Where History Comes Alive: Augmented Reality in Museums

Alex Radsky
8 min readMay 6, 2015


Augmented reality in a museum. Image Source

“Museums will need to do everything they can to engage with their public, through their displays, education and outreach programs, and by being as open as possible to what their audience wants. Museums are much more than repositories of objects; they are meeting places for people and ideas. Their future depends on remaining a dynamic part of the public realm.”

-Robert Hewison (Guardian)

Last fall, The Guardian wrote an article on “Post-web technology: what comes next for museums?” At the heart of this debate is the question of how museums can remain a dynamic part of the public realm in a time when digital technology seems to be driving consumer tastes and culture while outpacing the ability of most cultural institutions to keep up with its rapid innovations. Meanwhile, the question on the opposite side of the coin- one that Chicago’s Field Museum grappled with when developing their digital interactive reading rails– is “how can technology enhance a visitor’s experience without taking away from the natural historic and cultural experiences that museums work so hard to preserve?”

Developments in augmented reality (AR) technology over the past few years have brought these issues to forefront of the conversation. For example, just recently (April 8–11) Museums and the Web hosted their 2015 annual conference. While the conference explored a wide variety of approaches that museums were exploring in the digital world, the conference program featured 4 panels and 8 presentations that discussed various facets of augmented reality technology, many of which will be referenced below.

The goal of augmented reality is to enable a blending of the real and virtual worlds, one that creates a virtual layer over the real world. It is easy to see how such an added layer would be useful in museums, who seek to entertain and educate their patrons. While mottos such as “bringing history to life” are common, the standard practice of juxtaposing physical artifacts or objects with textual descriptions may not inspire every visitor’s imagination. Furthermore, as society embraces images and video, textual descriptions lose their impact. While preserving the past, museums must also mirror the outside world to stay relevant.

This balancing act is difficult, but museums have been adjusting to keep up with new technology for many years. For example, most museum-goers are probably familiar with audio guides, which are held to the ear or come with attachable headphones and offer interpretations of artworks and exhibits. Today, although audio guides are still widespread, scannable QR codes and mobile apps allow visitors to utilize their smartphones and tablets to enrich their experience. Augmented reality seems a logical evolution, driving today’s 2D interactions on the screens of their devices back into interactive, 3D space.

Augmented reality on a smartphone. Image Source

Current State of Adoption

Museums have now been experimenting with augmented reality technology for a number of years, and it is useful to survey past experiences in order to begin looking toward the future. Below I will highlight how museums are enhancing their narratives or allowing visitors to create new narratives through augmented reality technology.

Outdoor Spaces

Seeing outdoor spaces in their historic context constitutes one important application of augmented reality that local museums have embraced. A great example of this is Clio, a non-profit, collaborative effort between faculty at Marshall University that is a crowdsourced geospatial guide to history and culture. Users can contribute to building the site by pinning photographs or videos of historic or cultural events to specific coordinates. Check out this video to learn more and start contributing today! Furthermore, Union Station, Kansas City now has a Living History App. Likewise, a collaboration is working to bring an augmented New Philadelphia to life. And ARIS has built a platform allowing educators to create mobile games that include location-activated historical images.

Clio is a project led by Marshall University. Learn more at theclio.com


One trending augmented reality application centers on the concept of “re-creating” the original, or using knowledge of paint and art conservation, as well as digital imaging technology, to reconstruct paintings to their original state. For example, projects including Harvard’s “Augmenting Rothko,” the Van Gogh Museum Antwerp’s “Van Gogh Re-created,” and the church of Sant Climent de Taüll, have digitally reconstructed original works of art, allowing visitors to see the priceless artwork in its original condition. As the Van Gogh museum describes the idea, “re” means both “once more” and to “return to a previous state”; and thus the “re-create” process achieves both. The border between “real” and “virtual” becomes blurred, when a “re-created” painting may become more of an original, or closer to the original, than the “real” thing. Dr. Shin-Ichi Fukuoka argues that re-create “is not simply a process or replication or of imitation. Rather, it works to complement the original, to supplement our understanding of it.”

Augmented reality is beginning to make an impact on contemporary art. Examples include SFMOMA’s art project, which consists of projecting artistic designs onto the exterior of their building, and “A Moment in Time,” a photography show that brought motion to still photographs with Aurasma’s augmented reality technology. There is no question that as artists continue to create augmented projects, art museums will have to adopt the technology just to display their work.


