VR Will Break Museums

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.

The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

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.

Making the Modern World at the Science Museum

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:

Swords at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (but really, it could be anywhere)

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”

200 Years of Change

A game I like to play at history museums is imagining the present-day equivalents of past behaviour and objects. So at The Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton, London, it’s fun to look at their Period Rooms and link up past and present behaviours.


Take the 1935 Living Room; the armchairs are pointed at the fireplace (which obviously would be a TV today), and there’s a record player and radio in the corner (also TV/hifi). Or the 1695 Parlour, in which the woman of the house would spend her day noting down the household receipts on the writing cabinet (i.e. iMac) before joining her husband for dinner and listening to him read out the day’s newspaper (watching Netflix).


Then there’s the 1790 Parlour, with a set of playing cards laid out on the table. Just imagine what present day families might do when entertaining friends – why, they’d… play cards! Or maybe boardgames. Yes, it turns out that we still all want reasons to talk and gossip in an formalised way, and the things we did back 200 years ago are still pretty much exactly the same now.


The Period Rooms go all the way up to 1998.

As you might expect from me, another fun thought experiment is imagining what the Period Room and gallery notes for 2014 would be; probably a room dominated by a big Samsung TV with a Playstation, some bluetooth speakers, Ikea bookshelves, a corner sofa, surround sound speakers, and a coffee table. “Here, the co-habiting couple would gather in the evening to watch ‘television serials’ and ‘YouTube cat videos’, while perusing social media on Twitter and Facebook on their tablet computers.”

The Period Room for 2034, of course, would just be an empty room with a near-invisible projector, an easy chair, and a virtual reality headset.

The British Museum: Ming and Germany

The British Museum has a couple of big exhibitions on at the moment, about China’s Ming dynasty and Germany.

The bigger one is undeniably Ming: 50 years that changed China, being held in the museum’s shiny new gallery. It did a solid job at contextualising what the Ming dynasty was and why 1400-1450 was so important (Beijing as the new capital, the Forbidden City, Zheng He, etc.) and the emperor’s involved, and while there were some very nice objects on display, it felt pretty antiseptic. The object that I heard the most people talking about was a lovely scroll depicting the Xuande emperor playing football, golf, and polo as part of military training exercises. You could’ve made a whole exhibition out of that…


Germany: memories of a nation doesn’t sound like the most gripping exhibition, and its subtitle “A 600-year history in objects” tellingly tries to link it to the museum’s superpowered “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. It also belies its lack of focus; the subtitle might as well have been “Some interesting stuff from Germany.” Yet it was interesting – hundreds of coins showing the Germany’s early fractured nature, interesting manufactures, Napoleon’s hat, modern artworks, wartime propaganda, and so on.

The gallery was packed full, which was rather uncomfortable given its tight confines (particularly compared to the vast spaces of the Ming exhibition). Initially, I was surprised – surely China is way more interesting and cool than Germany? – but then again, Germany is incredibly important to the UK. We feel like we know so much about it compared to other countries, perhaps because the history taught in schools is so obsessed with WW1 and WW2, but it turns out that the vast majority of people, myself included, really know very little about any part of Europe. And with Germany effectively powering the European Union, and with popular sentiment pitted so firmly against the EU, it’s hardly surprising at all that the exhibition would be popular.

So: more European exhibitions, please!

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.


Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?

I visit the Science Museum in London at least twice a year, so I was interested to read an interview with their new Director, talking about how he’s going to change the place:

A month into his job, Professor Rapley is sitting in his South Kensington office, telling me that broadly the museum’s collection celebrates “the advances in technology since the Industrial Revolution, right up to, but not quite including, today”.

He wants to turn that on its head. “Its image is that it looks backwards through its collection. It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children. Where we want to go with it, the tag line is, ‘the museum of the future’.” He would like the museum to be sufficiently up-to-date that someone seeing, say, a climate-change sceptic on TV, might think, “I’m confused about climate change. I’d better go to the Science Museum and see what they’re presenting in order to help me make up my mind.”

Prof. Rapley is spot on when he says that ‘it’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children’. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing (and I suspect he agrees), but I’m pleased with his desire to make the museum more up-to-date for adults. Unfortunately, I remain to be convinced that he’ll be able to accomplish this.

Every single science museum I’ve visited (including ones in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Sydney) tries to stay up-to-date with scientific developments with exactly the same methods:

  • Scientific news stories shown on computer touchscreens and big TVs

Basically useless. If you’re an adult in a science museum, you probably know a little about science, and you will know how to use the internet. So why bother coming in to a museum to read about science news on a computer, when you can do that at home?

