As museums and galleries look for new ways to engage audiences, immersive experiences are becoming increasingly common, whether it is the National Gallery’s Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece exhibition (until 26 January) in London or the National Trust looking to create multisensory experiences at its properties in Wales and south-west England.
Alice in Wonderland is a story that lends itself perfectly to an immersive experience and Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, opening in June, promises such an approach. “Visitors will go down the rabbit hole and participate in the Mad Hatter’s tea party,” says Kate Bailey, the senior curator of theatre and performance at the V&A.
While elements of virtual, augmented and mixed reality are used, they are not at the forefront of the displays, says Bailey. “It’s a powerful social experience and headsets didn’t feel right. We have a wonderful gallery and wanted to make the most of the theatrical space using immersive techniques.”
“Immersive” is a buzzword in the arts and can mean different things, but it is generally agreed that an experience of theatricality and spectacle that engages the emotions and senses is an immersive one.
“A section on Reimagining Alice, for example, will be a psychedelic, distorted space where we will play with sound and illusion, so the Cheshire Cat will be shown appearing and disappearing,” says Bailey. “In a museum, immersion happens where there is an integration of the objects with sound, light and space. But it doesn’t have to be all those elements at once.”
Katherine Skellon, creative director of Skellon Studio, which specialises in immersive exhibitions, says: “Immersive is that moment in the cinema or theatre when the lights go down and you leave everyday life behind. As 3D designers for museums and exhibitions, we aim to create that moment.”
Skellon Studio worked with the London Transport Museum on Hidden London: The Exhibition (until January 2021), which recreates abandoned tunnels and tube stations.
It takes visitors on a tour of dingy, labyrinthine recreations of abandoned stations, complete with maintenance equipment and the roar of passing trains.
“You are immersed in the dark, claustrophobic world of the underground,” says Skellon. “We pay a lot of attention to detail, such as using cheaply produced object labels gaffer-taped to the walls.”
For a new gallery at the Museum of London Docklands, which will open in April 2020 and display the Bronze Age Havering Hoard, Skellon Studio will project a landscape filmed on Rainham Marshes in Essex, where the hoard was found. “You can build a sense of atmosphere and story on a small budget,” says Skellon. “We have erased modern interventions from the landscape and it looks eerily prehistoric.”
At Eureka! the National Children’s Museum in Halifax, the Yorkshire-based interactive arts studio Invisible Flock is developing an immersive exhibition about the human/elephant conflict in Sumatra.
“We want visitors to feel that rush of adrenalin you’d get on the top of a cliff,” says the executive producer Catherine Baxendale. “But we don’t use narrative in a conventional way; emotional responses are evoked through light and sound. We use water a lot because it is visceral and allows you to see the impact on something fragile. The effects often become metaphors for climate change and threatened environments.”
Data collected on location is being captured in a 360-degree environment using LiDAR – 3D laser technology – with detailed rainforest imagery and a spatial soundscape. “We want people to look at their relationship with the natural world,” says Baxendale. “It’s provocative, but not didactic, and builds a space where young people can be part of a conversation about difficult issues.”
While the cost of creating immersive experiences can be a barrier, for venues able to afford them or find supportive partners, they can be a great way of engaging audiences.
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance writer