Immersive museum experiences making history contemporary

Elliotte using virtual reality headset

Main content

Profile picture for user boronia

Technology can play a vital role in giving people the tools and knowledge to learn the lessons of the past and shape the future.

Many people have childhood memories of visiting museums, sometimes bored out of their brains by the experience but hopefully more often awed by the profundity of the past.

Even as adults, we visit museums and discover things about history that still manage to delight, shock or enlighten. Historical exhibitions are a place we can go to commune with the past and make sense of the present.

Museums play a significant role in how the past is presented and interpreted today and into the future.

Using iPad to bring objects to life through augmented reality

Why history matters

History is important. If you don't know history, it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.

– American historian Howard Zinn

The interpretation and presentation of history can be problematic and highly contentious. Long after wars have ended and peace treaties have been signed, hostilities can often continue for far longer than the duration of an actual war. It's often the case that once soldiers lay down their arms, historians take up their own in a quest to shape a particular narrative and vindicate certain viewpoints.

History's interpretive nature means even an account that strives for neutrality can end up being the prisoner of its own framework and voice. Perhaps worse still, such efforts can also end up falling flat with museum visitors.

How history is presented shapes our politics, culture and society.

Austrlian War Memorial Intro Wall

Reinterpreting the past through a new lens

Art Processors has worked closely on several historical exhibitions, collaborating with museum curators and trained historians to help create content and experiences that provide contemporary audiences with insights to the past.

Working with the Australian War Memorial, we created the Highlights Audio Tour, a moving and memorable listening experience that guides visitors through the First World War, Second World War, Hall of Valour and Conflicts 1945 to Today galleries. The audio guide we created is location-aware and immersive, combining a powerful narrative, soundscapes and archival sound, demonstrating the capabilities — and possibilities — of our world-class indoor location platform, which we installed on-site as part of this project.

Another exhibition dealing with Australia's wartime past that we worked on was the technically complex Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience. Regarded as the most significant national exhibition to tour Australia since the 1988 Bicentenary, the flagship community project of the Anzac Centenary national program allowed a huge cross-section of the population (an estimated 1.2 million people visited the travelling exhibition) to discover Australia's history of service and sacrifice.

For the exhibition Awaken, we helped curators and historians from the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Museum utilise extended reality, 3D and other digital tools to bring to life the Donald Thomson collection. Recognised in the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register, the collection presents rich, multi-faceted insights into the living culture of Australia's First Nations people.

A major project that required technical know-how and logistical can-do, Awaken also needed Art Processors to work in a culturally sensitive manner that called for the collection's valuable items to be respected and properly contextualised.

Art Processors co-founder and Creative Director Tony Holzner said, as well as being an outstanding technical achievement, the project was also successful in its conceptual scope. 

We created a context-based experience that synchronised time and place, sound and vision, awakening old and new connections between the belongings, the communities, the country, and those discovering the collection.

Visitor At SACE Australian War Memorial

Balancing history with technology

Alongside the complex technical elements of these projects, we've also had to be mindful and respectful of the equally complex historiographical dimension of such projects.

We've had to engage in discussions of how the technology we bring to the table can enhance an audience's appreciation and understanding of history rather than just supply bells and whistles that could easily distract visitors or even trivialise an exhibition's meaning and intent.

Similarly to our work with art galleries, our focus has always been on complementing the exhibition at hand. We aim for our technology to provide a seamless experience that slides into the background while enriching the gallery visitor's understanding.

In writing about the Museum of New Art (Mona) and the innovative applications of digital technology, Holzner refers to The O as creating "an inherently visitor-centric approach, as it is fundamentally about democratising the museum experience."

For historical exhibitions, we provide curators and historians with a set of storytelling tools that can also be employed in a way we believe can democratise the historical exhibition experience.

The creative possibilities of digital tools and interfaces like Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and 3D, as well as sophisticated, multilayered audio guides, enables curators to step out from behind traditional modes of exhibition design and presentation.

Properly utilised, these tools give curators and historians a powerful opportunity to shift from dry and academic narratives to engaging and detailed stories that prompt discussion, debate and understanding.

Alongside our commitment to technical excellence, Art Processors also understands the need for nuanced and informed thinking about technology's role in making history come alive for contemporary audiences.

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.