Use Cases

January 23, 2020

A Brief Analysis of XR Technologies in Cultural Heritage

During the last several years, numerous museums and cultural institutions have felt the need to modernize their image, attract new visitors, and above all offer stronger and more engaging experiences. In this blog we explore multiple ways that XR technologies have been used to enhance cultural heritage.

During the last several years, numerous museums and cultural institutions have felt the need to modernize their image, attract new visitors, and above all offer stronger and more engaging experiences with cultural heritage. In the digital era, visitors themselves demonstrate their growing desire for that kind of experience. In fact, according to a recent survey by Harris Interactive, 71% of French respondents “think that the development of digital tools for culture is a good thing for visitors as well as for the cultural institutions”. According to the same survey, 84% of respondents agree that digital tools in the cultural field open the works of art and monuments to new audiences. Furthermore, 84% consider that digital tools allow for an easier access to cultural heritage, and 83% think that they enable the museums to reveal new aspects of that same cultural heritage. Finally, 71% of those surveyed think that digital tools are an attractive factor that entice people to visit the museums. It seems that young people between 18-24 years old are particularly eager to experience digital tools in cultural institutions. According to the aforementioned survey, 74% of young respondents said that they would “like to participate in an immersive exhibition”, 71% of them would appreciate a “visit of a monument in augmented reality”, and 65% for an augmented reality visit to a museum. How do cultural institutions respond to these demands today? In this article, we will establish a brief analysis of the use of immersive technologies (augmented and virtuality, also called XR technologies), and the main advantages of these technologies in the apprehension and valorization of cultural heritage. At last, given that XR technologies have a great artistic potential, we will end with an analysis of specific patrimonial experiences which dwell at the crossroads between art and science. 

XR technologies and cultural heritage

The first cases of 3D being applied to cultural heritage

In the 1970’s-1980’s, the development of computing and computer generated images really began (De Bideran, 2013). Additionally, the architecture of buildings progressed, and computing became a privileged means to produce images to aid in the study and conservation of heritage. Only later did these technologies drift from the scientific sphere to the public one, with a true objective of transferring knowledge. 3D restitution became a very popular technique to show disappeared heritage to the public. Among the most famous projects are Kheops révélé (2007), and Versailles 3D & Paris 3D (2012) by Dassault Systemes. The symposia Virtual Retrospect 2009 and Arch-i-Tech 2010 also demonstrate the popularity of 3D restitution for cultural heritage in those years. 

When 3D restitution gets superimposed to heritage

Little by little, 3D restoration has come to be superimposed to the physical world. One of the first augmented reality experiences for cultural heritage is the 3D restitution of Cluny Abbey Church in Burgundy. This project was the result of a research collaboration between Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers of Cluny and On-Situ society. It was officially installed in 2004 (Père et al., 2010). 

Another example is the restitution of indoor furniture in Charles V’s former work study, in the Château of Vincennes in the end of the 14th century. This experimentation was realized by societies Art Graphique et Patrimoine and Axyz in 2009. It took place within the framework of a call for projects initiated in 2008 by Cap Digital, a digital competitiveness cluster, in order to revive economic investments in Research and Development for computing and digital innovation. 

In the following years, cultural institutions increasingly used augmented reality for their own mediation purposes. Display of contextualized information in Versailles garden in 2014 (Hoarau, 2015), display of a painting’s details normally invisible to the naked eye in Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes between 2008 and 2011 (Hübe, 2010), dive in Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio proposed by the Courbet Museum in 2019 (Broquet, 2017)... The examples are numerous, in France as well as abroad.

Virtual reality has also been used for cultural heritage, although less often and later on. Indeed, the high material and human cost still implied by this technology today certainly explains why museums were first more driven to augmented reality. However, the Club Innovation & Culture France recently published a particularly rich analysis of virtual reality experiences installed in cultural institutions, in France and abroad. In this perspective, one can think of the virtual visit of Strasbourg Cathedral, developed in 2015 by Holo 3, Seppia Interactive and Inventive Studio societies.

Some of these virtual reality experiences are more than a mere 3D restitution. King Tut VR, made by Eon Reality in 2016, is one of them. The project was conducted in the framework of a partnership with doctor Fathi Saleh, special heritage counselor of Egyptian Prime Minister, and Honorary Director of the documentation center of cultural and natural heritage. King Tut VR aims to make the user relive one of the most fabulous discoveries in History: Tutankhamun's tomb, found by Howard Carter in 1922. 

In this perspective, the goal of this experience is to allow the visitor to engage with heritage through a sensory and embodied approach, not only by giving them some information or context. This is precisely one of the major advantages of XR technologies for heritage, which leads us to the following question: what do these technologies bring to the mediation of cultural heritage?

