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When museums became virtual – 2: now & beyond

Text by Riccardo Bianchini, Inexhibit
For image credits: see captions

Sensorium touchless haptics

When museums became virtual – part 2: now and beyond

Virtual museums today

Much of that intriguing scenario, described in the first part of this article, proved wrong, and there are very few 3D virtual museums today, except for rare exceptions, such as a mobile app released in late 2015 to offer an interactive preview of the Corones museum designed by Zaha Hadid (7), or the virtual museum dedicated to the well-known fashion designer Valentino.

Virtual visit Corones museum

MMM Corones museum by Zaha Hadid Architects, screenshot of the 3D virtual visit app (left – 2015) and a photo of the built museum (right), photo Inexhibit 

Virtual Museum Valentino Garavani

Screenshot of the “Virtual Museum Valentino Garavani” (2011)

It is worth mentioning that the original idea developed by Apple in 1992 was resuscitated by Intel in 2011 with a “web 2.0” Facebook app called The Museum of Me. Through this app, the “social life” of people would have been supposedly converted into a virtual museum, exhibiting posts, photos and messages within a sort of three dimensional environment. It’s pretty clear that  the problem with this idea is both its misuse of the term “museum” and the somehow egocentric approach to life it tickles. This odd app is no more available today, I suspect with a beneficial effect on Intel’s credibility.

Intel Museum of Me

The Facebook app, “The Museum of Me” by Intel (2011)

Immersive 3D virtual museums did not succeed because, on one side, developing a complex 3D model and transforming it into an interactive environment requires very specialized technical capabilities and is extremely expensive, on another side computer-generated 3D interfaces and environments did not become as popular as expected, and they are today almost exclusively adopted in video gaming.

Nevertheless, the concept behind those early experiments is still alive, though in a “depleted” version. The list of museums that feature virtual tours of their galleries, either developed by themselves or through the Google street view program, is indeed considerable.

Nearly all such virtual tours are based on 360° panoramas made by stitching together a variable number of photographs (a technique developed in the late ’80s and similar to the mentioned Quicktime VR developed by Apple). Notable examples are countless but you can get a good idea on how they works visiting the virtual tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History at http://www.mnh.si.edu/vtp/1-desktop/.

Smithsonian HMNH virtual tour

Screenshot of the virtual tour available on the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Furthermore, some IT big names, including Google, seem to still see a future for virtual reality, an example is the introduction of cheap head-mounted VR devices based on mobile phones, such as the Google Cardboard introduced in 2014; interestingly, one of the first (and still rare) applications released for such device features a virtual tour of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Google Cardboard Louvre virtual tour

Google Cardboard

A Google Cardboard VR headset and the “Paris VR” Android app specifically conceived for it

I admit I have problems with this kind of museums and, to be honest, I don’t like them much.
A virtual version of a museum should be, in my vision, an alter ego of its physical counterpart, of which it shares the same mission and personality, while at the same time being “alter”, which means different and alternative.
Furthermore, if the goal of a museum is to invite people to physically visit its venue(s), what’s the point of providing quasi-real online replicas of such venues, for free moreover?
Are those institutions sure that such virtual visits do not keep people away from their museums, rather than leading them to them?

Virtual vs physical vs intangible

In 2003, UNESCO introduced the concept of “Intangible cultural heritage” as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts” (7); and subsequently added the even more vague sub-category of “Digital intangible heritage”, which seems to include every possible kind of the aforementioned immaterial forms of expression when recorded or transmitted by the means of a digital medium. I don’t enter in such dangerous matter, nevertheless it is worth briefly investigating how such decision have impacted on museums overall, and specifically on virtual ones.

Such revised description soon influenced the same definition of museum by ICOM I have reported at the opening of this article. It was indeed modified by adding the adjective “intangible” to the heritage a museum should be founded on. Such an apparently marginal addition, opened a can of worms in the concept of what a museum is.
Indeed, if the concept of intangible heritage can be by some extent not difficult to define in theory, it is much harder to incorporate it in an institution such as museums that, as we have seen earlier, is inherently based (also) on the act of tangibly exhibiting something.

Thus, at least as far as I know, every form of expression presented in a physical museum is either based on physical objects or is conveyed to the visitor through some kind of physical device, presumably due to the basic fact that visitors are physical entities, after all.
Nonetheless, is not impossible to transmit intangible cultural contents in the framework of a physical environment. For example, is not that difficult to create a multimedia installation featuring Orson Well’s Citizen Kane, Australian aboriginal songs, or even daring to present Kant’s concept of “transcendental idealism”.

Yet, the distinction between communicating and exhibiting could easily become a faint one when museums “displays” intangible culture, and the risk that they metamorphose into cinemas, media libraries or documentary repositories is real, even more real when such intangible cultural entities are stored and transmitted in a digital form.
Thus, it is not enough to add some touch-screen kiosks in order to exhibit an intangible heritage, a museum should provide a complex, multi-sensory, physical and mental experience to the visitors, instead.

interactive installation Sassari city museum

Gesture-based interactive video installation in an ethnographic museum

Looking forward

Thus, should immersive virtual museums be considered as evolutionary dead ends, like saber-toothed cats and smell-o-vision?
I don’t think so, at least as soon as museums realize that their “virtual” existence on the cyberspace should be other than their physical one, as I mentioned above.

