In Focus | Sensory overload - Museums Association

In Focus | Sensory overload

Immersive experiences can add significant value to a museum visit, but institutions must handle them carefully
Exhibitions Immersive
The House of Memories on the Road mobile museum features a 1950s grocery store National Museums Liverpool

Immersive experiences are becoming far more common as museums and galleries look for ways for visitors to be active participants rather than passive observers.

Artist Vivian Suter’s exhibition at Tate Liverpool, held just before the pandemic, allowed visitors to navigate their way through a maze of colourful hanging paintings.

This large-scale installation was inspired by the tropical landscape of Panajachel in Guatemala, where the painter lives and works. The paintings, which incorporate natural materials and even imprints of her dog’s paws, promoted a sense of closeness to nature and environment.

At the same time as Suter’s display in Liverpool, people in the city could take part in Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Immersive Experience. Created in a partnership between National Museums Liverpool and Tate Liverpool, the experience involved an audio sensation akin to being inside a huge speaker.

Visitors to the Empire State Building in New York can be grabbed by King Kong

By focusing on the harmonies, voices and different instruments used on the Beatles album, users were transported back to the era the record was made in 1967.

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The point of experiences such as these is to feel immersed. This can mean an emotional, physical and even physiological response, and there are many ways in which art galleries and museums can achieve this.

Technological developments such as virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and haptics (where visitors touch, wear or manipulate a device such as gloves, vests or joysticks to get a sensation) have opened up exciting possibilities for multi-sensory experiences in museums, galleries and heritage sites.

In some national museums, visitors can take part in a range of spectacular tech-driven experiences that enhance their understanding and empathy. You can go into space or deep into the ocean, back to the time of the dinosaurs or into the future via incredibly lifelike experiences.

Visitors to the Empire State Building in New York can be grabbed by the giant hands of King Kong in an immersive experience that uses footage from the 1930s film, or dangle precariously alongside the skyscraper construction workers sat on steel girders 850 feet above the ground.

Skyscraper construction workers are part of the immersive exhibition at the Empire State Building
Note of caution

Research, however, sounds a note of caution about how and why museums and galleries deliver immersives. “There has been a creeping use of the term ‘immersive’, especially in promotional material,” says Jenny Kidd, a researcher at the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre, at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture.

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Kidd and her colleague Eva Nieto McAvoy, a research associate at the university, published the research paper Immersive Experiences in Museums, Galleries and Heritage Sites in late 2019.

The University of Cardiff report is part of a five-year research project into how audiences make sense of their experiences in different-sized institutions.

“A good immersive can add layers to the traditional visual, textual and sometimes tactile appreciation,” says Kidd. “But museums need to be careful that they don’t overwhelm or alienate their visitors, who don’t always know what to expect or who can be disarmed or disappointed by something described as immersive.”

A good immersive can add layers to the traditional visual, textual and sometimes tactile appreciation. But museums need to be careful that they don’t overwhelm or alienate their visitors.

Jenny Kidd

Technology should not be at the centre of the experience, but there to enhance it, she says. “High-profile, dazzling virtual-reality experiences can skew the pitch for museums and galleries, and it’s not always the best way forward for them. We conclude from our research that we don’t yet know whether these immersives are bringing in new or different audiences. It’s important not to rush headlong into it.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for diversifying your audiences, and it’s a good idea to check claims, especially at the high-tech end of immersives.”

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While there are amazing possibilities for virtual-reality experiences in museums and galleries, this technology is an artificial world created or facilitated by head-mounted visors or through phones, says Kidd.

“Augmented reality can be even more disorientating, and a lot of the better experiences are more likely to be mixed media such as an installation that works between digital and analogue.”

In other words, being plonked into an environment where you must make sense of everything all at once is not what audiences necessarily want. An immersive experience where the storytelling is stepped and layered in a more meaningful way is more manageable.

“Museums are at a transition point,” says Jessica Driscoll, the head of immersive technology at Digital Catapult, an innovation centre that advises and supports businesses and creative industries on technology such as immersive content and applications.

“Museums need to be careful that they don’t just go for something new and shiny. They must also figure out whether what they are doing is sustainable and appropriate for the setting.”

There is also a duty of care to audiences and performers. In traditional cultural forms, people know how to behave, but there is a different set of expectations in immersive experiences.

People need to feel safe, but there have been immersive experiences that have breached health and safety regulations and overstepped ethical boundaries.

Experiences must be carefully planned and rehearsed, so that performers know when to push and when to stop if they sense people are uncomfortable. 

Technology has pushed the boundaries of what immersivity means. But often, visitors and viewers want time and space for contemplation, to be able to walk through, look at and even touch the art; or to hear the music or story and be transported to another time or place using just their imaginations.

National Museums Liverpools House of Memories on the Road mobile museum features a trip on Liverpool’s overhead railway
Post-Covid reality?

At the height of the pandemic, it was hard to imagine how certain immersive museum experiences – especially those designed to be intimate or costly to make – could survive.

But museums have adapted and continue to explore new ways to offer meaningful experiences to audiences. Last summer, National Museums Liverpool (NML) launched an interactive mobile museum experience to reach the city’s most vulnerable and socially isolated people.

Based on NML’s award-winning dementia-awareness programme, House of Memories On The Road offers individuals a 10- to 15-minute “intimate and immersive” mobile experience, from a trip on Liverpool’s overhead railway and a visit to a 1950s grocery store to a virtual day out at the seaside or a forest.

The beauty of House of Memories On The Road is it can go anywhere – it becomes a front door to the museum.

Carol Rogers

“House of Memories On The Road came about as a response to Covid-19 – we’ve all had a real experience of social isolation and loneliness in the recent lockdowns,” says Carol Rogers, the director of House of Memories.

“But for many older people and people living with dementia, this is their reality all the time. It’s about tackling loneliness.”

As well as virtual and digitised objects and scenes on various themes, the experience features smells – from freshly baked biscuits to washing powder – as a stimulus for memories.

“People can safely interact with the visuals of the experience, so they can take a deep dive into the areas they want to explore further,” says Rogers.

“The beauty of House of Memories On The Road is it can go anywhere – it becomes a front door to the museum. If we can do it in Liverpool, we can do it anywhere.”

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