What are the advantages of these technologies?

As we have seen, XR technologies are increasingly being used by cultural institutions, but how? The first thing we believe is important to point out, is that digital tools have no intention to replace physical heritage. Pretending otherwise would be absurd. Digital tools, and especially XR technologies, offer a new relation to cultural heritage. In order to understand the nature of these relations, and to discern the main strengths of XR technologies, we will divide them into three categories of experiences. The first category will present the experiences which propose a recontextualization of cultural objects and monuments, or provide more information on them. The second category will present the experiences which address the specific problem of accessing heritage, physically or symbolically. Lastly, the third category will present experiences which open the way to new types of encounters with heritage, for example based more on emotion and imagination rather than cognition and intellect. Of course, we will see that these categories often intertwine. 

XR experiences which re-contextualize heritage

The first goal of these experiences is to provide heritage with context, which can mean several things. It can be about restoring the context of fabrication of the object, the context of archeological discovery, context of use etc. It can also mean the real-time display of additional information about the object, or the restitution of a former state. 

In augmented reality, we can present the augmented “visioguide” of Nimes arena. This application was created in 2011 in partnership with Art Graphique et Patrimoine, and it enables the visitor to follow a course organized around 18 points of interests. Each point is provided with digital elements such as slideshows, audio commentaries or videos. The application also offers a 3D reconstitution of the arena in the 2nd and 17th century.

More recently, in 2017, the Center for National Heritage Monuments, partners of Opuscope since 2016, used Minsar to create an experience in the “Salle des Preuses” of the castle of Pierrefonds. In this room, they disseminated digital elements such as cartels, audio commentaries, and images of Napoleon the 3rd’s armor collection, which is now kept in the Musée des Invalides. The goal of this experience was, in this regard, to provide visitors with new key elements to interact with this room, and understand its role under Napoleon the 3rd’s rule.

In virtual reality, and especially concerning the idea of restituting a context around a cultural object, we must consider the recent creation of Emissive studio, Mona Lisa: Beyond Glass. This experience was created for the exhibition event about Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre Museum. It offers the visitor the possibility to intimately “meet” Mona Lisa, as a human being and not only as a model. The visitor is provided with information about the creation of the painting, the history of its materiality (for example the alteration it sustained under François the 1st’s care), and also about the famous sfumato technique. 

Mona Lisa: Beyond Glass is also a very good example of an experience intertwining the different categories we mentioned earlier. Indeed, although the first part of the experience is representative of XR technologies recontextualizing heritage, the last part invites the visitor to fly above a reinterpretation of Mona Lisa’s background landscape. In this regard, that last part is well anchored in the third category, because it unleashes a new type of approach centered upon imagination. 

XR experiences which facilitate access to heritage

Some places or cultural objects are difficult to access. Sometimes, the difficulty of access is physical: disability, conservation issues which lead to the closing of an archeological site, or very high places in a monument. In these cases, XR technologies are a great solution to provide access. The virtual visit of Strasbourg cathedral, which we evoked earlier, is very representative of this because it offers visitors the opportunity to access parts of the cathedral that would be absolutely inaccessible physically. In another regard, one can think of the recent virtual visit of Versailles castle created by Google (2019), entitled “Versailles VR : the castle is yours”. This experience too is at the crossroads of two different categories. On the one hand, it belongs to the first category because it does provide a lot of additional information on furniture and paintings along the visit. On the other hand, it does also belong to the second category because the goal here is really to provide access to the castle: whether it is to avoid the crowd during the visit, or simply because the person cannot physically go to the castle, they can simply visit it from their own living room. The visit itself covers 24 rooms and 36 000 square meters (Le Denn, 2019), including the king and queen’s apartments, the royal opera or the chapel. 

Another example we could evoke is Scan Pyramids. This application is actually the result of an international research project around Kheops pyramid, and particularly the pharaoh’s mummy. Scan Pyramids is currently being presented in the City of architecture and heritage in Paris, and it consists of a collective virtual reality experience which enables the visitors to explore the pyramid, with a guide. Like Versailles, Scan Pyramids aims at giving access to cultural heritage, but unlike Versailles, it offers a unique experience which would be impossible to live in real life. Indeed, the visit gives access to parts of the pyramid that are normally closed to the public.

These virtual visits of Strasbourg Cathedral, Kheops pyramids, and Versailles, address a problem of physical accessibility. It can also be symbolic: an object difficult to watch or understand behind the display case, which creates a physical as well as a symbolic barrier, a distance between the visitor and the object. The Museum of National Archeology, partner of Minsar since 2016, tried to address this particular problem. In June 2019, they used Minsar to create Minsarcheo, an experience in which the visitors were invited to observe digital copies of the actual objects in the display cases. The digital copies were disseminated through the room, and the visitors could turn around and observe them very closely. One of the goals of this experience was to take the visitor beyond the display case and create a new proximity between the public and the objects. The second goal was to encourage the visitor to play and find the original objects in the display cases. 

