As technology evolves in front of our eyes, it’s obvious that more and more of the classics are being brought to the current times. That applies to museums as well. Usually seen as tourist attractions, museums provide us with history and representations of the past and are fine examples of how people perceive these places: a must when you go on vacation, in order to say that you’ve truly taken in the atmosphere of the city and its past. Things change though. Rapidly. No one expected a global pandemic. No tourists were spotted when everybody was on lockdown. No one visited the museums anymore. At least not physically. Many curators understood that if they want to stay relevant and keep their museum alive, they must adapt to the situation (and as quickly as possible at that) and enter the online world.
Why must museums adapt?
As museums are meant to preserve cultural heritage, they strive to develop their collections to showcase to the general public the flow of time. They also serve the purpose of providing educational materials for their visitors, so that people will not only wander through the place in order to see unique artwork, but also gain knowledge of how it all came to be, who made it and what it represents. In a way, you could say that museums are like a walk-in encyclopedia. The difference between an encyclopedia and a museum is that if you can buy a book based on things that fully interest you, at a museum there’s a chance that you don’t want to see everything. Just think about how many tourists go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and a few other pieces, while there are sections that are not that searched for. Also, while it is great to go to a museum, you are only buying an experience, not an actual object. You can buy a souvenir from the gift shop if you want something more than the memory of visiting the museum, but that’s just one small way of keeping the memory alive. In our virtual museum, things are a bit different though.
A brief history of immersive experiences
Virtual reality is nothing new at this point in time. We’ve all heard of it and experienced it at least once (be it through a work meeting or a VR headset). But the possibilities offered by VR have really grown over the years. We spend a great number of hours on the internet daily, from searching for a new recipe to scrolling endlessly through Instagram or TikTok. Not to mention that because of the pandemic, a lot of physical activities (schools, universities, jobs etc.) migrated to the online space, thus making us sit even more in front of a screen daily. It’s important to mention though that despite all the tragic things that happened in the world, the lockdown brought a few good things. It may sound hard to believe, but it’s actually the truth. Museums were forced to adapt, just as every other domain of activity. Some started hosting live events on Facebook for people to “participate” at an exhibition, while others made their collections available online, for the whole world to see. People’s fascination with immersive experiences has always been present, no matter the era. Even before virtual and augmented reality became so well-developed, 3D movies were very popular. Before that, as early as the late 18th century, people were creating “phantasmagoria” by using smoke, mirrors, sound effects and magic lanterns in order to tell a story. Humans always loved being completely captivated by something so much that they forget where they are and how much time passes. It’s a practice as old as telling ghost stories around a campfire. But virtual and augmented reality reshaped everything and created a new market for immersive experiences.
How can VR help a museum?
As mentioned above, the pandemic made it harder for people to visit museums (or anything, actually), therefore museums were also made to adapt, being given that they needed to earn money in order to continue to function. Curators had to find ways to stay relevant, as it became less important bringing physical objects to your location, but rather how to convey as much information as possible to a wider audience that was stuck at home, without much to do. By entering the online space, museums can ensure their functionality regardless of the global context and can appeal to many more people than before. Granted, this does come with advantages and disadvantages. Even if they gain important audience reach and the costs of maintenance are reduced, the control over who visits your expositions is lost. We’ve all heard a story about how one person bought one ticket to an online event and at least two other people were watching on that person’s account. Thus, this creates tension between wanting to open access and go online and maintaining control over who actually pays for exclusive content. For now, there is no perfect recipe of how to balance these two elements, but it is, without a doubt, a great plus for museums to step up their game and enter the virtual world.
But information can be found anywhere
One could argue that yes, going to a museum is a great experience (even to a virtual one), learning about art is a good thing for your general knowledge, but why should we buy tickets for stuff that we can find on our own? Just type “Mona Lisa” on Google images and there you have it, in multiple resolutions. Then just type on Google and a ton of articles will appear with information about it (and as the media evolved, the accuracy of information also evolved with it). The biggest difference is in what you gain. If a search on Google gives you information, a virtual museum gives you a unique experience that easily surpasses a simple image on a website. It creates a space where it’s only you and the art, with no disturbances and a full dive into the realm of creativity.
VIFAF (Virtual International Fine Art Fair) will provide just that: an immersive experience into the world of fine arts, with artists from all over the world showcasing their pieces. The 8 floors of the virtual exhibition will be packed with rare items of high quality, from artists who are passionate about telling their stories. As this event is a bit different than a normal museum though, participants can also buy whatever piece of art they want from the exhibition and receive it in the real world. Participants can enjoy this experience through their desktop or through a VR headset, it will be memorable any way they choose. So keep an eye on this event, as it is one of the biggest virtual fairs to take place yet.