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Museums are using virtual reality to preserve the past

Virtual history. Cyark/Wikimedia Commons, CC BYBy Jenny Kidd, Cardiff University. Cultural institutions are steeped in history and tradition, but they are also uniquely placed to take advantage of some of the latest technology. Drones, 3D printing and augmented reality apps are just some of the tools being used to construct “virtual museum” experiences for real and digital visitors. While these technologies open up new and exciting possibilities for curators, they also provoke resistance around the issues of authenticity, ownership and value.

There are currently a number of projects under way that explore how historically or culturally significant sites and objects can be presented using digital means. For instance, museums around the world are investigating the possibilities offered by 3D printers to extend and further examine their collections in a form where detail can be magnified and destruction is far less consequential.

Meanwhile, the EU’s Digiart project will be using drones to “capture” inaccessible cultural artefacts, before creating advanced 3D representations of them. And Cyark is creating a free online 3D library of the world’s cultural heritage sites, using a combination of lasers and computer modelling.

Internet of historical things?

According to Digiart, one result of this might be an “Internet of Historical Things”: one where immersive 3D story worlds become a genuine possibility for historical encounters.

The Smithsonian offer an online Panoramic Virtual Tour, as do the Louvre and the V&A Museum of Childhood. Augmented reality applications are a feature of many sites of archaeological significance

It is not uncommon to find museums rendered in Minecraft, lovingly built brick-by-brick by an invisible crowd of tech-savvy fans, as in the British Museum’s Museumcraft, or the shortlisted IK prize entry Tatecraft. Digital media are also impacting the analogue museum experience profoundly, perhaps most playfully evidenced in the world’s first selfie museum, Life in Island, where, unlike some cultural venues, selfie sticks are welcome.

Tatecraft creator Adam Clarke explains his idea.

One question to consider is whether the extension of this activity into the realm of play and the imagination alienates us further from the authentic “aura” of the original, undermining it, devaluing it, or perhaps even exposing its limitations. The rhetoric of authenticity has traditionally been key to the way heritage experiences are packaged and sold to us. Yet “authenticity” is not an objective value – it is always ascribed to (say) an object or a work of art, by some authority.

Museums often recognise this – and have engaged in active exploration of the limits of the authentic. The Museum of Art Fakes in Germany is a prime example, as is the recent Museum of Lies initiative from Incidental and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. Museums have begun to embrace the possibilities of “remix culture”, offering high-resolution artworks (for example) for re-use and circulation. The Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio is a beautifully crafted example of how this can work in practice. In my own research, I tend to find the public demonstrate more conservative attitudes than the conservators to such developments… more

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