Virtual reality at the British Museum: What is the value of virtual reality environments for learning by children and young people, schools, and families?

Juno Rae, British Museum, UK, Lizzie Edwards, The British Museum, England


This paper will concentrate on an exciting and increasingly emerging technology, virtual reality (VR), and detail our examinations of the value of virtual reality environments for learning by children and young people, schools, and families at the British Museum. As part of the digital learning programme at the Museum, the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) provides family, teen, and school visitors with drop-in and bookable activities. The SDDC recently incorporated VR technology into its programme for the first time in a two-day family event. The development of the event as well as critical learning from the project and future plans for the technology within the SDDCs digital learning programme will be discussed. The Virtual Reality Weekend held in the British Museum on August 8–9, 2015, was the first time VR devices had been used to engage families with British Museum collections. Visitors were able to explore a virtual reality Bronze Age site, where they saw three-dimensional scans of objects placed in their original setting. Participants were able to explore multiple interpretations of how the objects might have been used in the past across three digital platforms. As the British Museum was one of the first museums in the world to incorporate VR technology into its learning programme, this paper will contribute to sector learning as this emerging technology potentially becomes increasingly prevalent, offering some of our key learnings from the project, as well as highlighting the importance of working closely with internal departments and detailing the benefits of using open source digital assets. It will conclude with evaluation outcomes as well as the results of trials of the use of VR technology for learning purposes across our audience segments, including with teens and secondary school students.

Keywords: Virtual Reality, Bronze Age,

1. Introduction

In summer 2015, the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) held a Virtual Reality Weekend in the Museum’s Great Court, offering the visiting public a virtual reality (VR) world via Samsung Gear VR headsets, Samsung Galaxy tablets, and an immersive dome. In doing so, the British Museum became one of the first museums in the world to incorporate VR technology into a learning programme. This paper comes at an important time, as this emerging technology’s potential is increasingly being explored within the museum sector and will detail our examinations of the value of VR environments for learning by children and young people, schools, and families at the British Museum.

The SDDC provides a digital learning programme at the Museum, which offers family, teen, and school visitors with drop-in and bookable activities on weekdays and every weekend. Sessions use a variety of digital devices and software as tools to support participants in their learning, with a focus on encouraging audiences to explore, engage with, and respond to the collection. The SDDC incorporated VR technology into this programme for the first time with a weekend of activities on August 8–9, 2015.

This paper will begin with a brief background to virtual reality, both as a technology and in a museum context. The development of the Virtual Reality project at the British Museum will be detailed, followed by a description of the experience that was created and the weekend event for audiences. Summative evaluation from the event will be discussed, and follow-up trials that have been conducted since the project and future plans for the technology and experience will conclude the paper.

2. Background to virtual reality in a museum context

The ability of virtual reality to enable user immersion is not a new one, and examples exist from over two centuries ago. In the 1800s many artists created vast panoramic paintings: for example, American artist Benjamin West’s Death on the pale horse was painted in 1796, and later specialists generated Stereoscopic photographs (a technique that produces a three-dimensional effect on flat images by giving viewers the illusion of depth), both in part with the intention of allowing the artworks’ viewer to immerse themselves in the presented visual (Virtual Reality Society, 2015). The more recent, more widely recognised, digital format of virtual reality of a “user-computer interface that involves real-time simulation and interactions through multiple sensorial channels … [including] visual, auditory, tactile, smell and taste” (Burdea & Coiffet, 2003, p. 3), has been a development largely of the last thirty years but continues this centuries-old desire to experience an alternative reality.

In the past three decades, virtual reality has predominantly been a tool of the gaming industry, and development of user experiences for enabled hardware have largely been related to entertainment. The introduction of Sega’s Master System 3D glasses in the 1980s and Nintendo’s Virtual Boy headset in 1995 allowed users to play selected games in a low-resolution 3D environment, but a combination of low sales and poor user experience saw the initial excitement for the potential of virtual reality wane for a time (Workman, 2014). Over the past five years, as the quality of the hardware, related accessories, and software experiences has improved and the potential for application has increased, sectors outside of gaming have actively sought to incorporate the technology into their user offer.

