Augmented Archives: The Museum in the City or the City as Museum | MARISA GÓMEZ



Over the course of the last decade, the convergence of the mobile communication technologies developed alongside GPS and georeferencing technologies, the spread of new participatory platforms for information sharing, and the development of new data access and visualisation systems, has started to critically transform the ways in which we interact with information and public space, and build knowledge.[1]

This techno-cultural context poses new challenges for the configuration and conservation of today’s art and culture. But many museums and cultural institutions are also seeing it as a field full of potential and opportunities to create new models in which they can offer new experiences and education based on their content and activities, which would redefine their relationship with the public and with their local environment.

More specifically, augmented reality (AR) applications and systems are turning out to be fundamental means of rearticulating these relationships, thanks to their potential for expanding information about the environment and the objects in it in real time, creating an interactive knowledge experience. While AR is often used to enhance traditional guided tours or to offer an alternative to them in the form of personalised, interactive tours with different levels of information, it has also been used in more specific applications designed to link the content of museums to the urban environment. These types of ventured don’t just take archives and collections beyond the museum walls, they also place them in specific locations in which they take on new meaning and new value, as layers of information added to the physical territory. This operation also rearticulates the experience of public space and of the city, either through an updating of its past, or through the enhancement of our aesthetic experience of it.

The aim of this text is to contextualise this phenomenon and show how it has evolved, by analysing specific cultural projects and initiatives that use AR to expand the museum into urban space and configure it as a museum, with a particular emphasis on projects that redefine the historical memory of the city.

New Museums and New Technologies

The museum as institution emerged in the context of the Enlightenment as a means to preserve the past, from a perspective that understood history to be a linear process and saw museums as mere containers to house objects. Contemporary museums clearly have little to do with this institutional model, which has been challenged many times throughout the twentieth century by all kinds of cultural agents ranging from Marinetti to André Malraux, Marcel Proust, and Le Corbusier. From the “white cube” of the sixties to an increasingly flexible conception – from the seventies onwards, against a backdrop of processes such as globalisation and the mediatisation of culture – that saw museums of multipurpose spaces increasingly integrated into the cultural industry system and the mass media, and, at the same time, into the sociocultural-local contexts in which they carry out their activities.[2] Particularly from the 1990s onwards, this more flexible idea of the museum has gone hand in hand with a redefinition of its educational status, based on the increasing participation of visitors and spectators who have the option to take on a much participatory role. In this sense, the new technologies generated by the so-called “information and communications revolution” were understood and embraced as means by which to create this new type of access to museums, boosting their educational, participatory nature. And in the wake of the flourishing model of the Science and Technology Museums that opened since World War II, museums themselves started to see themselves as information and communication hubs: they became transmitters of messages and stimuli that aimed to have an influence on visitors.[3] As a result, as the nineties progressed, it became increasingly common for museums to use interactive content systems based on hypertext – such as audio guides, CD-Roms and multimedia systems – that allow visitors to access additional information about the collections and to experience the exhibition in a non-linear way, either on site or virtually.[4]

Soon, as a result of the same impulse for renewal, museums began to use the Internet to expand their reach, leading to the creation of “Virtual Museums”, which M. Luisa Bellido describes as museums that display digitalised versions of conventional artworks, so that spectators can access them remotely.[5] Nowadays, museums are no longer online simply to disseminate their content. Instead, the Web 2.0 has enabled new forms of participation and collaboration between museums and their users, through tools such as blogs, wikis, social tagging, photo and information sharing platforms, mobile applications, and other systems that make it possible to rework information related to museums and to create flexible, dynamic content.[6]

But neither technological development nor its links to museums have stopped at Web 2.0, and, as we began by saying, a whole series of new technologies – including AR, but also others such as RFIDs – are posing new challenges and opening up new opportunities for museums, their visitors, and users of new technologies.

Museums and AR Technology

In the first decade of the 21st Century, the idea of the Internet as cyberspace – as a virtual space for communication that we access through our computer screens – was replaced by a logic based on the hybridisation or real and virtual space. As Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg have argued, this reconfiguration of the relationship between the real and virtual realms has to do with the emergence of the geospatial web – based on geographical information systems (GIS) that led to the development of map-based online platforms such as Google Maps and allows users to add their own information to maps – and ubiquitous computing – which uses systems such as GPS to integrate GIS into mobile devices so that users can interact with the geospatial web regardless where they are, and also integrates the geographical coordinates of users within the information that they send to the Net and to social media.[7]

Augmented Reality is also part of this technological context, given that its operation largely depends on these devices and on other technologies such as Virtual Reality. In a limited sense confined to the technology that has recently began to be included in mobile devices, we could define AR, in the words of Ronald Azuma, as a system that “complements the real world with virtual (computer-generated) objects that appear to coexist in the same space and time”.[8] According to Azuma, AR combines virtuality and physicality, runs interactively in real time, and integrates or aligns virtual objects in the real world.

