Virtual museum tours: Time for an upgrade?

Kunstmuseum Basel, lobby, virtual tourSpinning off last week’s discussion of catalogs in the age of digital production, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities (and limitations) of visiting shows online. So I spent some time clicking on the virtual-tour links in Ian’s post from Beijing’s National Art Museum of China. (“360-degree scans of a 19th Century room here; a more contemporary room here.”) More locally to me, there are examples such as Zurich’s E. G. Bührle Collection, the Kunstmuseum Basel and Le Louvre. That’s a very random sampling. But of these four, I like the Buhrle’s best, if only because one can click on each image and get a full descriptive text, and then click again for a screen-size image.

Still, I think there’s a lot of untapped potential here. Because as with digital art, the standard by which we judge virtual tours is set less within the artworld than outside it – animated movies, console videogames, virtual worlds/MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), etc. My closest friend is writing her PhD dissertation on Second Life, and I used to do a lot of videogaming, so maybe I’m over-demanding. But these museum virtual tours would benefit greatly from being true walkthroughs (not just 360-degree views from fixed positions). Also the images often pixelize into near-abstraction as soon as you zoom in. And the viewing screens tend toward the tiny. (Yeah, yeah, I know, bandwidth issues. But museums could just offer users different bandwidth options, as do many streaming-video sites.) Now, I’m not a museums expert, so I’m betting that there are some best-practices examples out there and I’d love to see them. If you know of any, drop me a line ( and I’ll update this post with links to the best ones.

On a related note: A friend of mine was stunned to witness a major international curator sprinting through a huge retrospective in a few minutes with a video camera in hand. Sometime later that day, during an apparently dull conference, that curator was spotted “visiting the exhibition,” already downloaded onto on the de rigueur white MacBook. Maybe what’s needed here is a sort of MuTube, where people upload their walkthroughs of museum shows for those who can’t make it in person.

3 thoughts on “Virtual museum tours: Time for an upgrade?”

  1. Mystery man JL over at Modern Kicks posted on this last night. An excerpt from IM IN UR G4LLERIEZ, SEEIN UR 4RT, a post worth reading in full:

    it may be that [virtual museum tours] are an idea caught between two modes of online presentation: one is the bandwidth-intensive, high design (if generally a bit “low” in content) world of “animated movies, console videogames, virtual worlds/MMORPGs Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, etc.” while the other is the quick and dirty world of YouTube. Technological competence varies from institution to institution, but I can’t think of many that are at a point where the investment in and knowledge of high quality and dynamic graphics in web design and presentation can match the first model…Anyone can slap up some jpegs and have an online gallery, but rivaling the gaming/animation world on its own turf is another matter (a fact which says something in itself.)

    Which makes simpler modes of presentation, a la YouTube, more attractive… But the low-tech aspect can rankle as well. Did you ever think you’d be delighted to watch fuzzy, low-grade video clips about 4″ x 6″, that doing so would become a sensation? Me, neither, but here we are. I’ve been critical of complaints of low fidelity in new media formats in the past, and I still am… In this case, however, I think there is a legitimate concern. The rough quality of presentation runs the risk of diminishing the artwork, while the increased acceptance of the online medium especially among younger viewers can normalize it as an equivalent to the actual experience of the artwork. Certainly it’s hard to come to any other conclusion regarding the curator Marc tells of, who hurried filmed an exhibit only to “view” it later during a boring conference session, that he or she either had no actual interest in the show or was committing professional negligence.

  2. Jonathan Cooper of Australia’s Art Gallery of New South Wales emailed us this:

    We have a QuickTime VR clickable walkthrough of our annual exhibition of matriculation-level student art, ARTEXPRESS, and are planning to create similar virtual walkthroughs for our collection soon. Like the Bührle Collection our virtual walkthrough allows you to click an artwork to get more info and see a larger image of it. However on the Bührle website, the only way (that I could see) to continue your “tour” is to click the “Back” button and then try to find your original angle again, which can be rather disorienting. On ours, the QTVR runs in a small, separate window; when you click on an exhibit the info page for it opens in the MAIN window.

    Also, like the Bührle website, we have a clickable floorplan (on the main window when it first opens), that “teleports” you to a chosen viewing node. However, our walk-through also allows you to move WITHIN the space. The one downside to this is that there is currently no way to set which direction you are facing when a new viewing node opens. This means that you sometimes have the experience of moving forward but then facing back the way you came. I hope all this makes sense. :-)

    In ours, and other “virtual tours”, you are on your own, just like a casual, unguided visitor in a real museum space. That’s why I prefer to call it a “virtual walk-through” instead. Having said that, you might have noticed that we offer a 5-part audio-tour, basically just a series of MP3 files, created by the curator, that you can play while exploring the virtual exhibition.

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