IX. VR and the Role it Plays in Museums

  • Sydney Thatcher

Forms of virtual reality, or VR for short, have been around for centuries, from panoramic rooms to stereoscopes, 1 as people have tried to alter the world around them to create a new one. During the 1960s the first head-mounted displays were created attaching a user to a camera, eventually the headsets would be connected to computers. Typically, VR has been associated with video games to help create a more realistic gaming experience, but VR has also made appearances in movies such as the Matrix and Ready Player One. In 2016, VR headsets such as Oculus Rift became available on the market for consumers, making VR more popular and thus more accessible to museums and other users. Other tech companies such as Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Sony have all become competitors in the VR field.2 For many museums, VR technology is still a fad that that is not realistic to use; however, some museums with enough time and resources have been able to incorporate VR as a storytelling tool to enhance the museum’s mission and the collections narratives, as well as to create more accessibility to museum content. This paper will imagine some of the possibilities of further incorporation of VR in museums.

What is VR?

Virtual Reality is an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment.3 Basically, VR uses immersive technologies to create a new world using images and sounds. The most common ways of using VR is through headsets, which can also feature headphones and gloves and/or controllers to control the virtual world, or through VR rooms or domes where screens are surrounding the user.4 VR can also be viewed on smartphones, tablets, and computers; however, these experiences are not as immersive as when using a headset or in a VR room.

VR can be confused with Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality. All three are different combinations of technology and the real world. While Augmented Reality supplements the real world with technological images and features, Virtual Reality is meant to be experienced as a completely different world from the one a user is physically in. Mixed Reality is any combination of the real world and a Virtual Reality.5 Meanings and taxonomy can often flow between the three realities based on the sources being used.6 For the purposes of this paper I will only be looking at the use of VR in a few museums where the visitor was taken to a different reality from the one they are physically in.

Creating Accessibility

Some museums and companies are starting to use VR to create tours of museums for classrooms and people who are not able to physically visit the museum, theoretically making museums more accessible to audiences they normally would not be able to reach. One such company is CuratedxKai.7 Kai has created several educational virtual reality tours that can be brought to students in the classroom. There are many schools that cannot afford to bring students to museums on field trips; thus, Kai brings the museum to the students. She creates 360 degree videos of such cultural icons as the Barack Obama Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery or snippets of Broadways shows such as Aladdin.8 These videos can either be put on smart boards in classrooms; or Kai helps teachers write grants or find cheap ways to bring VR into the school.9 Traditional field trip experiences can improve recall, critical thinking, historical empathy and tolerance, and now VR tours can do the same.10 Not only does Kai make the technology accessible, she also makes the information accessible for students of different ages. She approaches topics such as the Holocaust, that can be unfathomable or foreign to student, by incorporating personal experiences that students might be familiar with.11 VR tours such as those created by CuratedxKai and many others allow students from across the country to see things in museums they cannot otherwise access from their classrooms.

While CuratedxKai creates curated tours from different institutions, some museums have created their own VR tours. National Museum of Natural History, the Renwick Gallery, the Louvre, the Met, and the British Museum are just a few examples of museums that have created VR tours of either the whole museum or specific exhibitions.12 These VR tours create opportunities for the museum to better serve visitors who might not normally be able to physically come to the museum. Elderly people, people who live across the country or world, and students are able to “visit” the museum without physically attending. Although not everyone may have access to VR equipment there are still 360 degree videos that can be viewed online using phones or computers.

The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) has a VR tour of the entire museum allowing visitors to see current exhibitions and previous ones that have been archived.13 Creating and archiving tours like this offers an incredible educational tool not only for students learning about the world, but also for the museum profession. For instance, visiting an exhibition that has closed years ago can help create more enlightened discussion about the museum profession for museum studies students. Currently the NMNH VR tour only offers the option to walk around the museum, where labels and wall descriptions are not always readable. However, these VR tours are a great opportunity to supply other digital content such as providing animal noises in the mammal hall to make experiences more engaging, or curator or artist discussions. Another example of a VR tour is the British Museum, which currently offers a VR experience for the Egyptian section of their museum.14 Although they do not offer a tour of the whole museum, they do have the curator of the Egyptian exhibition talk about the exhibition as visitors explore the different sections. This allows for a deeper understanding and engaging experience with the content.

