A missed opportunity to bring a quirky museum to life with virtual reality

LONDON — The Sir John Soane Museum is a true museum oddity. Occupying a townhouse in the busy law firm district of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn, central London, it is the former home of neoclassical architect John Soane, best known for designing elements of the Bank of England. Soane used inventive and unusual architectural tricks, such as strategic mirrors to direct dim natural light, and moveable walls to maximize the spatial limitations of the house, which he filled with an extensive collection of contemporary paintings and paintings. eclectic sculptures ranging from antiquities to sarcophagi, making for a quite unusual viewing experience. Managing the small museum presents a challenge; only 90 people are allowed inside at a time due to space constraints and there is no ticket office except for a small marquee in its small courtyard. These conditions are stipulated by an Act of Parliament of 1833 stipulating that the collection should be kept as it was at the time of Soane. Making this stuffy and archaic personal collection of an English eccentric accessible and appealing to a wide international audience has to be no small feat.

It therefore seems natural to mount an exhibition using the medium of virtual reality, which defies such physical restrictions. The multidisciplinary design practice Space Popular is led by Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Helberg, who present here Portal galleries, two films experienced through a VR headset in temporary exhibitions throughout the house. The portals are an inspired choice for a museum that stepping into is almost like stepping into another world, with its narrow passageways and low-ceilinged alcoves, and the press release sets out to demonstrate the intellectual connection: “Visitors will be guided through the magic and mechanics of virtual travel in an exhibit that bridges technologies from Soane’s time to our own. Linking the physical experience with the virtual, the portals”[respond] to the virtuality of “the museum”[granting] entering another environment.

View of the facility including the RV facility labeled carpet

It would have been fantastic if this stated relationship continued in the VR movies themselves, but from their content, one could be forgiven for concluding that Lesmes and Helberg never set foot in the museum. The press release says the downstairs VR experience features “a series of portals through environments derived from Soane’s spaces”, but the video shows a large open black space centered on a podium, around which float various objects, such as the monolith from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey or the VHS tape of Videodrome. On the floor is a semi-circular rug emblazoned with words such as “object”, “hole” and “water”. Floating texts ask things like “do we already travel great distances through our screens?” before images of doors or other openings appear, intercut with stills from other popular films like Disney’s turn red. Little here is obviously “derived from Soane spaces” in any visual or even obviously thematic sense.

Similarly, the second VR experience comes with an oval table displaying various circles that contain “types” of portals seen in popular movies. The accompanying VR film explores the history of the portal in storytelling since 1950, from early cartoons in which Road Runner holds a black hole “portal” aloft to 1980s horror movies like Fly, or the Harry Potter series. The plethora of films on display seems incongruous in the historical setting of the Soane Museum. Nothing is inherently wrong with such a presentation; indeed, children enjoying the show during my visit were clearly captivated, and engaging young audiences is hardly anything to complain about. For a younger audience, the nuances, intricacies, and historical significance of the museum will appeal as a fun experience at best, but still remain obscure without knowledge or context.

The main sculpture gallery of the Soane Museum

That’s not to say kids need an art history background to appreciate the culture, but not using this virtual reality opportunity to get back to the museum’s incredible architecture and visual richness translates by a missed opportunity to breathe life into its archaic walls and works of art. A fully contained VR experience here is essentially no different from a fun, interactive diversion at the Science Museum. It’s about the temporary content, not the building or its history. It would have been forgivable if the press release hadn’t been so diligent in affirming the union between the videos and the museum.

Virtual reality presents museums with many constructive and relevant ways to interact with the public. Yet in this case, the VR content does not complement the physical; instead, it widens the gap between art history and contemporary artistic creation.

Installation view of the VR experience upstairs

Popular space: the galleries of the portal continues at Sir John Soane’s Museum (13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, England) until September 25. The exhibit was curated by Dr. Erin McKellar.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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