Virtual Reality Can Put Better Context to Museum Displays

Art aficionados began to see the exciting possibilities of virtual reality when Disney announced that Salvador Dali's 1935 painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's "Angelus" will be brought to life using virtual reality. This hardly comes as a surprise since, as we wrote in a previous article, surrealism and VR blend seamlessly in countless ways.

But what about the other, non-surreal contexts of museum and gallery displays? For instance, how does one contextualize an ordinary day in the Bronze Age, where no towering, skeletal figures against a backdrop of birdsong, crescent moon, and gloomy skies exist to fire up the imagination? What if museum goers need a real, immersive (and largely unexciting) experience to understand how our ancestors lived, survived, and carved history for themselves and for the rest of civilization?

Enter the British Museum's 4000-year old roundhouse virtual reality project, which invites visitors to engage in the past in a more intimate way than merely ogling dusty artifacts under glass. The project was launched in the last quarter of 2015, with thousands of young visitors having taken part in the experiment in its first weekend alone. Located at the basement of the museum's Great Court, this first foray into virtual reality and digital interpretation of historical artifacts features three Bronze Age objects that were recently discovered. They are placed within their original context, and augmented with a series of gallery talks to further contextualize their possible purpose and function.

“The technology is particularly useful for the bronze age, a difficult period for visitors to engage with and imagine museum objects in their original context,” the gallery curator Neil Wilkin said. And while the museum's senior staff admitted that the technology involved (a VR headset and a tablet) took some getting used to, younger staff and students embraced the experience more willingly and with more excitement.

In the consequent immersions and talks that followed, some very interesting views and theories cropped up: that objects previously judged to be merely ornamental may have more practical functions, and that people did not necessarily "live in filth" 4000 years ago. Given a less "boring" way to look at these artifacts, museum-goers began thinking more critically and looking beyond first impressions, and crafting a more intimate experience of the past in different contexts.

What was originally seen as something to exclusively augment the gaming technology now has a place in heritage use, thanks to the democratizing effect of Cardboard headsets and its various inceptions. As Salvador Dali once said: "Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision." Virtual reality is finally unshackling the limits of seeing and imagining, and the future is so bright, you gotta wear ---- VR headsets.

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