How museums around the world are going digital

Digital Museums

The world’s largest museums are no longer a collection of dusty exhibits. Many of them can compete on a level equal to commercial companies, given their active experimentation with virtual and augmented reality, mobile applications, and advanced access control solutions.

Our first example is the Palace Museum, which is known as the Forbidden City and is located in the heart of Beijing. Each year tens of millions of visitors spend time at the museum to learn more about China’s ancient imperial past. Huge crowds, especially during peak times, have sparked growing frustrations for both museum officials and visitors. To address these challenges, the executives with the museum agreed to work with hi-tech companies to develop a digital version of the museum that puts its one million-plus items of rare relics and ancient cultural artifacts on display via nine apps. These mobile apps will provide an in-depth view of the lifestyles of Chinese emperors under the dynasty’s rule.

After three years of work, the Palace Museum announced on August 1, 2017, that its entire collection has been stored in a digital format and made accessible to “remote visitors” with the launch of nine apps. With these apps, the Palace Museum is able to provide extensive and valuable information to the public in an entertaining format through the use of Big Data, Virtual Reality, 3D (three-dimensional) imagery, and video games.

The British Museum is the first to showcase an interactive display with a Wi-Fi link. Smartphone technology is being used to bring to life the story of a woman who donated a carving to an Indian Buddhist shrine 2,000 years ago. The new free display, developed in partnership with Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, uses smartphone technology to interpret the history of the carving and of the shrine, which would originally have held a precious relic of a disciple or possibly of the Buddha himself.

Even in a giant high-resolution image at the British Museum, the inscription on a slab of limestone carved almost 2,000 years for a major Buddhist shrine in India is barely visible. But with a tap on a smartphone screen, the life-size figure of a woman projected onto the gallery wall changes from black and white to full-color and steps forward to explain how she commissioned the beautiful carving to honor the Buddha and gain grace for herself and her family.

The use of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) in museums is proving to be extremely useful. A significant example is how its use has facilitated the reunion of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in the form of a streaming exhibition. Van Gogh painted his “Sunflowers” series in the south of France in 1888 and 1889. The five versions of the Sunflowers are displayed across three continents in five different museums. During a recent Facebook Live event, the museums collaborated to provide a virtual-reality experience that displayed all five “Sunflowers” in one room. The 1 hour and 35-minute broadcast began in London’s National Gallery. It then continued at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Tokyo’s Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art. During 15 minute segments, each museum curator described what makes their version unique. Prior to the actual event, more than 50,000 viewers watched a preview of this event online.

In the future, not only could AR and VR technologies display the most famous exhibits in the world; but participants might even have the possibility to walk across them. One such solution has already been developed by eyeSphere and is based on the Apple ARKit. This technology lets viewers visit a digital copy of a room in a museum and take a look at exhibits up close.

The Smithsonian art museum is also delving into the use of VR with some help from Intel. Together they are developing an experience that capitalizes on the room-scale abilities of VR, providing a glimpse into how virtual reality can let anyone explore distant museums. While the experience is quite basic at the moment, with just a few rooms and three interactive showpieces, it provides a terrific example of how museums can transform their relationship with the public through the use of virtual reality.

Finally, these modern technologies have the potential to provide museum visitors with physical disabilities the ability to enjoy and experience displays of world history and art. For example, a project was recently launched to provide a video guide of the museum for deaf and hearing-impaired visitors in sign language. The First Line team is currently developing the first version of this video guide which will be available in December 2017 and will cover four excursion routes.

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