Orcas and Mummies – Are Digital Exhibits the Answer?

Above: Traditional style exhibit hall signage teaches visitors about orcas while they wait in line for their augmented reality experience in "Critical Distance." Credit: Smithsonian's media kit, Vision3

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Or in this case, the orca and mummy in the room. Museums are beginning to reassess the ethics of some exhibit types. Can we create compelling conservation messages in exhibits without live animals? When working to decolonize museums, how do we create archaeological exhibits without having foreign cultural artefacts in your collection? Some museums have been entering the digital age to create new approaches to exhibit design. “Critical Distance” at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (reopening TBD) and “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience” at the National Geographic Museum (open now through February 2023) in Washington, D.C. have taken two different routes towards this trend. But can digital recreations effectively replace real displays?

The mixture of physical set pieces and digital projections work together to connect visitors to artefacts in "Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience."

To tell a conservation story, you need your audience to fall in love with the creature in peril. Enter Kiki, a real orca living off the coast of British Columbia. Visitors read traditional museum exhibit signage about Kiki and her family while waiting in line for their encounter with these orcas’ digital counterparts. The signage has great information and the infographics are beautiful but it’s not very engaging. The exhibit really shines when the visitors are finally handed a Hololens augmented reality headset in the final room. Visitors meet Kiki and her family up-close as life sized digital orcas swim across the headset’s field of view. The details of each individual digital model is an exact match to their wild counterpart, down to their unique spot patterns. Visitors are free to walk around the room to personalize their viewing angle as the story of human impacts on the whales’ lives unfolds.

However, the fully digital approach of “Critical Distance” comes at a cost. The Hololens headsets limit the view of the exhibit to the images that fit narrow glasses, creating awkward visual cut offs that diminish the experience’s immersion. Audio plays directly from the headset which can lead to individual visitors not having any audio at all if their headset malfunctions. There’s nothing to touch or smell that reminds us of the connection. The combination of visual cut offs, hearing distant voices from other headsets, and feeling your hand pass through air when you reach out to Kiki makes her seem more like a ghost than a living creature that needs our protection.

Visitors wear Hololens augmented reality headsets to come face to face with the wild orca Kiki and members of her family.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Andrew Harrington and Joshua Downs, Formative Co.

The National Geographic Museum’s “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience” takes a more synergized approach. Rather than having visitors wear augmented reality headset in one room, visitors walk through multiple exhibit halls that combine physical sets with digital projections. Visitors enter a movie theater that transforms into ancient walls with an actual door the visitors walk through to enter a recreation of the first expedition inside Pharoah Tutankhamun’s tomb. Each new hall portrays a different section of the tomb. The burial chamber itself comes to life as the projected walls change to show what each inscription’s purpose was in the burial process. Even the life-sized sarcophagus model has panels on the side that lets visitors peak inside. Everything ranging from the excavation of the tomb and its colonialism issues, mummification process, the young pharaoh’s life and afterlife, and widespread cultural impact are represented. All recorded narration is subtitled on the projections which gives it increased accessibility. Visitors exit through a floor-to-ceiling sized National Geographic magazine cover of the famous golden mask.

Digital projections give guests a glimpse inside the young pharaoh's sarcophagus as the burial chamber walls come to life around them.

Ironically, this exhibit about the deceased child pharaoh feels more alive than the previous example of living orcas. The physical sets give a more grounded feel to the digital elements. The mirrored pillars giving an ethereal aesthetic to the floor and wall projections of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s afterlife. Visitors encounter a room of textiles hanging above them after watching a projection of the mummy wrapping process. Visitors are able to walk up and touch an Anubis statue while passages of the book of the dead come to life behind it. The combination of physical recreations and projected images when artefacts are displayed give them a balance of realness and movement.

Are digital exhibits a perfect to physical displays? Not exactly. Where they shine is in creating new ways for museums to connect with guests and display items. Digital exhibits allow can bring visitors face to face with a whale the size of an exhibit hall that can interact with them or take them on a journey through a burial site across the globe. But for digital exhibits to work, they need to nail the connection element.

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Alec Baines

Alec Baines (he/they) is a Ph.D. student studying paleobiology and museums at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. When not doing research, Alec can often be found wandering around your local museum in search of a new oddity to gasp fondly at.