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.
Much of the conversation surrounding VR and museums focuses on teleporting visitors into recreated worlds. That’s not surprising — it’s one of VR’s unique capabilities, and it makes for a great demo. From the opposite side, I can imagine some curators dismissing such adventures as being purely spectacles, more like videogames than education.
Earlier this year, I visited Egypt for the first time, and spent a week in Luxor at various tombs, temples, and historical sites. It was the first time I’d ever seen ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs and statues and stelae in their original environments.
And let me tell you, they made a hell of a lot more sense in situ than in museums. I could never really grasp what a massive statue of Sekhmet was for when it was standing alone in the British Museum, let alone how it fit into its surroundings; I never really understood just how epic the wall paintings from temples could be, how awe-inspiring they must have been 4000 years ago.
Try as they might (and they do try!) museums can’t convey that sense of place, even with reconstructions. You can reconstruct the table, and the room, and the house it sits in — but not the town and the city and the sky. Placing objects in a single room may create new contexts for a grander story, but it rips them away from their original environmental context. It’s for this reason why serious students and scholars of ancient Egypt always want to visit the original sites.
We can’t fly all six million visitors to the British Museum to Luxor — but we can do the next best thing and take them in VR. It’s hard to believe if you haven’t used the latest technology, but you get a genuine feeling of presence with VR. After just a couple of minutes of immersion, you really feel you’re there, and it’s improving every year.
But even with perfect technology, VR is no panacea.
When I was in Genoa for a conference, I explored the S518 Nazario Sauro submarine at the Galata Museo del Mare. I saw the tiny toilets, I marvelled at the tiny bedrooms, I stuck my head in the torpedo tubes. I wasn’t just reading a book about submarines, or looking at a model — I was inside the submarine itself.
And yet if I had to be totally honest, I’m didn’t really learn all that much from the visit, other than ‘submarines are small’. Why?
Because I couldn’t read the labels. They were in Italian.
Without labels, without information or context, the submarine was a strange, exciting, and completely mysterious object. To understand it beyond a purely surface level, you need someone to help identify what it means. Someone who can tell you where to look, and what you can ignore. In other words, whether you’re in a museum or in a submarine, whether you’re in the real world or in VR, you need a curator.
So I have my doubts about VR teleportation. Without curation, it’s just one spectacle after another.
But like it or not, spectacles gets people through the door. Museums employ them — and VR will perfect them.
Fuelled with public money, or the largesse of billionaires, the largest museums exist to attract massive audiences with collections housed in equally massive buildings. Grand courtyards and hallways accommodate the flow of thousands of visitors a day, and the most famous objects on display are painstakingly arranged so that as many people as possible can get a look.
The problem is, museums don’t scale well. The British Museum sees almost 7 million visitors a year. What would it take to accommodate double that number? Ten times that number? It simply cannot be done, not for any reasonable amount of money.
The Internet, on the other hand, is built for scale. The marginal cost of an extra YouTube viewer or app download is practically zero. That’s how a video about the history of Japan can be made for free, distributed for free, and enjoyed for free by more people in a single month than who walk through the doors of the Louvre in an entire year.
Combine virtual reality with the Internet, and you get museums with unlimited scale. Suddenly, it barely costs any more to have a hundred million people pass through a VR museum’s doors than it does to have a hundred thousand.
And that, more than anything else, more than teleportation or simulations, is the most shocking thing about virtual reality. That ability to apply internet scale to the sensation of being in a museum next to objects, that’s how virtual reality will break museums.
The Internet isn’t just about scale, of course. It’s about eliminating the costs associated with physical products and environments. In a VR museum, there’s no upkeep or maintenance or cleaning; no more security guards or volunteers or queues. No planning permission or builders or repairs.
There’s no shortage of space in VR. No limitations of architecture or layout. In the real world, if a curator wants to move an object, change a case, even correct a label, the answer is hell to the no! All of that costs money and time, and the once an exhibition or gallery is set, there’s no changing it barring a total disaster.
You can assemble a collection of the best, most relevant, most important objects from anywhere in the world — even ones that have been destroyed, or are owned by asshole museums who don’t want to loan the physical originals. And if visitors don’t like it, no harm — all these changes can be instantly reversible at zero cost.
We’ll also be able to track visitors much more accurately. Forget about questionnaires and surveys, you’ll be able to perform gaze tracking on every single person for every single second they’re in the gallery. You’ll know exactly when people stop reading a label, and you’ll be able to optimise and personalise experiences just in the same way that Facebook and Google A/B test their apps and websites (I’m not saying this is a good thing, but the capability will be present).
