Creating that sense of magic where visitors are charmed or moved can be difficult if museums don’t have a clear sense of exactly what they want their visitors to feel. There are other barriers, including the costs, which are often prohibitive.
But by seeking out the right pots of funding, memorable immersive experiences can be achieved. Museums sometimes need to resist the lure of technology, and trusted partners are also vital.
Taking a low-tech route with simple devices and techniques can be rewarding for the museum and its visitors, and it can be just as immersive.
Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) has been able to develop immersives for temporary and permanent projects by working with a commercial partner.
Multi-sensory experiences are often used to enhance existing settings and are included in the overall heritage visit. An example is the chopping boards immersive in Hampton Court Palace kitchens. Augmented reality and haptic technology are used to bring a row of chopping boards to life. Touch-sensitive spatial mapping triggers a projection, so it looks as if it’s your own hands that are chopping and slicing the food ready for boiling or roasting.
But HRP has also developed a range of full immersive experiences as standalone and ticketed events. These include an ambitious immersive offer called The Gunpowder Plot. This has been designed by a commercial company, Layered Reality, and is due to open next to the Tower of London in March. But such projects involve meticulous research before HRP commits to investing large sums of money.
HRP’s approach is in part shaped by the enormous success of its 2016 Lost Palace of Whitehall “creative experiment”. As well as highlighting public demand for immersive experiences, the organisation realised that a new business model exists for this sort of work.
Audience expectations are changing, and immersives can exploit new narratives, where people are creating their own meaning without necessarily following linear histories or being “taught”.
“People want to feel differently in these environments or landscapes, where you can be present in the experience but not assaulted by it,” says Alison John, the creative producer and co-founder of creative marketing agency Yello Brick, which designed the Traces interactive app for St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff, which is part of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museums Wales).
John says it can be difficult for museums used to focusing on learning outputs to change and present more open-ended narratives.
“But it’s another offer that enhances and augments the space and allows people to use their imaginations,” she says. “We are trying to facilitate an emotional connection to a familiar place and make it newly relevant to them.”
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist