Innovate, attract, engage: how virtual reality can support cultural places


According to the latest ICOM survey[1] on museums, the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis is particularly worrying: nearly 13% of museums could permanently close their doors, and 80% say that their programs for tomorrow will be more limited than before the pandemic. This situation of instability is not new, but the health crisis and the repeated closures of cultural places in recent months have only accentuated it.

Faced with this reality, it becomes vital for the survival of museums to react and adapt. It requires funds, ideas, but also daring. Immersive technologies such as virtual reality can intervene here, and impose themselves in support of the current cultural offer, not by replacing it, but rather by enriching it.

Meeting the challenge of a museum offering adapted to the times

Museums are not only places for preserving art collections. They are also and above all engaged in the dissemination of culture to as wide an audience as possible. Making works accessible, arousing curiosity and strengthening knowledge … this involves satisfying and retaining an already existing audience, while attracting a new one, often less captive and more distant. How? ‘Or’ What ? It is in particular a question of contextualization of works and cultural sites. What could be better than being literally immersed in culture to engage audiences and maintain attention? Museums are full of fascinating stories and in-depth knowledge, through their collections and exhibitions, but also thanks to the expertise of their actors, curators, art historians …

Concretely, the highlighting of this heritage, both tangible and intangible, relies on the capacity of cultural institutions to invest in two fields of action: those of promotion and innovation. This involves, on the one hand, capitalizing on museum artefacts by disseminating their stories more widely, in particular via digital channels, but also relying on the notoriety of the institutions. A museum is also a brand, too often underused. Promotion also involves lending works (physical or virtual), which convey the image and values ​​of the place. At the same time, museums must offer their visitors real experiences: moments that create emotions and sensations, personalized and lived in groups. A work felt will indeed always have more impact than a work explained. It will also be shared more widely by the visitor, in his close circle or via social networks. It is by committing to this direction that institutions will be able to share their heritage more widely. These various efforts will make it possible to generate new sources of revenue for museums, and therefore ultimately to develop their offer in a virtuous dynamic.

End the sterile opposition between culture and entertainment

What if, to face the crisis we are going through, we had to understand differently the positioning of museums in the cultural ecosystem? Entertainment is in fact often regarded as a poor relation in the face of culture with a capital C. In fact, it is often overlooked in museum strategies. However, developing one’s culture has an entertaining dimension for many visitors, all audiences combined. It is time to change the paradigm and re-value the entertainment experiences in museums. This is where virtual reality can help.

Applied to culture, virtual reality makes it possible to set up immersive experiences: as many sensory dives in a virtual world, in the museum or outside, alone or in a group … These can easily be inserted into the museum offer. For example, imagine that in an exhibition on ancient Egypt, you had the opportunity to explore the pyramid of Cheops with your friends or family. You discover its history, its architecture, and you can even go back in time to attend the funeral of King Khufu. This projection is now possible thanks to virtual reality. This technology can also make it possible to go further, by extending a temporary exhibition through digital continuity or by inviting works of art to schools or private places … Imagination has no limit. It is up to museums to rethink their approaches to cultural mediation by integrating the technological dimension offered by virtual reality.

Some visitors will prefer a neutral environment to appreciate a work of art, others will want to live an interactive experience with it, or even participate in a collective game around it. Why favor one or the other of these approaches and thus cut yourself off from a potential audience? Virtual reality-based experiences can engage new visitors and make museum treasures more widely accessible. Let’s not deprive ourselves of what virtual reality has to offer. So is the future of our museum institutions!

[1] International Council of Museums – https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Rapport-musées-et-COVID-19-1.pdf