Now more than ever, museums seem to be striving towards creating memorable experiences for visitors. The pandemic necessitated the use of technology and virtual tours so that exhibits could still be enjoyed. Suddenly you didn’t need a plane ticket to take a tour of the Louvre or ancient Egyptian sites. Personally, I did not often seek these online experiences out — while of course it is incredible to be able to take “tours” of museums from the comfort of your home, it mostly just made me long to be there in those spaces in person and seeing the artifact with my own eyes. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this feeling. 

However, after viewing the Peabody Essex Museum’s exhibition, “The Salem Witch Trials, 1692,” I was rather impressed with the quality of the experience. Of course, I still would rather have been able to go in person. But at least I could still view an exhibit that I had planned on visiting and feel that I had a pretty good sense of the exhibit itself and what it would have been like to have gone in person. I was also able to learn just as much as I would have if I had physically been there, as all of the text, artifacts, and art that were on display were available for the virtual experience as you “walked through” the exhibit. I felt very impressed, and felt that by “visiting” the exhibition in this way, I hadn’t missed out on any aspect of the visit had I been able to go in person.

Tompkins Harrison Matteson, Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft, 1855. Oil on canvas. Gift of R. W. Ropes, 1859. 1246. Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey R. Dykes.

Tompkins Harrison Matteson, Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft, 1855. Oil on canvas. Gift of R. W. Ropes, 1859. 1246. Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey R. Dykes.

Experiences like these seem to be on the rise in museums, starting with virtual visits like this one at PEM, but also expanding to include increased use of technology and VR experiences for visitors who go to the museum in person. For instance, the wildly popular Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience has traveled to numerous cities and advertises its experience, described as allowing visitors to step into the artist’s paintings. With 360° projections, use of virtual reality, and gigantic screens, the event is certainly immersive. I am curious as to whether exhibitions like this one offer much of an educational outcome for guests, or if it’s meant to simply impress with the quality of the technology and use of Van Gogh’s work to create an attraction. 

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience - Washington

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience

Recently, I visited a museum that seems as though it is in some ways similar to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. And it was largely used as an opportunity to get cool pictures for visitors’ Instagram profiles. The Museum of Illusions at the Walk of Cairo did have explanatory text for the numerous visual illusions that guests interacted with, and we were given a tour of the first floor to explain these optical illusions as well. The focus was definitely placed more on the experience than anything, and I definitely had more of a feeling of visiting an amusement park than a museum. The more interactive experience did remind me of children’s museums I had visited when I was kid, but every station served as a photo opportunity for a cool picture. Unsurprisingly, the museum’s Instagram page is filled with people’s pictures.

Ames room

The Ames Room at the Museum of Illusions, Walk of Cairo

It was definitely fun, and my recent experiences at the Museum of Illusions and the PEM’s Salem exhibition — while very different from each other — have made me more interested in these experiences that museums are advertising now more than ever. While I was initially skeptical, I think these experiences have the potential to attract visitors who usually might not choose to visit a museum exhibition, and can create memorable educational experiences for visitors to enjoy by taking advantage of the technology available.