Virtually Real Museums: Challenges and opportunities of virtual reality in the Art Museum Context (Part II) | MONSERRAT PIS MARCOS

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Second Life (SL), also known as metaverse after the 1992 novel Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, is a virtual totally-immersive world where people socialize, live and trade1. It is a three-dimensional environment characterised by its interactivity2, corporeity3 and persistency4. With more than eight million registered users, it was first launched in 2003 by Linden Research Inc. and it has been running and expanding since then although, as other virtual worlds before, its future is very hard to predict5. It is mainly a place for business and socialization, but the users - known as "residents" -, have also started to develop their own cultural life, be it inspired on the real world or created completely ex-novo.

There is also room for museums in SL. Anyone can buy land on one of the islands6 and build7 and display their own collection, but what is striking is the amount of serious professional initiatives for developing and promoting cultural institutions in-world8. There are mainly two kinds of museums in the metaverse: SL versions of real-life museums, and museums completely designed and conceived for SL. These two categories can nonetheless overlap slightly, as some examples will show.

Moreover, SL also offers historical reconstructions such as the Sistine Chapel (Fig. 9) or Ancient Rome, where avatars are invited to experience what it would have been like to live in those periods, even if sometimes designers struggle with technology to invest their reconstructions with historical accuracy9. That is the case of Ancient Rome, where four partners share the responsibility of building and the costs of renting the land where the sim10 is hosted. In this particular example, once inaugurated the visitor avatars will be mainly allowed to watch the role play as observers while being invited to attend special events such as talks on Latin literature in the theatre11.

Fig. 9

Returning to the two main categories, probably the best example of a real museum present in SL is the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden12, while the best museum created ex-novo is possibly the Virtual Museum of Art (VMOA)13. The Gemaldegalerie was launched in May 2007 and it is a sim that mirrors its real-life counterpart on a scale 1:1 (Fig. 10). There are about seven hundred and fifty high-quality reproductions of objects from the collection spread in fifty six rooms including the temporary exhibition, it is always open and admission is free. But the Gemaldegalerie is not only visually stunning and highly finished, but is also a useful source of information about the artworks exhibited, unlike the rest of the examples mentioned until now (Fig. 11). In fact, if compared with the Rijksmuseum tours the qualitative leap is astounding. Visitors to the gallery can click on each painting and read a notecard14 with basic information about the painting and a short explanation of the piece (Fig. 12). Furthermore, those interested in learning more about certain objects can choose to follow the free audio tour available, provided by the same company that supplied the real audioguides in Dresden. In fact, the audio can sometimes surprise the user by asking him to press a certain combination of buttons to hear more, such as they would find on a real audioguide, when that option is clearly not available in SL. This shows that the interpretive material has not been specifically designed for the SL replica, but as far as the visiting experience is concerned this transposition does not undermine it in the least.

Fig. 10

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Fig. 13

On the other hand, the VMOA - also opened in 2007 -, is a museum entirely devoted to a monographic show of Gottfried Helnwein, who is an actual real-life artist with a very long career15. The style of the VMOA is completely different from that of the Gemaldegalerie, partly because it is used for contemporary art and is not conditioned by any pre-existent building in real life, but partly also because it constitutes a genuine example of the SL way of thinking (Fig. 13). Whereas the Gemaldegalerie is an outstanding reconstruction of a real museum, where visitors have to walk up stairs to enter the rooms and move through doorways as in real life, to access some of the rooms in the VMOA visitors need to fly - an action that every avatar can perform -, as well as teleport themselves from one floor to the other. SL has its own internal rules that request from the user a change in their mindset and the awareness that not everything works in the same way as in real life. The VMOA does not use labels or notecards16 to provide information about the works, but it offers guided tours every Sunday as well as live music (Fig. 14 and 15).

