By Peter Crimmins

The Barnes Foundation is using virtual reality to draw people into its world-famous galleries.

The downtown Philadelphia art institution is bringing VR goggles to libraries, recreation centers and senior centers around Philadelphia to reach people who may have never been to an art museum.

The goggles allow people to move through a simulation of the Barnes’ world-famous collection in order to get them interested in the real thing.

“We purposefully use a high-tech tool and made it low-tech,” said Valerie Gay, deputy director of audience engagement at the Barnes. “Usually goggles are strapped on one’s head, and there’s an earpiece that makes it a completely immersive experience. This experience is geared to be social. A person is holding the goggles up to their faces. They can remove them whenever they want. You can hear your friends. You can have a guided tour with someone also wearing goggles.”

After seeing the simulation, the Barnes offer participants free admission and, in some cases, free transportation to the gallery on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

The VR experience is part of a package of community outreach efforts at the Barnes to connect with residents in outlying neighborhoods or those who feel culturally alienated by museums.

“I’m always amazed by how many people have never entered a museum in their lives,” said Barbara Wong, director of community engagement. “Art should be accessible to everybody. It isn’t just about identifying the masters, but being able to look at objects and make connections to what we see.”

Last year the Barnes began its VR outreach as a pilot program, funded by the Barra Foundation, in five locations (four libraries and a recreation center). This year the program is expanding to sixty-two locations, and will include senior centers and partnering community organizations.