Examples of new applications come from the tourism sector, which sees value in the potential to transport users from their present settings to any number of world locations. For instance, in spring 2015 the South African Tourism board offered visitors to selected bars in Manchester and London a “condensed … action-packed holiday, including abseiling down Cape Town’s Table Mountain and cage-diving with sharks, [within] a five-minute virtual reality experience” (Bold, 2015) to promote the country as a top holiday destination to participants. This use still links primarily to entertainment, but as Jason Kingsley (2015) writes for the Guardian newspaper, “[W]hy limit VR tourism to the present day? Further potential lies in time travel tourism.” Early attempts to explore this potential have been made by museums and galleries.

Many early adopters of virtual reality in the heritage sector have focussed on utilising the technology as a means to provide greater access provision, particularly to remote visitors, and as such a number of organisations have concentrated on providing “virtual tour” experiences. For example, the Courtauld Gallery, London worked with WoofbertVR to develop a VR app depicting a re-creation of its Wolfson room. This allowed Samsung Gear VR headset users the chance to explore impressionist and post-impressionist paintings at their leisure. Similarly, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London has worked with the Google Cultural Institute to create a virtual tour of its rooms for use with a smartphone and a Google Cardboard VR headset, initially as an outreach offer for young patients at King’s College Hospital, London who are unable to visit the galleries in person. Building on this, some institutions have also begun to experiment with utilising virtual reality to provide experiences that take collection objects out of their exhibitions or archive spaces and instead place them back into their original historical settings. In April 2015, at a one-day demo event developed with Chronicles VR, the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle offered visitors the opportunity to use Oculus Rift 3D headsets to explore a virtual Greek villa populated with fifteen artefacts from the museum’s pottery collection.

3. Developing the experience

The British Museum’s VR experience intended to contribute to these existing experiments with virtual reality technology in the cultural sector, by creating a VR experience that was suitable for a family audience and that presented 3D scans of Museum objects in their historic contexts. The British Museum’s collection spans the whole world and forty thousand years of history, presenting many options for historic periods to visualise.

The Bronze Age was selected as the historic period for a virtual environment for a number of reasons. First, creating a Bronze Age environment enabled the testing of the value of VR to enhance visitor understanding of a historic collection. As a distant past, where much of the evidence is archaeological, knowledge of the Bronze Age isn’t widespread. It was therefore easier to test the value that a VR experience added to building knowledge of this period. In addition, a virtual Bronze Age had the potential to benefit the specific audiences of the SDDC: schools and families. Teaching prehistory is a statutory requirement for schools as part of England’s National Curriculum, so a technology that helped younger visitors to learn about this subject via a formal or informal visit had greater potential benefit for this audience.

Developing a Bronze Age VR environment also enabled collaboration with an existing project being undertaken by the Museum’s digital department. The experience featured three British Museum objects from this period that were scanned and modeled by the MicroPasts project ( MicroPasts creates open data sources of scanned objects from the British Museum’s collections and crowd sources “photo-masking” to create 3D versions of them. At the time of developing the VR experience, the largest set of scanned objects was from the Museum’s Bronze Age collection. Neil Wilkin, curator of Bronze Age Europe at the British Museum, who is involved in the MicroPasts’ project and provided invaluable support for the development of the Bronze Age experience, said of the VR environment, “[T]his work has proved valuable in providing a range of different media with which to engage a public audience through objects that have otherwise been the preserve of the Bronze Age finds specialist” (Frieman & Wilkin, 2016, p. 19). Three objects scanned by the MicroPasts’ project were selected to feature in the VR experience: two from the British Museum’s collection and one that is undergoing the Treasure process. The objects from the Museum’s collection were a Bronze Sussex loop (Sketchfab, 2015a) and a large dirk from Beaune (Sketchfab, 2015b). The third object—the Woolaston Gold (Sketchfab, 2015c)—was found by a metal detectorist and has been registered by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Inspiration for the roundhouse context for the three objects came from a variety of sources. This included journal documents and site reports on Bronze Age settlement, dwelling and ritual practices (Ladle & Woodward, 2009), research conducted by staff at Flag Fen, and additional research documents and advice provided by Wilkin. This information, as well as a visit to a reconstructed roundhouse at Burren Island, was used by the development company, Soluis Heritage, to create a single visualized environment of a Bronze Age roundhouse, within a settlement of two additional houses. After agreement from all parties, this model was then rendered to three platforms: Samsung Gear VR headsets, Samsung Galaxy 10.1-inch tablets, and an immersive fulldome.