Fig. 14

Fig. 15

The other possibility - that of having an overlap between a real life museum and a SL creation - is represented by two other examples: the Newggenheim and the Second Louvre. Both are architectonically based on their real-life counterparts, at least externally, but their internal organization and the works on display bear absolutely no resemblance to the actual institutions. In fact, unlike the Gemaldegalerie or the VMOA, these museums belong to private individuals who have no relation to either the Guggenheim Foundation or the Musée du Louvre (Fig. 16 and 17). They work more like kunsthalles although on occasion some objects become permanently installed in the space, and their interest is centred on contemporary artists. In the particular case of the Second Louvre its curator Kharis Forti has explicitly oriented her displays towards the promotion of artists that emerged and became consolidated within SL itself. In this regard, it is interesting how SL is becoming a platform for large-scale dissemination of works by new talents who had not yet succeeded in creating a name for themselves in real life17. But there is also the opposite scenario, in which real-life well-known artists are starting to use SL to reach a wider audience, like Gottfried Helnwein, at a relatively low cost in comparison to the audience size. Like most museums in SL, these two examples provide very little information about the artist they show, which is usually concentrated on an introductory panel18 (Fig. 18 - transcription in the List of Illustrations).

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

On a side note, apart from these examples there are several other museums on the most varied subjects (Musée des années 80, the Escher Museum or the Musée Celte among others) along with art galleries where digital art is on sale.

At this point, it is worth returning to the concept of museum presented at the beginning of this essay and exploring whether these SL sims actually fulfil the definition or not. As a general rule, most of these institutions are indeed non-profit and permanent, although on occasion some of them may also act as art dealers like the Second Louvre. They usually rely on private funding, on the income derived from the sales from their shops and on donations from visitors, although some of them have also developed a "Friends of" association, like the Friends of the Dresden Gallery. Regarding the activities of acquiring, conserving, researching, communicating and exhibiting, SL museums tend to be more successful in the last two tasks when it comes to replicating real-life objects, but those goals are fully achieved - except perhaps in the case of research - when it comes to digital art. Given that this artistic expression is immaterial until rendered on a specific support, virtual museums who own these artworks in fact own the original creation of the artist, or at least the closest version to it. From this point of view, not only the notion of its authenticity is preserved, but it actually constitutes the most consistent environment for the display of this kind of art.

Moreover, the ICOM establishes that education, study and enjoyment are the main purposes of a museum. SL museums are currently very weak as far as study is concerned because, as mentioned above, educational and interpretive materials have been little used so far. It is a fact that most of these institutions are presently more oriented towards providing a pleasant and entertaining visual experience than towards education, as can be appreciated from a visit to the Second Louvre or the Newggenheim. Nevertheless, the sometimes lack of scientific rigour does not mean that education - and maybe research - does not have a place in those museums. Rather the contrary, initiatives like those of the Gemaldegalerie or the guided tours at the VMOA show that it is not only possible, but also highly valued by SL residents.

In this respect, one of the main concerns of those sceptical about VR museums is whether the visit to the virtual replica could replace the real experience and therefore result in a serious drop in visitor numbers. A close examination of the Gemaldegalerie guestbook - the most realistic sim and therefore potentially the most threatening one - shows that SL visitors are grateful for having the opportunity to see the collections online, especially when they live geographically far from Dresden in real life19. But what is more striking is that several of them declare that after seeing the museum in SL they are genuinely looking forward to visiting Dresden to see the paintings in the flesh. Therefore, SL museums not only represent an innovative approach to the museum as an institution but they are not necessarily in direct competition with traditional ones. Furthermore, they are accessible to the hundred per cent of SL residents, who have no geographical constraints or architectonic barriers to surmount, and they are probably more successful than real-life museums as far as visitor interaction and socialization are concerned. Given that the latter is the predominant use of SL, it is not surprising that also in-world museums perform mainly that function by organizing events such as concerts - like the ones at the VMOA -, or providing services such as a café where avatars can rest after their visit to the collections - also at the VMOA20 - (Fig. 19).