When AR hit the mass market in 2006, museums began to experiment with its use and develop applications that could update the way they offer information to users, and how users can interact with it. In 2011, Margaret Schavemaker, the Head of Collections at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam wrote, “Museums, continuously looking for ways their artefacts can be layered with stories, combined with (…) a permanent need to reach new visitors outside of the white cube, have been at the forefront of experimenting with the hottest mobile technologies. In the past year, the innovative forms of augmented reality appearing on smartphones have proven to be exciting playgrounds for curators and museum educators”.[9] Schavemaker goes on to explain how these AR tools offer users the possibility to deploy their phones as pocket-sized screens through which surrounding spaces become the scene for endless extra layers of information.

In this context, many museums have started to create their own AR applications. Below, we look at a few that have as a common denominator the aim of going beyond the physical boundaries of the museum: in these applications, the content of the museum is integrated into the urban space, so that the past is reactivated in relation to the present context.

One of the groundbreaking initiatives in this field is the StreetMuseum application developed by the Museum of London in 2010. It consists of an archive of images – the museum’s documentary archive and photographic collection, which encompass the city’s history through events ranging from the great fire that destroyed medieval London in the 17th Century to the cultural effervescence in the 1960s – which, thanks to AR, can be superimposed onto different parts of the city almost in real time. The app allows users to save and share the photos that they create by superimposing a historical image onto its corresponding site as it is today. StreetMuseum also allows users to access additional information about historical events by interacting with a map of the city. It contextualises the images, promoting knowledge and understanding of the changes that took place at each particular site. In addition, users can create and share their own itineraries through the different sites and layers of history.[10]

This app not only allows the museum to expand its collection beyond the physical building – as virtual museums already did – but to take it directly onto the streets and make it known in a non-institutional context, encouraging active interaction between users and the contents of the collection. In addition – and notwithstanding the institutional context from which the application emerged – the digitalisation of the city’s photographic archive and its integration with AR technology ended up creating a kind of layer of historical information that has been superimposed onto the physical city, changing the way its inhabitants understand and interact with it, and joining the many other layers of information that are associated with different sites and locations in London.[11] In fact, the fascinating thing about this and similar apps is not the fact that they provide users with access to museum archives from wherever they are, but rather the fact that users can experience – literally see – the past as if it were part of the present, and create a new archive of the city’s memory that includes this temporary hybrid vision of old and new London. Of course, cities – all the different buildings, monuments, archaeological remains, and so on – show us direct, unmediated traces of the past and the historical layers that mould it into its current shape. Nonetheless, this visualisation of history through the augmented archive allows us to become truly aware of these layers, and to recover the image of the city “as it was”.


StreetMuseum App. Piccadilly Circus: Superimposed layers as seen through a smartphone

Another app that works along similar lines of recovering the past is UAR, which was also developed in 2010 by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) Museum. It currently exists for Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and another six cities, although the list is still growing. Under the slogan “See what is not (yet) there”, the app offers information about the built environment through texts, images, archival material and video accessible through a smartphone. Using 3D models and taking the user’s exact location as a point of reference, the app shows the city of the past – buildings that are no longer there, for example –, the city that may have been – scale models and drawings of projects that were never built –, and the city of the future – artists’ impressions of buildings that are still under construction or in the planning stage.[12] Once again, the aim of the app is to take the NAI collection beyond the boundaries of its walls and to create a new experience of the city, in which historical memory, the present and the future coexist based on the choices of the user.


UAR App, The Hague. Superimposed layers as seen through a smartphone

By 2009, the artists Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder in New York had already created an application very similar to the NAI’s UAR, called the Museum of the Phantom City. This app allows users to display images and texts relating to visionary architectural projects that were never made, such as Buckminster-Fuller’s dome over Manhattan, Gaudi’s cathedral, and Archigram’s pop-futurist project. As users make their way through the city, the app alerts them when it detects one of these abstract structures, and allows them to superimpose it onto their current view of the city through AR technology, and to actively participate in the creation of these alternative histories of the city’s architecture.[13] Unlike the two previous projects, in this case the app does not take the archives of a museum onto the streets and reposition them in urban space by means of AR. Instead, it creates a virtual museum in itself, through the archival materials that are collected from various institutions and contributors and “located” only in virtual space. In other words, it is an immaterial archive that is not housed in any single physical space, but expands outwards into and through the physical city, even if it doesn’t cross the walls of any museum. Another thing that sets it apart from the previous projects is the fact that its dialogue with the city’s past is not linked to a pre-existing morphology or to historical events that once literally took place in the surroundings. Instead, it is a cultural history of the city, a history of what architects once wanted the city to become, which can now come to life, thanks to AR, in the context that they imagined it.


