The Use of Augmented Reality in Museums

Using technology to engage visitors is nothing new in the realm of public history and that is not likely to change. In last week’s class, we discussed what the future could possibly look like for digital public history and it seems that augmented reality is the way museums are heading. It allows curators to layer more information on top of exhibits while also engaging visitors on a new level. Augmented reality can also be a tool to help personalize the experience of visiting a museum

However, museums shouldn’t be using augmented reality for the sake of using it—it must have a purpose. We discussed the three laws of historical augmented reality and its use:

  • Must be based on genuine historical sources
  • Must not distract from reality but should make users more aware of history and the process of creating it
  • Must deliver superior learning experience

Institutions are using augmented reality in a variety of ways while also following the above rules.

Back in September, the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space museum launched an exhibit that uses augmented reality to take visitors on a tour of the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space, was 3-D imaged and which rendered her as a hologram to be seen through a HoloLens headset. She introduces the exhibit and takes visitors on the tour of the space shuttle. Visitors are encouraged to explore artifacts both physical and digital while Jemison narrates and explains women’s contributions to space exploration.

The museum worked with Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studio to conjure Jemison’s augmented form. Microsoft first expected to collaborate with famous figures and the entertainment sector but that educational institutions have become an increasing clientele. The studio has also worked with other world-wide institutions. It helped London’s Natural History Museum create a “behind-the-scenes” museum tour that involved a holographic guide that took visitors around the museum and shared stories about some of the artifacts, both real and digital. Microsoft also partnered with the Kyoto National Museum to install an immersive exhibit that displayed the art of Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Japan. Visitors, while wearing a HoloLens headset, could see artifacts from 400 years ago on the walls and ceiling while a hologram of a Zen Buddhist monk gave them a tour.

Here are some other examples of museums utilizing augmented reality:

  • The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History designed an exhibit called “Skin and Bones.” This lets visitors animate the collection of skeletons with a phone application.
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum developed an augmented reality tool that allowed visitors to learn about Lithuanian villagers that were featured in its Tower of Faces display.
  • The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art worked with an agency to create an augmented reality gallery to help showcase artwork by Rene Magritte.

The use of augmented reality within museums is becoming inevitable as more and more create exhibits with its use in mind. Augmented reality has the means to create an outstanding experience for visitors as it has the capability to transport users. However, something should be said about how much this technology costs. With the passage of time and the development of even new technology, the equipment for augmented reality is becoming slightly more affordable—for large institutions. Are there ways for small museums to incorporate this kind of digital technology without wiping out their funds? If you have any thoughts, leave them in the comments.

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