Fig. 19

Nonetheless, SL also presents important drawbacks. Apart from the possible lack of rigour already mentioned and the still underdeveloped use of interpretive materials, museums in-world follow no clear criteria or regulations. This freedom is one of the best assets of SL, but it could also result in a completely chaotic museum community in the long run21. On a more practical level, SL shares some of the downsides of VR in general. Given the high level of experimentation taking place in it, it is hard to foresee what will happen in a few years, while presently its technological limitations could make the display of certain objects difficult or very costly. Finally, the biggest problem with museums in SL is that of becoming mere visually-stimulating settings devoid of any serious content. Given that these are initiatives usually owned by private individuals/partners who develop them in their free time it is sometimes unclear whether they aim at communicating something to other residents or whether they are merely trying to build a pleasant environment without any further museological intention. Again, this does not mean that both approaches cannot coexist, but it presently casts a shadow of suspicion over SL museums as sources of authoritative culture.

As this essay has tried to show, VR is still a work-in-progress technology, whose applications still raise more questions than answers. As a result of that, it is very difficult to predict its development and possible success, but what it is clear is that its application to cultural heritage could prove very helpful if used responsibly. A sensible use of VR could appeal to wider audiences given its direct link with the visual vocabulary of videogames and its immersive nature, with which young generations are acquainted and engage more easily. As previously mentioned, off-site VR and virtual worlds such as SL actually increase the user's curiosity to visit the museum rather than replacing it, while discovering it to new potential visitors. In this respect, what should be acknowledged is that those users who consider the virtual replica good enough for examining the object without seeing the real one possibly never formed part of the potential audience of the museum in the first place. However, it is the museum's responsibility to remind its on-site and off-site visitors that the real objects still exist and that they are ultimately the starting point for any VR experience. Users and museums alike need to keep in mind that VR is an artificial image-rendering technology, and therefore it distorts by default our perception of objects, regardless of how accurately done. Like any other visual tool, as far as cultural heritage is concerned VR should be an instrument of mediation, never and end in itself.

To sum up, VR and the museum could develop a very productive relationship, from which both could gain as long as their areas of interaction, aims and purposes are clearly established for each situation. It is also highly unlikely that VR might effectively threaten the role of the museum, and although some scepticism is understandable among museum professionals, the potential risks and challenges that it poses should encourage their overcoming rather than its deeming as unsuitable. Finally, although at present VR is stronger in issues such as socialization and visitor interaction - especially in virtual worlds - it possesses an immense, quite unexplored potential for education and maybe research, and those are probably the areas that will expand in the near future as the technology evolves. All in all, possibly the safest conclusion that could be drawn at this early stage would be a cautious "time will tell".

Second Life Glossary of Terms

Avatar: A representative of a real person in the virtual world.

Build: To create/make something out of primitives (a single part object) in SL.

In-world: Being connected to the SL servers and present in the SL world (also: online), anything that takes place within the virtual environment of SL.

Island: A Sim (see below) or group of Sims that are detached from the Linden Lab owned Mainland and only accessible by teleportation.

Notecard: An inventory item containing text and/or embedded textures, snapshots, objects, or other notecards.

Resident: A user in Second Life is typically called a Resident (abbreviated "Resi").

Sim: Simulator, which can mean either:

  • Sim node (or sim host), the physical server machine simulating one or more regions.
  • Sim processes, the processes running on the server machines that simulate regions. The latter usage is more precise, because multiple processes may run on a single server CPU.

In common usage, "sim" may also be used to mean region, though this meaning is deprecated because it is ambiguous. Most accurately, a region is simulated by a sim process running on a sim node.

 

Youtube links related to Second Life museums

 

Bibliography

  • McTavish, Lianne, "Visiting the Virtual Museum: Art and experience online" in New Museum Theory and Practice, ed. J. Marstine (Oxford, 2006).

 

Online resources

List of Illustrations

Fig. 9 Second Life reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel (Source: the author).

Fig 10 Second Life reconstruction of the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, exterior view (Source: the author).

Fig. 11 Second Life reconstruction of the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, view of one of the rooms (Source: the author).