Museum of the Phantom City by Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder.
Superimposed layers and interactive map of the “phantom” architecture

These examples suggest that the use of AR in the museum field is a means – quite an effective one, for now – of taking museums beyond their physical limits, publicising their collections, and promoting new ways in which users can participate in the dynamic of its archives. But these kinds of AR apps are also a way of configuring the city as a museum, of re-historicizing places as they appear to us today by means of augmented archives, so that they become an essential part of the virtual information flows that merge with or integrate into physical sites, creating the hybrid spaces that characterise contemporary cities.

For centuries, museums have been preserving, archiving, and constructing narratives based on the past and on our collective historical memory, and disseminating these narratives to ever-larger audiences. In the context of new technologies, museums are no longer the sole agents involved in the construction of these narratives, and they don’t by any means wield that power on their own. But as these examples show, they are still driving the development of particular ways of relating to collective historical memory. A memory that, thanks to technology, can be repositioned and reread in the local area it belongs to and is no longer perceived as part of a past that is isolated in museums and can only be preserved and not recovered, but as part of the “here” and “now” of individuals.

*This article was previously published in: VV.AA. Innovaciones Artísticas y Nuevos Medios: Conservación, Redes y Tecnociencia. Universitat de Barcelona. Barcelona, 2013. ISBN: 978-84-695-9407-0


[1] See: MIRANDA, Cristina. Remediando la Fragilidad Digital, in this same publication.

[2] For a detailed overview of the recent evolution of the museum see, for example, SHERMAN, Daniel J, and ROGOFF, Irit. Museum Cultures: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, Media & Society. London: Routledge, 1994; GÓMEZ DE LA IGLESIA, Roberto (Ed). Los Nuevos Centros Culturales en Europa, Madrid: Xabide Ed., 2007; HUYSSEN, Andreas, “Escapar de la Amnesia: Los Museos como Medios de Masas”. In HUYSSEN. En busca del Futuro Perdido. Cultura y Memoria en tiempos de globalización. Buenos Aires: Fondo de cultura económica, 2001.

[3] CASTELLANOS, Nancy P., “Los Museos como Medios de Comunicación”. In Revista Latina de Comunicación Social [online]. Tenerife: Universidad de la Laguna, No. 7, 1998.

[4] There are many ways to approach the history of new technologies on museums: in terms how archives and collections are managed, for instance, or in terms of aesthetics and architecture (as in the case of the Centre Pompidou for example, as one of the pioneer museums of the information society). Of course, it can also be approached from the perspective of the relationship between the museum and the spectator, or of the presence of technologies in the museum. From this point of view, museums have often been accused of a slow and often inadequate integration of technological media in their communication infrastructures. As Isidro Moreno has said: “At first, interactive multimedia systems were simply technological window-dressing that attracted the attention of the media and particularly curious visitors. They were usually commissioned at the last minute and placed in any old corner.” See: MORENO, Isidro. “Media y Museo: Interacciones Culturales”. In Icono14. Revista de Comunicación y Nuevas Tecnologías. NºA1, April 2009, p. 59-70. Available online at: <> (Retrieved: 10 October 2013).

[5] See: BELLIDO GANT, M. Luisa. Arte, Museos y Nuevas Tecnologías. Gijón: Trea, 2001.

[6] See: BELLIDO GANT, M. Luisa. “Los Nuevos Hábitos de Consumo Cultural”. In Revista Amigos de los Museos: Museos, Nuevas Tecnologías y Sociedad, 2009, No. 29, , p. 13-17. Available online.

[7] Varnelis, Kazys and Friedberg, Anne. “Place: Networked Place”. In VARNELIS, Kazys (Ed). Networked Publics. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 2008, p. 15-42.

[8] AZUMA, Ronald et al. “Recent Advances in Augmented Reality”. In IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, November-December 2001, p. 34-47. Available online.

[9] SCHAVEMAKER, Margaret, et al. “Augmented Reality and the Museum Experience”. In TRANT, J. and BEARMENA, D. (eds.). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings [online]. Toronto: Arhives & Museum Informatics, 2011. Available online.

[10] Museum of London Website. StreetMuseum, 2010.

[11] For example, another AR application developed for London is Augmented Cinema, which allows users to superimpose the specific scenes from films onto the places were they take place, and where they were originally filmed. In this case, instead of bringing the city’s historical past into the present, the application updates possible stories, fictions, that use it as a backdrop, but are also a historical archive of films shot in London.

[12] For more information about UAR, see the Netherlands Institute of Architecture website

[13] Information on Museum of Phantom City is available on the artists’ website and the acclaimed architecture blog BLDG.