Paris, its congress Museum Connections and many more experiences

In January 2020 the nomadic blog made its first stop in Paris and in this post we talk about interesting cases presented at the Museum Connections Congress held in Paris. Topics included virtual reality in the museums of the French capital and the mobile application that helps over two million Parisians navigate through the city during periods of strikes and demonstrations.

In addition to the congress, on my must-see list were the Atelier des Lumieres digital museum, about which I have written several times, and the virtual reality painting of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. To my surprise, the trip went very differently than expected. Atelier des Lumières was changing exhibitions and closed for visits, and the tickets to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in the Louvre, with a virtual reality room, were already sold completely throughout the month. At first, I felt very disappointed but then it turned out that these circumstances opened new opportunities for me. I was lucky to interview Fabien Barati, CEO of the company Emissive, who developed the Mona Lisa VR, “Mona Lisa: Behind the glass” (we will talk about all the details of this project in the next post) and I visited the other museums with VR.

Paris welcomed me with practically empty streets and with important underground stations closed. Strikes and the social movement caused constant problems with train and subway schedules. How do the locals orient themselves and get around in this extreme situation? The answer is that thanks to a mobile application, RATP notifies them about all train delays and new schedules in real time. The information is constantly updated. I installed it and, although it was only available in French, I learned quite quickly how to use it. That application accompanied me everywhere. Apart from accurate calculations of the schedules, this technological wonder counted my calories spent and CO2 levels.

It was the first time I had visited Museum Connections. It is not a scientific congress, but rather a meeting place for experts from the most diverse fields of museum activity. Most of the exhibition pavilion was occupied by the Museum Shop area with retail outlets and sales of promotional and advertising items. The second most important was Museum Tech: there was equipment, technologies and innovations, and technologies were presented by 30 producers, from mobile applications, to virtual reality and digital holograms. Most of the companies were from France.

The interventions took place in a room called Inspiration Room. The sections of the different themes were presented at a very intense pace. The round tables involved four to six experts, and each had 5 minutes to present their project. The remaining time was devoted to discussions. The total duration of a section was 45 minutes. There was no time to ask questions. Interestingly, this year the conferences were held in silence. It was only possible to listen to the interventions through headphones, which reduced the chances of commenting on what was heard or making sound and video recordings.

Discussion of the sections dedicated to technologies

The themes of the sections were carefully chosen and included the most important trends in the museum sector. I was very pleased to see that technologies enjoyed special attention and that they were discussed at several round tables, such as: Immersive experience – How it is shaking up the exhibition industry, The place of human mediation in VR?, Models for Financing and Operationg VR for Culture, What does it mean to produce inclusive mediation tools in 2020?, Beyond access: Engagement strategies for open data.

The congress was inaugurated with the section dedicated to the role of museums in the changing world and in Wellbeing.

Wellness practices that consist, for example, of spending a day in a museum, in a quiet environment, contemplating a single painting in all its details, and meditating or drawing or, perceiving art with the five senses. These strategies are in high demand today and of great public interest. Programs of this type have been launched in very diverse museums, such as the Pompidou “Art Detox”, “Exploring museum’s image” EMST in Athens and others.

Art Détox, Centre Pompidou. Source: Irina Grevtsova

I would like to highlight the intervention by Florence Schechter, the creator of the Vagina Museum, for the originality of her idea. The project, which was born on Twitter and developed in the pop-up format, has recently received official museum status in Britain. This case illustrates that today a museum can arise from anywhere and with any label. The Vagina Museum is a space to discuss the most diverse aspects of female anatomy, contraceptives and issues that are sometimes embarrassing to talk about or that are not commonly addressed. This museum has no collection, but it has a message! To better understand how this museum is organized, I advise you to visit its website and get to know it.

After the lunch break, the new technologies section was opened with the theme of immersive experiences. The room was bursting at the seams. The invited experts represented museums, cultural organizations and private companies specialized in the film industry and festivals. I was surprised that the Atelier des Lumieres, the French landmark of immersive art, did not participate in the roundtable.

