The first sign came with the Oculus Rift DK2 last year, when I discovered that consumer virtual reality could finally replicate a sense of physical presence in a digital world.
The second came last month, when I visited the British Museum’s Sicily exhibition.
The exhibition was perfectly fine, a well-curated narrative of the Greek and Norman periods of Sicilian history — the greatest hits, if you will. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t see shit.
It was a Sunday afternoon, only four days after it opened, so of course it was busy. I queued to read labels. I queued to study maps. I queued to peer over shoulders to gawp at shiny jewellery. And even after all that queuing, I only got to see each object for a few seconds — lingering any longer just made me feel guilty.
Perhaps, I wondered, there was a problem with the layout of the exhibition? Maybe they’d placed too many objects in corners, too many long cases against walls? But that wasn’t it. The designers did the best they could, given the constraints. And on reflection, I realised that I’d spent just as much time in other popular exhibitions queuing to see stuff.
Let’s be clear, overcrowding is a problem borne of success: 6.8 million visitors per year of success, to be exact. But it’s a problem nonetheless.
So to answer the inevitable question, “Why would you want to look at ancient objects in virtual reality when you could see them in real life for free?” I say, “Because even in the best museums in the world, I can’t see shit.” Compared to that very imperfect reality, virtual reality is an improvement.
Since 2010, I’ve visited museums over 250 times. My first book was inspired by museums. I’ve consulted for the British Museum about games, and I’ve taught workshops there. I’ve even had work displayed at the Design Museum, MOMA, and the V&A.
So I say this from a place of love: VR will break museums.
Before I take that fence down, I’m going to explain what it is that museums do that’s so difficult and important.
Museum galleries and exhibitions add context to objects. They tell you what an object was used for, where it was found, who made it, how they made it, and much more besides. They accomplish this through labels, timelines, photos, drawings, models, and ‘interactives’ — but also through more subtle means, like the arrangement of objects in a continuum or a group.
If you do this with the right objects, you can tell the story of a civilisation in a single room. Remove the context and you’re in a warehouse. Remove the objects, and you might as well just read a book or watch TV. The objects are a physical link with our past. They enforce discipline in our explanations, and they sow magic in our imaginations.
Unfortunately, many museum galleries do a poor job of providing context. Yes, budget constraints, time pressures, duelling priorities, etc., but when I encounter something like this:
what I see is a very pretty arrangement of contextless weapons. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but it doesn’t belong in a museum. Sure, there are labels — but they’re usually placed out of the way and arranged in a cryptic order that doesn’t correspond with the physical arrangement of the objects. The museum might as well just fire the curator, take a trip down to the stores, pick some cool-looking weapons, and then print out their names and dates.
There are many other kinds of objects and stories that museums have a hard time explaining, like musical instruments. It’s all too common for museums to render them silent, reducing them to mere pretty objects. Some will offer phones to listen to a sample, and the excellent Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels offers visitors wireless headphones that automatically play music when you stand in front of an instrument — but these are notable exceptions.
The failure to add context to objects is not a trifle to be hand waved away — it should be the entire point of a museum’s galleries and exhibitions!
You don’t need VR to solve this problem. For a weapons exhibit, I’d be happy with an illustration or animation or ‘interactive’ that compared them by accuracy, range, reload time, stopping power, cost, popularity, etc. I’m sure that donning a VR headset of dubious hygiene and spending three minutes pretending to fire rifles would be plenty of fun, but it’s not the only solution.
What VR does, however, is make it easier to add context in general. VR necessarily comprises a superset of all existing ways of adding context (lots of people enjoy watching videos and movies in VR, you know) plus it adds entirely new contexts, like simulations and recreations. Of course, this only works if the entire museum is experienced in VR; you can’t be putting on and taking off a headset every five minutes as you wander through galleries.
So if you really believe that putting weapons in a glass case is the very best display arrangement, you can still do that, except in VR you can add labels that appear next to the weapons instead of metres away (you wouldn’t believe how much of headache this is for curators). And if you’d rather teleport people into a 1:1 recreation of Chichen Itza, you can do that as well.
Anything you can do in a museum — which doesn’t include touching or smelling—VR can do better. Continue reading “VR Will Break Museums”