4. Virtual reality experience description

Each digital platform that presented the VR Bronze Age roundhouse offered a user experience that optimised the functionality of that device. Below, the user experience for the Samsung Gear VR headsets is described. However, the central model for each platform was the same.

When users first put on the Samsung Gear VR headsets, they are virtually transported to roughly 3500 B.C., to a rural landscape. The experience starts with the users “standing” in the open air, facing a Bronze Age roundhouse with an open door. To heighten the sense of immersion, the users’ visual sense of a living environment is supported aurally through a soundscape of birds tweeting and a crackling nearby fire.

In order for users to “walk” around the landscape, the navigation was designed to be as intuitive and non-invasive as possible. Users navigate within the experience by using a touchpad on the right-hand side of their Gear VR headsets or by moving their heads to look around. Using the built-in touchpad of the Gear VR for navigation was favoured over using a games controller, because this enhanced the immersion of the environment. It also allowed for a smoother, and therefore more realistic, experience. When users enter the roundhouse, they are presented with an interior intended to demonstrate the domestic experience of the middle Bronze Age. The sense is of a space in use. It is cosy and lived in, and it feels as if the inhabitants could come back at any time. An important feature of the roundhouse was that it is a clean living space. As Wilkin described, “[T]here’s no reason to think people would have liked to live among heaps of rubbish 4000 years ago any more than we do” (Kennedy, 2015).

The three scanned Bronze Age objects glow slightly blue within the roundhouse to distinguish them from the other domestic objects that are included, and to give a visual clue to users that these objects can be interacted with. As part of the experience, a reticle blue dot tracks where users are looking, which helps to stabilise the experience for users and allows them to “select” the object when they encounter it by tapping the touchpad. The users are then presented with a closer view of the objects they have selected, which they can rotate. Whilst a user is looking at the object, a twenty-second audio plays of Wilkin describing it. The restriction on time limited the content that could be included. Edwards and Wilkin worked collaboratively through many versions to ensure that the messages that were communicated were the most engaging and significant, and that they were relayed in a manner that was suitable for a family audience.

The experience is non-linear, with no beginning and end point, so users can interact with the objects many times and explore the landscape freely. When users are outside of the roundhouse, the limits of the landscape are marked by a woven fence, with a wooded landscape in the distance.

5. Weekend event

The SDDC’s virtual reality experience was first delivered at the British Museum over the weekend of August 8–9, 2015. During this weekend, the VR Bronze Age roundhouse was presented across three platforms: Samsung Gear VR headsets, Samsung Galaxy 10.1-inch tablets, and in an immersive fulldome. The fulldome and tablets made the experience accessible to the SDDC’s family visitors, who were able to explore the virtual world as a group, whilst the Samsung Gear VR headsets allowed for an individual encounter. The scale of the weekend’s activities, which welcomed over 1,200 visitors, enabled the SDDC team to hone effective delivery techniques directly with the family visitors, providing a set of transferable learnings for facilitating similar activities at other museums and galleries.

Plans for explaining the virtual reality experience to visitors were developed prior to the VR weekend; they were tested and honed directly with our audience over the weekend. Effective explanation is important for VR headsets because they are a very new technology; few visitors had previous experience using them. Moreover, examples from other museums of using an instructional video were not practical for this activity, which was delivered in the British Museum’s Great Court. Instead, a model of 1-1 support for visitors by the team of Samsung family facilitators was trialed. In the model of 1-1 support, each facilitator administered one Gear VR headset. For each new visitor, the facilitator briefly described the experience and how to navigate through the VR landscape. The facilitator also found out the visitor’s name and then allowed her or him to put on the headset and attached earphones. Although the user experience was designed to last approximately five minutes, its non-linear nature meant that users didn’t reach a specific end point. Finding out the visitors’ names before they entered the virtual world was a modification to facilitation that was developed over the weekend. This was an important adjustment to facilitation, because many visitors became so immersed in the experience that they were unresponsive to facilitators attempting to communicate with them. Using a visitor’s name proved an important facilitation tool to address this difficulty.

