A Google camera in the British Museum

VR into the past

So you think museums are old buildings full of artefacts sitting behind glass? Not any more.

Read more about all aspects of Virtual Reality technology

Today’s museums are embracing new technologies to help preserve and bring alive the past. From wandering around a Roman villa wearing a toga to diving in an extinct coral reef, museums don’t only allow visitors to look at the past, but they take them there. The Natural History Museum, London, Coral Reefs exhibition used virtual reality to recreate a 500-million-year-old sea, making the creatures swim before your eyes.

VR isn’t only being used to transport you to the past, but to the museum. Visitors from all over the world can virtually walk through the British Museum’s galleries, wandering past over 4,500 exhibits, using innovative indoor Street View footage created in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute. Teachers can transport their students to Bloomsbury from the classroom. The British Museum, already the second most visited museum in the world, now boasts a virtual audience of over 35 million.

The £2m EU-funded DIgiArt project seeks to develop this use of VR for any museum. Professor David Burton of Liverpool John Moores University Drones Research Laboratory (a DigiArt partner), and director of the General Engineering Research Institute, says: “We’re bringing together two worlds: firstly, the archaeologists and anthropologists who understand the science of uncovering and interpreting the past. Secondly, the engineers, computer specialists and UAV/drones researchers who have the knowledge and skills to capture this past in 3D and display it in exciting and accessible new ways.

“Working together, these form a team that will change the way we experience our past. The techniques will be trialled to recreate a Neanderthal cave in Belgium, 300BC Ancient Greece and a medieval English town.”

Creating another reality doesn’t have to involve unreal costs. The Great North Museum, Newcastle, used Oculus Rift 3D headsets to visit a virtual Greek villa. Chronicles VR developed the headsets with just £3,000 investment from Gateshead Council, complemented by funding from the university’s start-up programme. Fifteen objects from the pottery collection were photographed to create 3D models to put on display in the virtual world - the urns on the patio and the washing bowl in the sleeping area, for instance.

By providing a context for objects, VR boosts rather than threatens any museum’s unique selling point - that it holds a collection of real things. At the Great North, for example, they discovered offering VR experiences increased the number of visitors who then engaged with the real thing. “We had queues coming out of the door during the trial, and the museum found that once people had used the headset, they went to look at the collections and experienced the real artefacts,” says Rachel Derbyshire, founder of Chronicles VR.

The Loughborough Echo even used VR when its local museum, Snibston Discovery, was itself becoming extinct, shutting down due to cuts. It offered its readers a virtual tour before Snibston closed its doors for the final time.

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