Four exhibitions of Van Gogh. Are all experiences immersive?

A high ticket price and the organization behind the exhibition of a famous museum is not always a guarantee that the digital exhibition will be immersive. Visitors purchase tickets expecting to live an experience that submerges them in the world of digital visual art, but to create an immersive experience, large scale projections or high-resolution digital images are not enough. The space must be adequately organized, rooms must be adequately equipped with the appropriate technology and the specific conditions necessary to experience the immersion must be created. If these requirements are not met, the public will be disappointed.

Recently, my acquaintance shared with me her impressions of the immersive exhibition Meet Vincent Van Gogh which has taken place in Barcelona since March. “I can’t describe it, but there is something that doesn’t work in this exhibition…I wasn’t impressed.”

I personally visited the exhibition and was also disappointed. I wanted to understand why and began to search for information on precedents. It turns out that there are four immersive exhibitions on the art of Van Gogh being presented simultaneously throughout Europe. Digital exhibitions are easy to “clone”, and for this reason, the number is rising significantly. The Van Gogh exhibitions confirm this fact since they do not only travel through European cities like Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Malaga or Barcelona, but they are also taking place in other parts of the world, such as China and Korea, for example.

Despite the common theme – interpreting the great works of Van Gogh through digital technology, – each of the four existing versions uses its own exhibitive language, which does not always go together with the immersion.

What is immersion in exhibition design?

The word immersion means to be completely enveloped in a distinct environment, in a different substance. With virtual reality glasses, immersion is described as a state of consciousness, often artificial, in which the connection between the subject and the real world is reduced or completely lost.

In exhibition design, immersion is achieving when the user is completely involved in the virtual reality environment, created through video projections.

The immersive room of the MORI Building of Digital Art Museum

Immersion is a very important attribute in the revitalization of digital experiences. Without immersion, projected videos in exhibition rooms are perceived as a conventional film at the cinema.

Immersion creates the sensation of involvement and allows the visitor to feel like they make up a part of what is happening. Immersion provokes emotions and stimulates visual and auditory sensations, and if designed, olfactory, tactile and kinesthetic as well. The greater the immersion of an exhibition, the greater is the emotional impact.

Parameters that characterize immersive exhibitions

1. Virtual Reality Projections

In immersive exhibitions videos that are projected are produced by IT programs that generate virtual reality created by creatives, artists and contemporary musicians. The virtual world is created artificially and digitally on a computer according to a fictitious script. The images are recorded, animated and reproduced through projections. The animated video evokes emotions and serves as a catalyst for creativity.

2. Devices for reproducing content

To create an immersive experience through projections, these must be large format and cover large areas of walls, ceiling and floors, therefore requiring a large number of projectors. In a cubic space, a minimum of 5 projectors is needed: four for each of the walls, and a fifth to project on either the ceiling or floor. If the configuration of the space is more complex, the flooring irregular or if there are partitions to divide the space, evidently more projectors would be necessary. The objective is to completely envelop the space with a virtual environment, completely covering the field of vision of a person. Total immersion is achieved with an angle of vision of 270º. Examples of this are the immersive room of Ullastret, which covers the 270º with projections or 360º using virtual glasses, and also the rooms of the exhibition MORI in Tokyo which, having all of the walls covered with large format projections reaches 360º.

3. Architecture of the building or container and set design.

To submerge the visitor, not only the what and how, to project are important, but also the where. The character of the building, the configuration of the rooms, the height of the ceilings and the depth of the space play important roles. Spacious buildings with high ceilings have interesting characteristics for creating immersive video projections. Exhibitions of this type often taken place in old factories or special tents. Other important parameters to consider are the ambient sound, the use of mirrors, temperature control, humidity, the use of scents, smoke, fog, etc.

 4. Emotional Connectivity

The last parameter that is not related with the physical characteristics of the exhibition space, nor with the technology, is the emotional connectivity. Immersion is activated when the feelings of the visitor are involved, creating a connection or emotional link.

As follows, I invite you to verify whether these four parameters are met in the four Van Gogh exhibitions. For the analysis of the first three exhibitions, I have used the commercial videos in YouTube and the analysis of the Barcelona exhibition I have completed with my own resources.

Paris, L’Atelier des Lumieres. The Van Gogh, Starry Night exhibition

This is a clear example of an immersive experience. The spacious halls, the high ceilings of the old factory, the projected canvases in large format bathe the walls and floors in color. The virtual reality videos recorded by the authors, Gianfrancu Lanuzzi, Renato Gatto and Massimiliano Siccardi are animated and based on the paintings of the artist. The projections are stretched over all of the walls, mixing with each other and losing their initial shape, creating in this way one single immersive space, enveloping the visitor and placing him or her within what is happening.

 Brussels, Palais de la Bourse. The Van Gogh – Digital Art Experience exhibition

As in the previous example, the exhibition takes place in an old factory building. It is also an immersive experience since it meets all of the mentioned conditions. The world in which the visitor is submerged is virtual and is created by contemporary artists.

Madrid and Malaga. The Van Gogh alive exhibition

In this example, the large scale and the synchronization of the video projections gives the impression that it is in fact an immersive exhibition. However, the effect of total immersion is not achieved, since the projections on the walls and the floor are not synchronized. The content is less creative and dynamic than in the first two examples. There is an attempt to animate the images even though the final result does not give the impression that the videos have a defined script.

Barcelona, The Meet Vincent Van Gogh exhibition

The Barcelona exhibition is the only that is organized by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which is known not only for its outstanding collection, but above all, for its technological advances applied to the museum projects. For this reason, the visit to this exhibition creates great expectations.


The Barcelona exhibition is the only that is organized by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which is known not only for its outstanding collection, but above all, for its technological advances applied to the museum projects. For this reason, the visit to this exhibition creates great expectations.

The exhibition is rich in didactic resources and interactive modules designed for visitors of different ages. It also provides several rooms decorated with theatrical scenography, has a life-sized reproduction of the bedroom of the Yellow House, reproductions of tactile paintings and didactic tables with drawing tools. A large part of the resources come from the permanent exhibition of the Amsterdam museum.

The script of the audioguide is also well done. The storytelling is entertaining thanks to the use of ambient sounds and the voices of the characters. In the narration, unknown facts about the life of the artist which are discovered through primary sources stand out. The intuitive format of the guide is also very convenient. The audio is automatically played in function of the location of the visitor.

In reference to the immersive experience, this exhibition does not have it. Often the first room is described as one. In reality, the audiovisual is formed by fragments of video, photos and animated reproductions whose projection over a triptych of three screen open to 135º, evidently does not cover the entire field of vision. The three projectors in the hall move around and repeat images constantly, which denotes a lack of graphic information. The visualization is made from a fixed point, sitting or standing, making the visitor feel like an observer, reducing the sensation of immersion.

In the rest of the rooms, the projections are on a screen and have only one projector, which does not result in an immersive experience. The content of the projections incorporates the letters written by the artist, photographs and interesting documents, but the sensation is that of observing projections from the outside without feeling an emotional connection.

The fact that the spaces are not very large, the ceilings are low, that the projections are to be observed, the short duration of the audioguides, and above all, the lack of immersion create a feeling of disappointment in response to the expectations generated by the publicity and the high cost of admission.

In closing…

When the advertising of immersive exhibitions is ubiquitous, it is easy to feel tempted and pulled in to visiting, without knowing what is in store. However, not everything that is publicized on advertisement poster is true.

Of course, it is not easy to understand the latest technological innovations, especially for the typical visitor. But fortunately, we all have innate detectors that help us, our emotions. Immersion does not have to be understood, but rather lived and felt.