Virtual Reality and Audience Engagement in Museums

It is anticipated that 2016 will be the year of virtual reality, the immersive technology that transcends people to different worlds. Trendforce estimates that “the VR device shipment volume will soar to 14 million units in 2016,” mostly driven by gaming use. However, the use of VR is now extending to art, entertainment, education and therapy. How can this emerging technology be used by museums to enhance their engagement activities?

Museums and Engagement

Museums are institutions that display history, preserve cultural heritage and serve as an educational platform. According to the NEA report A Decade of Arts Engagement 2002-2012, attendance of art events has declined steadily since 2002. This decline is driven by several factors including cost, difficulty of reaching locations and lack of company. This indicates that museums should utilize different methods to attract and retain audiences. One method is audience engagement, according to Alan Brown's Making Sense of Audience Engagement, audience engagement is a “guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.”

While museums are heading towards engagement in order to resolve the issue of declining numbers of visitors, Silvia Filippini-Fantoni believes that “museums need to experiment with new ways of engaging their audiences, particularly the millennial generation, which is more interested in social interaction, participation and self-discovery than more traditional learning.”

We live in an economy that is beginning to shift towards valuing experiences more than services and commodities. This means that in order to survive, museums should not only create unforgettable memories for their audiences but also personalize those experiences. Pine and Gilmore in Experience Economy believes that “Just as people have cut back on goods to spend money on services, now they also scrutinize the time and money spend on services to make way for more memorable and more highly valued experiences” (Pine and Gilmore 17).

Through virtual reality, museums will be able to help their visitors receive customized and personal experiences which will, in turn, drive them to come back again. However, virtual reality will not only create experiences, but it can also help engage audiences in moving moments, taking the experience to a more personal level and teaching visitors more about themselves and the art.

Emerging Technology in Museums

Technology is being used in museums today in order to create unique experiences for visitors. For example, tablets and smartphones are being used to navigate museums. In addition, robots are used to provide tours to individuals who cannot visit museums. These two types of technologies in addition to several others create greater accessibility and engagement for museum visitors.

As for virtual reality, one example would be the British museum, which recently held a virtual reality weekend for teenagers to experience the Bronze Age world in August 2015. Emily Smith, the British Museum's head of audience development says that the museum has “increased the number of slots and [is] now running the experience daily in response to demand. Visitors have even been bursting into spontaneous applause at the end of the showings.” Another example is the Metropolitan Museum, which is using VR on their website to help people engage in 360 degree tours through the main six rooms of the American wing.

Artists and Virtual Reality

Artists are increasingly using emerging technologies as to create and distribute their works. In June 2015, a group of artists hosted the first virtual art exhibition in San Francisco called Tilt Brush Exhibition. This exhibition featured painting works that were created through a virtual brush, artists drew live in front of the audience using a VR toolbox. The audience was captivated by the three dimensional paintings created in front of their eyes using the non-traditional painting medium.

Other artists use VR for conceptual works of art. According to Molly Gottschalk there is an increasing number of artists using virtual reality as their medium. She says that artists have “a real opportunity to develop a wholly new aesthetic experience, unique to our time.” Showcasing such unique art work requires museum’s managers to consider the importance of incorporating virtual reality in their planning and spaces in order to keep up with the new artistic creations.

Virtual reality is becoming more integrated in the lives of museum’s visitors, and in the work of artists who use it to produce and present their work. Furthermore, museum visitors are expecting experiences once they enter an institution’s doors; they would like to become part of the art and the institution. One way to accomplish this is to use virtual reality as a medium creating immersive engagement experiences for the visitors.


Additional References:

Brown, Alan S., and Rebecca Ratzkin. "Making Sense of Audience Engagement." 2011.

Pine, B. Joseph., and James H. Gilmore. The Experience Economy. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

Banner image by University of Salford's Press Office, licensed under creative commons.