By Jane L. Levere
Walk through the doors of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City these days and it’s possible to travel back more than 100 years.
Visitors can walk up to the original front doors no longer easily visible from outside the museum on East 36th Street, view a hidden staircase in its book-lined library that ascends to its upper tiers, and even meet Belle da Costa Greene, who died in 1950, having been the longtime librarian of the museum’s collector, J. Pierpont Morgan, and the museum’s first director, appointed by Morgan’s son in 1924.
From anywhere in the world, you can encounter David Bowie, the rock legend who died in 2016 and was the star of a wildly popular, world-touring exhibition created by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and check out over 400 exhibition items and others not on display there.
How are these experiences possible? Magic? Help from space aliens?
Think augmented reality, or A.R., a technology being adopted by more and more museums to add a new level of excitement to visitors’ experience.
Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum, said he loved that the museum’s new A.R. tour lets visitors “actually decode” the early 20th century decorative ceiling in its library by the muralist Henry Siddons Mowbray and get a close-up look at the 16th century tapestry over its grand fireplace.
Mr. Bailey said there was “no way” the Morgan could provide a written explanation of this decoration that visitors could read while simultaneously looking at it. The A.R. tour, he added, “is a wonderful way of imparting information about the history of the room, what the symbols mean.”
Referring to the museum’s entire A.R. experience, which makes 12 stops in the original, early 20th century library building, he added, “Nothing impedes the visual pleasure of stepping into these spaces.”
After first seeing the Bowie exhibition, “David Bowie Is,” in London, Akiko Ozawa, senior vice president in the New York office of Sony Music Entertainment Japan, suggested that her company bring the exhibition to Tokyo, which eventually became the 10th city on its global, five-year tour. She also helped create the exhibition’s app, as a way, she said, to preserve it once its costumes and other artifacts went back into storage, and to “show it to younger generations and to people who couldn’t make it.”
Sony and the David Bowie Archive introduced the app in January on what would have been Bowie’s 72nd birthday. It also features video and images from the beginning of his career through his final album, with narration by Gary Oldman, a longtime friend to Bowie.
Other museums and galleries are using augmented reality to augment exhibitions. Here are some of them.
• “Vikings: Beyond the Legend,” a touring exhibition that looks into the people, traditions and influence of the Viking Age and will open next month at the Royal Alberta Museum in Alberta, Canada, picked up a 21st century addition on its most recent stop at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia: While seated in a special, high-tech installation, visitors there could compete against a virtual Viking crew, using a replica oar.
• “Felice Grodin: Invasive Species,” an exhibition on display at the Perez Art Museum Miami through June 30, features four site-specific works including one that overlays the museum’s hanging gardens on its waterfront terrace with the translucent body of a digital species Grodin created, referring to nonnative jellyfish found in South Florida waters.
• “Natura Obscura,” at the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood, Colo., through April 28, is an immersive arts experience whose forest portion involves an app that illustrates natural elements such as clouds and “creatures of the forest.”
• A new app, from the Powdermill Nature Reserve of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, lets users project flowers onto any flat surface to create gardens wherever they go. It also offers visualizations of how deer overpopulation affects Appalachia, where the reserve is.
• “The Life,” the latest performance by Marina Abramovic, which debuted last month at the Serpentine Galleries in London and is slated to tour in the future, lent audience members wearable devices to see a digital presentation of her work.
• To help commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission — during which crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humankind’s first steps on the moon — the Smithsonian Institution is developing an A.R. experience for educators to use with school groups at its National Air and Space Museum. The museum said this technology will allow it to easily communicate information to visitors that previously would only have been available by handing them the 900-page NASA service handbook.
Features such as these will only proliferate and grow more sophisticated, according to experts. Elizabeth Merritt, director of the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums, called A.R. “a great way to bring people face to face with historical figures they otherwise might not be able to meet and to restore artifacts that have been lost or broken.”