Augmented reality exhibitions have been, up until now, the domain of a few tech-forward museums and attractions. But that’s quickly changing.
When it comes to museums and technology, resistance to using change might make sense, on some level: preserving history and culture is often the imperative. Yet, when wielded well, certain technologies enhance the telling of history, culture, art, and science in highly compelling ways.
Augmented reality, or AR, is one technology that’s beginning to receive a lot of attention in the museum world. More and more, curators and creators are finding creative ways to use AR for museums to tell their stories and offer highly memorable experiences to visitors.
For a lot of curators and museum marketers, however, a sheepish question or two surfaces:
What exactly is augmented reality? And how can museums really benefit from AR?
Unlike virtual reality (VR), which replicates an entirely virtual world within a headset, the focus in augmented reality is on the first word: augmented. AR uses a headset, special glasses, a smartphone, or a tablet to add visuals to the existing world we can see.
In a museum setting, this might mean adding effects to paintings, bringing historical scenes to life, gamifying exhibits, layering kid-friendly experiences onto adult exhibits, and more.
“Far from acting as a distraction, technology can be used to bring people closer to the artefacts and history a museum exhibit is exploring.” - Museum Next
Here are ten exceptional examples of augmented reality exhibitions to both inform and, hopefully, inspire you.
1. The Art Gallery of Ontario modernizes classic paintings
A few years back, the Art Gallery of Ontario arrived on the vanguard of AR exhibits with “ReBlink,” promoted as “a magical new way to experience art.” With a custom app, visitors to the museum view the collections through the lens of their smartphone or tablet to see artworks reimagined for modern times by artist Alex Mayhew. You can get a glimpse of the effect in this trailer:
While the technique of overlaying classic paintings with augmented updates might seem a tad gimmicky, its ultimate effect is to more fully engage young museumgoers. In fact, both critical and audience consensus for this museum AR exhibit were positive.
The AR takeaway for your museum: A custom app that presents conventional exhibits in new or modernized ways can be a big engager for museum visitors who are comfortable with technology and often have their smartphone right in their pocket in the first place.
2. The National Gallery engages children to learn about classic art
London’s National Gallery on Trafalgar Square houses some of the most famous paintings of all time, including works by Vermeer, Titian, Cézanne, Monet, and van Gogh. The artworks themselves are a sublime experience to behold, but in 2022, the museum took a bold step: it launched its first AR app with the children’s game “The Keeper of Paintings and the Palette of Perception.”
The app added gamification to the museum experience by challenging kids to solve puzzles, find clues, and collect “gems” connected to the actual paintings. The game’s goal? To help the made-up “Keeper of Paintings” find the lost “Palette of Perception.”
And while the AR app was intended to be used on-site, it was later adapted into an additional at-home experience as well.
The AR takeaway for your museum: Combining AR with gamification is an excellent way to engage younger visitors and at-home audiences.
3. The National Museum of Singapore displays exhibits that no longer exist
"The emergence of digital and future technology has opened many doors for museums worldwide and we now have the opportunity to redefine the conventional museum experience.”— Angelita Teo, Museum Director, National Museum of Singapore on The Straits Times
Decades ago, there was a 42-foot-long Indian fin whale skeleton at the National Museum of Singapore, and you can see it as if it’s still there simply by standing in the right spot and using a custom-designed AR museum app. In the 1950s, the museum’s rotunda had a gorgeous clay tile floor, and today, if you use the right device, you can look at the existing marble and see the clay tiles.
In fact, with the aid of that borrowed device (a Tango-enabled Lenovo Phab 2 Pro phone the museum provides), you can see every exhibit that’s ever existed in the museum.
While this AR project was launched a handful of years ago, it was not the National Museum of Singapore’s first. The museum has continuously improved its AR offerings with DigiMuse, a program launched in 2017 to explore the intersection of artworks, digital arts, and technology. Creative minds have introduced digitally animated artworks and employed AR as a training tool for conservators – allowing them to practice retouching paintings without actually touching them.
Museum Director Angelita Teo credits AR and other new technologies with enriching the visitor experience of the stories the museum is trying to tell and enriching their connection to the past.
The AR takeaway for your museum: The National Museum of Singapore created this AR exhibit to celebrate its 130th anniversary year, and your museum, too, could use AR to look back in time.
4. The Spirit of Electricity comes to life at the Musée d'Art Moderne
La Fée Eléctricité (the Spirit of Electricity) by Raoul Dufy is known as one of the largest paintings in the world. Recently restored, it’s housed at the Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris and is widely considered a masterpiece. Commissioned for the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, the painting weighs in at 10 metric tons, but over the years, its luster had faded.
In 2020, the painting was restored – and with a twist. Visitors can now experience the Spirit of Electricity in an augmented, immersive way. Thanks to a partnership with the FIEEC (Federation of Electrical, Electronic and Communication Industries) and the Rodin Club, a group of scientific experts, the Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris has created an AR experience that includes audio overlay by the physicist and philosopher Etienne Klein.
Visitors to the Musée d'Art Moderne have the option of using a tablet to view the painting in three different ways: artistic, scientific, and family oriented. There is also an accompanying website that offers a 360° tour of the Spirit of Electricity, podcasts that further explore the content, and further materials.
The AR takeaway for your museum: AR is an excellent format for downloading more information about the artwork and other types of exhibits to museum visitors, rather than limiting that data to small placards on the wall or printable brochures.
