A missed opportunity to revive an eccentric museum using virtual reality

LONDON – The Sir John Soane Museum is a true museum oddity. He occupies a country house in the heavy precinct of the law firm of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn, central London, the former home of the neoclassical architect john swanknown for design elements Bank of England. Soane used innovative and unusual architectural tricks, such as strategic mirrors to channel scant natural light, and movable walls to maximize the house’s spatial constraints, which he stuffed with a wealth of contemporary paintings and eclectic sculpture from monuments to sarcophagi, making for a wholly extraordinary viewing experience. Operating the small museum is a challenge; Only 90 people are allowed in at any one time due to spatial restrictions and there is no ticket office except for a small marquee in its small courtyard. These conditions were laid down by an Act of Parliament in 1833 which provided for the collection to be kept as it was in Swan’s time. Making this old, rotten character group out of an eccentric English-language group shouldn’t be compatible and appealing to global audiences on a massive scale.

It seems therefore a natural option to set up an exhibition using the medium of virtual reality, which defies such physical limitations. Interdisciplinary design practice popular space Led by Lara Lessmis and Frederic Hellberg, who are here Gate fairsIn the event, two films were tried out via VR headsets in pop-up shows around the house. The gates are an inspiring choice for a museum in which entry practically feels like stepping into another world, with its narrow corridors and low-ceilinged alcoves, and the press release takes an effort to demonstrate the intellectual connection: “Visitors will be guided through the magic and mechanics of virtual travel in an exhibit that links Soane-era technologies with those of our own.” Connecting the physical experience to the virtual gates[respond] To a virtual “museum”[granting] Entering another environment.

Installation width including carpet labeled for VR installation

It would have been nice if this professed relationship had continued in the VR movies themselves, but from their content one can be forgiven for concluding that Lesmes and Helberg never set foot in the museum. The press release states that the VR experience on the ground floor offers “a series of portals through environments drawn from Soane spaces,” however the video shows a vast black open space centered around a platform, around which various elements float, like the monolith from the film 2001: space flight or a VHS tape from Videodrome. On the floor there is a semi-circular rug decorated with words such as “body”, “hole” and “water”. Floating texts ask things like “Do we really travel great distances across our screens?” Before images of doors or other openings appear, they are interspersed with still images from other popular films such as Disney films turns red. Little here is clearly “derived from Soane spaces” in any apparent visual or even objective sense.

Likewise, the second VR experience is accompanied by an oval table showing different circles containing the “types” of portals that appear in popular films. An accompanying VR movie explores the portal’s storytelling history since 1950, from early cartoons in which Road Runner holds a “portal” to a black hole aloft through to 1980s horror films such as the flyOr the Harry Potter series. The abundance of films on display appears inconsistent within the historic surroundings of the Soane Museum. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a display; In fact, the kids who enjoyed the show during my visit were clearly fascinated, and engaging young audiences is nothing to complain about. For a younger audience, the museum’s nuances, accuracy, and historical significance will appeal at best as an entertaining experience, yet remain mysterious without knowledge and context.

Soane Museum’s main sculpture exhibition

This is not to say that children need to be taught art history to appreciate culture, but not to use this virtual reality opportunity to connect again with the museum’s stunning architecture and visual richness leads to a missed opportunity to revive its ancient walls and artwork. The entire VR experience here is basically no different from the fun interactive diversion at the Science Museum. It’s about the temporary content, not the building or its history. This could have been forgiven had the press release not been so serious about emphasizing the union between the videos and the museum.

Virtual reality for museums offers many constructive and relevant ways to interact with audiences. However, in this case, it does not complement the physical VR content; Instead, it widens the chasm between art history and contemporary art making.

Installation view for upstairs virtual reality experience

Popular Space: Gate Gallery It continues at the Sir John Soane Museum (13 Lincoln-in-Fields, London, England) until September 25. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Erin McKellar.

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