Five Augmented Reality Experiences That Bring Museum Exhibits to Life

AR features allow visitors to explore historical spaces and artifacts in new ways

Story of the Forest
Interacting with the "Story of the Forest" exhibit at the National Museum of Singapore. Courtesy of teamLab

Imagine being surrounded by a world of ghosts, things that aren’t there unless you look hard enough, and in the right way. With augmented reality technology, that’s possible—and museums are using it to their advantage. With augmented reality, museums are superimposing ther virtual world right over what’s actually in front of you, bringing exhibits and artifacts to life in new ways.

These five spots are great examples of how augmented reality is enhancing the museum experience.

National Museum of Singapore, Singapore

Story of the Forest, Singapore
The "Story of the Forest" art installation. Choo Yut Shing

If you liked Pokémon Go, head to the National Museum of Singapore for a similar experience called Story of the Forest. The exhibit is housed in the museum’s glass rotunda, with a giant mural of 69 drawings from The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings consisting of flora and fauna.. Visitors use an app, combined with the camera function on their phones, to hunt for and capture various plants and animals within the drawings. The app, like Pokémon Go, tells you what’s nearby and adds it to a photo collection once you’ve captured it. Afterwards, a different part of the app opens the photo and provides more information about the plant or animal captured. Users learn things like an animal’s habitat and diet, the rarity of the plant or animal found, and general information about the species.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.

Thirteen different skeletons on display in the “Bone Hall” come to life in the “Skin and Bones” mobile app through the advanced technologies of 3-D Augmented Reality and 3-D tracking. On Jan. 13, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History released the free app, which is available for download in the App Store. Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution
The app transform a mandrill skeleton into a lifelike primate. Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Hold your phone over this bird skeleton, and see a hungry Anhinga come to life and hunt for prey. Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian’s oldest museum hall is officially enhanced with new technology in the Skin & Bones exhibit. The Bone Hall (an anatomy exhibit that opened in 1881 with Smithsonian’s first museum) still has many of the original skeletons, but now guests can use an app to overlay skin and movements onto the bones. In one part of the exhibit, a vampire bat flies away from its mount. In another, a sea cow grows flesh before your eyes. And in yet another spot, an anhinga demonstrates how it catches fish. Thirteen total enhancements can be found throughout the exhibit—and if you can’t make it to the museum in person, you can still download the app and images and try it from home.

Heroes and Legends, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Gemini 9 Space Capsule, Kennedy Space Center
Look through a special screen and a holograph of astronaut Gene Cernan hovers over the real Gemini 9 space capsule. Courtesy of Kennedy Space Center

At Heroes and Legends, augmented reality brings holograms of astronaut royalty to life. The entire exhibit is dedicated to the men and women at the heart of America’s space program when it was just beginning. Interactive pieces located throughout the building allow early astronauts and NASA legends to tell their stories: why they worked on the program, what the space experience was like and what it meant to them. But one of the crown jewels is a hologram of Gene Cernan, an astronaut who tackled a terrifying spacewalk outside the Gemini 9 capsule. Cernan's spacewalk, the second in human history, almost ended in disaster when a malfunction in his spacesuit caused it to overheat, fogging his visor, and leaving him virtual blind as he spun uncontrollably. Accompanied by voice-overs from Cernan and his commander Tom Stafford, visitors can look through a screen to see a hologram of Cernan superimposed over the actual historical space capsule, as he struggles to get back inside during what he calls “the spacewalk from hell.”

Jinsha Site Museum, Chengdu, China

Augmented and virtual reality help bring a museum in China to life

More than 3,000 years ago, an ancient civilization known as Shu lived in Chengdu in China. Shu people would gather in Jinsha, where the Jinsha Site Museum is today, to pray and offer sacrifices to their gods. In 2001, archaeologists in China unearthed the site, and along with it found more than 5,000 gold, jade and ivory artifacts. Visitors to Jinsha now can use an app to explore these relics, see how they look in 3D, and learn more about what they were used for. Two particularly important examples on display are a gold mask that appears to float up and spin in front of the visitor’s face, and a gold foil totem with images of the sun and immortal birds.

England’s Historic Cities, England

England's Historic Cities: Bath

Outside the walled museum scene, a new app called England’s Historic Cities uses augmented reality for tourists to interact with heritage sites across the country. There are 12 in total spread across England, from Durham Cathedral and Hadrian’s Wall in the north to the Roman Baths and Salisbury Cathedral in the south. At each location, famous historical figures serve as your virtual guides and information is superimposed on walls and over artifacts. For example, at Chester’s Roman Amphitheatre, centurion Marcus Aurelius Nepos tells about England’s bloody combat history at the spot. And at Statford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare leads visitors through a behind-the-scenes history of his life in his family home.

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