5. The Forums of Augustus and Caesar bring visitors back in time
The Forum of Augustus has been using AR to educate and entertain visitors for nearly a decade, starting with the launch of the Journeys Through Ancient Rome project in 2014. Using both AR and VR, the Forum transforms a large empty field into a lively stadium scene that hasn’t existed for 300 years. Gladiators, chariot riders, and a rowdy audience surround the visitor.
More recently, the Forum of Caesar has followed suit, and these visual spectacles are accompanied by an audio soundtrack available in eight languages.
The AR takeaway for your museum: Cultural heritage sites have a lot to gain (and give) when they apply cutting-edge technology to an ancient place. Your own site can employ AR to virtually bring visitors back to the past, rather than simply trying to explain what happened in words and pictures.
6. Paris Montparnasse Top of the City augments the view
Augmented reality is a tool not limited to just museums. All kinds of attractions can take advantage of the creative and promotional possibilities of this technological medium. Paris Montparnasse Top of the City, for instance, uses AR to augment the view from its renowned observation deck overlooking the city of Paris and the Eiffel Tower.
AR is built into the mounted viewers at Paris Montparnasse, so visitors don’t need to employ their own smartphones or borrow another type of device. Simply by looking through the viewers – and even when the view itself is obscured by fog – the technology embedded in the viewers includes loads of additional information depending on where the viewers are pointed.
This augmented style of storytelling is intended to be compelling, particularly for younger visitors, who perhaps feel bored with out-of-date attractions and experiences. At Top of the City, they experience facts as well as fascinating anecdotes, short textual stories, video clips, filters, and 3D reconstructions.
The AR takeaway for your museum: If your attraction already includes older technology such as long-distance viewers, there’s a natural opportunity to upgrade devices with AR to create a more engaging and educational visitor experience.
7. The Smithsonian re-animates skeletons from antiquity
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is a major U.S. institution, so it’s fitting that it be the first museum to use beacon technology, along with AR, to create an interactive app. Visitors are given a tablet to carry around the museum during their visit, and beacon technology automatically feeds them detailed information about exhibits as they wander the space.
At certain exhibits that contain a QR code, visitors can take advantage of AR content. For example, a visitor who views a vintage radio exhibit through the tablet screen can watch as the radio is deconstructed to view its parts. (See this in action in the video below.)
The National Museum of Natural History has also used AR technology to bring skeletons to life in its Bone Hall with the app “Skin and Bones.” The AR app triggers 3D graphics to spring to life on the tablet screen, illustrating to the visitor how all kinds of animals move depending on their skeletal structures. This AR app helped modernize one of the museum’s oldest exhibits, originally founded in 1881.
The AR takeaway for your museum: AR can be a great way to bring an old exhibit back to life, and combined with beacon technology, can help orient the visitor in your space.
8. The Asian Art Museum immerses the visitor inside the art
The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco built out an entire new space to house groundbreaking and utterly creative exhibitions like the immersive, multisensory dreamscape teamLab: Continuity. A far cry from traditional 2D art exhibits, Visitors wandered through large empty rooms where imagery drawn from both nature and East Asian art revolved on the floor, walls, and ceiling. Stepping through the projections, the visitor became part of the exhibit.
teamLab’s mission and manifesto for this project intended to “revolutionize how the world sees Asian art” and “upend your perceptions.” Instead of entering a museum space in order to look at distinct objects, that sense of boundary was taken from the visitor and replaced with a full immersion into the art.
The AR takeaway for your museum: AR can be a way to alter how your visitors are used to experiencing and thinking about art and other subjects.
9. Walt Disney World launches a theme park metaverse
In honor of its 50th anniversary, Walt Disney World partnered with Snapchat to create a “theme park metaverse,” inviting visitors in their theme parks to interact and take photos with augmented reality characters from the Disney canon. Mickey and Minnie Mouse, among others, come to life through an AR lens. Via the My Disney Experience app, Disney also gave visitors a chance to overlay their personal park photos on top of Cinderella Castle for a unique and personalized montage.
The company has invested in a lot of other immersive creative projects as well, even hiring a VP of Next Generation Storytelling Creative Experiences. Perhaps your museum or attraction does not have room in your budget for an executive to run your AR efforts. No matter! Even far more modest AR efforts can go a long way, and if you partner with an outside expert, you, too, can achieve Disney-esque imagination.
The AR takeaway for your museum: Partner with an AR expert to create a new app or an additional feature for your museum’s existing app.
10. Legoland launches the World of Mythical Creatures in AR
Imagination drives visitors to Legoland Windsor Resort in England, and it’s rewarded when they scan the plaques on four onsite statues of mythical creatures: a chimera, an alicorn, a hydra, and a sky lion. Through their smartphones, visitors then see these characters come to life and learn more about their backstories – and even get a selfie with them!
The attraction’s AR app also allows users to visit four different areas of the “magical realm,” Mythica, while onsite: the Magical Forest, Hidden Valley, Raging Seas, and Mount Lava. There, they learn about the flora and fauna that exist in Mythica and can participate in a gamified experience that allows them to collect “orbs” and special golden digital cards.
Legoland’s AR project is a fun, interactive, and richly imaginative experience for visitors of all ages.
The AR takeaway for your museum: Your imagination is really the limit when it comes to AR.
So, is it time to become an AR museum?
Whether you decide to upgrade or completely overhaul your museum’s offerings with augmented reality, any step in that direction will help you improve your visitor engagement and perhaps even gain some worthy PR — as many of the museums we mentioned in this article experienced.
To learn about more kinds of cutting-edge museum technologies, read Technology for Museums: 10 Examples to Delight Your Visitors next.