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Embracing the Space: The Digital in Museums

30 Nov 2019
Natalie Chang

Embracing the Space: The Digital in Museums

Natalie Chang
DigiMuse Team, National Museum of Singapore

Museums are increasingly being redefined for a digital age. Whether we like it or not, technology has become another intangible space that we inhabit; tethered to mobile phones and other gadgets. Be that as it may, it has also enabled cultural institutions to explore new ways of engaging and inspiring their audiences.

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Visitors attempt to conserve a painting with the HoloLens as part of “Project Insight” by HelloHolo, presented as part of the DigiMuse open call in 2018.

On a global scale, there has been significant momentum in the uptake of digital technology in museums – from digital pens that transcribe a visitor’s museum experience, to ground-breaking assistive technology, to completely virtual museums. It was along this vein that the DigiMuse programme by the National Museum of Singapore was launched in 2017. With the aim of exploring digital arts and technology, we hoped that the programme would situate the museum as a vibrant playground for creative experimentation.

A visitor experiencing VR for the first time at the Virtual Reality Showcase held at the National Museum of Singapore in December 2017. 


Virtual Reality

When DigiMuse was first launched, Virtual Reality (VR) was not a new concept. Gaming applications had already embraced the “real-life” and immersive textures that VR lent to gameplay. Needless to say, shooting zombies didn’t quite fit into the museum’s strategy, and we wanted to explore the capabilities of VR outside of gaming.

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A young visitor trying “An Excavation Through Time” by iMMERSiVELY, presented as part of the DigiMuse open call in 2018.


What is Virtual Reality though? Well, imagine being able to transport yourself to an entirely new environment at the touch of a button, simply by placing a device on your head. Our first foray into VR was a festival showcasing 19 VR and 360-degree films and artworks by local and international artists. The event was overwhelmingly popular, possibly due to the appeal of a technology that wasn’t really accessible to a domestic audience at the time.

Following two successful exhibitions, visitors seemed open to, and indeed strongly encouraged, more digital projects within the museum. Through an open call, we wanted to see what was already out there, and also how technology could be employed more specifically to enhance museum experiences and create meaningful engagement with content.


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Left: Behind the scenes of “An Excavation Through Time” by iMMERSiVELY, presented as part of the DigiMuse open call in 2018. 
Right: Museum technicians and programmers take 360-degree photographs of the artefacts; the first 3D renderings of excavation tools; a 3D rendering of the headless horseman figurine to be included in VR. 

We received numerous proposals for the open call, and narrowed these down to ten projects. With VR as a focus, a project that stood out was a programme that allowed visitors to learn about and experience the process of an archaeological dig. Visitors got their (virtual) hands dirty, and discovered artefacts from the Temasek Period that had actually been excavated at Empress Place in 2015. To be sure we weren’t just presenting a VR “game”, we were firm in establishing the project’s intent and purpose beforehand – that is, to understand the importance of provenance through the various stages of excavation. The selection of artefacts from our permanent collection was even displayed next to their virtual renderings, providing context for the users.

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An AR artwork made with EyeJack, presented at the Digital Showcase at the National Museum of Singapore in January 2018. Augmented Reality 

With the advent of Pokémon Go, augmented reality (AR) seems to be everywhere these days. Unlike VR, AR experiences can be displayed through personal mobile devices or specialised equipment such as the Microsoft HoloLens. What it does is to overlay images/animations onto a user’s real-life field of vision, which are then viewed through a device. Through DigiMuse, we have experimented with various formats of AR, including digitally-animated artworks that come to life on your phone, virtual museum guides, and mixed-reality equipment. Although most of the projects were in their prototype stage, they gave us considerable insight into the possibilities of AR.

Conserving a painting in augmented reality with “Project Insight” by HelloHolo, presented as part of the DigiMuse open call in 2018.

The Microsoft HoloLens was already, at this time, being employed as a training tool in several industries such as aeronautics and healthcare. As a result of the open call, we received a proposal for a project exploring painting conservation using the HoloLens, that could also be employed as a training tool for conservators. Focusing on the Portrait of Sir Song Ong Siang by Julius Wentscher, “Project Insight” enabled viewers to gain a hands-on experience of conservation through holographic overlays, without actually touching the painting at all. The combination of actual condition reports and scans allowed visitors to see the many layers of the restoration process, both literally and metaphorically.

“Sonic Womb” by Randy Chan, part of the DigiMuse open call and presented at DigiMuse Presents: Singapore Art Week 2019 at the National Museum of Singapore.

Art x Technology

While examples of technology in art have been peppered throughout our exhibitions over the years, these took centre stage at the Digital Showcase (Singapore Art Week) in January 2019. Five works were exhibited at the National Museum, three of which were awarded from the previous DigiMuse open call. With the onslaught of social media, art has unwittingly migrated into the murky area of undefinable “art”. Bolstered by technology, art has taken on various forms, new life and meaning. A prime example is “Face of the Day”, one of the artworks from the open call, which was presented not only in the NMS gallery but also through Instagram. Re-evaluating the genre of self-portraiture, “Face of the Day” demonstrates that anyone with a smartphone can effectively become an artist.

“Face of the Day” by Yang Derong, part of the DigiMuse open call and presented at DigiMuse Presents: Singapore Art Week 2019 at the National Museum of Singapore.

The Future of Museums?

David Bowie famously described the internet as being “exhilarating and terrifying” in an interview in 1999. That was 20 years ago, and the digital realm has continued to evolve and unfold more possibilities than ever before. While it is easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles of technology, it is also important to remember that technology should never be employed just for technology’s sake. To me, a museum’s traditional role as a collector and custodian of art and heritage should remain consistent, and technology should assist and enhance existing content. At the core of it, it is important that museums not lose track of their primary purpose, but embrace technology to engage with and shape future public discourse.


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Young visitors playing with “A Harbour of History” by 360VR Asia, presented as part of the DigiMuse open call in 2018.

About the Author
Natalie Chang has been part of the DigiMuse team since 2017. Since then, she has worked on various digital projects and exhibitions presented at the National Museum of Singapore.