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Augmented Reality: The future of museums?

Will the audio guide found at museums soon be replaced by Augmented Reality apps? Susanne Pollack, Curator of the ETH Zurich Graphics Collection, believes so - and talks about how Augmented Reality could change art exhibitions.

Laura Gianesi, LGT
Reading time
10 minutes
Augmented Reality Museum

Your exhibition contains copperplate engravings from the 16th century - that's not exactly a huge crowd magnet… 
Susanne Pollack: You're right, many of the engravings are difficult for us to understand today. They are part of a completely different world - many of the pieces, which are over 400 years old, only become exciting when we have access to background information about them. Or to details that are hidden or unknown, which can sometimes be nothing more than an amusing anecdote.

Amusing? Can you give us an example?
In one of the engravings in our exhibition you can see Venus, the goddess of love; it’s a sensual, opulent image. On the reverse, an unknown person has sketched a monk - perhaps it was a later owner of the engraving who was upset by the image of the pagan goddess of love and wanted to create a pious contrast?

Susanne Pollock
Curator Susanne Pollack modernizes her exhibition with Augmented Reality.

In this case, the exciting part is on the reverse of the engraving, behind the scenes, so to speak. But when it's hanging in the museum, we have no access to it; we only see the image from the front.
Exactly, and that's where augmented reality comes in. We've developed a new app in collaboration with the Game Technology Center at the ETH. It enables us to add text, images, and audio and video to works of art. Thanks to the app, you can also see the back of the engraving, for example - all you have to do is open the app and point the camera on your phone at the image. Visitors are given an iPad or can download the free app to their cell phones and rediscover pieces that have been programmed for augmented reality.

Interactive and personalized - is this what the museum visit of the future will be like? 
That would be nice, and that's what we’re assuming. The app uses a cloud-based platform called Artifact. Curators can use it to easily design content themselves, and to constantly add new things and improve the existing content. For example, they can upload an audio file to an image to make the app work like an audio guide. But with the right IT skills or external support, they can also program more complex things, such as 3D effects. Our long-term goal is to further develop the platform so that other museums can use it in the future. Curators of small museums, for example, could create most of the content themselves with the help of the app and forego expensive external help.

Augmented Reality Museum
"My task as a curator is to find a balance between the playful and the informative."

So you are constantly improving the app? 
Yes, it's still a prototype. That's why the ETH app developers visit us here at the museum from time to time. They observe how visitors use the app, what works and what doesn't, so that they can then optimize it.

So in the future, operating an app like this could be part of a curator's everyday work. 
In the past, not everyone who worked in an office was able to create PowerPoint presentations. Today, it's a standard part of people's job. We see the same happening with this app.

Doesn't the app compete with guided tours by curators and specialists - and don't visitors prefer it if a person rather than an app gives them insights into works of art? 
The two aren't mutually exclusive. In addition to the app, we offer a lot of alternative material that gives visitors insights into the exhibition: guided tours, but also brochures and a very detailed exhibition catalog. A lot of visitors to the museum like to make use of our print media, and some people naturally prefer to listen to a specialist instead of fiddling around on an iPad. In general, though, the app is intuitive and very popular. It allows for a much more individualized visit than a group tour.

Augmented Reality Museum
You can bring this fan to life thanks to Augmented Reality.

I'm sure there are also critics who condemn such apps as an obstacle to experiencing art directly.
Some people perceive technology and art as two opposite poles. My task as a curator is to find a balance between the playful and the informative. I don't want to use the app to simply conjure up nice effects that do nothing more than entertain people. I want it to convey information. Of course, this influences the perception of a work of art, but so does a written text or a conversation. In addition, this kind of app can also help to show works of art in their original context, before they became objects in a museum.

Do you have any examples?
This image here is supposed to serve as the front or back of a fan. We can represent that nicely in the Augmented Reality app: if you look at the image through the camera on your phone, it looks like the fan is detaching from the image and starting to move. You can also see that the smaller images were meant to be alternatives that could be stuck to the fan to decorate it. They could be cut out and glued on. We wouldn't think of that if we were just looking at a picture hanging on the wall, which, like this one, doesn't actually belong on the wall. In other words, augmented reality can help experience art in its original, everyday form. So you see, Augmented Reality and art are not opposite poles.

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