XR experiences which open to a new relation to cultural heritage

The third and last category of experiences proposes to “live” cultural heritage rather than simply “know” it. King Tut VR, which we evoked earlier and which turns the visitor into an archeologist which rediscovers Tutankhamun’s tomb,  falls within that category. Most of the time, these experiences tend to rely more on imagination and subjective reinterpretation, but they are also generally assumed and communicated as such, in order not to confuse the public. In augmented reality, we can think of the exhibition “Stories Behind the Paintings” (2011) at the National Museum of Krakow. In this exhibition, the museum resorted to augmented reality to give life to the characters of the paintings, and “strengthen the interest of young and less young people in exhibited paintings” (Rahmoun, 2014). Although we can also see in this experience an example of recontextualization, it does rely on a reinterpretation of the paintings characters through actors and specific stagings. 

In virtual reality, the examples are more numerous, because of this technology’s inherent capacity to transcend matter and create entire universes. As we wrote earlier, the last part of Mona Lisa: Beyond Glass falls clearly within that perspective of giving live to heritage through imagination. Indeed, in this part, the visitor is invited to ride on one of Da Vinci’s inventions to fly over a 3D reinterpretation of Mona Lisa’s background. This kind of experience is particularly interesting, because it allows for questioning the sole legitimacy of a relation to heritage only based on knowledge and intellect. Indeed, most cultural institutions today tend to favor a more objective, cognitive approach of heritage (Serain, 2019). Still, these more subjective experiences makes one wonder whether it is possible to access heritage through other channels, such as emotion, art or senses. Let’s elaborate further on this notion of subjective approach. 

Between art and science: XR technologies as media for artistic expression

The encounter between imagination and history

In 2018, Innerspace studio released their new virtual reality experience. Entitled “The Unfinished”, this experience puts the user in a curator’s shoes in a museum, on the eve of an important exhibition about Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. The entire experience is based on the true love and passionate story between the two artists, but the whole tone of the experience is oniric, poetic and lyrical. Parts of the story are told by dancing characters which represent Claudel and Rodin, and of course other parts are reinterpreted or not completely accurate. Still, it conveys quite a true feeling about a love story that was passionate but somewhat violent, with a lot of psychological turmoil and hurt. In this regard, the story told might not be entirely historically accurate, but there might be another kind of truth, more related to feelings and impact than actual fact. Virtual reality is an excellent tool for this kind of engagement with cultural heritage: it has a huge emotional potential. Not only can it provide for a scientifically, cognitively enhanced experience (with the “augmented visits” we talked about earlier), it can also provide for other types of approaches, some of them more emotional or artistic, which are approaches as legitimate as the traditional, historically-centered ones. However, there again it is important to let the public know what kind of experience they are living (Jusseaux, 2018). 

The work of art as artistic medium

The emotional potential of XR technologies also implies a strong artistic potential. “The Unfinished” is an experience intertwining history and imagination. It is possible to find experiences which go even further by creating completely artistic experiences without any apparent link to history. This is the case for the application made by Pietro Alberti at the Lalande Hotel of Bordeaux in 2018. In that VR experience, the artist proposed a reinterpretation of one of the rooms. He plays with shadows and lights to alienate the shape of the objects, the objects themselves become animated and grow or move in space, or he creates mirror effects that come and distort the perception we have of the room, almost leading to a certain abstraction. The artistic purpose here is clear: it is an experience that aims to question the perception of the room and its objects, and reinterpret that perception in order to provide the visitor with a sensitive, artistic experience within which they find themselves at the center (Jusseaux, 2018). 

Through this article, we have shown how XR technologies offer limitless possibilities in terms of mediation of cultural heritage. They offer a large panel of options to adapt the specific mediation goals of cultural institutions. Of course, these goals will be at the heart of every digital mediation: using digital tools without an actual goal or reflexion is not very interesting, and can be disappointing for the public. However, we have seen that with a proper methodology, these experiences represent a highly engaging potential for engagement with heritage. In this regard, more and more cultural institutions try to use them, as the examples in this article demonstrate. However, they are still confronted with one final but considerable barrier: the technical complexity inherent to the creation and distribution of these experiences. Minsar specifically addresses that particular problem. By providing cultural institutions with the means to create and share simple and engaging experiences themselves, it creates the first link between XR technologies and users, opening the way to immersive creation. 


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