  • Quarterly, or perhaps monthly, standing displays on scientific issues

Not current enough – people forget about stuff after a month, certainly three months.

  • Short talks from scientists, a few times a day

Not only do visitors need to be aware of when the talks are happening, but they need to be there on time and have the patience to sit through it. This is an unlikely confluence of events.

  • Guys dressed in white labcoats sitting behind a desk, ready to answer scientific questions

Who talks to these guys? what are you supposed to say? ‘What are your views on stem cells?’ No-one expects someone to be knowledgeable in every scientific discipline, so that further dissuades any questions.

So, you can see why I am very doubtful about the ability of the Science Museum to stay up-to-date. Continue reading “Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?”


Now with photos!

I’ve been to a lot of science musuems. Off the top of my head, I’ve visited major museums in London, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam and Sydney – and a host of smaller places besides. As I’ve written before, I don’t go with the intention of actually learning anything; the intended audience for science museums is rather less knowledgable than I am (conversely, I learn more from history museums). Instead, I love to see the different ways in which people are trying to explain scientific concepts. It’s never an easy task, and some museums are better than others in this regard, but what I do learn are interesting ways in which you can engage, educate and entertain a diverse audience.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco isn’t just next door to the Palace of Fine Arts, where we held the Perplex City live event last week – it shares the very same structure. Despite this, I didn’t even get a chance to look at its front door until some days after it was all over. I resolved to make a proper visit though; while I didn’t know much about it, I’d heard it mentioned over and over again, and it surely had to be good, sitting in the world’s creative and technology capital.

Picture a science museum. It probably has an imposing, classical facade, with a wide lobby. Inside, there are a number of areas which you can visit, so you dither in front of a map and go to Physics. It’s a middling-sized area, with a mix of banners, wall posters, computers and various exhibits. Tourists drift around, and children zip between the hands-on exhibits, frantically pressing all available buttons when they can get to the front. Their parents follow around in tow, occasionally studying the wall posters or poking at the computers. Some of the hands-on exhibits don’t work, and there seems to be an awful lot of reading to be done.

This basically describes about 70-80% of the science museums I’ve been to. They’re perfectly fine, but nothing special. The better museums have more interactive exhibits and are slightly more freeform.

Now picture the Exploratorium. Continue reading “Exploratorium”

Free, as in Beer

As a big fan of museums, I’m always eager to hear news of how well they’ve been doing since the government scrapped admissions charges. Today it’s been announced that since the charges were scrapped in 2001, visitor numbers have increased by 75%, or 6 million. Considering that it used to be fairly pricey to go to a museum, I’m not at all surprised.

The interesting part of the article is not the increase in visitor numbers, which anyone could have predicted, or the fact that the government has decided to make the change permanent. It’s the fact that the Conservatives would like to give museums the ability to charge what they want, and furthermore, they’d like to charge foreign tourists to enter. Since the Conservatives have zero chance of winning the next election, I’m not particularly fazed by this stunning show of stupidity, but it does warrant some thought.

Presumably the Conservatives simply want to roll back the changes so that along with allowing museums to charge for admission, they’d also remove their VAT exemption, meaning that we’d be in exactly the same position as three years ago – lower visitor numbers, and museums have pretty much the same money they always did. Clearly, a great result, which also happens to ignore the fact that every museum I’ve visited has some kind of premium annex (from IMAX to big dinosaur exhibitions) that makes them a fair bit of cash. There’s no doubt that museums require more funding, but reintroducing admissions charges is not the way to go.

It’s charging foreign tourists that’s the most laughable suggestion. Exactly how would this work in practice? Are museums supposed to check the nationality of every single visitor, so people would have to bring ID, not just for themselves but also for their children? Apart from the additional queues and costs this would cause, any tourist with half a brain would be able to get around it somehow (I can already think of a few ways). Besides, I’m always told by foreign friends visiting the UK how impressed they are that museums in this country are free; it leaves them with a lasting good opinion and makes them more likely to recommend the UK to their friends and relatives back home.

So, in conclusion – keep free admission, give our museums more money, and the Conservatives are stupid.

Strike Back

A recent conversation:

Him: I need to get a new mouse for my computer – the right button doesn’t work any more.
Me: Hmm, that sucks. I guess it means that you can’t-
Him: Yeah, I can’t crouch in Counterstrike any more, I can hardly play it now.


Me: I was going to say, ‘write essays as quickly’ but Counterstrike is just as good.

