Augmented Reality (AR) technology has huge potential in the museum sector. We look at some of the reasons why museums might consider using AR, as well as some real-life examples from around the world.

AR technology has made huge strides over the past few years, making the jump from the gaming world into attractions and museums across the globe.

Museum AR can now be found in a variety of institutions around the world. For instance, guests at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History can now use an AR app in the iconic Bone Hall. This app, called Skin and Bones, shows what the skeletons would have looked like while alive.

Kennedy-Space-Centre museum AR

Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Space Centre

Meanwhile, visitors to the Kennedy Space Center can view a reconstruction of the second-ever spacewalk in 1966, superimposed over the actual Gemini 9 space capsule.

So, what benefits does AR have and how can it help museums engage their audience in a new way?

Why use AR in museums?

A good AR experience can be an engaging way of presenting information, meaning that museums can show facts in a way that connects with visitors. Instead of presenting a passive display, organisations can use this technology to allow guests to participate and to make new connections as scenes come to life. The content can take the form of video, text, 3D images and more.

AR can also add more to the museum experience. Institutions can layer relevant augmentations over items in their collections to present richer, more detailed access. In addition, museums can use this technology to provide context. They can place objects and works of art in different scenes, peeling back layers and telling their stories from a new perspective.

Wildeverse AR app

AR is also popular elsewhere in the attractions sector, for example, Chester Zoo’s Wildeverse app

This kind of technology has a wide appeal and can be a way for museums to attract a younger audience. AR can be used to add family-friendly games to a museum space, for an interactive experience that visitors can enjoy together.

Furthermore, unlike virtual reality (VR), AR is relatively simple to add. This type of experience can be run on most smartphones and tablets, so it can be an inexpensive way to refresh a museum collection. Particularly given the fact that most modern visitors have devices of their own.

Here are some example of museums around the world that have used AR in a range of interesting ways.

Stedelijk Museum ARTours

One early AR project was conducted by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, an international museum offering modern and contemporary art and design. In 2010, the museum launched its ARTours project, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Culture and run in collaboration with design bureau Fabrique.

The goal of this project was to find an innovative new method of showcasing the museum’s collection. The organisation wanted to explore some extra ways of interpreting its items and looking at their stories. It also wanted to find new ways of engaging people with its collection, outside of a traditional museum setting.

Stedelijk Museum

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, facade as seen from the Van Gogh Museum. Photo: John Lewis Marshall

One event that took place as part of the ARTours project was developed for the popular Dutch music festival, Lowlands. This concept was called ARtotheque and aimed to ‘lend’ items from the museum’s collection to the public. It allowed festival-goers to borrow an AR version of a piece of art from the Stedelijk Museum. They could then position it somewhere in the festival site, where others could also enjoy it using their device.

In addition to this, the Museum also invited the artist Jan Rothuizen to create ideas for a fully AR exhibition, as part of the ARTtours project. This could only be viewed by using AR technology.

In an interview about the ARTours experience, project leader Hein Wils said, “[AR] reaches out to new audiences. Working with immersive technologies, it brings innovation to the way we exhibit our collections. Museums can reinvent the relationship with their audience and create a new platform for artists.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, also conducted an interesting AR installation called ReBlink, in 2017. The museum collaborated with a digital artist on the project, Alex Mayhew. In order to get the audience to see items from its collection in a new way, Mayhew reimagined some of the museum’s works of art.

Thanks to AR technology, museum guests were able to use their own phones or tablets to watch the subjects of the paintings come to live and be placed in a modern setting.

For example, one painting that Mayhew reimagined for the project was Drawing Lots by George Agnew Reid. In the original, three people are playing together in a peaceful, quiet scene.

When visitors viewed the artwork through their device, the AR layer showed a modern retelling. Here, the characters are no longer playing as a group. Instead, they have their heads bent over their own phone screens, while disruptive traffic passes by.

ReBlink at the Art Gallery of Ontario

The team behind the project, Impossible Things, of which Mayhew is the co-founder, says: “We believe that ReBlink has been so successful because it taps the powers of augmented reality to transform a simple interaction — viewing a painting in a museum — into a visceral, explorative and magical experience.

“ReBlink doesn’t just extend viewing through exposition or instruction, it ‘intervenes’ – offering a new perspective…The juxtaposition of past and present builds connections that create an impactful commentary. This approach is immediate, direct and plays on a deep human desire for exploration and discovery.”

Latvian National Museum of Art

Visitors to the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga can enjoy an in-depth tour directly from their smartphone. This means that they can discover more about the pieces in the museum’s collection as they explore at their own pace.

