Virtual reality, too, promises to become part of the museum-going experience. The British Museum has experimented with using virtual-reality headsets to let visitors explore a Bronze Age home, or see what the Parthenon might have looked like thousands of years ago. At the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, visitors can use virtual reality to feel what it was like to be a diver who helped recover a slave ship. “It’s about helping people remember that what they’re experiencing was actually real,” says Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director. “What we really want to do is humanize history.”
3 | Museums in Your Pocket
Some museums are putting the entirety of their collections online. The Whitney’s Dana Miller says museum directors initially feared that doing so might deter people from visiting, but in fact they’ve found that it can lead to an increase in visitors. The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, has gone one step further by making its collection available as open data, so people can reproduce, edit, and play around with works. Institutions such as the Met, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian are encouraging people to download specifications so that they can 3‑D-print replicas of artifacts in the museums’ collections.
The point isn’t just to get more people through the museum doors, but also to reach those who can’t visit in person. In 2011, the Google Art Project launched, putting works at many of the world’s biggest institutions online in super-high resolution. The project currently features works by more than 6,000 artists in more than 250 museums. In July, Google updated its Arts & Culture app, allowing people with Google Cardboard headsets to “tour” 20 museums and historic sites around the world. Perhaps one day, some museums won’t have a physical presence at all. Instead they will curate digital exhibitions and change displays quickly to respond to global events in real time.
4 | Art Will Adapt to the Viewer
For thousands of years, people have made art using variations of the same methods—paint is applied to a surface; material is shaped into a sculpture. But artists are increasingly experimenting with pixels, algorithms, 3‑D printers, and other tech tools to make works that evolve and respond to the environments around them.
In 2013, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned a portrait of Google’s co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, that was rendered in part as a moving visualization of their words fed through Google’s search engine. A new exhibition at London’s Somerset House about the singer and artist Björk uses virtual reality to let visitors experience her music on a deserted beach in Iceland, or even inside Björk’s mouth while she’s performing.
One can imagine sculptures that use sensors to move around as people walk through galleries, or artworks that respond to changes in their surroundings, so that repeat visitors see something different each time. Already, immersive installations use light and tricks of the eye to distort reality and perspective—inevitably, they’ll use technology to do the same thing, to more dramatic effect.