For many museums, digital experiences are introduced in an effort to increase their attendance or reach people who haven’t set foot in their exhibition rooms yet. Instead of creating standalone virtual reality (VR) experiences, some museums preferred to integrate them within traditional exhibitions while others will convert existing exhibitions into virtual ones. These approaches allow them to gradually experiment with new forms of art without rushing their audience. VR experiences can be interactive or immersive, placing the participant at the center of the story.
In 2017, the Tate Modern made its first forays into virtual reality with the exhibition Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier as part of the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani retrospective. In collaboration with HTC Vive Arts, the digital experience reimagined the final studio of Modigliani in Paris, where he lived and worked during the last months of his life. Modigliani moved into this studio, which doubled as his home, during a momentous period in his life. He was about to marry Jeanne Hébuterne and he had a young baby, but his bohemian lifestyle meant that his health was declining rapidly. The studio was a place of hope but also of uncertainty, for the artist. The VR experience provides a glimpse of the conditions in which Modigliani painted some of his seminal artworks, including his Self Portrait (one of only two), and gives an insight into the artist’s state of mind when he painted them.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
In 2018, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery has turned its art exhibition called No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man into a virtual experience. People unable to fly to Washington could virtually tour the exhibition using VR goggles. The exhibition highlights the creativity and craft of the community that travels to the Nevada desert for the event each year. As part of the event, attendees construct projects ranging from life-sized artworks to colossal pavilions – some of which are ceremonially burned down at the end of the festival. Several designs first built in the desert have been recreated inside the iconic museum, including a giant female figure assuming a ballet-style stance and a dragon-shaped, pedal-powered car made of recycled aluminum pans. The VR experience was designed by Intel and Linden Lab using photogrammetry cameras and scanners that captured a very large volume of image data. The VR exhibition is still available for download on VR platforms.
National Museum of Finland
The National Museum of Finland in Helsinki launched a VR exhibition in 2018, which transports visitors into the 19th century while looking at the R.W. Ekman’s painting The Opening of the Diet 1863 by Alexander II. With that immersive experience, visitors could get a unique view of the Diet of Finland – the legislative assembly of the Grand Duchy of Finland between 1809 and 1906. People could speak with the Russian emperor and other characters depicted in the painting. They could also stroll through the Hall of Mirrors in what was formerly the Imperial Palace, now known as the Presidential Palace. The VR experience is part of an exhibit detailing Finnish life and politics in the 1860s, under the Russian Empire. The exhibition aimed to blend historical artefacts within a digital world to give viewers wearing VR headsets the feeling of walking into history.
As part of the Louvre’s Leonardo da Vinci retrospective inaugurated in 2019, the museum has partnered with HTC Vive Arts to launch its first VR experience entitled Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass. The exhibition offered visitors a 7-minute immersive look at Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece with story of the myths about Mona Lisa’s identity and research data about the painting. With their VR headsets, visitors could view the vivid details of the oil painting including the texture of the wood panel seen through the paint layer, and the marks where the panel once cracked and was masterfully restored. They could go beyond the painting’s frame by climbing aboard a virtual version of da Vinci’s visionary airplane and fly over the landscape surrounding Mona Lisa’s loggia. The exhibit is long gone but is available for download on VR platforms so that anyone with a VR headset can view an extended home version of the experience.
Victoria and Albert Museum
In 2021, the V&A collaborated with HTC Vive Arts to produce a VR experience called Curious Alice as part of an exhibition celebrating the legacy of the Lewis Caroll classic. The digital experience featured a virtual reality setting that blended the fantastical world of Wonderland with elements of the museum’s physical space. Visitors could join the immersive experience using an avatar and interact with the book’s famous characters as well as other attendees throughout the 45-minute event. People could also complete a series of funny challenges including a race against the clock to get the White Rabbit’s missing glove, a contest with the Caterpillar to solve its mind-blowing riddles, and a match against the Queen of Hearts in a curious game of croquet. With the pandemic restrictions, people were able to enjoy the digital experience at home with or without VR goggles after downloading the app from VR platforms.