Museums have always engaged with new technology. In the past years, it has become very exciting with museums launching diverse projects, apps, tools, to enhance the visitor’s experience. Let’s have a look at what has shaped the past and at the trends shaping the present.
Interactive Exploration Tools
As we all know, museums around the world have incredible collections on display but most of the time, some items get lost in the number of things to see. The famous pieces are seen but the others are forgotten and visitors do not notice them. Most of the visitors do not even know about a lot of pieces on display. Some institutions have come up with solutions to tackle this issue.
Cleveland Museum of Art worked closely with ArtLens to develop a digital interactive collection-wall. Showcasing all items on display, the visitor can easily go through the collection and check which pieces he/she wants to see. The collections is displayed in themes (colours, period, etc) and the visitor can save his/her favourite pieces which he/she can then find again on the personalized smartphone app. This wall, by displaying all items equally – same size, interaction possibilities, presence – helps democratizing the collection of the museum, putting big famous and small ignored items on the same shelf.
Visitors – Creators
Another trend in the museum world, and a quite obvious one, is visitors who become creators. Inspired by social media and the user-generated vibes that have been flying over society this past years, museums now offer visitors the possibility to actively participate in the museum experience. And museums become visitor-generated spaces.
The Cooper Hewitt – Smithsonian Design Museum partnered with the company Local Projects to develop a series of interactions in its galleries. One of them involves creating a wall paper using patterns from the museum’s textile collection or designing them from scratch. The wall paper created is then projected on a wall in the gallery. With this exhibit, visitors can discover the collection and use their creativity and imagination. Plus, it gives them the possibility to take photos before their work displayed. A great way for the museum to stick in their minds.
Going back to the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the ArtLens Gallery – an entire space curated by the interactive design company – visitors can ‘play with the artworks’. An game proposes that they imitate the mouvement of a piece of the collection. It gives feedback, info about the piece and direct them to where it is in the museum. It fosters play and interaction but also learning and physical activity. Plus, the museum can use it to highlight some usually forgotten pieces of its collection.
The Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands launched Augmenting Masterpieces in 2015. In this amazing app, visitors can leave comments on pieces around the museum. Using the iBeacon technology, the app locates artifacts in the galleries. The user can then choose between leaving a voice-note, sharing thoughts and memories about a piece, or leave a comment aiming at improving the museum’s experience (caption amendment for instance). With Augmenting Masterpieces, the massive museum that is the Rijksmuseum successfully gets the visitor engaged, recognizing the value of the input he/she brings – a collection is nothing without someone to engage with it – while continuously improving its offer.
Layered Content with Augmented Reality
This is, in my opinion, the true revolution. Augmented reality opens an immensity of opportunities for creatives in the cultural sphere and especially in museums. But experimentation is very costly and the outcomes still unsure. However, as the technology grows, a few big institutions have been trying new things. The value of augmented reality is that it adds layers. And it is these layers, on top of existing content, that needs to be curated.
Smartify offers an augmented reality service. Any museum can buy the service and use the app. It uses a scanning technology that works exactly like QR codes, except the code is now the artworks. Scanning a piece triggers the display of related content (given by the institution’s staff) – the whole process being very organic.
The Smithsonian in Washington also developed an augmented reality app: the Hirshhorn Eye. Using the same scanning technology, the app displays videos from the artist who made the artwork on display. A nice way to have a intimate connection with the art.
Personalized Routes and Itineraries
A lot of apps now offer the possibility to users to curate museum tours. The iBeacon technology revolutionized the industry with now the possibility to locate items in a space when the visitor is close to them, thanks to sensors placed in careful locations. The first-ever museum to use the technology was the MONA in Tasmania. They innovated in 2011 with The O developed by the company Art Processor – still in use today. iBeacon sensors are placed around the museum. They trigger pop-up info about the items on display when the user comes close to them. Plus it saves the user’s journey which is then accessible after the visit on the website to get more info about what was seen if wanted. It was a first. Still relevant today.
More recent, My Visit to the Louvre allows the user to save routes, to curate special tours, and to share them with other users. Guided tours by curators of the museum are also on the app. Once again, it is recognizing the value brought by the visitors. It gets them involve, as well as giving them access to deeper knowledge.
At the American Museum of Natural History, the app helps navigating around the building. It indicates the different areas of the museum, the location of famous pieces and proposes routes to find them. It is a smart app that uses geo-localisation enhancing your experience to become smooth while browsing the museum’s collection.
Virtual reality is a great tool for museums, offering them the opportunity to curate exhibitions that could not happen in their spaces. I recently read an article about VR and museums (here). The author, Adrian Hon, a fierce museum-goer, explains that VR will break museums down because of their poor displays and crowded spaces. He states that VR is better suited to give context to the artifacts and that it allows the visitor to be alone in the gallery, enjoying the visit in her/his own pace. I don’t especially agree with this, as I think VR and museums offer two different kind of experience. However, VR is definitely changing the museum’s visit and is to be taken into account when curating an exhibition.
A few museums or artists used VR to re-create famous paintings. Often, the visitor can watch the painters create the 3D piece (videos exist all around YouTube) and can then explore the painting in 3D. This is literally being ‘inside’ a painting, therefore living the dream of any painting passionate. While the re-productions are never completely accurate, this is original way to experience art, playing with senses that are not usually triggered by painting. Plus, it’s very fun!
Of course, the most obvious way of using VR is to make a VR exhibition. The user can then wonder around a virtual gallery, from room to room, piece to piece. This has been around for some time now with a few museums trying to offer a smooth experience. The Valentino Garavani Museum for instance is completely virtual and accessible for free online. I worked myself on a VR exhibition for my master project at London College of Fashion. However, a recent launch by the Universal Museum of Art, a virtual exhibition on ‘cats in art’, is, in my opinion, one of the most successful one. The exhibition was especially curated for VR and not adapted from an analog platform, making it a complete, very enjoyable experience. It is online and free!
Talking about trends, this is the big thing now. Europe, Asia, America, it is happening everywhere, creating the buzz every-time. National Geographic opened its Ocean Odyssey in New York City earlier this year, the first-ever fish-free aquarium. Marketing around it was huge creating a massive interest and international resonance. However, reading the review on TripAdvisor, the experience disappoints. The transitions aren’t apparently smooth and the experience is described to be too expensive for what it is.
TeamLab is a big player when it comes to immersive environments. The company has traveled around the world with the exhibit Bordeless (currently in Paris) and has launched diverse other projects around the globe (an exhibition for kids in Cape Town in November 2017 for instance). Its new project will be launched in Japan at the end of the current year: the first-ever digital museum. Digital animations, digital art pieces on rotation, interactive walls, … an entire journey created by hundreds of projectors. It promises to be spectacular.
By another player, Gustav Klimt is an exhibition of the artist’s most famous paintings, on video and currently projected onto the walls of l’Atelier des Lumieres in Paris. Created by Culture Espace, the interesting thing about it is that it is an actual exhibition. The curator chose to use video-projection and created an immersive environment but the actual content comes from art history research. It is a very innovative way of presenting the work of an artist and I have to say, when I went to see it, I found it magical. It is a more subjective curation that what we are use to and it felt right. The only critic I would have is that it was unfortunately not interactive, the visitor being passive in the space.
As you can see, the possibilities are diverse and museums have been experimenting a lot with different ideas. From a simple guided tour app to an immersive environment, new technology is slowly shaping the museum of tomorrow. What will be the future experiences? We can’t tell. I remember a professor at London College of Fashion telling us that with new technology, we never know what will happen in 6 months.I agree with him more every day. But hey, we can always try to guess. Any ideas?