As vital institutions of society that both educate, and record and preserve history, museums help to shape our community and cultural identity. So, what is it that makes us want to explore one?
To start with these architectural landmarks often entice us in with their aesthetic curb appeal. Then once inside these visually striking buildings, they’re brimming with treasured artefacts, fascinating stories and facts of bygone eras to discover.
But in today’s world with its myriad of digital distractions, is there enough to tempt us in, hold our attention and encourage repeat visits? It seems not.
Key drivers of tourism
In the UK, museums are an essential part of our tourism offering – after all, we’re home to five of the top twenty art museums in the world, and eight of our top ten visitor attractions in the UK are museums. In fact, research has shown that 40% of visitors to the UK cite culture as their reason for visiting.
But despite being our most frequented attractions, and being world leaders in the museum sector, visitor numbers are in decline. It appears that regardless of our fondness for these ‘portals to the past’, Museums don’t hold the appeal that they once used to…
Museum visitor numbers in decline
The chart below shows research from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions detailing how the visitor statistics of four of the most popular museums in London have fluctuated over a four-year period (2013-2017):
• The British Museum lost over 800,000 visitors in the last two years alone
• The National History Museum lost one million visitors from 2013 to 2017
• In contrast, Tate Modern has seen an overall increase in visitors of nearly one million. This is likely due to their late-night programming and shift towards interactive digital exhibits such as VR experiences, the interactive ‘Tate Time Machine’ in 2016, and holographic installations , that are more engaging for a generation growing up with iPhones in their pocket.
Are the economic recession and government cuts to museum funding to blame for the drop in visitor numbers? If the decline in the value of the pound hadn’t made the UK a cheaper destination for overseas tourists, this might be so. Instead, the UK has seen a record level of tourism; according to the Office for National Statistics the number of visits in 2017 grew 4% to a record 39.2 million international visitors. And yet, this is not being reflected in the number of people going through our museum doors.
Using VR and AR to increase relevancy, engagement and visitor numbers
Many museums are finding that ticket sales are covering less than 27% of their annual operating budget. To survive it’s essential that they find new and innovative ways to keep people coming back. Finding the balance between preserving history and remaining technologically relevant isn’t easy. However, what Tate Modern has demonstrated is that adapting its approach to a time-poor generation that is being flooded with digital entertainment choices is paying off. The Modigliani VR exhibition in late 2017, was the gallery’s first foray into the medium and Tate Modern is increasingly committed to providing engaging digital innovation with its ‘Art changes.
So do we’ approach. In 2018, its ‘Digital Maker Collective’ held an amazing technological immersion event which engaged hundreds of public visitors. And this commitment of Tate Modern to exploring and celebrating the role of technology in the arts is starting to leave other popular visitor attractions in its wake.
Compared to even just 10 years ago much has changed, particularly for children. Now it’s the norm for the school-age generation to playonline games such as Fortnite, with incredible graphics, the exhilaration of fighting against 99 other players from around the world and discussing tactics with their friends on headsets, all in real-time.
And when it comes to consuming culture and history, even adults these days find a stuffed animal in a glass display case a bit lacking compared to rich depth of the Blue Planet TV series. To compete and stay relevant, museums need to ride this wave and enrich their experience with digital extensions to engage children and adults alike.
VR and AR create a more dynamic and interactive exhibit and produce an entirely different experience; one that immerses the user and can lead to a much deeper understanding of an event or place than just reading or looking at images.
Furthermore, if you create a digital experience with the right appeal not only will you increase footfall, but you can create new revenue streams and underwrite the cost of development as well.
Museums have started to draw more young people in through late-night events, DJ sets and a few interactive experiences. But more is needed. AR/VR technology has evolved considerably and is the ideal way to support museums and galleries; creating exciting and compelling experiences that are more relevant to today’s audiences.
Virtual and Augmented Reality can contribute a lot to museums. These technologies increase the feeling of presence (one of the fields that are studied by the Thematic Area 4 of the ViMM project, alongside with the Storytelling and Gamification fields), since the users feel that they really are a part of the virtual world that they are exploring. This is a very exciting feature that could make the museum experience more fun and interesting.