Back to the (Virtual) Future: Immersion and Digital Materiality in Museums

What could be the role of virtual reality experiences within heritage institutions and museums?

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality. Source: Flickr

The recovery of virtual reality (VR) experiences by the video-game and entertainment industries has contributed to creating general acceptance of this technology. It therefore becomes interesting to ask ourselves what the role of these experiences could be within heritage institutions and museums. More specifically, the current scenario is begging for us to revisit the debate around the concepts of immersion (which is strictly linked to virtual reality since its very origins) and materiality.

In museums, virtual reality experiences that make use of the technology that’s currently available (such as the Oculus Rift or Gear VR headsets) are few and only recent. Most of these experiences reproduce the conventions and stereotypes present in previous VR recreations, linked to simulating objects and archaeological sites. The Imaginary Museum and the Greek Village North of Newcastle are two examples of this. But we can also find initiatives that try to discover new approaches to the medium, such as David Attenborough’s First Life at the Museum of Natural History in London.

As professor Lon Addison summarised in the year 2000, the main lines of work for what was considered the “second wave” of VR use in the field (known as Virtual Heritage) have revolved over the last decades around three domains: archaeological documentation; representing or reconstructing spaces and intangible heritage; and, lastly, disseminating these realist environments. To these three classical lines of work, we recently (and unfortunately) needed to add a fourth one dealing with conservation emergencies and the documentation of endangered heritage sites. Such is the case of the monuments in the Syrian city of Palmira (Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage), where Bassel Khartadil was in charge of the virtual reconstruction for the #NewPalmira project until he was arrested in 2012 by the al-Assad regime.

Virtual Representation and Materiality

Within these three lines of action, when virtual reality is used in connection to cultural heritage it is usually to offer representations of real spaces to an audience that could not otherwise access them, thus replacing the in-person visit. These initiatives span from the first static three-dimensional representations to the virtual CAVE and the many approaches to online virtual tours explored by museums on their websites (some of them still active, like Washington’s Museum of Natural History or the Louvre in Paris, and some actually quite new, like the one offered by the Fundació Mapfre in Barcelona). A bit later, there was a proliferation of augmented reality digital experiences that made it possible to add pieces of information about objects and spaces, both inside and outside the museum. In some of the most successful cases, the experience is centred around a narrative or a game. Both La Lupa, which is part of meSch’s, a European research project about digital museums, and The CHEES Project are positive exceptions in as much as they try to bring space, narration and action together.

However, most of these “third wave” VR and augmented reality projects don’t add anything meaningful to the field. Instead, they repeat the patterns of previous media and communication campaigns, such as museum guides and notice boards (now digital), and in some cases they even generate distraction and noise. These projects fail most notably when it comes to facing the debate about the materiality of objects and how to create immersive experiences. All of this happens at a time of such disruption that material and digital objects fuse together, a time when digital experimentation should help rethink the limits of analog materiality: its very presence, the notion of what is real and what is a copy, the body’s involvement when engaging with an object, the role of archives, the concept of continuity within a gallery’s exhibition, the relation between the visit and the after-visit in connection to the audience’s “virtual identities”, etc.

Many experts have taken a critical stance against what these cold, inanimate recreations bring to the audience (more often than not) in comparison to experiencing a conventional in-person visit. The main line of criticism about innovation within museums has been framed as the need to create new, motivating environments that can generate knowledge taking these digital simulations as a starting point. In other words, these 3D objects should not be the goal of the visit, but rather the object through which an experience or a narrative is articulated. In addition to this, a second point of criticism has to do with the low levels of engagement and interaction these technologies offer in relation to the contents in the museum.

The Immersive Experience

The concept of immersion plays a key role in this debate. Traditionally, immersion was understood in terms of the hiperrealist condition of the spaces represented and the sensory stimulation added to these experiences. But these two stereotypes have done more harm than good. They led to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama Simulator, which tried to provide sensory experiences when watching a film by simulating the movement, the wind and the aroma that were in it. Another, more recent formulation of this is the VR station THE VOID. But is this the only approach to creating immersive experiences?

Feeling sensorily present inside a given space remains the most widely used stereotype to refer to an immersive virtual experience. But perhaps immersive experiences are not so strictly related to digital technologies as we tend to think. We need to take into account that intellectual immersion is present in the ancient act of oral storytelling, just as it is in reading. Narratives are eminently immersive, and the “inferential walks” Umberto Eco talked about on his Open Work (1962), where readers enter and exit the text, allow us to link real, personal space to fictional space. Reading, in fact, is also surrounded by a ritual of immersion into a fictional universe that requires a transition between two states. And that’s precisely what Italo Calvino explained to us in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new book, the novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Relax. Make yourself comfortable. Leave aside all other thoughts. Allow the world around you to vanish”.

Setting up a space that surrounds the audience is no novelty. Traditionally, some paintings tried to generate this all-enveloping feeling by taking up the whole room where they were shown, thus requiring that the audience move to explore the piece. Such is the case with Renaissance murals and, centuries later, with the first English panoramas by Robert Barker, which took up several floors.

In fact, the sense of movement these art forms achieved is lacking in VR, where the experience is usually centred around limited spaces, movement is scarce and the audience is isolated from the real heritage site or object. Having considered all of this, we should ask ourselves: what is then genuinely part of a digital immersive experience?

Digital Experiences Outside Museums

If we agree on the fact that the prevailing use that has been made of VR strongly limits the dialogue between materiality, digital immersion and the real object, it seems adequate to rethink new strategies for this third wave of VR applications on heritage. A possible proposal is to work inside the post-digital realm, instead of understanding VR as a resource that’s exclusively consumed at heritage sites. As Catherine Devine writes: “Understanding the audience’s journey is understanding that the experience neither starts nor ends at the museum”. In the same way that both fiction and non fiction trans-media strategies place different pieces of their discursive universe according to the different digital and interactive platforms that exist, immersion and VR experiences at cultural institutions should slowly exit the museum rooms and reach the outside audience, which will in turn be motivated to go in. Social and personal digital media are becoming ever-larger, and the new VR practices make it possible to engage quite easily via browsers and smartphones.

Museums could offer virtual heritage capsules, like the one that recreates The Night Cafe by Vincent Van Gogh, related to the exhibited contents, in the same way media outlets (like the New York Times) are starting to create immersive contents linked to their real-life products. Going back to virtual reality should constitute a window for museums to access and an opportunity to a whole series of original, complementary experiences that become possible and could strongly connect with an audience that’s craving innovative digital contents. In order to achieve this connection, it will be necessary to reconsider all we have done until now, and to ask ourselves what role do immersion and materiality play nowadays inside a museum.

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Back to the (Virtual) Future: Immersion and Digital Materiality in Museums