The Lord of the Rings exhibition I went to on Saturday was smaller than I had imagined, but in all fairness that’s not all that much more they could have put there; on display were practically all the principal costumes and suits of armour, various models, props, videos, casts, drawings and paintings. Since it was the penultimate day of the exhibition, it was fairly crowded but not so much that it wasn’t possible to get close up to the cases. Surprisingly enough, very few people actually looked at the One Ring (embedded in a pillar of perspex so people can’t get their hands – or fingers – on it), which gave me plenty of time to dance and cackle evilly around it.

Afterwardes, we wandered around the Science Museum for a couple of hours. I was not all that impressed with some of the areas and there was the usual problems of exhibits having writing too dark to read or hopelessly outdated information. The new Wellcome Wing, which was very high tech and shiny and blue, practically had the opposite problem. While it was very up-to-date, there were far too many computers around and far too little direction or purpose to the exhibits. Its only saving grace was its top floor, where it had group computer games and surveys. I couldn’t help thinking what wonders could be done in the Science Museum if their money was spent a little differently.

Take The Sword Of The King

Tomorrow I’m off to London with a motley crew of friends to see the Lord of the Rings exhibition at the Science Museum, one day before it leaves this country and heads to New York. I’m definitely looking forward to it; I wasn’t that keen on The Fellowship of the Ring, and while I enjoyed The Two Towers, I was a little uneasy about the changes in the storyline. By the time of The Return of the King, I’d accepted that the story wasn’t going to be the same as the book, so I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. In fact, I’m listening to the soundtrack (which I bought, not downloaded) right now.


Continuing my epic journey around the globe to Contact all Culture listees that are the furthest away from me (despite having not met most of the guys in London) I spent a fun day going around Melbourne with Claire.

First up was the ScienceWorks museum outside the city centre. I’ve made something of a hobby of visiting science museums in the last few years; I’m not really learning anything from them, but I do find it interesting to check up on what kids are learning these days and how the public perceive science. Being a good-for-nothing student, I got in for free although I did pay $2 to get inside the special Formula 1 section. This was interesting enough although more aimed at kids – just like the whole museum, really.

There were a few interesting exhibits in the Formula 1 section, such as a little air hockey car crash table, a Simon Says game that bore a strong resemblance to Dance Dance Revolution, and an F55 driving arcade simulator. I did pretty well on the arcade game, managing to finish the race; mind you, I was driving with all the assists on. Claire didn’t fare so well and apparently had some difficulties with the accelerator…

Things that stand out in my head from the rest of the museum: the big steam pump in the sewage station that, if in a Stephen Baxter novel, would probably have been the engine for some space rocket; the ‘journey of a poo’ computer exhibit in the sewage building; the rowing and wheelchair exhibits in the sports section; the strange talking cat in the James Cook section; and the jump measurement exhibit where, on my second go, I managed to jump a startling 9mm high (it was a bug, I swear!)

All in all, the ScienceWorks place was pretty good value for money, costing me about 70p, but it’s very much suited for kids and school groups.

For lunch, we went to the Botanic Gardens, a pleasant enough place where we talked about how the world would be far better if we were dictators. From there, it was a short walk to the Shrine of Remembrance building which was very grand, and then into the city centre. I was surprised to see that Eddie Izzard was in Melbourne that day for his Sexie tour, but seats cost $62 and I figured that I didn’t really want to go on my own; maybe I’ll go back in the UK.

As we were walking back from the Ticketmaster place, I spied an arcade, and immediately dragged Claire to be indoctrinated into the ways of Dance Dance Revolution and thus join the grand pantheon of Rich, Lal, Eccles and myself. I have to say that Claire gave it a good go and I think she was pretty good by the end of the game, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an experience she won’t repeat any time soon.

Federation Square wasn’t far away so on the recommendation of a friend we checked out the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. This was a quite a new building and still hadn’t been fully completed; however, we did manage to see the Remembrance exhibit. I made some comments to Claire about how I feel modern art can often be hit and miss, and sometimes inaccessible to those who are not completely familiar with it. It’s a difficult subject for me; while I enjoy walking around modern art galleries like the Tate Modern, a lot of it just passes me by, while there are only a few that really make an impact. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.

Coffee, and then we fought our way through the traffic to park at Melbourne University and search for a good place for dinner. A suitably good pizza place was discovered and I detailed my plan to hold a huge world Culture List event if/when I become a millionaire. It is something I have thought about not inconsiderably, and consists of two alternatives: plan A is the Culture Convention, which will take place in international waters on board a refitted warshiop, and plan B is the ‘Pied Piper of Culture’ in which I will traverse the globe, collecting various listees and terrorising the locals.

So, it was a fun day and tomorrow I’ll be going into the city centre again to check out the Melbourne Museum and the Imax, and maybe do a spot of shopping.