In early September, the Knight Foundation sponsored an event at the Detroit Institute of Arts called Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?. Here are some reflections from the day.
Waning attendance has museum professionals seeking novel ways to increase audiences. Many institutions are looking to immersive technology as salvation for their visitation woes. Technology alone, however, will not ensure the future of museum attendance. Museums need to develop engaging, immersive experiences to buoy to transform their attendance.
Museums, Technology, and Immersion Now
Technology appeals to museum executives hoping to counteract criticism of being stodgy or old-fashioned. While a decade ago museums often placed technology in sequestered spaces creating an immersive environment by virtue of their physical installation, the most successful recent technology projects are informational rather than immersive. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gained wide notoriety for their SendMe SFMOMA project, where users could text words to receive corresponding objects. The millions of users increased their awareness of SFMOMAs collection through short, transactional moments. SendMeSFMOMA’s success was predicated on employing mainstream tools to deliver surprising content. Akron Art Museum’s Dot Chatbot is like a virtual educator, answering questions in real time.
At the same time, museums are in the midst of a non-technology immersion trend. Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition, Infinite Mirrors, invites people to walk into transformative spaces, many employing mirrors to heighten the effect. The exhibition sold out in venues across the country, with second-party sellers asking hundreds of dollars for a single ticket. While Kusuma’s earliest rooms date to the 1960s, her work’s popularity increased exponentially, thanks to cell phones and social media. Celebrities like Beyonce and Ivanka Trump proudly posted pictures of themselves in her Infinite Mirrors exhibition on their Instagram. The success of the exhibition can be seen as due to the popular zeitgeist rather than the immersive qualities of the works. Visitors want to visit the rooms to photograph themselves in the space.
However, Kusuma’s recent spike in popularity has spawned many immersive museum experiences. The Museum of Ice Cream, the Museum of Selfies, and the Color Factory are examples of immersive spaces. Rather than looking at collections, visitors play in installations. The most successful built immersive experience is not a museum at all, but the artist-made space, MeowWolf, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Artists Golda Blaise and Vince Kadlubek, in collaboration with a larger team, turned an abandoned bowling alley into an interactive artwork. Speaking in Detroit, Kadlubek noted that immersive experiences allow people the agency to drive their engagement. In the MeowWolf experience, visitors are awarded for their curiosity with sensory excess and pleasure. Immersion is a positive feedback loop that drives the enjoyment.
Low-tech immersion has a long history in museums. Specimens and artworks from the world over flooded into Western collections displayed to quell the voracious European intellectual interests. Beginning in 1812, John Soane, an early prophet of museums, filled his London home with his collection of 45,000 objects. Visitors today, like those of Soane’s time, can be awed, inspired, and even overwhelmed by Soane’s collecting prowess. Public museums in the 19th century continued Soane’s practice of displaying objects in dense groupings. Salon hanging, or hanging works in multiple stacked tiers, was common practice for most major art collections well into the 20th century. The sheer volume of art in one space inspired delight and wonder in visitors. Everyone could find something that appealed.
The physical space of the early museums were also immersive environments. Most early museums included fine details throughout from detailed floors, vaulted ceilings, and adorned exterior architecture. This attention to detail was meant to elicit specific feelings in visitors. Consider the fine exterior courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its extraordinary mosaic tile scenes depicting artisans in action. Visitors, then and now, feel the transformative effect of spending a few minutes cosseted from the hubbub of London street, seated on the cool grass, surrounded by the awe-inspiring built environment.
Museum practices have moved away from chock-a-block installations and baroque spaces in the two hundred years since Soane’s time. American museums particularly have moved towards thinned out galleries surrounded by empty wall space. Museum professionals often suggest sparse installations allow visitors the chance to examine collections closely.
Immersion in Society
As museum practice has become more rarified, everyday life has become more immersive. Most visitors walking into museums have experienced some form of brand immersion. Most stores have a music playlist carefully chosen to project their company culture. Walking through the aisles, the shopper is unconsciously being immersed into the feel of their brand.
Explicitly immersive experiences are big business, as well. Disney makes billions annually on visitors hoping to escape into a different reality. Disney draws on decades of immersive education to deliver seamless experiences to visitors by blending built space with technology. Most visitors notice the attention to detail in the built space that makes fictional spaces manifest. However, Disney also exemplifies the hallmark of immersive experiences. Heightened experiences require playing with multiple senses. Disney subtly controls every sense in their spaces, including smell. With the mechanics hidden, the Disney visitor can be transformed into worlds that never existed.
Successful experiences do not need built space to be immersed. Video games are a $108.9 billion industry partly thanks to their highly immersive nature. Setting aside virtual reality and augmented reality for the moment, most video games have all the hallmarks of immersive experiences. Games are designed to make players feel as if they have entered the world of the game. The effect is so compelling that players often lose all sense of time as they become subsumed by the experience. People playing games feel empathy for their digital simulacrum in the game. The immersive nature of video games, like in Disney, is a carefully manufactured effect. Designers craft compelling storylines and build out complex digital spaces complete auditory effects and sounds. Players respond by feeling completely transported to the game world.
The appetite for immersive leisure has fueled intense interest in virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality is a technology tool, usually accessed through a visor-headset, let’s users explore a world in 360-degrees. Augmented reality adds a virtual layer to reality, say through using a mobile app that combines input from a camera with digital content. Virtual reality uses technology to take people to new places, while augmented reality brings new places into people’s current reality.
These technologies remain in their pioneer phase. Consumer behaviors will help the scale of success and diffusion of VR and AR. Pokemon Go is oft noted as being the first successful AR game. In the game, players capture figures who seemingly appear in their actual surroundings, as pictured in the app. The player’s wonderment and delight are predicated on the juxtapositions between their world and another reality. The New York Times, under Maureen Towey, has been producing virtual reality videos that use cell phones and Google Cardboard. Towey noted at the Detroit convening that this medium allows people to explore in 360 degrees just as they view their real world. The NYTimesVR endeavor is seen as an extension of their existing work. These short videos are framed to tell immersive stories. Through experiencing video of the Land of Salt and Fire, for example, consumers delve into a story about Ethiopia’s Afar people.
Consumer behavior outside the museum sphere affects their desires for institutions. The trend for immersive exhibitions, therefore, is as much a product of the appetite for immersive games as an interest in being able to take trendy social media photographs. Therefore, museums would be remiss to ignore immersion as a form of visitor engagement. Immersive engagement is within the museum’s historical underpinnings.
Museums and the Future of Immersion
A few museums have had real success using technology to enhance reality. The Canadian Human Rights Museum had a well-reviewed virtual reality experience helping patrons understand the lives of Guatemalan women. The Knight Foundation-funded Detroit Institute of Art’s Lumin experience uses AR to deliver interpretation about the collection. While there are differences between these experiences, an important similarity connects them—they are visually-driven technology-mediated interpretive tools. Technology allows museums to break away from textual interpretation. Engaging patrons using other senses and forms of meaning-making is an important step in diversifying audiences.
These early museum AR/VR projects, though, only hint at the future of museum immersion. For the possibilities to come to fruition, however, the field needs to transform many of its processes. Immersion requires placing visitor experience above content goals. For museums, moving towards a human-centered design can be challenging. Museums are more comfortable at broadcasting information based on their internal, curatorial goals. This status quo is antithetical to the ideal processes needed to create compelling, immersive experiences. However, if museums are willing to move towards visitor-centered experience design, their audience and reach will expand greatly. The trade-off is the long run is a worthy one. Immersive experiences offer museums a future where huge audiences are a reality.