Virtual Museums

Speculations on the future of a hybrid physical-digital museum

Walking through a museum is a lot like browsing a website. There's often a home page-an entry foyer where you can scan an overview of the exhibitions currently on display. There's a fixed site architecture (gallery rooms, hallways, atriums) that dictates the order in which you can move from artifact to artifact or switch from exhibition to exhibition. In addition to this lateral movement between objects and between exhibition areas (pages), museums and websites both provide mechanisms for going deeper into the materials that they present (see diagram). Printed wall captions and informational plaques, like mouseover texts or hyperlinks, provide supplementary contexts for images or artifacts and allow visitors to see how these works are connected to broader historical or thematic undercurrents.

Of course there are obvious limits to this metaphor. Websites (and digital media in general) allow visitors to jump instantaneously between pieces of content, to sort content based on various criteria-date, size, author, genre, etc.-and to move fluidly from broad overview to detail, to related content. In contrast, museums are constrained by physical proximities reconfigurable only at periodic intervals and thus tend to communicate through strong narratives supported by well-articulated spatial sequences.

Considerable attention has been devoted in recent years to making museums more like websites. This often means simply "overlaying" the digital experience of the internet onto the physical setting of the museum using smartphone apps, and increasingly, augmented reality (AR) tools. This digital overlay strategy allows museums to replace their singular, authoritative narratives-the interpretive captions typically affixed to the museum's walls and vitrines-with dynamic, social, and personalized information pulled from the web to visitors' smartphones. Removing captions makes the space and objects more experientially "pure" and at the same time allows the visitor experience to be more participatory and self-directed.

While the digital overlay model does make the museum more dynamic, more connected to broad spheres of diverse knowledge and opinion, and hopefully more exciting to a generation of young people raised on Wikipedia and Google, it is still a bridge solution. The next step is to think about how the architecture of the museum itself (rooms, hallways, vitrines, walls) might be optimized to mesh with embedded technologies and digitally-augmented visitors. This new physical architecture must balance a fundamental conflict between curatorial articulation (the traditional syntactical narrative of exhibition design) and uninflected neutrality (required to support overlapping virtual narratives and trajectories).

Mobile Devices in the Museum

The explanatory caption placed next to an artwork or artifact is one of the great tropes of exhibition design. On the one hand, it is entirely necessary-knowing the artist, date, and some of the "back story" about the piece serves an educational purpose and ties individual pieces into a larger narrative. On the other hand, captions can confine the viewer's interpretation of an ambiguous work or overemphasize the point of view of a single curator. Designers and curators are looking to museum-specific smartphone apps to replace captions as the visitor's primary source of contextual information (artist, date, material, history, etc), in some cases, as in MOMA's recent MOMA Uninvited DIY show, Augmented Reality (AR) apps are used to display virtual artworks superimposed onto the gallery walls. In Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, this same smartphone AR technology superimposes video of artists standing next to their works, pointing at various elements while giving a narrative of their working process.

How can mobile applications work together with physical architecture and exhibit design to enrich the visitor's experience?

Empowering Navigation

Housing over two million artifacts and spanning an area equivalent to 30 city blocks, New York's Metropolitan Museum approaches the scale and density of a city. In order to increase legibility and improve a visitor's orientation within its labarynthian interior, the Met has traditionally highlighted clearly identifiable architectural elements, like atria and rotunda, as "landmarks" to which visitors can orient themselves and from which they can launch forays into the enfilade gallery sequences. Printed gallery maps reinforce these landmarks as key nodes in a visitor's journey. Recently, the Met and Small Design used interactive digital signage to transform a more mundane architectural element-the elevator-into a similar "landmark" feature that helps to orient visitors within the museum. The elevator displays, present an "x-ray" overview of each floor's content as the cab rises and falls, and a walking map of each floor as the cab doors open.

How can large museum complexes leverage mobile applications and embedded displays to improve navigational clarity and legibility?

Architecture of the digital museum

Museums are typically designed as a series of enfilade rooms branching out from central foyers or atriums. This allows curators to orchestrate distinct narrative paths that carry from room-to-room. They have a clear beginning and end and try to tell a purposeful story, whether thematic, chronological, geographical, or biographical. In a way, they are a lot like theme parks or other immersive environments. What if the museum were more like a grid than a tunnel? (More like the 19th century Expo halls, where vast arrays of objects were organized by geographical origin and typology) Visitors could use their mobile devices to preview the content of each "row" or cluster of works before entering. They could also follow a unique trajectory through the grid based upon their interests or previous visits.

How could the museum of the future promote a better coexistence between digital and physical infrastructures?

Open Storage

Most museums only show 10-20% of the objects in their collections. The rest are contained in high-density, climate-controlled storage facilities accessible only to researchers and curators. In recent years, museums "discovered" that these storage facilities-neutral, unadorned grids of shelves full of barcoded objects-were in fact an ideal spatial and experiential typology for the interactive, self-directed visitor experience of the 21st century. While opening the full scope of storage has proved difficult, a number of museums, most prominently the Smithsonian in Washington DC, have introduced new "Visible storage" facilities that allow visitors to see a subjection of their storage in high-density, climate controlled, transparent vitrines. Contextual information for the stored objects is only available through interactive displays located at the base of each vitrine, allowing visitors to choose their own visual journey through the works and to focus primarily on the artifacts' physical qualities rather than on the contextual information attributed to it.

How might the museum's distinct zones of storage and display be hybridized through the use of digital technologies?