In addition, the Virtual Reality Weekend demonstrated the importance of having an additional facilitator in charge of “hot-swaps.” On each day of the weekend, five headsets were available for the public to use between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. With constant use, the Samsung Note4 mobile phones retained battery for roughly three hours. To maintain a constant offer of five headsets throughout the day, an additional “hot-swaps” facilitator was able to seamlessly swap in fully charged phones, which maintained a steady visitor flow for the activity. The Samsung Gear VR headsets proved incredibly robust and well withstood the heavy usage over the weekend.

To enhance visitors’ experience at the Virtual Reality Weekend, the VR experiences were supported by “analogue” activities. Visitors were invited to write or draw what they thought the three Museum objects encountered in the roundhouse were used for. They also had the opportunity to see a replica of the bronze Sussex loop (Sketchfab, 2015a) and a 3D printed version of the Beaune dirk (Sketchfab, 2015b). These activities left the visitor with the lasting impression that their own ideas about the function of objects from the past can be equally valid to those of museum curators, which was an important additional learning outcome of the weekend.

6. Evaluation

Evaluation was developed for and conducted over both days of the Virtual Reality Weekend to ascertain the value of VR environments for learning by families. As the pilot use of this technology for learning purposes within the British Museum, this evaluation provided a key opportunity to establish whether VR was of value before taking the headsets and tablet experience forward with SDDC audiences in any further trials. Evaluation was conducted in the form of a short feedback survey positioned at the various activity locations within the Great Court and via tally sheets completed by SDDC staff members, who collected visitor numbers and other demographic data. Over the course of the weekend, 351 visitors provided feedback on the virtual reality activities.

To begin the survey, visitors were simply asked to rate their enjoyment of the VR activity they had taken part in according to a four-point rating system, ranging from “Not good” to “Very good,” to which 80 percent of surveyed visitors responded that the activity was “Very good” or “Good.” The high rating level given by visitors is often reflected in their accompanying comments; for example, one visitor noted that it was “fun to walk around in 3D. Read a lot about VR—so interesting to try it. Very impressed!” while another thought “the total immersive experience with the headset was fantastic.”

Additional sections of the survey gave family visitors the opportunity to elaborate on the value of the weekend for them both in terms of enjoyment and educationally. When asked what they considered the best thing about the day had been, visitors highlighted their enjoyment of using virtual reality in a museum space. One visitor remarked that they had enjoyed “exploring a cutting edge technology and at the same time learning some history,” and another said that “the VR helped to feel like a more normal interaction than just seeing the items in display cases.” In response to the question “How did the VR technology help you to learn about the Bronze Age?” the response was overwhelming: visitors felt they had benefited educationally from the event. One family visitor stated that they “thought it was fantastic. The technology allowed me to see things that I wouldn’t have been able to see before especially the Wollaston gold and the second bracelet.” Another answered that “it made me feel as if I was actually there and gave me a sense of how things actually were in the Bronze Age,” while another participant responded that the activities had been a “fantastic, interactive way to learn, wanted to spend more time. It really helps visualize the height and depth of a Bronze Age village.”

On review, the evaluation from the Virtual Reality Weekend suggests a VR environment helped the family audience to understand the Bronze Age, a complex part of the British Museum’s collection, and that VR environments are of value to understanding our collection objects. Feedback and visitor demographics show that Samsung Gear VR headsets were a particular draw for teenagers and adults and that many visitors saw value in using the headsets alongside interacting with handling objects to learn about historical periods.

7. Trials within the SDDC core programme

As a result of the positive feedback received at the Virtual Reality Weekend event regarding the potential of virtual reality to be used for learning purposes, in autumn 2015 the SDDC undertook a trial period to test how the headsets and tablet VR experience could be integrated into the core SDDC programme. This section describes the content of those trials, the outcomes, and the impact this has had on the SDDC programme.

