This week I’ve been doing some background research into the ways in which people are reacting to the growing use of virtual reality in heritage and museum contexts.

At Herculaneum, visitors can visit a museum where they can tour a virtual Herculaneum (as it was before the whole city and most of its inhabitants, huddled together in the boat sheds on the beach, were obliterated by the huge explosion of Mount Vesuvius – or at least what the designers thought it was) and then go on to visit the ruins of the city itself which are only a hundred or so metres away. The model is presumably intended to be more enlightening than the crumbling ruins themselves. I wonder how it affects the great first view of the city you get as you look down on it from the entrance gate?

A more ambitious project is the huge VR model of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It’s quite different in that it’s aimed at bringing China straight to your own home PC and, like our project, involves the user adopting an avatar (court eunuch anyone?) to explore the space and to meet guides who will share information at your request. It’s huge but not too crowded – I just checked – there are 14 people in the world online there at the moment. No queues.

Although the Forbidden City project brings access to people, the majority of whom will not want to or cannnot visit the site, it replicates something tangibly there. Likewise Herculaneum, which is still hanging on (though note that the BBC report rather seems to imply the VR Herculanuem could be the answer to the continuing financial struggle to upkeep the ‘real’ one (which itself, because of the decisions taken by archaeologists and restorers might not be considered 100% real). I hope our project helps us to explore a bit more of the extent to which these models are ever really regarded as substitutes for ‘the real thing’ (a real thing which, of course, in our case, burnt to such a frazzle there was nothing left).

It’ll be interested to monitor the success of these ambitious projects. One of the biggest concerns of commentators on the virtual heritage phenomenon is the loss of materiality. Can you be museal (museum-like) without any ‘real’ objects? Museums have always been about the material object. Is our project doomed to failure if it tries to be a museum? Interestingly, the Crystal Palace suffered the same discussions when it was opened. Was it a museum when everything was fake? Was fakeness educational or just tacky? The CP people cleverly replied that the last thing they wanted to be was a museum – what they were doing was much more interesting and forward thinking than normal museums (especially their archest rivals, the Victoria and Albert Museum). The Crystal Palace was probably more like the Herculaneum project, bringing real tourists into a shared experience (and asking them to think about why they there and not in the site itself – lots of sculptures the Palace had copies of were there in the ‘flesh’ so to speak not so very far away in the British Museum), the Forbidden City a much posher version of what our model might look like.

Both of these projects, then, have a very different approach to encouraging user interaction with VR. Visiting a site or museum is a public, multi-sensory experience. One of the aspects of our project is discovering ways to stimulate as many senses as possible in the virtual environment and perhaps to leave in at least some nuisances to rival those involved in visiting a real museum or even, like the Crystal Palace, a fake one.


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