The projects presented in this section had very varied formats: 360 ° video projections on the walls of the Grand Palais building, the multimedia exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece, or the “Virtual Veronese” project of a virtual tour of the “La Consecration of St. Nicholas “. Likewise, projects carried out in shopping centers, a football media center and film festivals were also presented.

Different aspects of immersive exposure were addressed throughout the section, but what this exposure format means was not clearly defined. Is it a digital or analog experience? Video mapping with 360º projections, projected with displays or without displays? Virtual tours using VR glasses? This lack of a clear definition was reflected in the discussion. The speakers expressed opposing views on costs and the ecological impact of production. I agree with the words of Roei Amit, the director of the Technology Department of the Grand Palais RMN in Paris, when he said: “We can’t see from a distance because we are in the midst”.

The next section was dedicated to virtual reality. In the roundtable, the projects of the large French companies Emissive and Diversion cinema were presented, as well as the Center de Monuments Nationaux.

The company Emissive began designing the first cultural projects in 2012, when The Enemy was launched as a virtual tour for 20 people. The author is the journalist Karim Ben Khalifa. In the museum sector, without a doubt, the most relevant project is the virtual reality of the Mona Lisa painting created for the Louvre museum. Emissive has also designed a great Scan Pyramids VR cultural tour that takes place in the City of Architecture and Heritage in Paris. The walk takes place in a huge room, and glasses and backpacks with computers are needed, which allow you to move freely around the enclosure and feel like you are inside the Pyramid of Jufu. The tour is made by a life-sized guide. It is surprising that this virtual reality tour lasts 45 minutes, when a regular VR visit does not exceed 15.

ScanPyramids VR. Source: Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine

In the section on financing models, major issues for museums were addressed, such as what financing models can contribute to the implementation of technologies? According to Stephanie Targui, the National Museum of Natural History of France in Paris had to look for sponsors and collaborated with the Orange Foundation to install the virtual reality room, and in this way, the ticket prices allowed the project costs to be amortized over 2 years.

Another issue discussed was how to obtain joint financing for temporary exhibitions, such as in the case of the exhibition “Claude Monet, obsession with water lilies”, held at the Musée de l’Orangerie. To do this, the Musée d’Orsay collaborated with HTC.

The section under the name of “What does it mean to create inclusive interventions in the year 2020?” was dedicated to mobile guides. This industry is in a mature phase. What worries the experts in this sector are not so much the quantitative indices and the spectacular nature of the projects, but rather, the quality and comfort in the use of the technologies. All interventions placed special emphasis on how to make applications as inclusive and easy to use as possible.

Jean-Pierre Charbol, from the Australian Museum of Contemporary Art, spoke about new projects in the field of augmented reality (AR). He said that by giving up mobile applications and replying on the web browser, where it is possible to open the route directly without having to download the information on a mobile, access to it can be facilitated. He also spoke of the intuitive way of accessing information about objects which use augmented reality technology, just by focusing on them with the phone’s camera. The large-scale canvas exhibition created by artist Guan Wei was also interesting.

This section also addressed issues related to mobile tours for the public of all types. In France, the inclusivity of a product can be certified, thus obtaining the accreditation of Tourisme & Handicap. The roundtable discussed issues such as autonomy, levels of storytelling, evaluation and statistics, legalization of products, personalization of experiences, guidance and promotion and many others.

The theme of the next section was no less current. What to do with the billions of gigabytes of digitized cultural heritage? During the past decades, museums in Europe and around the world have been digitizing their pieces using open data programs. Having successfully completed this phase, new questions arise in the daily agenda. What to do now with the digitized collections? How to teach users to take advantage of this information?

The section moderator was Douglas McCarthy, representative of Europeana, the largest digital heritage platform in Europe. The experts discussed the new strategies and possibilities of using co-creation, co-production and co-working methods.

What struck me most was the T-shirt with the image of a painting displayed in a Slovak museum and its remix for public transport. Michal Cudrnak, from the National Gallery of Slovenia (Slovenska narodna galleria), chose these cases to demonstrate to the public the potential of working with the museum’s digital collections.

