Will virtual reality compete with museums or help them?

2 minute read

Linking to a provocative piece that “VR Will Break Museums”.

The article discusses many issues with museums both large and small. The best museums add context to the objects that they display, putting them into a story that builds knowledge in the museum-goer. But some concepts are incredibly difficult to communicate in that fashion, and others rely so much on place that removing objects to a museum does not convey their context accurately.

And the crowds suck. Nothing is better than a huge museum on a very empty day, and those don’t happen very often.

The problem is, museums don’t scale well. The British Museum sees almost 7 million visitors a year. What would it take to accommodate double that number? Ten times that number? It simply cannot be done, not for any reasonable amount of money.
The Internet, on the other hand, is built for scale. The marginal cost of an extra YouTube viewer or app download is practically zero. That’s how a video about the history of Japan can be made for free, distributed for free, and enjoyed for free by more people in a single month than who walk through the doors of the Louvre in an entire year.

Museums are a very important part of human evolution research, both by serving as repositories for the objects we study and for helping the public to understand the importance of our science. I’ve consulted with many museums over the years and have visited a large fraction of the major museums of natural history in the world.

Human genetics is more and more important to how we understand human evolution. Yet this is one of the most difficult parts of science to illustrate in a museum setting. Museums excel at visual material and unique objects. While it is possible to do video or virtual content for genetics, whenever I encounter videos at a museum, I groan. They’re always a chore and rarely hit the mark as well as simple text accompanying an object.

Honestly, I think that museums face much the same problem as movies. Studios invest tremendous sums of money in movies that have bad scripts. There are many reasons for this – sometimes the director has too much power and keeps shifting the script, sometimes the original idea relied upon visuals that cannot be realized, sometimes studio executives ruin a cohesive script by committee. Whatever is the case, the ultimate reason why this situation happens so often is the same: Audience demand for certain kinds of movies is just not very responsive to script quality.

Likewise, public visitation to certain museums doesn’t respond much to the quality of stories they can effectively tell. A museum exhibition with bad videos is regrettable, but most people skip the videos anyway. Especially if the first few seconds of the first one doesn’t connect.

The great thing about the idea of virtual experiences is that they may be laboratories for real innovation in storytelling. The stories that work should be translated into the museums that audiences already value. As someone who has done a lot of museum consulting, I can really imagine having a lot of fun helping make virtual experiences that educate and convey exciting science.