Augmenting Education and Historical Memory in Museums

Last week, I briefly touched on the educational benefits of augmented reality (AR) technologies, and today I will examine how AR is being used within museum exhibition spaces. In previous years, AR was seen to be too gimmicky, however this attitude is shifting and many museums are starting to see its potential related to their exhibitions. It is a technology that is very well-suited to artifact interpretation in a technologically fun way as it allows us to layer information over 3D space or an object. In this way, many museum educators are using it in their exhibitions as a way to enhance learning potentials in the exhibition space. For example, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) included a special AR app during their Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibition so that visitors could visualize how dinosaurs really looked and moved when they were alive (see this video for how it worked). In this way, AR can be an extension of the curatorial and educational vision of exhibition content.

Meanwhile, in the art museum, AR can be used to make physical works of art come alive (how neat!). A few years ago, there was an art exhibition in Laguna Beach, CA featuring photographs of people caught in a moment of motion, and aptly the exhibition was called A Moment in Time. This title makes more sense when we consider the AR app that went along with the photographs. Visitors would hold up their iOS/Android smartphones to trigger videos that continued the photographic moment:

These otherwise static images become objects of living art when enhanced with AR. As a result, the artistic power of the exhibition becomes ‘augmented’ (yes, I went there) and allows the viewer to fully comprehend the meaning of the artworks beyond the mere photographic capture of the moment in question. The viewer is able to see the continuation of  the temporal moment in motion.


3D View of a historical photograph layered over a live feed of the real world you are viewing in the StreetMuseum app

Returning for the moment to this week’s readings, the NMC Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition commented that “AR can be seen as an intuitive doorway through which data can be easily attached to real world objects, settings, and processes that facilitates a deeper meaning and understanding of what is being seen” (20). This is definitely true to different degrees in both of the museum/gallery utilizations of AR that I have outlined thus far. AR has an incredible educational quality to it, but it is also transferable to representing communal memory across spaces. This is especially true in open-air museums where almost anything could be an AR trigger. For example, the Museum of London (in the UK) released an app called StreetMuseum for iPhone/Android. This app allows users to walk around London and to view historical photographs layered over real life scenes. This is in the style of the rephotography movement where past and present images of a place are made into one cohesive image. Not only does this give deeper historical meaning to places we may or may not notice when walking around a city, but it also helps us to see how things change changed or if they have remained the same. Something that would perhaps make this app even more dynamic would be to include crowdsourced stories for each location where there is a photograph pinned. Projects like 110 Stories take this into account. The 110 Stories project re-imagines NYC post-9/11 with the view of a ghost shape of the twin towers from various vantage points in the city. From each vantage point, people are able to leave comments and stories about how they feel about the losses of the 9/11 attacks.

As with any new feature in a museum, be it in a physical space or outside, one must always have a mind for who will be using it and how it will be used. It is very important to know how an everyday visitor usually interacts with a museum object in order to present it in a new way in an augmented reality app. This attention to what audience will be consuming these augmented reality apps is along the lines of what my classmates have said in this week’s blogs as well (if you’re interested in what they have to say, please check out their posts here, here, and here). Audience will forever be important, and it is increasingly important to find new ways of engaging visitors so that museums can break away from the traditional view that museums are stodgy places of dusty old relics and escape from the notion that they are “boring to visit” (I always take it a little bit personally when someone says that). Media theorist, Marshall McLuhan said that when we create new media forms, we tend to fill them with the content of older media forms. This is what the museum world is doing with AR applications–they are finding new ways of representing the past that will engage with the present.

Also, check out my Pinterest board that has more examples of how augmented reality is being used in museums or in other cool ways.



  1. Reblogged this on Apparmo.

  2. I used AR and I worked with it on a project with a professional scenographer in college, it is amazing. Used the right way it can add so much to a museum and different monuments. The scenographer used it on a classed monument which was a tower, so physically disabled people were not able to visit it, with her team they created an activity where they could use AR to visit the top of the tour. There is also a tour of a city (Bordeaux) being produced where spectators will rent an ipad and walk around the city to discover the streets of today and the ones of 18th century. They are not done yet apparently because they decided to create a scenario with different characters to interact with. However AR and other tablet’s app for museum can be tricky, while talking to other museum professionals they told us that unfortunately instead of looking at the artworks they were looking at their tablets ! Either the discussion is very interesting, great article !

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