It’s hard to see how ‘physical’ museums will be able to compete with the scale of VR museums, even without teleporting visitors to the Pyramids. Oh, and there’s one more thing: with scale comes profit. And with profit comes investors.
That VR weapons experience I mentioned before, where you get to fire muskets and rifles and pistols from across the ages? It’d cost a few hundred thousand dollars to do a really good job at it. That’s well beyond most museums’ budgets for ‘interactives’ (e.g. touchscreen games) which typically top out at the low tens of thousands. But it’s nothing for a well-capitalised company that plans to sell this experience to the entire world rather than a single city.
Netflix is upending the entertainment business by producing original content they can sell to a global audience. This year, they’re spending $150 million to make ten episodes of The Crown. There is no TV network in the world that can afford to spend that kind of cash. And if the Netflix of Museums spends $50 million on a single VR gallery that they sell to everyone on the planet, they’ll be able to buy up the very best curators, academics, designers, and artists, and not even The Met, Louvre, or British Museum will be able to compete.
We can expect Facebook, Google, and Amazon to fund similar VR museum efforts as well. They want attention, and a museum-like educational experience is a good complement to blowing up aliens and flying through space. They’ll initially partner with the likes of The Met, and then promptly disintermediate them by going straight to curators and designers. Their dispassionate algorithms will have precisely no problem highlighting an amazing VR experience made by freelance academic above a bigger one made by the British Museum.
It may seem absurd to be worrying about the ‘Netflix of Museums’. Barely a million people even own high-end VR headsets today! But in the space of only two decades, we saw the internet effectively destroy the entire newspaper industry. It’s not hard to see VR museums going from a laughable curiosity to wiping out museum attendance numbers in the same amount of time.
There are other similarities. Think how newspapers have seen every single one of their most popular and profitable sections — classifieds, sport, technology, business, culture, comics, gossip, celebrities — targeted and dismantled by digital publications. Likewise, we’ll see VR museum-like organisations that are subject specific yet global, dedicated to particular time periods and regions but not physically limited to single cities. Fun museums, serious museums, dinosaur-only museums, museums of mummies.
It’s hard to be all things to all people. Many museums try. It’s a noble aspiration, and one that future organisations won’t be saddled with.
A cynic, or more generously a realist, would say that most people don’t go to museum to look at and learn from objects — they go tick off a box on their big trip to London, or to catch up with friends, or to take the kids. And too few realise that a museum is much more than its public galleries — its curators, conservators, and educators do absolutely vital research and preservation work. So I’m well aware that VR museums cannot replace the entirety of existing museums.
But unfortunately, that doesn’t really matter, because there are clear parallels with another threatened institution: libraries.
In the UK, we’re sadly accustomed to hearing how libraries are obsolete in the age of ebooks and the Internet, even though they do much more than house printed volumes. Museums had better be prepared for the very same arguments about how VR and the Internet obviates the need for the public display of objects, lest they be subject to (even more) massive funding cuts.
And just with newspapers and libraries, there are strong arguments for the essential roles and responsibilities museums fulfil very well. I don’t trust anyone other than museums to properly study, conserve, and store important cultural objects. This is not a job I would trust the Discovery Channel with, or Google, or Netflix, or Amazon, or any private organisation.
But the truth is that we can’t expect museums to always be the best at creating environments that help people explore and understand other cultures — by which I mean, exhibits and galleries. It’d be like concluding in 1990 that newspapers would forever be superior at sports news or tech reviews or opinion pieces than any other organisation. We now know this is false, and that newspapers’ dominance was due to their superior distribution and bundling of information.
For a long time, museums were also the only game in town. You couldn’t just set up a museum in your back yard, any more than you could set up a newspaper in your study — there were massive barriers to entry, high fixed costs, and significant ongoing costs. Those axioms will no longer hold true in the age of VR.
And then museums will be trapped in a bind. The very things that we want and trust museums to do — preserve and conserve objects for future generations — are the things that keep them out of sight or behind glass. But VR will allow us to get right up close to those objects, to look around, over and under them. It’ll let us hold and use them, piece them together, see them in their original environments, even climb inside.
I don’t see how most museums will survive. The famous ones will be fine no matter what, if increasingly irrelevant to the cultural conversation, and the smart ones will address the high end by doing what VR cannot, with guided tours and hands-on experiences and events and so on. It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be pretty.
But I’m rooting for them.