One of the most common target audiences for augmented reality applications are kids and younger students. In such cases, the main goal of AR is to present the historic, artistic, or scientific material in a fun and engaging way. The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre at the British Museum focuses on “enabling children to bring the world’s history and cultures to life through advanced technology.” Another London Museum, The Science Museum in London has developed an app that turns James May, one of the hosts of the popular BBC show “Top Gear,” into a virtual museum guide, documented in this fascinating video that explores the goals and technology that went into creating the application. In addition, the Discovery Centre’s augmented reality guide to the Parthenon gallery, “A Gift for Athena” was recognized at the 2015 Museums and the Web Conference. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco added seven augmented reality enabled presentations as part of their 2013 Terracotta Warriors exhibition. Along with celebrity guides, ancient Chinese armies, and Greek gods, it is perhaps not surprising that dinosaurs, which never seem to cease amazing kids or adults, have become a prime test case for augmented reality applications. Examples include The National Museum of Natural History’s “Skin and Bones” app, the Cincinnati Museum Center’s “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibition, and the Royal Ontario Museum’s attempt to bring these giant reptiles back to life (if only through the iPad screen).


After Google’s failure with Google Glass, several companies are continuing to develop hardware designed to bring augmented reality into 3-D space, including Microsoft’s HoloLens, Magic Leap, and Epson’s Moverio. These companies are developing wearable devices that promise to change the way people interact with their environment. For those unfamiliar, see this comparison between HoloLens and Magic Leap written in March 2015. Researchers at the University of Bath are testing a prototype headgear specifically designed for museums that will work with the user’s smartphone to create an augmented reality experience.

A glimpse of Microsoft HoloLens. Image Source

Games are the likely first application of augmented reality hardware, but early enthusiasts can already imagine the possibilities of daily life enhanced with multiple visual layers. Even before mass adoption, museums can begin to plan for the emergence of this hardware, and work to create immersive, interactive, learning experiences for their visitors. Some museums, as noted above, have begun experimenting with augmented applications on smart devices even before mass adoption of the technology. Likewise, in the very near future museum-owned headsets that can be rented or given to visitors to augment specific exhibits will create incredible experiences.


Augmented reality technology has already reached the point where it is useful for museums as a means of adding to the visitor experience and entertaining patrons by exposing them to new technology. In today’s technology driven world, the applications that most seamlessly merge the digital with the physical will be the most successful.

Unfortunately, the cost of developing specific apps and digital educational content can be a significant barrier to many small and mid-sized museums and cultural institutions. In order for museums to adapt, it will be critical for them to organize collaborations with nearby universities, which consist of hubs of talented students and faculty who often are looking for projects featuring interesting real world applications. For example, the Chicago History Museum has partnered with The School of Art Institute of Chicago to create Chicago Zero, Zero, an augmented historical tour of downtown Chicago. Collaborations between academies and museums was also the topic of a large session at the already mentioned recent Museums and the Web Conference.

Still, thus far, it has been mostly large, well-funded museums (Smithsonian, British Museum, ect.) that have experimented with augmented reality. So, along with greater adoption, expect to see a lot of stratification, as larger museums and/or those with forward thinking leadership push ahead, while many other museums lag behind.

It is not only newly developed hardware that is necessary to create an augmented reality experience that creates a truly fascinating visitor experience. It is the art of creating powerful stories that takes the most time and effort from museum staff and their collaborators. This is a key point: augmented reality must become part of a new digital storytelling mindset that museum curators are just now beginning to embrace. The meSch consortium, which consists of twelve partners from six European countries, started a four year project to explore this issue, and has already begun coming up with recommendations on the use of AR in museums.

New technology will lead to new pedagogical approaches to storytelling. For example, storytelling in an augmented world will be more collaborative. No longer will a single curator be writing text based labels. Instead, curators, designers, coders, and entire teams will have to work together to create a digital presentation that will best capture the imagination of an audience. Thus collaborations between institutions, whether universities or private companies, will be essential to a museum’s ability to implement new technology effectively. A prime examples is the Cultural Heritage Experiences through Socio-personal interactions & storytelling (Chess) project, a European partnership between universities, two museums, and tech companies that “aims to integrate interdisciplinary research in personalization and adaptivity, digital storytelling, interaction methodologies, and narrative-oriented mobile and mixed reality technologies.” Indeed, augmented reality is foremost amongst those approaches to create digitally enhanced experiences in museums.

Extended Reading

Alchemy Learning, founded in 2012 in Baltimore, MD, provides virtual reality & cloud-based curriculum creation, management, and dissemination tools for organizations and educators. To find out how your organization can do more with digital education, contact us today at info@alchemylearning.com and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Originally published at alchemylearning.com on May 5, 2015.