VR as Storyteller

VR can be an important tool in helping curators, educators, and museums in general tell the museum’s story and further its mission. Again, the British Museum is a great example of how virtual reality can enhance the collection and museum’s story. In 2015, the museum held a VR Family Weekend as a pilot to incorporating VR into their programming. During a previous digital project, the museum took 3D scans of several objects specifically in their Bronze Age collection. The curator of the Bronze Age had been thoroughly involved with the 3D scans project and jumped at the opportunity of another digital project, especially one that utilized those 3D scans. A Bronze Sussex loop, a large dirk from Beanue, and a Woolaston Gold were the three objects chosen from the British Museum’s Bronze Age collection to be incorporated into the VR experience. These three objects appeared in a blue outline within the VR experience, where visitors were able to interact with the object to learn more about it and how it would have been used during the Bronze Age. Three Bronze Age roundhouses created the setting for these objects. Visitors were able to walk around the roundhouses, see the architecture, and view other objects that would have been in a Bronze Age roundhouse.

The purpose of the VR Family Weekend was to have a family friendly activity that provided context for objects in the collection. The British Museum was still testing the best ways to get visitors involved, thus they used three different types of VR technology: headsets, tablets, and an immersive full dome. The individuals working on the VR experience said that typically the Bronze Age was a hard time for visitors to fully comprehend because not a lot of information is known about it. Through the use of VR more visitors were able to engage with the content and have a deeper understanding of what the Bronze Age might have looked like. The museum also determined that the joint experience of VR and handling collections gave visitors a better comprehension of the Bronze Age collection.15

As a larger museum with a bigger budget, The British Museum may find it easier to experiment with new technologies within the museum. However, not every museum is going to have the resources needed to create such an experience. The British Museum’s experience shows how well VR can be incorporated into programming and storytelling. Their focus in embarking on this project was to create family content and for visitors to better understand one of their harder collections. The museum also used this experience to evaluate visitors’ interactions with the VR technology. By evaluating and testing the museum created a better understanding of how they could use VR in the future. Also, by publishing an article about their experience allows other museums to benefit from the knowledge they gained during the process. Both of these practices are very important in furthering the research of how best to use VR. The focus was not on finding a way to include VR, but rather finding a way to help visitors better understand an era and a collection. If more museums incorporated VR into their storytelling process like the British Museum, then maybe more people would better understand difficult areas of history.

Virtual Reality as an Emotion Maker

When VR became popular in 2015 there was a Ted talk by Chris Milk called “How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine.”16 In this talk, Milk makes the argument that VR can be used to create empathy and is a tool for people across the world to better understand each other. Some of these “empathy making experiences” include interacting with a girl named Sidra at a refugee camp or being a tree in a forest that eventually gets burnt down.17 These experiences are meant for visitors to have emotional responses about a specific topic that the creators hope will cause a call to action or a change of heart.

Since then, there have been many articles about whether VR creates empathy, sympathy, or instead the feeling of alienation.18 Michael Goldman from the Holocaust Museum has discussed two issues that have come from displaying VR in the Holocaust Museum. Either the visitor minimizes their own experiences, where they think they should not feel bad for themselves, say, because a friend died of cancer, because a Holocaust victim experienced something worse. Or, the visitor over-empathizes with a Holocaust survivor, where they think they know how it feels to be in the Holocaust. To combat these two scenarios Goldman treats visitors as “engaged witnesses” where they recognize the trauma of others without taking that trauma upon themselves.19 This is one way museums have been able to engage visitors - not necessarily to promote empathy, but rather to engage their emotions.

