The Museum Experience in a Digital World

The art museum experience has remained relatively consistent and unchanged for more than two centuries. People in the 1790s, 1890s and 1990s all shared remarkably similar experiences. Strolling through galleries, approaching a painting or sculpture for a closer view, casually conversing with your fellow visitor—there was nothing much new under the sun, except for the introduction of the gift shop and the dreaded selfie stick.

Over the past decade, however, museum visitors have grown to expect an enhanced experience that immerses and enriches the world of the painting – and museums have responded with an energy and creativity that is reshaping the museum experience for a new digital millennium.

Most recently, the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, has created a virtual reality experience that takes the visitor inside Dali’s 1935 painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus”. Three virtual reality stations take the visitor into a journey through a surreal landscape known to most of us only in our dreams – or nightmares.

Other museums across the country and the globe are similarly challenging their audience’s perception of museum-going as an active, multi-dimensional experience. In 2013, London’s Queen’s Gallery, a part of the Royal Collection, hired DJ and musician Eddy Temple-Morris to create a contemporary playlist to accompany visitors as they explored an exhibition of 17th century fashion in Tudor and Stuart portraiture. The Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt reopened in 2015 with its Immersion Room, a high-tech space popular with both children and adults alike. Inside the Immersion Room, visitors can sketch their own wallpaper designs and project them onto walls at full scale.

And just this week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art began using projection-mapping technology on its Egyptian Temple of Dendur to showcase what the original, Technicolor temple would have looked like 2,000 years ago. The digital projections fill in the ancient carvings will brilliant color, shifting our perception of ancient art from beige, sandy, and static to gloriously vibrant and alive.

Mobile devices and tablets, as well as digital technology, provide museum visitors with new and unique ways to experience art – and challenge museum curators to better partner with their digital media colleagues and agencies. But where can we go next, how can we re-envision our perceptions of art, and what is the next frontier for the museum experience?