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Facing the future: how museums are embracing new trends and technologies

The UAE’s museum offerings are maturing and modernising. January marked the opening of Etihad Museum in Dubai, which tells the story of the birth of the UAE through films, documents and interactive experiences. And preparations are well under way for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to open later this year, with plans for a gallery dedicated to younger visitors. Outside the UAE, too, museums are looking to engage – and sustain the interest of – the younger generation, while maintaining their primary purpose: to educate and inform.

From pop-up exhibitions and the use of virtual reality, to changing the way social-justice issues are addressed, these institutions are exploring new directions, away from the stereotype of stuffy halls and passive experiences. Here are some of the trends in the museum industry.

Virtual reality

In recent years, virtual reality, or VR, has gained mainstream popularity, thanks to the release of gadgets such as the Oculus Rift headset, Gear VR and HTC Vive SteamVR. On a more basic level, the introduction of Google Cardboard – essentially, a piece of very cleverly folded cardboard – allows any smartphone to be turned into a VR device. While video games are the most obvious use for these new products, museums have begun using VR to further the visitor experience. In some cases, this technology allows individuals to experience exhibitions from the comfort of their home – for free.

CardboardA visitor uses Google Cardboard with her smartphone at Berlin’s Museum of Nature history. AFP

“Ideally, a museum experience should encourage connection between a visitor and the museum itself, and virtual reality provides us with another avenue to forge those connections,” says Jennifer Morgan, senior project manager and exhibit developer at the National History Museum in Los Angeles.

The museum is currently showcasing theBlu, an underwater VR experience that allows visitors to take a six-minute plunge into three different ocean environments, which Morgan says provides “a different, exciting and immersive way to connect with the ocean”.

While Morgan hopes the use of VR in the exhibition will leave people inspired enough to take more of an interest in conserving marine life, she also sees the use of the technology in museums as an added opportunity for visitors.

“We’re creating points of access not only to our collections and story but also to new technology that visitors may not otherwise have experienced outside the museum.”

Likewise, the Whitney Museum of American Art, which moved to a new location in 2015, is currently showing Jordan Wolfson’s virtual-reality segment, Real Violence, as part of the Whitney Biennial 2017. Like theBlu, the exhibition offers visitors a new (and safe) way to explore the concept. When discussing the use of VR and how it affects the overall piece, curator Christopher Lew says in the biennial audio-guide playlist: “One of the things that really surprised me, in a sense, with this work by Jordan is that he’s using very cutting-edge technology, but he’s creating a work that is not necessarily about the technology. What he is tapping into is something that is deeply unsettling, deeply visceral, that is facilitated by virtual reality but is not just highlighting the excitement of the novelty of the technology.”

Creative spaces

In an ongoing attempt to engage younger people in hopes of maintaining audiences for years to come, new museums as well as those under renovation have embraced the importance of offering creative spaces for educational and communal events.

Currently, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA) is undergoing an extensive redesign, one that is set to be completed this summer and will include a brand-new education wing and the Commons engagement space.

“The Commons embraces how museums are shifting into the 21st century,” says Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the MCA.

“The pendulum has swung from the museum as a passive temple to the museum as an active space; from a treasure box to a toolbox. Today’s audiences are no longer looking for a cold ‘white cube’ museum experience. Instead, they crave warmer, shared experiences.”

Grynsztejn goes on to explain how MCS is embracing change. “I think people are hungry for civic dialogue in public spaces, and this is where the MCA can play a breakthrough role. We want to be a really meaningful public place that defines Chicago as a city that champions creativity in all its dimensions.”

The MCA is not alone in this. Several other museums have also realised the need to create a space that allows for informative and creative engagement with the communities they are a part of. When the new National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens opens its permanent collection in autumn this year, the Greek institution will also unveil specific spaces for educational programmes, for both adults and children. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is set to unveil what it has dubbed the “core project” in 2020, will include a new learning centre that is double the size of its current education space.

Pop-up exhibitions

From fashion and food to fitness and wellness, the pop-up concept has permeated a number of industries in recent years. It’s little surprise, then, that museums around the world have chosen to embark on this trend in an attempt to showcase exhibitions in different ways, while reaching new audiences and opening up dialogue about contemporary issues.

“Pop-up exhibitions give the museum the ability to react to current topics that concern us all in a faster time frame than normal exhibitions, and with a tighter focus,” says Alice Black, co-director of the Design Museum in London, which recently reopened in its £80 million (Dh376.8m) home in the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.

“We like to think that the Design Museum has its finger firmly on the pulse of important social issues – pop-up exhibitions are a great way to do just that.”

designAn artwork titled Crowd Sourced Wall at the Design Museum. AFP

The museum has taken the social issue of health and, in conjunction with health insurance company AXA PPP and the think tank 2020health, will present the Health Tech & You exhibition and awards pop-up concept, which will run from Wednesday to May 8. The exhibition will display innovations in health technology from around the world. These include an interactive platform to help tackle anxiety about forgetting people and places, and a range of clothes and accessories designed to help alleviate anxiety, stress and panic attacks.

Pop-ups also give exhibitions greater mobility and, consequently, the ability to reach wider audiences. In the United States, the Chasing Dreams pop-up exhibition, which launched in 2014, continues to tour the country. The long-standing installation looks at the role baseball has played among American minority communities over 200 years.

Social justice

In the past, museums have acted as a powerful reminder of the darker times in history. Museums are now creating exhibitions that focus on, and thus create a dialogue surrounding, injustices occurring around the world today.

“Galleries are good places for people to reflect on the world in different ways,” says Alessandro Vincentelli, curator of Exhibitions and Research at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England.

“I can only speak for the Baltic, but there is a level of ‘civic responsibility’ that we seek or aim to have. Raising awareness of real-­world issues is intrinsic to our work – both with artists and to exhibition-making. Though I’d say this isn’t a specific agenda, it arises from what artists choose to make work about.”

BalticThe Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in England is exhibiting Disappearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum, which tackles the journey by refugees across the Mediterranean Sea. Stuart Forster / REX / Shutterstock

The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, which was recently home to the powerful Refuge/e installation, is currently showcasing the Disappearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum exhibition. It looks at the journey taken by present-day migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean Sea.

“This is a project about ensuring that our ability to develop empathy for the plight or distress of others is not forgotten, that people are not forgotten,” says Vincentelli. “I would suggest visitors are interested when artists have something to say – and the refugee situation is one where that is very much the case – and are working to dispel or debunk certain myths.”

While the Baltic uses temporary exhibitions as a way to tackle contemporary issues, several museums that have opened in recent years have social justice as the overarching theme. Perhaps most notable among them is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington, DC last year. The institution looks at the life, history and culture of black America and stands as a reminder of the past – and present – struggle of this particular group of people.

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