It is a common practice in exhibition planning, programming, and educational activities to create a more memorable experience by inviting visitors to use their heart, head, and hands. By having visitors think, feel, and interact physically with an exhibition, the memory of an experience, and the associated learning, can last longer. Although it is hard to generalize about the kinds of responses visitors might have from a VR experience in a museum, due to the broad range of possible experiences available, it is clear that virtual reality can prompt an emotional response in its audiences. Thus, VR could play a role in this model having visitors interact with a topic that touches them emotionally. Additionally, if Robert J. Stein is right that museums can help make better citizens through spaces that allow for understanding different perspectives20, then VR could be an incredible resource in this endeavor.

VR as Art

Whether they decide to create their own VR experiences or not, museums, especially art museums, will likely have to address this technology as a medium as more artists use VR and related technologies as a part of their artwork. For instance, in Unmoored, artist Mel Chin created a VR experience where viewers could see what Time Square would look like in the future if climate change were to continue. Boats float about the user’s head to signify rising sea levels over time.21 Another example of VR as artwork is Real Violence by Jeff Wolfson. His art includes the whole visitor experience: waiting online, putting on the headset, viewing the VR, and taking off the headset to return to reality. The images in the VR experience include him violently beating another person on the sidewalk. He forces the audience to experience this brutal attack with nowhere else to look.22 Such examples call on museums to consider the best methods of incorporating VR artworks within their own experiences; including how such pieces impact staffing and exhibit design. As more artists incorporate VR into their artistry, museums may have to accommodate this artwork with technology in their galleries, especially if they wish to show the work of those artists using VR. Museums who wish to exhibit such artwork will need plans to answer the emotional and sometimes physical responses in visitors. Real Violence has caused a stir in museums because of its violent nature, and the intense experience visitors can have. Museum staff need to be properly trained to handle such intense emotions in visitors. It may not even be clear how museums can respond to such emotions, and they may have to experiment in how they handle such situations. Museums might even need to consider creating discussion or processing spaces for people to work through their emotional experiences after participating in such a work.

Cons of VR

All new technologies require experimentation and evaluation to better understand how it can be utilized. One of the disadvantages of VR is that it can be costly.23 The content, headsets, and employee time and training can swiftly add up for an institution establishing a VR experience. Often this work is contracted out to different companies who are creating VR content, which can be expensive depending on the content created.24 Headsets can also come at a price. At the lower end of the market are Oculus headsets that cost $19925 and at the higher end of the market is Viva Pro headsets that can cost $799.26 There are some cheaper options such as Google Cardboard that costs $1527 or Samsung Gear that can cost $2028; however, with these lower tech options a phone is needed to experience the VR. One route for museums to cut down on the price is to have visitors bring their own devices to use with VR. With repeated use on a daily basis, headsets used in museums have a higher propensity to break during an exhibition or program compared to headsets that are used at home. 29 If headsets are not functioning, visitors could have an unpleasant experience not only with VR, but also with the museum itself. Often several staff members are needed to facilitate the VR experience, including providing information and setting expectations, controlling lines and crowds, and even to putting headsets on visitors. During their VR Family Weekend, the British Museum had one employee for every headset, and an additional employee to charge batteries.30 Because expenses can quickly add up over the life of a VR project, it is important for a museum to understand the financial burden they are taking on before going through with adding VR to programming.

Hygiene can also be an issue. Unlike gamers and people at home who could use their own VR headset repeatedly, the museums headsets may be used by multiple visitors throughout the day. To prevent oils, sweat, and other germs enveloping the museums headsets, and eventually spreading illnesses,31 it is important for museums to continually sanitize headsets. This likely means that an employee has to wipe down the set after every use, which again has an impact on labor costs and headset downtime. This is an issue museums should keep in mind when investing in VR. They need to have a plan to create a sanitary way for every visitor to experience VR without the possibility of getting sick.

