Face-Swappin’ Mona Lisa: Snapchat, Augmented & Virtual Reality Come to the Museum

This week, I take a look at a few museums brave and creative enough to respond to the challenge of adding augmented and virtual reality into their digital footprint. 

WARNING: the following video contains adult language.

They seem so incongruous at first glance – a gigantic, intimidating stone building affixed with austere signage indicating its status as a bastion of academic inquiry and education, and a fingerprint-laiden, spiderweb-screened smartphone encased in a goofy glitter cover inside a visitor’s purse. But of late, museums have relaxed their initial frigidity towards emerging technology, embracing the potential of mobile devices and virtual reality to enhance the museum visiting experience both in person and virtually.

The effects of these new tech-friendly initiatives have yet to be widely studied, as many of them are fewer than a year or two old. Ultimately, however, they could mean the opening of the museum to communities previously rarely reached. The promise of inclusiveness is so great, in fact, that the adoption of emerging technology in museums could be considered to be revolutionary, forever changing the impact they have on their world.

The mobile app Snapchat and virtual reality interactives have both emerged as effective tools for extending and enhancing the museum experience.


The idea of Snapchat – pictures and videos broadcast over a social network that disappear after a set number of seconds – would seem contrary to the very livelihood of the museum. Indeed, most museums pride themselves in being institutions of preservation and protection of important cultural and historical objects. But Snapchat’s undeniable stickiness has caught the eye of large and small museums alike, who are using the platform to give their digital presence personality and dimension.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) uses their snapstory as a place for play through the use of pop culture references. Frequently, works of art are used to weave together scenes that are then narrated with recent popular song lyrics, like those of Beyonce and, in the example below, Avril Lavigne:

The Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) has used various events and snapchat-like applications to turn their museum into a hot destination for happy hours and unique experiences.

Some institutions still wrestle with their own photography policies, which will likely always limit Snapchat use in museums to some extent. But the more prevalent the platform becomes, the more difficult it will be to ignore. Museums that are unable to implement the use of Snapchat in galleries should consider a behind-the-scenes angle that capitalizes on the access curators and collections managers have to the objects being transported, installed, and preserved on site.

A huge benefit of social media platforms is their cost – virtually nothing. If museums are able to spare the staff time, the management of a fun, engaging Snapchat account will only benefit the institution. Tour guides and docents craft interesting visual stories through their interpretation of the objects on display. Curators craft innovative and groundbreaking exhibits through their research on their institution’s collections. Snapchat allows for storytelling, the crafting of narratives, and the play and wonder many have come to expect from the gatekeepers to material culture and art.

Virtual Reality

Several museums have been quick to implement a virtual reality experience for their visitors, blazing a promising trail for future virtual museum experiences due in large part to the extremely enthusiastic responses the experiences are receiving from museum visitors. The British Museum’s virtual ‘time-travel’ experience increased visitorship to somewhat unpopular portion of their museum: their collection of Bronze Age objects. It has now become a destination for new and returning visitors.

The Canada Science and Technology Museum saw virtual reality as an opportunity to let visitors do something they could never do in person: operate one of their most important objects – their 1930s steam locomotive. Giving visitors free-reign to explore objects virtually is an excellent way of opening their minds to future interactions with the museum’s collection. The opportunity for notoriety and upping the visitor ‘wonder’ factor seems simply too great to ignore.

With the required technology and equipment becoming more affordable each day, chances seem high that virtual reality will soon be a featured interactive at many museums, no matter how big or small. In fact, I would venture to predict that smaller museums will commit to the implementation of virtual reality experiences just as wholeheartedly as large institutions because of the ever-improving cost-benefit ratio.

While a small or mid-size museum may not have the budget to create full-size scenes of the past complete with replica objects, they may be able to afford a digital animation of a scene in a particular building or during a particular time-period that virtually puts their objects in context. The benefit of these experiences in cultivating a return visitor culture would far outweigh the initial costs of the software and hardware, in my opinion. Smartphones can even simulate VR headsets with the help of Google Cardboard, as seen at the Guggenheim Museum, which completely bypasses the need for multiple VR headsets and upkeep.

Of course, VR has its critics. If visitors can visit museums virtually, why would they ever come to see the objects inside IRL (in real life)? I imagine that museums and exhibition spaces may have been asking themselves the same thing during the development of modern photography.

Virtual reality may pose unique challenges, and it may not be the learning tool for every visitor, but it is a tool with huge potential, and it should not, in my opinion, be ignored. Museums can create worlds of characters, animals and artifacts previously unimaginable within their context.

They can travel to places never before accessible to them.

Individuals with disabilities can experience the museum’s collections in a way they never thought possible. Visitors from other countries can learn about the objects in the museum in their own language.

The possibilities for museum interpretation and curatorial storytelling are vastly expanded with the introduction of virtual reality and Snapchat as a tools for visitor discovery, learning, play and wonder. The future of VR and Snapchat in museums seems bright, given that dedicated staff take the time to prototype, test, evaluate and perfect their ideas prior to fully committing and formally introducing their new initiatives to visitors.

Featured image courtesy of LACMA

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