How the use of Augmented Reality in Museums is bringing collections to life

Museums and heritage institutions are typically all about preserving important historical and cultural artefacts, so they’re not necessarily the first thing you’d think of when it comes to cutting edge technology.

However, as part of their mission to promote and educate the general public about their collections, museums are employing advanced tech in order to bring them to life.

What is Augmented Reality (AR)?

Augmented reality (AR) enhances the user’s physical environment with digital content, including text information, images or animated content. This can be achieved through a smartphone app or a virtual reality headset, but unlike VR which creates a totally artificial environment, AR simply overlays that content on top of the real world.

Examples of this in a museum setting could include:

  • Text information about a specific artefact that appears on a smartphone screen when the camera is pointed at a QR code.
  • An animated avatar appears next to an exhibit to provide additional information, visible to anyone wearing a VR headset.

AR works in one of two ways: marker-based or markerless.

Marker-based AR simply links animation or contextual digital information to an augmented reality marker in the real world, for example a QR code. When an AR-enabled device receives digital information from a known marker, the relevant information is overlaid on the screen.

The markerless method of AR is more complex as it doesn’t have a specific point to focus on and retrieve the information. Instead, the device must recognise objects as they appear on the screen, requiring a recognition algorithm that can identify the object.

4 Benefits of using AR in museums

There are a number of benefits for museums and heritage institutions from implementing AR technology for their collections:

  1. Enhanced visitor experiences
  2. Save money on expensive physical installations
  3. Engage younger audiences
  4. Create custom museum experiences

Enhanced visitor experiences

Traditionally, the museum experience has involved visitors browsing exhibits and collections, and reading about them on closely located information boards. Although multimedia might be incorporated, whether via audio guides or video exhibits, this is nothing compared to the immersive experience offered by augmented reality.

With AR technology, museum visitors don’t just learn about ancient artefacts and works of art, but can see them brought to life. Imagine being able to see exactly how a collection of Bronze Age tools would’ve been used, or an animated representation of a tyrannosaurus rex next to its skeleton.

Enhancing museum visits with AR like this provides visitors the chance to learn about collections in a much more immersive way, while learning about the exhibits beyond what a simple information board could offer.

Save money on expensive physical installations

Implementing new physical installations can be expensive and time-consuming, but AR gives museums the opportunity to provide fully immersive experiences at a fraction of the cost. 

Instead of constructing an entire physical display, for example to show the environments ancient man would’ve lived in, this can be delivered via AR. It can even be used to avoid having to display very fragile artefacts, or objects that degrade when not stored in a temperature-controlled environment.

Engage younger audiences

Children and young adults today are used to experiencing the world through technology, while it has always been the case that younger audiences like to learn through more engaging mediums than simply reading information.

Museum AR appeals to young people and ensures your institution is able to deliver a contemporary and immersive experience for all ages.

Create custom museum experiences

We’ve already mentioned how multimedia has been used in museums for years. For example, you could argue that audio guides are an early form of augmented reality.

However, modern AR allows you to provide customised experiences, with bespoke content tailored to specific exhibits or audiences.

Improving accessibility and inclusion

Museums, galleries and heritage institutions introduce precious artefacts, works of art and other culturally significant items to the public, and accessibility for all is a key part of these institutions’ mission.

However, physical and unseen disabilities can impact the accessibility of collections and exhibitions—something AR can help to address.

For example, AR can provide interactive experiences that are better catered to the specific needs of each visitor, whether that’s to support people with hearing or sight impairment, mobility issues or mental health challenges. AR can also support the translation of information for visitors who speak different languages, or tailor the museum experience for people with different learning styles and abilities.

Virtual tours and guides

Virtual museum tours and guides are nothing new—institutions have been offering audio descriptions of collections and exhibits for decades—but AR museum guides offer a huge amount of additional scope and opportunity.

Not only are AR museum guides easier to implement compared to having to record new audio in dozens of languages everytime an exhibit is introduced or changed, but they also make for much more engaging and interactive virtual tour experiences, with additional visual explanation as well as giving visitors the ability to manipulate the information they see on screen.

How museums are using AR

A number of high profile museums are already using augmented reality to enhance visitor experiences and bring their collections to life. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

The National Gallery

The National Gallery used AR to bring selected artworks to the streets of London.

This augmented reality art exhibition took works of art from the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Tracey Emin and Georges Pierre Seurat, and made them accessible to people via an AR App, with markers placed around the busy streets of the UK capital.

de Young Museum

San Francisco's de Young Museum collaborated with Snapchat to create an AR fashion experience, with visitors able to ‘try on’ clothing from iconic fashion designers from throughout history.

‘Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style’ opened in January 2024, and featured clothing from Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Kaisik Wong.

The National Museum of Singapore

The National Museum of Singapore combined stunning visual media with augmented reality to create an incredibly immersive installation called ‘Story of the Forest’.

Visitors could interact with 3D animations based on images from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, while an AR museum app allows people to explore the paintings.

The Riga Motor Museum

The Riga Motor Museum made use of AR to bring their collection of old car engines to life, allowing visitors to see them modeled and how they operate through screens placed near each of them. People could also explore the mechanics of the engines further, zooming in on certain components and rotating them 360 degrees.

The future of AR in museums

It’s hard to predict what the future holds for augmented reality (as well as virtual reality) in museums, but one thing’s for sure—the opportunities are exciting.

For example, AR could be integrated with AI and machine learning to deliver even greater levels of experience personalisation.

AR technology is still relatively young, and as it develops we’re likely to see even more exciting applications in museums and heritage institutions, bringing increasingly engaging, interactive and immersive experiences to the public.

How Digital Asset Management supports museum AR

For your museum to make the most of augmented reality, you’re going to need to create assets including animations, static images and text overlays in order to develop these virtual environments—and you’re going to need a platform capable of storing them.

A Digital Asset Management (DAM) system is the ideal solution and offers a number of key benefits for museums, as well as providing a centralised location for all the design assets needed to create your AR experiences. Third-party designers can be given limited access to submit work, while approval workflows can be put in place to ensure only assets that have been signed off can be accessed by your development team.

READ MORE: Case Study - ResourceSpace + The Ashmolean Museum

To find out more about how ResourceSpace supports museums in bringing their collections to life, get in touch with the team today. Alternatively, book your free, no obligation demo below to see the software in action.