Public Practices

Global North/UK/London

Abigail Barthee

Dissertation Title

‘VR or V-nah’, an Exploration of How Virtual Reality Has Been Deployed Within London Heritage Sites

Abigail  Barthee

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My thesis was a response to the need for research into the different ways that VR is being deployed within the heritage sector. This question of how virtual heritage is shaping the sector is an increasingly important part of the heritage experience design, particularly with the long-term effect of Coronavirus. My paper explored whether its use has a positive or negative effect on design, through three case studies: The Space Decent VR experience at the Science Museum, the Modigliani VR Experience at the Tate Modern, and the Lost Palace exhibit at Historic Royal Palaces. Each of these were successful exhibits that put VR to use in a different way and for different reasons. These case studies uncovered how VR impacted the key forms of communication and relationship between the institution and the visitor: including empathy, ‘edutainment’, and sound.

My research uncovered the ways in which VR has been used to re-write the balance between education and entertainment. Space Decent revealed how it harnesses the power of entertainment and fiction to inspire and educate their visitors. The position of empathy within the industry was examined through the Modigliani experience. Although it would seem that empathy is a strong emotion which can be harnessed to create a connection, its practical introduction sparks questions about whether its inclusion is worth the risk. Involving empathy within heritage display design is a risk as, regardless of the inclusion of VR technology, it increases the chance of miscommunication and fabrication. The Lost Palace experience’s audio VR exposed how the removal of digital visuals does not remove heritage’s proclivity to miscommunication or desire for showmanship. However, it does suggest that audio VR could be used as an important stepping stone for the permanent position of virtual heritage, particularly in the current climate.

As such, my thesis uncovered that VR has been deployed experimentally but that it has not always been successfully in meeting the aims of the heritage site. The technology has proven to be a benefit to the industry as an inspiring and flexible form of communication. However, VR also magnifies the problems already plaguing heritage, such as miscommunication and fabrication. While it seems that the root of the problem is with heritage rather than VR, the technology does not make it easier to combat it.