On one side, portions of the logic behind virtual museum have been transferred into physical museums in the form of “augmented reality” techniques, conveyed by digital glasses, smartphones, tablets and so on; my opinion is that such means of communication have a great potential but should be implemented carefully. Indeed, all such techniques somehow detach the visitor from experiencing the physical exhibition, potentially distracting the public from a museum’s most valuable assets.
Thus, using augmented reality to give new life to a Pleistocene whale could be great, while superimposing fake Roman gladiators to an archaeological area could easily destroy all the fascination and the empathy “the real thing” can provide.


The “Skin and Bones” augmented reality app, released by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Furthermore, companies such as Google have a great confidence that we will soon be constantly interconnected in a global network of communication, experiences and empathic digital relations with one another. Dream or nightmare such scenario can be considered, they are probably right and we should therefore dig into how to make it reasonable and turn it into something positive instead than a sort of consumerist-obsessed Big Brother.

Although not very successful, I still believe that experiments like the already mentioned Virtual Guggenheim (see part 1) hit the target in many ways, since they  provide:

– a virtual space capable to go further the forms and conventions of physical architecture, fully exploiting the possibilities of a space not conditioned by the force of gravity, safety regulations, dimensional constraints, and so on
– an environment in which the visitors are free to move as they like, an essential requirement to give the “illusion” of a “real” virtual space (no pun intended)
– a digital venue hosting activities specifically conceived by museums for the internet (like   web-based educational courses, collaborative workshops, teleconferencing and so on)
– a cyber-space where immaterial exhibits – such as digital artworks, 3D models, collaborative digital art, digitally-recorded music or videos – are on view in a coherent home

The last point is obviously related to what I have exposed in the precedent paragraph. While it could be strange, or at least difficult, to create physical museum galleries presenting only intangible contents; a virtual museum could be the ideal container for them, instead. Thus, a cyber-museum could coherently presents digital art, music, videos, sound recordings, even immaterial concepts and ideas, in a digital form; yet, still preserving the difference between communicating and exhibiting by the means of immersive, multi-sensory environments.

This way, a museum would have two embodiments, a physical one which conserves, studies and exhibits physical (tangible) heritage and a virtual one conserving, studying and exhibiting digital (intangible) heritage. Even totally-virtual museums not corresponding to any physical venue are possible, as long as they deal with intangible forms of culture.
While it makes no sense to transform a series of photographs of a real museum into a digital replica of it, there are also activities and exhibitions which similarly makes no sense to transform into physical entities, because were born and still are eminently digital.

I have to admit that, these days, our technological development is still well far from being able to offer a truly virtual experience, and the promising technology developed in the early-90s has not evolved, we may say it somehow regressed indeed. Nevertheless, I am rather confident that there will be museums which will realize the new possibilities of becoming truly virtual again, some day.

That said, such scenario requires a complete new set of technologies and devices. If the theory behind virtual museums (and virtual reality, more generally speaking) had already been fully unfolded, development tools, human-machine interfaces and VR devices are not. Among the reasons why virtual reality failed in the early 2000s, ridiculously monumental devices, hugely expensive hardware, and over-complicate software played some role, I guess.

I do not expect IT companies to devise a complete new array of devices and programs only to create stunning virtual museums. Yet, flexible paper-like displays so large we could wrap around us, gesture-based smart interfaces, ultrasonics feedback devices, free 3D “digital-clay” modelers, and more, could be commercially available in a reasonable amount of time, at least because the notoriously profitable market of mobile communication could be interested in gradually implementing some of such techniques. Quite ironically, the next generation of virtual museums could be a secondary consequence of one of the most mundane technological businesses around.

LG flexible OLED display

The flexible OLED display presented by LG in 2014

Yet, the crucial point is that virtual museums should never replace physical ones. We all live in an increasingly virtual world, and the experience of interacting through our physical body with a physical venue – maybe in another country where people speak a different language, wear different clothes, and eat different food – will be increasingly priceless.
The more we will be able to couple such physical experience with a complementary digital one, and complementary is the key-world, the more we will provide 21st century museums a truly contemporary sense.

Sensorium installation Tate Britain 04

The “Sensorium” installation, featured at Tate Britain in 2015, adopted a touchless device, based on a ultrasound technology developed by the University of Bristol, to provide interaction and tactile sensation without actually coming into contact with a physical surface; photo by Joe Humphrys/Tate Photography


7) UNESCO, Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 17 October 2003, Paris, France


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Examples of digital communication technology in culture and education

Examples of digital communication technology in culture and education

Examples of digital communication technology in culture and education