Nov. 12th: AR and VR in PH (Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in Public History)

As I look towards my final assignment for the Digital Public History course (wondering what kind of project I could do that is useful for museums), I found this week’s readings on how museums can use VR and AR as a way of engaging with a wider range of visitors very interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve never really thought about how museums not only compete with other history-related activities and learning centres, but also with things like movies, books, and video games in the entertainment industry. An article from The Guardian talked about how museums compete with these products of the entertainment industry in the business of telling a good story. It’s almost unfair to think museums have to compete with these products, given that these products are playing by different rules; video games, books, and movies are all able to manipulate history or use it as a setting for something unrelated or fictional, while museums should strive to share and preserve history as much as possible within their shared stories. Museums have to find new and unique ways to tell their stories in order to gain a wider audience, while also staying true to their history.

A few weeks ago, we spent part of our Public History class analyzing and discussing why people do or do not visit museums. We talked about how there are three types of museum visitors: the frequent visitor, the occasional visitor, and the non-visitor. Overall, we found that those who visited museums less frequently (or not at all) wanted a different kind of experience compared to what museums traditionally offer. Rather than passively reading and looking at objects, these people seek out activities that are more hands-on, and more immersive tours where they can engage with each other throughout. At the time, this reminded me a lot of the Museum Hack website, which specifically markets itself “for people who think they don’t like museums.” Now, these statistics on museums visitors has come up again in this week’s readings. 

I loved reading about how the British Museum turned one of their exhibitions into a digital scavenger hunt, where kids use tablets to seek out certain statues based on their outline and by telling them more about the exhibit and directing them into the next stage of the game. In this way, the museum is able to engage more with children, who are less likely to enjoy merely reading and looking at objects. Instead, they are able to interact with the exhibitions and learn while playing in the museum. Likewise, the CHESS (Cultural Heritage Experiences through Socio-personal interactions and Storytelling) project seemed very interesting to me. It was interesting to read about how they were able to not only create a number of interactive games and tours within one museum, but also have the program become tailored to the individual. This program goes along perfectly with what we read before on the different kinds of museum visitors; a survey before starting the program would allow it to learn what you’re interested in and how you would most enjoy going through the museum. In this way, the program serves as an interactive tour that learns what you like (by noting whether you spend extra time at certain objects) and how you would appreciate the museum most. Part of this project involved digitally restoring lost colours and features of architectural and sculptural remains in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece. While the idea of physically restoring artifacts is problematic in a number of ways (see this article from My Modern Met on a restoration project gone wrong:, using technology to give new life to old artifacts is an amazing way to engage with more people. 

The Niagara Falls History Museum had a pilot project which involved the use of AR in one of their galleries. I wasn’t working there while this project was going on, but I did visit one of the exhibits that used AR and got the chance to try it out first-hand. The AR project involved a number of exhibitions, but the one I came in and saw was for Canada’s 150th anniversary, which involved a collection of artifacts from the community. The museum had tablets with an app on it specifically for the AR. Once I entered the gallery, I could see a number of floating cubes on the tablet – one for each artifact on display. Once clicked on, these cubes offered typical object write-ups, along with additional information which sometimes included images or videos from the people who submitted artifacts for the collection. The AR worked really well in this exhibit from a visitor’s point of view by giving new ways to see typical museum information and also expanding and using the AR to give more information. With that being said, there were sometimes issues trying to get the videos to load and play properly. These and other glitches, along with the fact that the program itself was not very user-friendly (programmers had to come in and set everything up when the exhibits changed) are ultimately why the NFHM did not continue with the AR in their exhibits. I suppose that shows the balance museums have to find; they have to cater to more audiences and try to incorporate new features while also finding features that work for them and are not too complicated or too costly.

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