Because VR is still an emerging technology, some museum visitors may be experiencing it for the first time.32 This can create its own set of challenges. The disconnect between reality and the virtual world of VR can sometimes be unsettling and occasionally nausea inducing. Simulation sickness, which has symptoms including headaches, eyestrain, disorientation, vertigo, and vomiting, can be an issue. Not only do museums have to be aware of how they present VR to new audiences, they also have to take into consideration the side effects that VR can create for users. Exhibit designers are therefore called upon to be thoughtful in the ways that they introduce the experience in order to ensure a positive experience, either by managing expectations beforehand or creating reflection spaces after the VR experience.

Experiencing VR can be a very intimate and personal, which can be awkward in such a public setting as a museum. As a first-time user a visitor typically needs to be initiated into how the VR device works. Sometimes an employee has to place the headset on the visitor or has to ask permission to tighten a strap. An employee could even be the first person a visitor sees after getting simulation sickness.33 It could also be uncomfortable for visitors to perform actions in VR and be looked upon by strangers that they cannot see. All of these experiences can be very personal and require a certain amount of sensitivity for the visitor. These experiences could also act as deterrents from visitors using the technology in the first place. Sensitivity training for employees could be helpful in aiding employees to anticipate how to handle such situations; however, such training could be costly. Visitors put a certain amount of trust into museums and it is important for these institutions to maintain this trust and use VR in a responsible, comforting way.

Although there are some disadvantages and hurdles for museums utilizing VR there can be some very beneficial reasons to use VR in museums. As the technology improves and the cost goes down more museums might be able to incorporate VR into their exhibitions and programming.


One thing of note is to make a successful VR experience the museum staff have to buy into incorporating VR into the museum. Without the support of the staff, the use of VR will not be successful and sometimes not even possible. Other technology initiatives have demonstrated that the museum’s staff need to be committed to implementing, evaluating, and changing the technology to make it work within each museum.34 One of the reasons the British Museum’s use of VR at their Family Weekend was so effective was because the curator was on board with incorporating VR into the storytelling process.35 Without the curator’s hard work and collaboration with the digital team the Bronze Age VR experience might not have been as successful.

There can be many disadvantages to using VR in the museum world. It is a costly technology that requires a lot of time, money, and training. There are risks to health and safety from unsanitized headsets, and simulation sickness. It is also a new technology that can require lengthy introductions and cause uneasiness in first time users. However, the potentials of VR are vast. VR not only allows museum to be more accessible, but it can also enhance and compliment the collection and exhibitions in a museum. There are some concerns about whether VR will eventually replace museums all together; however, VR can be used to create new audiences for a museum as well as enrich the experience of current visitors.36 Even though VR can be expensive and time-consuming technology, large museums such as the Smithsonian, the Louvre, and the British Museum, institutions with the time and resources, should try to incorporate VR in ways that can enhance a visitor’s experience. Hopefully in the future, when VR is more mainstream and cheaper smaller museums will be able to experiment with VR in their own institutions.