Fig. 12 Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt and Saskia in the parable of the prodigal son, c. 1635, oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm., Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. View of the notecard that provides information about the works. In this case there is no textual explanation because there is an audioguide track on the painting (Source: the author).

Fig. 13 Virtual Museum of Art in Second Life, exterior view (Source: the author).

Fig. 14 Virtual Museum of Art in Second Life, view of the entrance lobby (Source: the author).

Fig. 15 Virtual Museum of Art in Second Life, view of one of the rooms in the second floor (Source: the author).

Fig. 16 Newggenheim Museum in Second Life, exterior view (Source: the author).

Fig. 17 Second Louvre Museum in Second Life, exterior view (Source: the author).

Fig. 18 Second Louvre Museum in Second Life, introductory panel, entrance lobby (Source: the author).

Fig. 19 Virtual Museum of Art in Second Life, view of the café (Source: the author).

Transcription of the text in Fig. 18:

"Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts (sic) and specimens, which they hold in trust for society"

The Museum's Association definition (adopted 1998).

Thank you everyone for all your support and donations. Check back frequently for news about the grand opening event!

Main Entrance Hall - Starax's "Achilles - 2006"

Sully Exhibition Hall - Jefferson Psaltery's "Tango" and paintings and drawings

Denon 1st floor - figure scultpres (Starax, Costello, Fairymeadow, Herbst and more)

Denon 2nd floor - photography by D. J. Hacker

Denon 3rd floor - 3D rendered art (WacRam Roy and more)

Richelieu 1st floor - abstract sculpture (Stembeck, Quatro, Surface, Grom and more)

Richelieu 2nd floor - paintings (Ferdinand and Ornitz)

Richelieu 3rd floor - photography (Poppy, Alphabeta, Baker, and more)

 

This museum is in no way affiliated with the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. No claims or representations of being anything other than a museum of Second Life art are being made. Please refer inquiries to Kharis Forti.

1 M. Gerosa, Second Life, (Milano, 2007), p. 7. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=0a2kIkNCfYQC&printsec=frontcover&hl=e... (accessed 15/04/09).

2 Interactivity: Real people are represented through avatars (representative of a real person in a virtual world) who can socialize with each other.

3 Corporeity: The environment is subject to some physic laws and has limited resources.

4 Persistency: The world keeps running even when the user logs off. R. Urban et al. A Second Life for Your Museum, p. 2.

5 Rymaszewski, M. et al., Second life: the official guide, (Oxford, 2006), p. 6. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=QGdLXKq9Bs0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=%... (accessed 14/04/09).

6 Islands: A Sim (see below) or group of Sims that are detached from the Linden Lab owned Mainland and only accessible by teleportation. http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Island (accessed 18/04/09).Retrieved from "http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Island"

7 Build: To create/make something out of primitives (a single part object) in SL. http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Build (accessed 18/04/09).

8 In-world: Being connected to the SL servers and present in the SL world (also: online), anything that takes place within the virtual environment of SL. http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/In_World (accessed 18/04/09).

9 R. Urban et al, A Second Life for Your Museum, p. 8.

10 Sim: Simulator, which can mean either: Sim node (or sim host) (See the Glossary of Terms); "sim" may also be used to mean region. http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Sim (accessed 18/04/09).

11 Data retrieved from a personal interview with one of the owners of Ancient Rome on April 15th 2009.

12 http://www.dresdengallery.com/ (accessed 15/04/09).

13 http://www.vmoa-online.com/ (accessed 17/04/09).

14 Notecard: An inventory item containing text and/or embedded textures, snapshots, objects, or other notecards. http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Notecards (accessed 18/04/09).

15 http://www.helnwein.com (accessed 17/04/09).

16

17 M. Gerosa, Second Life, p. 136.

18 R. Urban et al, A Second Life for Your Museum, p. 10.

19 http://www.dresdengallery.com/guestbook.php (accessed 17/04/09).

20 R. Urban et al, A Second Life for Your Museum, pp. 7-8.

21 M. Gerosa, Second Life, p. 134.

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