Museums Aim to Wow Visitors With High-Tech Exhibits

A VR tour and immersive experiences bring history to life

25 August 2017

For many, visiting a museum can feel more like a chore than an adventure.

A report from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts noted an 8 percent drop in the number of adults who visited art museums in the past two decades. The sharpest decline was among people in their 20s and 30s. Museums are now trying new ways to engage and excite visitors. Here are some of the ways they’re modernizing their exhibitions.

  • CODE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

    Software is present in nearly every aspect of our lives, including the cars we drive and the apps that make our smartphones more useful. But how many people stop to think about the programmers behind the technology? The Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif., is spotlighting the work of those unsung heroes with its “Make Software: Change the World” exhibit.

    The exhibit is divided into three sections: Perception and Reality, Life and Death, and Knowledge and Belonging. The first explores the history of Photoshop editing software and its impact on photography, advertising, and photojournalism. Visitors can try out the program by creating pictures of themselves with famous people. The section also covers the history of digital music. Visitors can compare the sound quality of MP3s to other formats including vinyl records.

    The next section delves into life-saving MRI technology. With an interactive touchscreen display, visitors can compare the MRI scans of an uninjured person with those of an injured one. And they can learn about the software that helps automotive engineers design safer, more affordable vehicles. This part of the exhibit includes footage of real and simulated car crashes. Visitors can even climb inside a damaged 2008 Ford Taurus crash-test vehicle.

    In the Knowledge and Belonging section, visitors watch video interviews with a tribe in Kenya. Tribe members buy and sell cows using an SMS payment system on their mobile phone.

    The software lab exhibit explores the history and basic concepts of programming through hands-on activities.

  • ON THE BATTLEFIELD

    It’s difficult to imagine living through the American Revolutionary War by simply reading a book. Even the most comprehensive books overlook personal stories that could make people feel more connected to the events that took place.

    The Museum of the American Revolution tries to help visitors see the big picture. It opened in April in Philadelphia near Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and adopted.

    One of the first immersive experiences visitors encounter is a re-enactment of a crowd in New York City knocking down a life-size statue of King George III on horseback. That historical event, which took place after the first public reading in the city of the Declaration of Independence, comes to life in a circular room outfitted with three overhead digital projectors. The experience is designed to make visitors feel like they’re in the middle of the action. A sign placed outside in the room asks, “Would you have participated in the riot?”

    Visitors can step inside the Battlefield Theater to view a filmed re-enactment of the 1777 Battle of Brandywine, which took place in and around Chadds Ford, Pa. Viewers can walk up to a waist-high wall to see a diorama of the battlefield with a screen behind it. Two projectors show the film while strobe lights, “gunpowder” smoke, and a shaking floor add realistic elements to the experience.

    Large wall-mounted touchscreens throughout the museum allow people to tap and swipe their way through historical timelines and personal stories of soldiers and civilians, including women and slaves. The interactive presentations are accompanied by images of primary sources such as photos, letters, and newspaper articles that visitors can zoom in on and scroll through.

  • A VIRTUAL TRIP THROUGH TIME

    Visitors to the British Museum in London can explore 2 million years’ worth of artifacts including the Rosetta Stone and a statue from Easter Island. One of the largest art and history museums in the world, it’s free to the public. But not everyone can make the trip. Even if they can, there’s still that pesky “please don’t touch” policy.

    This year the museum collaborated with VR companies Oculus and Boulevard on an interactive virtual-reality tour of the exhibits. By wearing a headset with touch controllers, people can view 48 of the museum’s objects from the comfort of their home. They can reach out and grab a virtual ivory chess piece from a Lewis 12th-century set, for example. And they can virtually lift and rotate an ancient Mesopotamian tablet or even a 2-million-year-old stone chopping tool—the oldest object in the museum.

    Launched in May, the VR tour includes galleries of ancient Egyptian and Assyrian sculptures and Egyptian mummies. High-resolution 360-degree photography was combined with audio commentary from curators and interactive 3D models of artifacts to create the interactive experience.

    The virtual experience, “Two Million Years of History and Humanity,” is part of the Boulevard app, found in the Oculus store.* It might just be enough to entice people to travel to the London museum for a visit.

    *This article has been corrected.

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