360 exhibit — A vision for the future or a failure for museums?

Indisputably during the past years, the term virtual museum has inundated the discourse of digital heritage, with many believing that it will be the next ‘big thing’ forcing the physical museums to become obsolete. So, what is a virtual museum and how new is this concept? A virtual museum is a “digital entity that draws on the characteristics of a museum, in order to complement, enhance, or augment the museum experience through personalization, interactivity and richness of content” (Virtual Museum Transnational Network 2017). The virtual museum does not house actual objects, and can act as a digital part of the physical museum or as a completely independent body. On the other hand, unquestionably, a virtual museum is not just the website of a museum which provides information about the institution (Ivarsson 2009). It is something more substantial than that and originates at the beginning of the 20th century. An early precursor of this concept was the Telemuseum, an idea that was expressed by Kiesler Frederick at 1926 (Huntamo 2002). Also, two decades later, André Malraux’s vision of the ‘museum without walls’ is the implementation of the virtual museum according to Schweibenz (Schweibenz 2004). Then, with the arrival of the Web and lately with the advent of the new technologies the virtual museum has been developed by leaps and bounds.

Nowadays, most virtual museums provide virtual exhibition in 3D. The visitors need to download the application on their smartphones and hence, their experience can be enhanced by the use of a VR headset. This immersive experience aims towards a better understanding of the exhibition content using the sense of Cultural Presence (Tost and Champion 2007; Champion 2008). However, while ‘virtual exhibitions’ are becoming increasingly common, a number of questions remain unanswered… What exactly is the potential of the virtual museum? And what does the virtual museum mean for the future of cultural heritage?

At its best, a virtual museum can extend the ideas and themes of a museum into digital space, offering an opportunity to ‘reach out’ to audiences who may never be able to visit the museum in person (Schweibenz 2004, 3). Virtual museums can also give visitors greater freedom to make decisions about their learning, encouraging engagement and participation.

At its worst, virtual museums can reinforce the power and authority of the traditional institution. For example, visitors are often forced to follow set paths or ‘stand’ in the centre of a virtual gallery, unable to move from a prescribed spot, as they listen to information that the museum has chosen for them. Consequently, some academics have accused virtual museums of catering only to their ‘ideal visitor’, described as well-behaved, predictable, and likely to enjoy a primarily visual experience in an exhibition (McTavish 2006, 233).

Academics remain divided. It is in the context of this ongoing debate that we have chosen to evaluate the 360° videos included in the virtual ‘Natural History’ museum created by Google Arts & Culture, described below.

The exhibit

Google Art & Culture’s virtual Natural History museum was created in collaboration with natural history museums across the globe, and is home to several virtual museum tours, online exhibits, and stories. Perhaps one of the most intriguing of Google’s natural history features is a collaboration with London’s Natural History Museum and Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, which consists of three 360° videos, each around 4 minutes in length. These videos are reviewed in the rest of this article.

The first video focuses on the Giraffatitan exhibit in Berlin, and allows you to ‘come face to face with a Jurassic giant’ (Figure 1); the second video, where you ‘encounter a prehistoric sea dragon’, exhibits the Rhomaleosaurus from London (Figure 2); and the last video features a biodiversity wall from Berlin, which allows the viewer to ‘get a closer look at over 3,000 species’ (Figure 3). Each of these videos can be found on YouTube, and provides the viewer with the ability to take a 360° look at each of the exhibits. However, unlike other 360° videos and virtual tours, these videos use virtual reality to bring the exhibits to life. Whilst a narrator provides information on the exhibit, the dinosaurs and animals are brought ‘back to life’ — in the case of the Giraffatitan and the Rhomaleosaurus, virtual reality is used to put flesh back onto the bones of the fossils, the reanimated creatures leave their stands, and then move freely around the exhibition rooms.

There is much that can be said regarding the effectiveness of these 360° videos, and so the following sections will explore and assess their positive and negative aspects.

Figure 1: Still from the ‘come face to face with a Jurassic giant’ Giraffatitan exhibit in Berlin

Figure 2: Still from the ‘encounter a prehistoric sea dragon’ exhibit of the Rhomaleosaurus from London

Figure 3: Still from the ‘get a closer look at over 3,000 species’ Biodiversity exhibit in Berlin

Positives

‘It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but it just may be the next best thing’ (Nimmo 2016)

Ever wanted to walk with a Giraffatitan or swim with a Rhomaleosaurus? This project has brought these dinosaurs back to life. This project is an interactive, immersive way to learn about these creatures from the past. The 360 degree videos help the visitor to visualise what these creatures may have looked like, down to their skin texture, their muscle movement and toenail detail. Visitors have the chance to use this exciting new virtual reality technology while learning something new about the past.

