Augmented Reality and the museum: preserving history by (re)imagining the past

“One place, however, where AR is still making its mark on small screens is the museum world. Those who run museums know that the people walking around their buildings are already spending an inordinate amount of time using their phones, whether it’s taking pictures or texting friends or taking pictures to text to friends. So it only makes sense to find ways to turn phones into storytelling tools that can bring the inanimate to life. Or shift time. Or add layers of knowledge. More museums are taking the leap and while the results can sometimes still seem a bit gimmicky, it’s a move in the right direction.” (Rieland)

Traditionally speaking, museums have mostly been a place of solitary reflection. In the past few decades, with the rise of technology and the influence of social media, this aspect of museums seems to be rapidly changing. When we decide to visit a newly opened exhibition, we take the whole world with us on our journey. We tweet, check-in on Facebook, share our thoughts on countless platforms and have virtual conversations with fellow art-lovers. We are in a sense in two places at the same time: the physical reality and the virtual sphere, constantly shifting our attention back and forth, our smart devices acting as a portal that beams us up into the cloud and then brings us back to Earth the following second.

Having attended a class on Transforming Spaces in my Theory and Practice course, held by Angeliki Chrysanthi, I started pondering upon the exciting prospects of using AR in museums. There we talked about the CHESS project, which was the first time I have heard of such an initiative. I then started researching in what other ways augmented reality has been implemented in these spaces so imbued with history, but also how this relatively new tool could be used to enhance the experience of visitors and spark the interest of the young generations. In Manovich’s definition, AR is “the physical space overlaid with dynamically changing information. This information is likely to be in multimedia form and is often localized for each user.” (Manovich 220)

Its ability to bring to life the widest variety of exhibits, from long-extinct dinosaurs to still images, seems as intriguing for the viewers as it is for the people creating these projects, as “the innovative forms of augmented reality (AR) appearing on smartphones have proven to be exciting playgrounds for curators and museum educators.” (Schavemaker et al.) One of the reasons for this is the fact that “various augmentation and monitoring technologies add new dimensions to a 3D physical space, making it multidimensional” (Manovich 223) , thus not only rendering a digital version of an object or place, but adding endless new layers of information to the surrounding spaces, translating the past into a language we can more easily understand and feel akin to. Another highly engaging project is one created by the Science Museum in London: they have designed an iPhone app that turns James May, the famous presenter from ‘Top Gear’, into a virtual museum guide: “By aiming the camera at a marker near nine of the exhibits in the Making the Modern World Gallery, you conjure up a CGI version of May, spinning tales and reeling off details about steam engines and the first home computers.” (Rieland)

CGI version of James May at the Science Museum in London. (Source: The Register)

In addition to the fact that AR can be used indoors in countless ways – for example, to add flesh to the bones of dinosaurs as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has done, or to enable visitors to explore centuries-old objects from their permanent collection in much more detail, as the Getty Museum in LA has achieved in their exhibit called “Life of Art”, – the technology can also be used to bring art into the streets. One of the most renown such initiatives is the Museum of London’s project called Streetmuseum, an iPhone App that allows users to discover the old London: when walking around the streets of the city and holding up their cameras to a present-day scene, a photograph or a painting will appear on the screen showing the same space some decades or centuries ago, providing a small window through time to anyone interested. It is not exactly time-travel TARDIS style, but it allows one to be able to compare the two moments in time, and bridge the gap between past and present.  This new technology therefore “allows cultural institutions to thrust their digitized artworks out of the database into the streets. […] The viewer is thus offered a visual blend of the ‘now’ and the ‘then’, which of course leads to all sorts of fascinating narratives about urban and social changes.“ (Schavemaker et al.)

Example of overlaying an image on a present day street scene with the Streetmuseum app. (Source: International Business Times)

For me, as an avid museumgoer, one of the most intriguing aspects is the fact that, while in some countries, AR has by now become an inherent part of any exhibition, there are still so many places where time seems to have frozen. It is an exciting prospect to see how and when those museums will fall in line with the current times and how they shall (re-)imagine the past using this technology. Augmented reality is definitely an innovative way to curate not just art, but all the histories of humanity preserved in cultural institutions. Its playfulness contributes to a multi-layered visitor experience, regardless of age, that enables a kind of familiarity with the viewed object or space, helping the visitor remember more and become more involved in its history.

Works Cited

Manovich, Lev. “The Poetics of Augmented Space.” 5.2 (2006): 219–240. Web. Visual Communication.

Rieland, Randy. “Augmented Reality Livens up Museums.” Smithsonian. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Schavemaker, Margriet et al. “Augmented Reality and the Museum Experience | Museumsandtheweb.com.” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

3 thoughts on “Augmented Reality and the museum: preserving history by (re)imagining the past

  1. Brings to mind many fascinating possibilities. Technically there’s nothing stopping an exhibition from say: having an old steam engine on display, and using AR to overlay animations and graphics showing it working, complete with workers shoveling coal and gears turning. Once wearable technology advances more into the AR space (see Microsoft HoloLens). Great article.

    1. There are definitely infinite possibilities of what we can do using both AR and VR in all aspects of human life, not just the museum space. But with it come many challenges that must still be overcome, like the fact that many still reject the idea that such technologies might tamper with the sober aura of museums and libraries. However, new technological advances have opened up an exciting new world that we must learn to implement in both cultural and educational institutions.

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