Guests access this extra AR content simply by downloading the museum’s app. This is available for free in Latvian, Russian and English. To begin with, the content focused on a selection of permanent exhibits at the museum. The extra information in the AR layer means that visitors can find out more about the paintings as well as the artists, and the subjects that they depict.

Latvian Nation Museum of Art AR app

In addition to this, users can discover more about the building itself. The app highlights interesting architectural features and learning about the museum’s recent reconstruction.

Following the initial success of the app, the museum went on to create a new installation using only AR content. “We launched an exhibition that looked like a bunch of framed QR codes in our halls,” said Annija Sauka, Head of Communication at the Latvian National Museum of Art.

“To discover the artwork behind the codes, visitors had to download the app and scan them. It really triggered people’s curiosity as visitors wanted to find out the hidden content and spiked the app downloads.”

As well as having benefits for the visitor, the app also helps the museum. It does not have the staffing capacity to provide such a detailed tour on an individual level.

The FBI Experience

The FBI Experience is a self-guided tour at the FBI’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C, developed in partnership with Smithsonian Exhibits. Here, the public can discover more about the work that the FBI does, through interactive exhibits, interesting content and artefacts. There are even items from well-known cases on display.

The iconic FBI tour was always a popular stop for visitors to Washington, D.C. In 2017, following a long period of closure after 9/11 and the creation of an Education Center, the Bureau worked with Smithsonian Exhibits to reopen a new, modern experience.

AR technology powers one of the highlights of the FBI Experience, a bank robbery interactive. Here, the AR layers help guests as they search for clues and evidence at a reconstruction of a crime scene. The interactive shows the procedure that the FBI uses when investigating a bank robbery. It also invites the visitor to be a part of the action.

The National Museum of Singapore

Visitors to the National Museum of Singapore can enjoy an ongoing exhibition called Story of the Forest. This immersive experience features almost 70 images from the museum’s William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings. These are transformed into three-dimensional animations which interact with the visitors.

“The artwork touches on various histories. That of the site it is presented in, as well as the muses it features,” reads the exhibition description. The museum says that it is a way of connecting Singapore’s colonial past with its present-day modernity. “Through stunning artistry and creative technology, it invites you to interact with the animated wildlife of the Malay Peninsula in the 19th century.”

Story of the Forest is by teamLab, the digital art collective behind a series of popular artainment attractions. For example, teamLab Planets TOKYO and teamLab: A Forest Where Gods Live.

It is a popular installation in its own right. However, there is also an AR app, to enhance the museum experience and to provide family-friendly fun. Once they have downloaded the app, visitors can hunt for and catch plants and animals within the artwork. Once found they can add them to their virtual collection.

As well as being entertaining, this also helps users learn. This is because the app shows interesting information and facts about the items once they have been collected.

England’s Historic Cities app

Several of England’s most treasured heritage sites are now being brought to life with AR. This is thanks to the England’s Historic Cities app. The app features iconic cultural and historical locations, such as Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, Chester Roman Amphitheatre, Hadrian’s Wall and Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Launched in 2017, the mobile guide uses AR technology to give users new insights into twelve popular locations. There are information points at various locations around each of the sites. When users scan these with their own device, they activate the AR displays. These show extra information through content such as 3D reconstructions and 360-degree panoramas.

England's Historic Cities app museum AR

Also, users can listen to stories told by famous local historical local figures. This helps to give them more context about the sites’ history. For example, William Shakespeare, Bede the Venerable, and the Seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion narrate some interesting tales.

Nicola Said, Head of Digital and Funding at Marketing Cheshire, delivered the project on behalf of the Heritage Cities. Following its launch, she said, “This is one of the most exciting tourism products on the market. A true marrying of old and new. It is a completely innovative way to inspire an increasingly digital world to take a step back into the past.

“It will enable all the cities in question to be able to reach new audiences and showcase the iconic cultural heritage we have to offer.”

The use of AR in museums

These examples show the wide range of different applications for AR in a museum setting.

It is important to note that these projects are well-thought-out and planned. They contain content that truly adds to the experience. Adding a layer of AR to a museum just to keep up with technology is not always a recipe for success. Organisations need to make sure they have a concrete goal in mind.

The above examples are successful because they add something new and provide extra value to the visitor. When used thoughtfully, AR can enhance what is already there, widening the appeal and encouraging previous visitors to return.

Museum AR has the potential to engage, entertain and educate in an interactive and fun way. Not to mention it is relatively inexpensive to install. So it seems that museum AR is likely to be a trend with staying power.