By Hannah Shepard
Museums are crucial to society as the keepers of our history, culture and art. They provide a tangible learning experience that has the power to invoke thought and conversation. Yet, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, museum attendance has been declining dramatically since 1982. The exact reasoning for this unfortunate decline is unknown, but one could speculate that the rise in technology is a likely culprit.
With everything at our fingertips – online shopping, grocery delivery, digital classrooms – it’s a surprise we ever leave the house. To combat this decline, museums are working harder than ever to develop new and engaging programming, especially those that would appeal to the younger generation who are used to staring at a screen. While there are ‘digital’ museums available now, such as Google’s “Art & Culture” app, which allows users to experience a virtual tour of some of the world’s greatest museums, these only further the problem of lower visitation rates.
To bridge the gap, many museums are incorporating virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) on site, enhancing the viewers’ experience by bringing exhibitions to life. Technology like this elevates the museum into an immersive adventure, where digital scenes feel like reality and visitors can even interact within the environment. It is also a clever way to provide additional educational and contextual information about the exhibit’s subjects. One of the pioneering institutions to incorporate the VR experience is the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Since 2016, visitors have been able to adventure into the deep sea or outer space and even inside the human body, either as passive or active explorers. The Louvre, the Smithsonian, the Tate Modern, the Met, the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are all modern museums who have adopted this technology.
In particular, if you have ever attempted to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, you know it is a true feat to see it over the hordes of tourists trying to do the same thing. The crowds of the Mona Lisa are such a problem that the Louvre was unable to include the painting in its Leonardo da Vinci retrospective and instead offered attendees a full seven-minute VR experience titled Mona Lisa: Behind the Glass.
Virtual reality may not abate society’s desire for screens, but, by appealing to its tech savvy ways, it has made the physical museum an exciting place to visit once again. Though, as technological convenience advances, preserving their appeal will be a never-ending endeavor for these institutions. Fortunately, there is the power of community, with forums like the MCN conference, which draws over 600 cultural heritage professionals to discuss “advancing digital transformation in museums.” Museums preserve and protect more than a billion objects and are considered one of the most trustworthy sources of information. If you haven’t treated yourself to stepping into one lately, they’re still worth the visit.