeks or months at physical facilities?

WONDER - Grade 01

It helps to understand a bit about the backstory of the WONDER exhibit. WONDER was housed at The Renwick Gallery, immediately after it opened from refurbishment. A collaboration between nine world-renowned artists, the museum described the exhibit in the following way: “While the nine artists featured in WONDER create strikingly different works, they are connected by their interest in creating large-scale installations from unexpected materials. Index cards, marbles, strips of wood—all objects so commonplace and ordinary we often overlook them—were assembled, massed, and juxtaposed to utterly transform spaces and engage us in the most surprising ways. The works are expressions of process, labor, and materials that are grounded in our everyday world, but that combine to produce awe-inspiring results.” Visually it was striking and there was a continuity across galleries that helped guests deeply connect with the themes in an immersive way.

From a visitor standpoint, WONDER was a resounding success. The Washingtonian Magazine reported lines that stretched all the way to the White House. In part, the exhibit’s success was fueled through its popularity on Instagram, so it is fitting that it continues to be brought to life digitally. In an interview with the Washingtonian, the curator behind the exhibit noted that in part its purpose was to remind people why museums as physical spaces are important. Still, this unique blending of the physical and digital may help bring guests the best of all worlds: the opportunity for hands-on, real life experiences and the ability to revisit them digitally.

WONDER Exhibit - Smithsonian

By turning popular exhibits into immersive apps, museums can achieve several things. One is granting a longer life to powerful exhibits that can only be displayed in the actual museum for a limited time. Another is expanding the audience for certain exhibits to a more global one; people are no longer limited by their ability to travel to a physical museum. Finally, it may be possible to create more complex and engaging experiences virtually than it would be in a physical museum environment. It’s easier to achieve certain things at scale through code than it would be to build the real-life equivalent, meaning that museums and curators can have more audacious visions.

An interesting point of consideration is whether virtual reality could create a unique stream of curation. Could in-depth exhibits be curated strictly for the digital realm? Digital curation is already an important element of the museum toolkit, but often digital assets are used more for conservation, preservation and archiving than creating immersive experiences. The development of apps is related to, but also different than, in gallery digital initiatives. When museums are creating experiences to augment their physical offerings, it’s important to strike the right balance. Content that’s too surface level will fail to engage, while content that’s too deep can be challenging for mainstream audiences. At the same time, there are major questions about how technology supports and doesn’t detract from in-person exhibits.

In Midnight Garden

When museums are creating experiences to take exhibits outside the four walls, there are a number of considerations:

  • What’s the shelf-life of the project?
  • Can the experience be designed to anticipate underlying technology changes or be technology agnostic?
  • How can the digital environment be an advantage that lets people experience the exhibit in a unique way, rather than feeling like a secondary experience?
  • How does this digital experience contribute to the museum’s overall offerings?
  • Can experience design techniques be used to elevate digital experiences beyond “just another app” and create something that delights, engages and educates audiences?

What the Smithsonian has done with its WONDER app is a hint at a key future trend in the museum space. From expanding the physical space that they have to work with to adding critical shelf-life to beloved exhibits, apps and digital curation have added a whole new experiential element to what museums can offer to the public. The critical element that curators must keep in mind is that creating a holistic experience that moves audiences is a core value – and museums have the opportunity to create digital experiences that transcend typical applications and instead offer something that’s magical.

Images sourced courtesy of the Smithsonian/Renwick Gallery

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