How to Get the Kids to the Museum: Using Future-Forward Tools: to Bring the Past to Life
There’s a revolution happening in the cultural heritage industry, and it’s been a long time coming.
Guarani and Kaiowá Virtual Museum Mimby Whistle 3D Model
The current widespread adoption of digital interactivity may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but it’s something that has tantalized cultural institutions for a while. Even in the recent “before time”, museums around the world were beginning to take cues from Gen Z in the ongoing quest for stronger audience engagement, particularly among upcoming generations of content consumers. For better or worse, the pandemic has highlighted the need for arts and heritage organizations to meet patrons on their own turf (or, rather, on their own devices). Now, many forward-thinking members of the anthropology and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) industries are successfully doing just that.
University College London’s Multimedia Anthropology Lab (UCL-MAL) is a shining example of this burgeoning movement. Taking cues from the social media and gaming industries, the student-led group uses innovative tools to bring a modern perspective to the fields of ethnology and cultural heritage. Incorporating cutting-edge technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, immersive sound, and interactive animation, theirs is an approach that will particularly appeal to young audiences raised on a diet of video games and on-demand content.
Their first project, partially funded by The British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Practices Fund, is a partnership with the Guarani and Kaiowá community in Brazil to build a VR museum. It’s led by a joint team of cultural anthropologists and computer scientists in London and Brazil, and indigenous Guarani and Kaiowá leaders in the state of Mato Grosso Do Sul, who are working to bring the community’s rituals, artifacts, and sacred physical spaces to a global audience. Curated by the Guarani and Kaiowá shamans and elders themselves, the virtual museum highlights the critical elements of the community from the inside–an approach that is trending within anthropology circles–encouraging a new and empathetic means of consuming content.
Member of the Guarani and Kaiowá community experiencing the VR environment for the first
time. Photo by Raffaella F. Morerira
And this, in turn, is a multi-faceted benefit to an industry that can sometimes be weighed down by tradition. An interesting conundrum lies at the conflux of culture, history, and the arts, where long-held practices intersect with truly trailblazing ideas. But now, motivated by the idea that “old-school” communication techniques can exclude certain audiences or generate disengagement, as well as the baby steps many museums are starting to take toward decolonization and repatriation of treasures and artifacts, this new attitude promises to make the world’s unique stories significantly more accessible to everyone.
Let’s face it, traditional exhibition methods can be severely limited. Most people will never have the opportunity to visit far-flung communities or famous museum collections in person. Most small cities lack the resources to mount travelling shows. To that end, many exhibits are prohibitive in themselves: fragile artifacts, costly transport, and even language barriers make them inaccessible to potential host facilities.
And yet, there are still innumerable stories to tell! So. Many. Diverse. Cultures. How exciting that we now have the tools (and the habits) at our disposal to welcome this reimagined approach to learning!
The four traditional learning styles: visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic, are becoming increasingly fluid. Entire generations of young people now expect their learning experiences to be immersive. Appealing to that sensibility, exhibit designers and curators across the GLAM industry are now regularly collaborating with private digital design firms, universities, filmmakers, and other specialized tech-forward organizations. By capitalizing on cultural phenomena, they can draw in visitors from a variety of demographics.
It heralds a sea change for heritage-based disciplines, be it in the subtle, scalable scan-for-more-info QR code readers like those in use at this year’s IAF Basel, or the more intricate 360° walkthroughs now utilized by many institutions as well as the prolific Google Arts & Culture platform. Digital innovation is making art, history, and global cultures tangible and real (to people of every age).
A year ago, the industry was abuzz with the idea that a handful of museums would open up their cyber doors to all of those potential visitors stuck at home during lockdown. (Meanwhile, an exceptional crop of museum social media managers have kept their industry afloat with their creativity throughout the pandemic, but that’s a whole other story…) And 18 months later, it’s almost expected that at any time of day, from anywhere with an internet connection, virtual museum-goers can explore the hallowed halls of the world’s most celebrated collections; some are amplified by audio or video supplements, enhanced content, and virtual tour guides. The Uffizzi, the various Guggenheims, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre, the Frick, the Met, several Smithsonian museums, and countless more on every continent have adopted this very accessible idea. UNESCO heritage sites around the world have, too.
Others take it further, incorporating augmented reality (AR) into their physical exhibits. In Canada, the Ingenium collaborative creates immersive experiences across several institutions. They recently converted the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s Artifact Alley gallery into “Augmented Alley” via a free app that adds an AR experience to several of the vintage tech objects on display (think Pokemon Go with a historical bent.) Similarly, the National Gallery in London released an AR app that transforms selected works of horses into My Little Pony animations. The Latvian National Museum of Art held a virtual showing of priceless artworks that disappeared during WW2. Sometimes, accompanying AR can devolve into parlor tricks, but more often than not, it encourages the visitor to engage more fully, and ultimately to truly enjoy their visit.
The next step? Holistic immersion, like that presented by the popular travelling exhibit, Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, wherein visitors are virtually swallowed by life-sized projections of the artist’s works, complete with ambient audio to add depth. Or the tactile VR possibilities suggested by haptic interfaces, which are being eyed by everyone from curators to gamers to well-endowed elementary schools. It’s no longer a question of whether those innovations can be adapted to storytelling mediums like cultural heritage organizations. The answer is emphatically (obviously), “yes!” Finally, the dedicated archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and ethnologists who have long been accused of getting mired in the details of their work to a bemusing degree can join the mainstream. It’s that level of attention to minutiae that makes these immersive virtual environments so captivating. Leading gaming designers are equally fanatical about the small stuff! With digital tools like drone cameras and ever more realistic 3D modelling software, and futuristic capabilities like virtual touch on the horizon, bringing spaces and objects to life is easier and more accessible than ever.
As augmented and virtual reality become more readily available (read: cheaper), interactive cultural heritage is poised to explode. Oh! The anticipation! Audiences of any age in every corner of the earth can be inspired by feeling, hearing, and seeing another place or another time. What else could we do? Reanimate “dead” languages and long-buried civilizations. Highlight endangered communities. Discover shared stories. Generate empathy. Make the world intimate and infinite at the same time. Is it the key to world peace? Maybe. (Bear that in mind, young people).
This harmonious marriage of culture and tech is oh-so-addicting, and it’s easy to see why. The potential is truly limitless.
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Abbey Westbury is a cultural heritage content creator based in British Columbia, Canada. Among other activities, she is proud to work with the incredible UCL-MAL press team to promote innovation in the heritage sector and to help shine a spotlight on rich, vibrant global communities that might otherwise be overlooked.