Like many other museums, The Natural History Museum is restricted of space; this project has allowed them to display content that is not normally on show. It has overall increased the collection’s accessibility. The viewer is able to see exhibitions from the Natural History Museums in Berlin and London; these are viewers that may not otherwise get the opportunity or are physically able to visit these fascinating museums. These free online exhibitions can be easily viewed from the comfort of your own home via YouTube, accessible by computer or smartphone. For the full immersive experience you can use the Google Cardboard viewer, this headset is low budget, easy to buy and easy to build. Even without a 360 degree viewer, the videos provide a lot of interesting content on these creatures and can be rewatched whenever. Aside from encouraging new visitors to the museums, museum-goers are provided with a brand new experience. This new experience encourages re-visits to the museums. Overall the videos are entertaining and engaging. These creatures come to life and move around the museum right in front of your eyes. This is clearly a good resource, particularly for younger audiences and school groups. These online exhibitions also have the possibility of raising awareness for current issues threatening today’s natural world, such as extinction and can be used to encourage respect for our ecosystem.

Negatives

However, while this project represents a step forward in efforts to increase accessibility of museums, at present, it suffers from the relative infancy of the technology used. Although quality options range from standard definition to 4K, viewing in SD and lower HD results in sufficiently poor quality which detracts from the immersion of the experience (Figure 4). Simply, the exhibition can only maintain the illusion of bringing these animals back to life if the presentation quality is high enough not to break the illusion in the first instance. Viewed in higher end HD, and particularly 4K, the visual experience is exceptional. However, due to the level of detail, most internet connections will require the video to be loaded in advance to prevent frequent buffering pauses. While not a major issue, users less familiar with the technology may find their experience adversely affected by these interruptions. Additionally, it may lead to some viewers leaving the video if they encounter it by chance and are not willing to wait for it to load before viewing.

Figure 4: The Giraffatitan virtual exhibit viewed in 4K (above) and standard definition (below).

The final technical issues relate to the exhibitions compatibility. The video does not function on Microsoft Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge. Although Google Chrome is now by far the most common internet browser, incompatibility with Microsoft’s browsers results in a significant portion of potential users that cannot access the virtual exhibit. On the mobile devices tested, although the video can be experienced as intended through the use of a 360 degree viewer, it cannot be viewed effectively without such a device.

Aside from these technical issues, the design of the video could be further developed. Although other areas of the virtual museum provide the freedom for users to explore the museum as they choose, the 360 degree videos provide no opportunity for choice or interaction with the exhibit. While this is likely due to technological limitations, it is an important area to consider for future development.

Summary

So is this virtual museum exhibit a success? The main purpose of any museum exhibit is to educate and inspire. There is no question that the 360 degree videos do deliver on these two aspects. The use of 3D visual techniques engages and captivates the audience while providing them with interesting facts about the natural past.

Another advantage with this particular virtual experience is that it gives the audience a different experience than they would get in the museum which means they may still feel inspired to visit the actual museum. This means that this virtual experience is not replacing the activity of visiting the physical museum and ‘reinforcing the power and authority of the traditional institution’ which as seen above is deemed as a danger with many virtual museum exhibits.

While we do think that there are more successes than failures with this virtual museum experience the temperamental nature of the actual technology needs to be addressed. This is enable a wider and less technological minded audience to access and experience this alternative museum exhibit.

By Georgie Bois, Eva Heimpel, Andrew Jarvis, Eleri Newman, Angeliki Tzouganatou, and Amy Wright

References

Champion, E. (2008). ‘Explorative shadow realms of uncertain histories’, New heritage: New media and cultural heritage. London: Routledge.

Google Arts & Culture. (2017). ‘Natural History’. [Online]. Available at: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/project/natural-history. [Accessed 20/02/2017].

Huhtamo, E. (2002). ‘On the Origins of the Virtual Museum’, unpublished paper presented at ‘Virtual Museums and Public Understanding of Science and Culture’ Nobel Symposium (NS 120). 26–29 May 2002. Stockholm, Sweden. [Online]. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_organizations/nobelfoundation/symposia/interdisciplinary/ns120/lectures/huhtamo.pdf [Accessed 24 February 2017].

Ivarsson, E. (2009). ‘Definition and prospects of the Virtual museum’, unpublished thesis, Department of ALM, Museum and Heritage Studies. Uppsala.

McTavish, L. (2006). ‘Visiting the Virtual Museum: Art and Experience Online’, in J. Marstine (ed.) New Museum Theory and Practice. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Nimmo, S. (2016.) ‘Experience Natural History with Google Arts & Culture’. [Online]. Available at: https://www.androidheadlines.com/2016/09/experience-natural-history-google-arts-culture.html [Accessed 21 February 2017].

Schweibenz, W. (2004). ‘The development of Virtual Museums’, in ICOM news (No 3). [Online]. Available at: http://icom.museum/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/ICOM_News/2004-3/ENG/p3_2004-3.pdf [Accessed 24 February 2017].

Tost, L. P. and Champion, E. M. (2007). ‘A critical examination of presence applied to cultural heritage’, The 10th annual international workshop on presence. 25–27 October 2007. Barcelona, Spain.

Virtual Museum Transnational Network. (2014). ‘Virtual Museums’. [Online]. Available at: http://www.v-must.net/virtual-museums/what-virtual-museum [Accessed 24 February 2017].