In the wake of government shutdown, museums and National Parks closed their doors to the public. All National Park websites are down but museum websites such as the Smithsonian’s various institutions remain available. An online experience cannot replace a museum experience but it is a small comfort to know that online resources are still available through the national museums for the public to utilize. I would like to take this opportunity to explore a virtual tour offered by the National Postal Museum, in hopes to highlight the critical need for institutions to remain open to the public despite being deemed “non-essential” by authorities in power.
The virtual tour is easily accessible from the museum’s about page, bringing users to a separate screen filled with postal memorabilia, an old postal truck, a museum map, and navigation bars. The space is completely navigable. Users can manipulate the space in any direction, doing a complete 360 of the gallery spaces. Users can zoom in and out to their heart’s content, getting glimpses of label text and objects – and that is just it, glimpses. The tour is more of a 3-dimensional map of the museum space. There is not opportunity for deeper exploration, no ability to click on the labels to read them or to explore stamps up-close. Perhaps those features exist in another app or online feature but they are nowhere to be found in this tour. I have to wonder what exactly the point of a virtual tour is if there is no opportunity for connection or experience. The tour interface is easy to use and the graphics are of exceptionally high quality but really, what is the point if all the user can do it essentially “walk” around the museum without stopping to dig deeper?
Interestingly, I found an article on a real estate blog concerning the use of virtual tours in the act of selling homes. It stated: “The second, and perhaps more important, reason to use virtual tours for each and every property that an agent brings to market can be summed up rather quickly: virtual tours add significant “stickiness” to real estate Web sites.” The virtual tour makes websites seem sophisticated and the agency seem trustworthy because they are willing to show potential owners everything the house entails. It is possible that museums are following the same trend. In order to get potential visitors into the institution, they offer a virtual tour that highlights the magnificence of the collection. It may only take a few clicks around the tour to make visitors interested enough to come to the institution. Take away the ability gather information, use interactives, and view the collection in any detailed capacity, the institution is essentially forcing the potential visitor to come to the museum just as the agency is forcing potential buyers to come to the house by essentially creating an attractive ad. While there does not seem to be anything inherently wrong with this, there are times when it is impossible to visit the physical museum. Be it locality issues or instances of government shutdown, there are times when museum will be completely inaccessible to people.
Museums should reconsider their approach to virtual tours. To a degree, it is understandable as to why they do not want to put everything online for the fear that visitors will simply look online rather than pass through museum doors. Yet in comparing virtual to physical visits it is the physical experience that trumps all: “Be it small or large, seeing the real thing is unambiguous. There is often an emotional reaction that accompanies the perception of true size.” Museums should not fear that their physical space will be abandoned for a virtual one because the allure of viewing the actual object will be more powerful than settling for an online representation. The virtual tour can still be that informative teaser but there is no reason to exclude information or interactivity. If virtual tours continue to be museum samples then museums and those running them must find ways to keep the door open, no matter the cost.
National Postal Museum. “Virtual Tour.” http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/museum/1_museum.html. Accessed September 30, 2013.
Reality Times. “The Point of Virtual Tours.” http://realtytimes.com/agentnews/technologyadvice1/item/13557-20031008_virtualtours. Accessed October 1, 2013.
McDonald, Marcy. “Comparing the Virtual and the Physical Visits.” Master’s Thesis, University of Virginia, 2005. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma05/macdonald/museums/virtual.html