The idea of a museum as a place that one goes to “look” at art or historical artifacts is as dated as the giant handheld audio guides available at a kiosk in the museum lobby. Museums experienced a 17% decline in the attendance of young Americans from 1982 to 2012. While there has been a fortunate reversal in the form of an increase of 15% from 2012 to 2017, the fact still remains that museums are struggling to maintain the same cultural relevance that they had 40 years ago. With COVID-19, most institutions have been forced to shut their doors for the past few months resulting in lost revenue, inability to connect with patrons through traditional means, and the shocking realization that museums need to modernize. In a world in which we are making plans for human life on Mars and approaching an era in which every person can essentially function as a cyborg, why are museums not utilizing the plethora of technological abilities at their disposal? The answer is complex, but can be simplified to the fact that museums need to reapproach the relationship between the institution and the visitor and find a way to overcome the barrier of entry into modern technology.
Museums present a curated selection of work and provide supplemental audio information through audio guides. There is an industry-wide acknowledged demand for technological change, but there has yet to be a successful solution. The first attempt at innovation has been to move audio material onto third party platforms. Museums pay a third party and in turn are able to provide customers with a playlist of audio files to listen to, or, in the case of museums large enough to qualify for a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, build their own applications that includes a map and the audio component. The response has been as lackluster as the idea sounds. The Met shows its playlists for exhibits on its website, and the number of streams reveals an exponential loss of listeners as the playlist goes on. One exhibition “Visitors to Versaille” shows a decline from 3.4k streams of track 1 to only 514 of the final track. The Met is an industry leader and arguably the world’s finest museum, but even with its resources, it has been unable to succeed. Additionally, most museums lack the resources to pay a third party; only the largest institutions are able to pay for development services, and those services provide only questionable returns. The solution is to approach audio as the base component of a much more comprehensive experience and think about visitors as active participants in one large art market.
Augmented reality will enable museums to provide their visitors with an experience. Instead of viewing and listening, visitors will be able to use their cell phones to learn, to choose different modes of interaction, and to create their own approach to how to travel through the museum. With augmented reality, users will be able to design their path through museums and enjoy new pieces being created in the augmented reality medium. Imagine viewing Starry Night and then using a cell phone to see the night come alive. Adjust your position and study the different perspectives and layers that Van Gogh created. Be able to access articles and book recommendations on Van Gogh and the artistic movements of the day. Now imagine that a similar experience is possible for any piece or artifact in any museum.
That is a reinvention of the museum experience.