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Innovate, attract, engage: how virtual reality can support cultural venues

According to ICOM’s latest museum survey[1], the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis is particularly worrisome: nearly 13% of museums may close their doors permanently, and 80% report that their future programs will be more limited than before the pandemic. This situation of instability is not new, but the health crisis and the repeated closures of cultural venues in recent months have only accentuated it.

Faced with this reality, it is vital for the survival of museums to react and adapt. This requires funds, ideas, but also audacity. Immersive technologies such as virtual reality can intervene here, and impose themselves as a support to the current cultural offer, not by replacing it, but by enriching it.

Meeting the challenge of a museum offer adapted to its time

Museums are not only places for the preservation of art collections. They are also, and above all, committed to the dissemination of culture to as wide a public as possible. Making works of art accessible, arousing curiosity and reinforcing knowledge… this means satisfying and building loyalty among an existing audience, while attracting a new one, often less captive and more distant. How do you do it? It is notably a question of contextualizing cultural works and sites. What could be better than being literally immersed in the culture to engage the audience and maintain attention? Museums are full of fascinating stories and knowledge, through their collections and exhibitions, but also thanks to the expertise of their actors, curators, art historians…

In concrete terms, bringing this tangible and intangible heritage to light depends on the ability of cultural institutions to invest in two fields of action: promotion and innovation. On the one hand, it is a matter of capitalizing on the artifacts of museums by disseminating their stories more widely, particularly via digital channels, but also of relying on the reputation of institutions. A museum is also a brand, too often under-exploited. Promotion also involves loaning works (physical or virtual), which convey the image and values of the place. At the same time, museums must offer their visitors real experiences: moments that create emotions and sensations, personalized and experienced as a group. A work that is felt will always have more impact than a work that is explained. It will also be shared more widely by the visitor, in his close circle or via social networks. It is by engaging in this direction that institutions will be able to share their heritage more widely. These various efforts will generate new sources of revenue for museums, and thus ultimately develop their offer in a virtuous dynamic.

Putting an end to the sterile opposition between culture and entertainment

What if, in order to face the crisis we are going through, we had to look at the positioning of museums in the cultural ecosystem differently? Indeed, entertainment is often considered a poor relation to culture with a capital C. It is often put aside in museum strategies. Yet, developing one’s culture has an entertaining dimension for many visitors, all audiences included. It is time to change the paradigm and revalue the entertainment experience within museums. This is where virtual reality can help.

Applied to culture, virtual reality makes it possible to set up immersive experiences: as many sensory dives into a virtual world, in the museum or outside, alone or in groups… These can be easily inserted into the museum offer. Let’s imagine, for example, that within an exhibition on ancient Egypt, you had the possibility to explore with your friends or your family the pyramid of Cheops. You discover its history, its architecture, and you can even go back in time to attend the funeral of King Cheops. This projection is now possible thanks to virtual reality. This technology can also make it possible to go further, by extending a temporary exhibition with a digital continuity or by inviting works of art in schools or private places… The imagination has no limit. It is up to museums to rethink their approaches to cultural mediation by integrating the technological dimension that virtual reality offers.

Some visitors will prefer a neutral environment to appreciate a work of art, others will want to live an interactive experience with it, or to participate in a collective game around it. Why choose one or the other of these approaches and cut yourself off from a potential audience? Virtual reality-based experiences can engage new visitors and make museum treasures more widely accessible. Let’s not deprive ourselves of what virtual reality has to offer. The future of our museum institutions depends on it!

[1] International Council of Museums – https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Rapport-musées-et-COVID-19-1.pdf

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