In this way, the issues that were discussed in this roundtable showed that the branch of digitalization of cultural heritage had reached its logical end: from the hands of professionals, cultural heritage had returned to the people.

VR in the Parisian musems

I spent my free time trying virtual reality in different Parisian museums. I was able to visit two of them: the Orsay Museum and the National Museum of Natural History.

The virtual tour of the Orsay Museum is called “From a Rail Station to a Museum: A 3D journey designed for the Musée d’Orsay” and is located in the main museum hall near the entrance, on either side of the main staircase. Admission is free and the tour itself is easily accessible which makes it very attractive to the public. In order to complete the tour the visitor must use the Timescope Machine, which is a pair of 3D glasses mounted on a 360º rotating platform. It was created by the company Timescope, which has installed 3D platforms in different cultural spaces in France, such as on the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

You can change the direction and height of the screen, which makes its use comfortable for people of all ages. The duration of the VR movie is about 5 minutes. The film is made from illustrations and tells the story of the Orsay building from its stage as a railway station at the beginning of the twentieth century, until the foundation of the museum in 1986. The advantages of this model of display device are the ease of use, accessibility and functionality. But it also has its weaknesses: the noise of the main hall and the weight of the helmet create some discomfort in its use, which prevents a full immersion the experience.

Timescope, the Musée d’Orsay. Source: Irina GrevtsovaThe virtual reality tour, located in the National Museum of Natural History, is based on a completely different visualization model. In 2017 the museum allocated a special space to install a virtual tour, which bears the name “The Virtual Reality Cabinet”, a play on the Cabinet of Curiosities. Unlike the Orsay Museum, this space is located on the second floor, just below the roof, and therefore it is not visible when entering. The space is equipped with special sound insulation and adapted for the implementation of virtual reality. The maximum number of visitors is 8 and it is only open to the public during certain hours. Admission costs 5 euros for both adults and children.

I arrived at the museum during lunchtime when the cabinet was closed, but I was able to walk around the museum. The museum turned out to be wonderful. I was fascinated, not only by the amazing collection of the most varied species of birds, animals and plants, but also by the scenery and the magical lighting of the general room that allowed you to experience the sunrises and sunsets of the African savannah. The LED bulbs changed the intensity of the light from the warm tones of the morning sunlight, to the cold tones of the dark. In the simulations of precipitation, the lightning bolts were accompanied by the sound effects of thunder and rain. The different cries of the animals achieved complete immersion in the world of nature suggested by the scenery.

The central hall of the National Museum of Natural History. Source: Irina GrevtsovaOn Saturday afternoon, in the virtual experience there were only three visitors including myself: two adults and one child. The staff in their poor English explained to me that two virtual tours were available: Journey to the heart of evolution and another about Virtual Arctic Exploration.

Without asking me about my preferences, they connected me to the virtual tour of the Arctic exploration, which is only available in French. They gave me two manual controllers, which later I intuitively understood, that one of them served to take photographs under the surface of the water and the other activated a laser beam pointer that allowed me to receive additional information about the highlighted marine mammals.

Cabinet de réalité virtuelle (the Cabinet of Virtual Reality), MNHN. Source: Irina Grevtsova

The script of the tour was broken down into three parts. The beginning and the end included sequences in which types of seals could be seen swimming around the viewer before and after the effects of climate change. In the intermediate part of the tour, a visit to an underwater laboratory was scheduled to explain the harmful affects of climate change and the future migration of mammals to the north of the planet.

The script had no movement or outcome. The idea of recreating museum pieces in virtual reality is interesting in itself, but unfortunately it is not sufficiently developed.

In summary and concluding, the Museum Connections congress and the cases analyzed allow us to affirm that technologies are increasingly present in the life of museums. Technological departments and cabinets for VR sessions are actively being created, the exclusive aspects of mobile guides are being improved, and new initiatives are being developed to give greater visibility to digital heritage and to engage audiences.

In the next post we will analyze in depth the virtual Mona Lisa of the Louvre. Do not miss it, it will be interesting.