Museums have long relied on technology to provide context for the artworks on display using tools such as audio guides, informational videos, and smartphone apps. In a way, augmented reality (AR) is adding another layer to these tools. This form of technology helps curators to add more information on exhibits, providing additional explanation of art pieces related to their context, historical facts or economical figures. Thus, visitors could view artwork in a multidimensional way through their smartphone screen or augmented reality headset.
Some museums are using AR to display a life-sized hologram of artists or tour guides to make the visit more immersive. They also use holographic images that allow attendees to relive an event as if they were there in person. For example, the Kennedy Space Center has a permanent exhibit which allows visitors to experience the second spacewalk in history with a hologram of the pioneer astronaut Gene Cernan and a closer look at the Gemini 9 capsule. People can relive the thrills and dangers faced by the astronaut as he struggles to get back inside the capsule.
Other museums are using AR to complete the representation of damaged or broken objects from their collections. In 2017, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History revamped one of their oldest exhibits with AR technology. After installing an AR app on their smartphones, visitors can view the reconstructed and animated images of creatures based on their skeletons. This gives them a unique insight into the history of these specimens. In a similar way, the Art Gallery of Ontario reimagined some of the existing paintings in their collection. Using an AR app, visitors are able to see the paintings’ subjects being transported to our reality, prompting them to reflect on the change of times.
Various art institutions are taking one step further by bringing their art pieces, virtually, outside of their walls. Last year, the leading art galleries in London used an augmented reality app to share multiple artworks with the public. People walking on the streets were able to activate the artworks which were marked with a specific QR code on exterior walls. They were also able to hear details about the classic and contemporary paintings through their smartphone. Another similar project called the [AR]T Walk was launched in 2019 by Apple in collaboration with the New Museum. Using devices loaned by Apple, the participants could view large-scale artworks at predetermined locations in seven major cities.
Although the use of AR in art galleries and museums is rather supervised, this does not prevent some misuses by activists or disgruntled artists. In 2018, a group of artists managed to virtually hijack the Jackson Pollock gallery of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Using the MoMAR app, the museum-goers could see on their smartphones how Pollock’s paintings have been either remixed beyond recognition or entirely replaced. For example, people could see an interactive illustration of an Instagram post touting for likes on one painting, while another painting was overlaid with an artistic interpretation of some conspiracy theories.
In contrast, a group of art lovers living in Boston took the initiative of using AR to virtually return long-stolen masterpieces of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Thirteen invaluable paintings were stolen in 1990, and the orchestrators of the heist have yet to be caught. The art enthusiasts developed an app that would allow the audiences to view the artworks within their original frames, which are still left empty on the museum’s walls. Although they had a successful experiment, the art-loving developers had to face some reservations from the museum staff which prevent them to release a dedicated app because they work on that project without the museum’s permission.
While museum experience used to be one-directional with curators presenting an exhibit that would be enjoyed by visitors, now, that’s all starting to change. Museum curators hope they could engage visitors on a new level, and bring in new audiences altogether. AR is a great incentive that they could use to attract new visitors eager to experiment with the new technology. It could also raise awareness on older works to younger museum-goers. However, museums need also to remain cautious about their AR interlopers, and think about the legal limits of augmentation to protect the integrity of the artworks.