A trial period was set for September to December 2015, during which time the VR experience content and Samsung Gear VR headsets were to be tested within a number of family and teen sessions. The first trial session took place on October 24, 2015, with content developed for the Virtual Reality Weekend incorporated into a new weekend family session “Every drawing tells a story.” Visitors to this session were invited to develop their drawing skills using a range of creative software on Samsung Galaxy 10.1-inch tablets and Samsung Note4 phones, and family participants were offered the opportunity explore a variety of objects from the Museum’s handling collection and create drawings to take home or add to a collaborative collage. One of the objects provided within this session included the replica of the bronze Sussex loop (Sketchfab, 2015a) previously made available to audiences to explore at the Virtual Reality Weekend; in addition, VR content on tablets was available for families to explore. The intention was that families would learn about the Sussex loop and its context using the tablets and then use the provided digital tools to draw the replica object.

Another family trial took place on December 5, 2015, during an “Animate Celtic Craft” session. The focus of this session was to introduce family visitors to the idea that the Celts were famous for creating complicated woven patterns on jewellery and weapons, and to encourage families to work together to recreate these patterns with a variety of materials in order to make an animation showing their complexity. Accompanying this activity, Samsung Galaxy 10.1-inch tablets and a Samsung Gear VR headset (for participants aged 13+ to use) were provided to give family visitors background context on the lives of Bronze Age Celts, demonstrating the type of settlement that farmers would have lived in at that time. The objects show the craftsmanship that comes just before the Iron Age referenced within the session.

The VR content and devices were also trialled within the SDDC’s ‘Teens 3D scanning skills workshop” for fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds on November 22, 2015. In line with the SDDC teen programme—to provide sessions with a skills- and portfolio-building focus—this session offered teen participants an introductory workshop to learn a range of skills including how 3D scans are being used in museums, to try out using the Samsung Gear VR headsets, to learn some basic 3D scanning skills, and finally to make their own 3D scans of museum collection objects using basic scanning applications via Samsung Note 4 mobile phones.

A review period was set for January 2016, at which point the feedback from visitors and SDDC staff delivering activities from trials detailed above was studied. The reaction from visitors was extremely positive, and much of the feedback made direct reference to the incorporation of virtual reality. For instance one family visitor surveyed noted “the best thing about today … was getting to experience the 3D objects through VR,” while another mentioned “the best thing about today was … looking at 3D concept of roundhouse.” SDDC staff supervising the teen activities remarked on the positive impact the Samsung Gear VR headset in particular had on the session: “I started the activity using the Samsung Gear VR headset, after the general discussion about 3D scanning in the Museum. This gave teens immediately a tangible example of what we covered in the intro, and helped them gain confidence in making their own model.”

8. Conclusion

The Virtual Reality Weekend held in summer 2015 by the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Discovery Centre in the Museum’s Great Court provided a unique opportunity for the SDDC to make its first steps into the world of VR technology, assess the value of VR environments for learning by its audiences, and add to sector knowledge on this new potential area of digital learning. The virtual reality experience that was developed not only produced content intended to be of educational benefit to the visiting public, but also provided a chance for the SDDC to collaborate with MicroPasts, an existing project being undertaken by the Museum’s digital department. The Weekend, which was very popular both in terms of visitor numbers and responses to the activity, additionally allowed for action research to be undertaken to develop appropriate methods of facilitation for this new type of visitor engagement, which will inform future facilitation of this technology. Affirmative feedback received from visitors to the Weekend allowed for further trials with the SDDC audience. These have been met with equal enthusiasm and further confirm the positive impact virtual reality can have on learning about the Museum’s collection. Additional trials within the schools primary and secondary programme are planned in the future to assess how best to further integrate the technology across the SDDC programme. We remain extremely excited by the potential of VR environments to support learning by children and young people, schools, and families and look forward to continuing work to incorporate the technology appropriately into the SDDC programme.


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Cite as:
Rae, Juno and Lizzie Edwards. "Virtual reality at the British Museum: What is the value of virtual reality environments for learning by children and young people, schools, and families?." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 28, 2016. Consulted .