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  2. Virtual Reality Society. 2015. “History of Virtual Reality.”
  3. Merriam- Webster. 2019. “Virtual Reality”
  4. Bardi, Joe. 2019. “What Is Virtual Reality?”
  5. Bardi, Joe. 2017. “What Is Mixed Reality? A Q&A with Marxent’s Ken Moser, PhD.”
  6. Bardi, Joe. 2017. “What Is Mixed Reality? A Q&A With Marxent’s Ken Moser, PhD.”; Franklin Institute. “What’s the Difference Between AR, VR, and MR?”; Johnson, Eric. 2016. “What are the Differences Among Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality?”
  7. Frazier, Kai. CuratedxKai.
  8. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Bringing the Museum to the Classroom with VR Field Trips.”
  9. Frazier, Kai in Anderson, Suse and González, Desi. 2018. “Episode 28: Virtually Yours (Part 1).” Museopunks.
  10. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Bringing the Museum to the Classroom with VR Field Trips.”
  11. Frazier, Kai in Anderson, Suse and González, Desi. 2018. “Episode 28: Virtually Yours (Part 1).” Museopunks.
  12. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “Smithsonian Virtual Tours.”; SAAM. “WONDER 360: Experience the Renwick Gallery Exhibition in Virtual Reality.”; You Visit. “The Louvre.”; Diamond, Nina. “The Met 360 Project.”; Boulton, Hannah. 2017. “Explore Ancient Egypt in our Virtual Reality Tour.”
  13. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “Smithsonian Virtual Tours.”
  14. Boulton, Hannah. 2017. “Explore Ancient Egypt in our Virtual Reality Tour.”
  15. Rae, Juno and Edwards, Lizzie. 2016. “Virtual Reality at the British Museum: What is the Value of Virtual Reality Environments for Learning by Children and Young People, Schools, and Families?.”
  16. Milk, Chris. 2015 “How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine.”
  17. Milk, Chris. 2015 “How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine.”; Bambury, Steve. 2019. “Can You Feel Empathy for a Tree in VR?”
  18. Ramirez, Erick. 2018. “It’s Dangerous to Think Virtual Reality is an Empathy Machine.”; Heath, Lucie. 2017. “VR Isn’t An Empathy Machine.” Dangerous Tech.
  19. Michael Goldman in Anderson, Suse, and Desi González. 2018. “Episode 28: Virtually Yours (Part 1).” Museopunks.
  20. Stein, Robert J. 2014. “Museums … So What?”
  21. Microsoft.
  22. Abelow, Tisch. 2017. “Let’s Get Real: Tisch Abelow on Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Real Violence’ at the at the Whitney Biennial.”; González, Desi. 2017. “When the Headset Comes Off: VR at Museums in 2017 – Art in America.”
  23. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Virtual Reality is a Big Trend in Museums, But What are the Best Examples of Museums Using VR?”
  24. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Virtual Reality is a Big Trend in Museums, But What are the Best Examples of Museums Using VR?”
  25. Cost taken from Oculus Rift site on November 3, 2019 https://www.oculus.com/go/?gclsrc=ds&&gclid=CN-Dkc_9zuUCFVTiswod5GcN-A
  26. Cost taken from Vive site on November 3, 2019 https://www.vive.com/us/product/vive-pro/
  27. Cost taken from Google on November 3, 2019 https://arvr.google.com/cardboard/get-cardboard/
  28. Cost taken from Amazon on November 3, 2019 https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01L96KA4Y/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_Tsx6Db080R2RG
  29. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Virtual Reality is a Big Trend in Museums, But What are the Best Examples of Museums Using VR?”
  30. Rae, Juno and Edwards, Lizzie. 2016. “Virtual Reality at the British Museum: What is the Value of Virtual Reality Environments for Learning by Children and Young People, Schools, and Families?.”
  31. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Virtual Reality is a Big Trend in Museums, But What are the Best Examples of Museums Using VR?”
  32. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Virtual Reality is a Big Trend in Museums, But What are the Best Examples of Museums Using VR?”
  33. González, Desi. 2017. “When the Headset Comes Off: VR at Museums in 2017 – Art in America.”
  34. Stein, Robert and Wyman, Bruce. 2014. “Seeing the Forest and the Trees: How Engagement Analytics Can Help Museums Connect to Audiences at Scale.”
  35. Rae, Juno and Edwards, Lizzie. 2016. “Virtual Reality at the British Museum: What is the Value of Virtual Reality Environments for Learning by Children and Young People, Schools, and Families?.”
  36. Coates, Charlotte. 2019. “Virtual Reality is a Big Trend in Museums, But What are the Best Examples of Museums Using VR?”