Museums are wonderful institutions and treasures to society with a serious and important mission to preserve our history. What major city doesn’t boast at least one incredible museum that local communities and traveling visitors alike can enjoy and learn from?
Although significant as centers of culture and history, museums are a difficult business. For many museums, less than 27 percent of annual operating budgets are covered by revenue from ticket sales, with the great majority of the shortfall offset by endowments and donations. A museum is really only as strong as its Board of Trustees: generally, a group of wealthy, generous donors who believe in the mission of the museum and back it financially. Both in theory and practice, this is not a sustainable business model. Even the world-renowned Louvre, home to the “Mona Lisa”, arguably the most famous painting in history, announced a loss of $10 million in 2016.
Disrupting the traditionalists
When introduced to new technology, many people react with a mixture of fear and confusion, rather than excitement for the possibilities that the future may hold. Museums are in an even more difficult position: balancing the archiving and preservation of our history and remaining relevant to our society in the present and future, while being cognizant of major financial considerations. In the well-known book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Clayton M. Christensen, the author shares case study after case study of great companies that were unable to navigate technological advances to remain leaders of their respective industries. Companies like Blockbuster and Polaroid have fallen victim to this, while others have suffered greatly. Could museums end up becoming a future case study?
Fortunately, museums are innovating and embracing new technologies, namely, virtual reality (VR). It’s no coincidence that so many reputable establishments, such as MOCA Los Angeles, the British National Gallery and the Tate Modern have recently incorporated VR offerings to their repertoire. For one, visiting a museum lends itself perfectly to the VR treatment from a purely visual standpoint. Additionally, VR art experiences allow consumers the luxury of browsing great masterpieces at their own pace, without judgment from other patrons for not moving fast enough or picking up on each nuance of a brush stroke. Lastly, because traveling exhibitions are often scattered all throughout the world for only a finite amount of time, VR preservation makes them accessible to the masses and archives them in perpetuity.
While those reasons are obviously compelling enough for museums to keep producing VR content, one question remains: because most current VR art experiences are offered to consumers for free, how does that affect an already-dwindling bottom line? The short answer is that the added awareness will almost certainly help profits and open up new revenue streams. Greater exposure is almost never a negative thing, and as this use case for VR begins to gain steam, museums will be able to capitalize on it by charging for virtual tickets to interested consumers who are itching to take in the latest Picasso, Monet, Warhol or Lichtenstein exhibition.
Stepping into the VR space not only exposes museums to a largely untapped group of consumers, but also simplifies art appreciation for those consumers, thereby encouraging interest and eventual patronage. While not every museum has an app yet, many are hip to it and have created dedicated mobile destinations. For example, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg has a robust app for iOS and Android operating systems, and employs microtransactions to bolster revenues, offering exhibitions like The Winter Palace and Ancient Rome to aesthetes for $2.99 a piece. VR exhibitions can be presented in the same way, ensuring the profitability necessary to sustain continuous utilization of the tech.
Learning from the past
It wasn’t so long ago that NFL team owners were resistant to air games on live national television because they feared that would prevent fans from attending the actual games in person. Considering that the national television broadcast rights fees received by NFL teams today dwarf actual game day revenue, it’s safe to say that those particular NFL team owners were incorrect in their thinking. Further, we can ascertain that the medium of television was the perfect delivery method for sporting events, and is at least partially responsible for the proliferation of sports over the past few decades. Art and professional sports may be worlds apart, but the parallels are rather uncanny, and will hopefully help continue the growth of immersive technologies within museums and lead to much greater participation from visitors than ever before.
Jacob Koo is a lifelong entrepreneur, most recently founding and heading up VRt Ventures, a tech company archiving works of art in true VR.