It makes sense that museums are stuck in the past. Having spent their lives surrounded by antiquities, we can forgive curators for not being savvy with the latest technologies. Many of the most prominent museums in the world have not fundamentally changed over the past century, except for certain acquisitions and design tweaks. Entering the Ashmolean or the British Museum today, you still walk through colonnaded halls with glass cabinets, peering at the little written descriptions of the artefacts as you go.
However, developments in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology provide curators with an opportunity to revolutionise our relationship with the artefacts of the past. Imagine, upon entering the Natural History Museum, you raise your phone camera and the blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling comes to life, swimming through the air above your head. Or upon entering a room of Roman sculptures in the British Museum, you can put on a VR headset and be transported to a street in Ancient Rome, where you can appreciate the statues in their original context. The potential of AR and VR in museums is to bring the past to life.
Currently, these technologies exist in museums only as small gimmicks for landmark exhibitions or virtual tours online. The British Museum’s “virtual tour” is limited to a wander around its foyer, while the Ashmolean tour consists of low-resolution three-second videos of various galleries.
Some museums have been more creative: visitors to the Modigliani retrospective at the Tate Modern could enter his studio as it was in the 1910s through a VR headset, while the Louvre took people Beyond the Glass of the Mona Lisa for a landmark exhibition commemorating 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Yet none of these museums have fully exploited the potential of VR and AR by integrating the technology into their galleries in a meaningful way.
Firstly, we need to clarify what is meant by VR and AR. VR, or Virtual Reality, is a simulated virtual world, experienced through headsets such as the Oculus Rift. Curators might protest that this technology, by its very nature, is against what museums are all about as it removes people from the artefacts that museums exist to showcase. However, if you come to museums to immerse yourself in the past, Virtual Reality has the potential to actually take you there. As opposed to simply looking at a model of prehistoric huts, it is far more engaging to put on a headset and enter one. VR should not replace the objects on display but rather place them in their historical context.
AR, or Augmented Reality, involves projecting visuals onto a real-world background; think Snapchat filters or Pokémon Go. Only fragments of the past survive in the present day, but AR could fill in these gaps. Take, for example, the magnificent contents of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, displayed in the British Museum, which has been eroded from centuries spent underground. What if, through AR, you could see the missing pieces of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet and shield slotting back into place, allowing visitors to appreciate the grandeur of Anglo-Saxon armour in its original condition? Phil Stewart, Creative Director of the company which modelled Modigliani’s studio for the Tate said, “Understanding art is about understanding the painter and the paintings, and also the historical and social context.” Bringing this technology into museums would not mean relegating the importance of the artefacts themselves to a secondary role but would, in fact, serve to enhance the viewing experience; rendering the displays within a virtually reconstructed historical context and allowing the opportunity to view them in their original condition.
New technologies also have the potential to bring these relics of our cultural heritage outside of their cabinets, beyond the walls of the museums themselves, and into our classrooms and our homes.
Google Arts and Culture is an online platform developed in association with museums and heritage sites across the planet. When it first came online in 2011, it was essentially an archive of high-quality photos of some of the world’s greatest artworks and historical artefacts. Since then it has developed an array of technologically sophisticated features that allow people to interact with these objects from their home. The outbreak of the coronavirus may have temporarily closed museums, but you can still walk through the halls of the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum and the MET from the comfort of your couch on the Google Arts and Culture app. The “Art Selfie” feature uses facial recognition to find a portrait that resembles you, while “Art Projector” brings masterpieces into your home through AR. Through “Pocket Gallery” I could enter the Cauvet Cave in France, home to figurative cave paintings that date back 36,000 years, which have been sealed off from the public since 1994 for preservation. At a moment when we cannot go to museums, museums can nevertheless come to us.
With the features developed by Google Arts and Culture, artefacts and artworks can become readily accessible to students who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to visit these museums. Likewise, when diplomatic deadlock prevents objects seized by colonial powers returning home, these platforms can allow people in post-colonial countries to engage with their cultural heritage without having to journey to the British Museum – although this virtual engagement is, of course, no substitute for the return of the artefacts.
A more recent development, pioneered by The Kremer Collection, is even more revolutionary. The collection consists of 70 works by Dutch Masters, acquired by George and Ilone Kremer since 1996 including masterpieces by Rembrandt. While the artworks are loaned to museums across the world, they were finally brought together and housed in a single space for the first time in October 2017: the virtual Kremer Museum. Designed by architect John van Lierop, the space is only accessible through a Virtual Reality headset, making it one of the world’s first exclusively virtual museums.
It is worth emphasising the value of interacting with artworks and artefacts in person. Nothing compares to walking beneath a statue of an Egyptian pharaoh and being astounded by its grand scale or squinting to see the texture of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes on a canvas. The value of these objects is in their authenticity. They are relics of lost societies, sculpted and painted by people who are long since dead. No matter how accurate the virtual reproductions of the paintings in the Kremer Museum are, they were still not painted by Rembrandt’s hand.
The question is not whether we should replace our museums with virtual galleries but how we can enhance the museum experience with this new technology. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have the potential to transform our relationship with the past, making ancient artefacts accessible and placing them in their original historical context. Museum curators must employ the technology of the future to breathe life into the past.