How to make the most immersive museum and gallery experiences

Museum directors and curators are always looking for ways to improve visitor satisfaction.

One of the best ways to do this is by mixing technology with creativity to create immersive multimedia exhibitions. With these cross-sensory, multidimensional experiences you can make art museum and educational content more exciting than ever before.

Instead of looking at a Vincent Van Gogh masterpiece hanging on a wall, you can literally step inside it and wander round a field of sunflowers, surrounded by moving projections of animated art.

Or you can adventure through a multi-dimensional 3D environment, solving puzzles and chasing the white rabbit in Alice's wonderland.

Below, we’ll discuss how to create the most immersive museum experience possible. We’ll look at digital art and interactive exhibits, cutting edge displays and virtual experiences.

What makes a museum exhibition immersive?

Think about a trip to a traditional museum or art gallery. The content within usually takes the form of:

  • Paintings and static displays on the walls
  • Video presentations
  • Things to read
  • Recordings broadcasted around the space
  • Artefacts and historical objects

These are all fine, and can make for a perfectly interesting exhibition. If the subject and content is interesting, you should be able to hold peoples' attention to a good extent.

But with these methods, it's unlikely that you'll delight your visitors.

Conventional displays mean you'll have a harder time providing the 'wow' factor that causes them to remember their visit, deeply engage with the content, and tell their friends and family to see it for themselves.

Making your exhibitions immersive involves stimulating visitors' senses in different, more creative ways. And the latest creative technology can really help you achieve that.

An exhibition by Teamlab art collective (source: Blooloop)

Different types of immersive technology for museums


In the near future, we're likely to see more holographic content make its way into museums.

These are translucent 'floating' displays that are visible to the naked eye. You can walk around them and see them from different angles. It's a sight common to sci-fi movies like Blade Runner, but is now becoming a reality.

So, instead of displaying a picture of a knight's suit of armour for your history museum, you could project a 3D hologram that visitors could observe from any angle. It would give them the opportunity to see it up-close and really get a sense of the physicality of it, even though it's not an actual object.

Holograms aren't an ideal fit for every exhibition, because it doesn't portray solid objects: they're see-through, ghost-like images. In some ways, this is enjoyable – visitors are capable of suspending their disbelief just like they do when watching a movie.

It's unlikely that technology will advance to projecting solid-looking illusions through the power of light alone, but you can never be sure. There may be a breakthrough that completely changes the way holograms work. Also, the size of these devices isn't too big right now, and the tech is quite young. It may be a few years before they become large and affordable enough to roll out in most museums.

Holograms being used in a museum exhibition. (source)

Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR)

AR and MR are two related but distinct technologies that both have a bright future in museum exhibitions.

Both of them allow you to place computer-generated objects in the real world, so that they look as if they're actually there.

AR is best known as something you can experience through a smartphone camera display. You observe the real world through the camera lens, and the device overlays digital content within it, appearing to be bound by the physical rules of the space. For example: catching virtual monsters in the real world with Pokemon Go, or using IKEA's Place app to figure out if a 'Kallax' shelving unit will fit in your bedroom.

A museum could make use of this tech by demonstrating the size and scale of ancient objects in real life (like dinosaurs), or showing a historical battle right in front of a visitor's eyes.

Visitors could use specialist equipment, or they could just scan a QR code on the wall to download a mobile app to their iOS or Android phone. Easy!

Mixed Reality (MR) is a more exciting evolution of this tech. It involves using a headset with outward-pointing cameras (or glasses with digital displays) to overlay virtual creations on the real world – just like AR. But the difference is the interaction. Real, physical objects are computed as part of the virtual world – so you could pick up a blank piece of paper in the real world, but it would appear to you as the Magna Carta in front of your eyes.

It's a fairly expensive and resource-heavy investment; the leading tech in this space is the Microsoft Hololens which costs over $3,500 USD. But as the space matures, expect more affordable alternatives to appear at some point.

Artefacts being rendered in Mixed Reality (source: The Conversation)

Interactive displays

Interactive displays are another way to make your exhibitions more immersive.

They can take many forms, but they all have one thing in common: they allow visitors to interact with the content in a way that’s more engaging than simply looking at it.

For example, you could have a display where visitors can use their bodies to control the movement of objects on screen, triggered by motion sensors. Or you could have a touch screen where they can learn more about individual artefacts by interacting with the digital display.

Or, you can consider physical interactions too. The UK's Jorvik Viking Centre offers a classic interactive experience. It includes a guided ride around a reconstruction of 10th-century York, with animatronic models, voice actors, and even realistic smells of cooking and farming in Viking times. It's really immersive and highly memorable.

Of course, you won't be able to build something like this just for a temporary exhibition. But it can serve as inspiration – physical objects are just as effective as virtual ones when it comes to immersion.

A reconstruction of the past you can ride through at Jorvik Viking Centre

Virtual Reality (VR)

Finally, a visual medium that's becoming more common in museums around the world - virtual reality.

In most modern examples, a bank of VR headsets is deployed in a certain area for a certain display. For example, the Curious Alice VR experience was installed as part of a wider exhibition in London's V&A Museum, all about the Alice in Wonderland novel by Lewis Carroll.

VR does require a bit of investment to make sure it's an enjoyable digital experience, rather than a gimmick. However, you can partner with a creative production agency to make sure the content is high quality, without getting lost in the technical setup.

We're not quite at the point where VR equipment is common in people's homes yet. The industry is trying to make it happen, but the high cost is a big factor stopping people from investing in it, and many people just don't have the space at home for a VR setup.

This makes VR a particularly compelling fit for interactive museums and galleries – they're a useful, novel item that is worth leaving the house for.

While some curators have feared people will only visit virtual museums from their home, this doesn't seem to be happening. People like human interaction, and they like going out for in-person experiences. VR won't replace this – but it will complement it.

A visitor at Reboot Cornwall, a UK museum collective promoting cultural heritage through VR

Directional audio

Directional audio is a great way to add immersion without using any visual elements.

Directional speakers in museums can bring a whole new audio experience for visitors. They work by focusing a narrow beam of sound towards the listener, so only they can hear it, instead of broadcasting it around the space.

(Imagine using them in a haunted house attraction to make people feel like they're being followed by something, even when there's nothing there.)

But they can also be used in more creative ways. For example, you could use it to make it seem like a character from history is speaking directly to the visitor, or that they're overhearing a conversation between two people in another time period.

In some cases, directional audio can be combined with VR or AR to create an even more immersive experience. You could use an AR app to highlight areas of the space visitors should go to. Then, when they get there, use directional audio to play sounds only they can hear, relevant to what's on their phone screen in the 'virtual' space.

There's a bunch of other ways that directional speakers can make the overall visitor experience better, like guiding visitors through the museum and providing more information about the artwork as they go. It also eliminates the need for fixed headphones, which can be unhygienic and expensive to maintain. One major advantage of these over conventional speakers is that it reduces sound pollution, meaning the peace and ambiance of the space is preserved.

Directional sound is a really effective way to add another layer of immersion, without making things too overwhelming for visitors.

(Want to explore the potential of directional speakers in your museum or gallery? Contact us and we'll show you what's possible.)

An Akoustic Arts directional speaker providing sound for a museum display

How to make sure your museum is ready for immersive technology

Now that we've looked at some of the different types of immersive technology available, let's talk about how you can make sure your museum is ready to use them.

The first thing you need to do is make sure you have the right team in place. You'll need people with experience in both technology and museums. If not, you might want to consider hiring a consultancy or creative production firm. You bring the ideas, and they will help with the execution.

It's also important to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with immersive art exhibits or educational content. What are your goals? What do you want visitors to take away from the experience? Will you actually be enhancing the content, or are you just making a show of things for no reason?

Once you've thought about this, you can start thinking about which technologies will best help you achieve those goals.

Finally, don't forget about the practicalities. Immersive technology does need some consideration about the exhibition space you're putting it in. Is there enough room for the equipment? Will visitors be able to use it easily? Can you budget for maintenance and repairs?

Final thoughts

Technology is changing the way we experience museums. By using the latest immersive technologies, museum directors and curators can create art experiences and educational exhibitions that are more exciting and engaging than ever before.

And you don't need to spend huge sums of money to compete with the big players, either.

With some creative thinking and smart tech implementation, you can create colourful, multi-sensory, unique experiences that visitors will want to tell all their friends about.

Feature image: The Van Gogh Alive Exhibition