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Home is where the ARtifacts are

Facebook teams up with The Smithsonian, Le Grand Palais, and the Palace of Versailles to bring their collections into AR on Instagram

Museums play an important role in preserving our cultural heritage, but it’s not always easy — or possible — to visit them in person. That’s why Facebook collaborated with leading cultural institutions to bring their collections into AR on Instagram. These new effects, built on our Spark AR platform, are designed to help people connect with and learn about art, culture, history, and science in new ways while gaining a perspective they may not have had before.

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Thanks to AR, these objects and antiquities are no longer hampered by a museum ticket, tempered glass, or a velvet rope. Now you can get up close and personal, shift your perspective, and — thanks to the power of social — share the experience with your community. And for the museums, it’s a new way to extend their very spirit to existing fans and new ones alike. 

“Our mission of art advocacy is supported fully by AR: giving access to large audiences, engaging with our public, and proposing playful but also insightful encounters to promote the arts,” says Roei Amit, Head of Digital and Multimedia, Reunion des Musees Nationaux - Grand Palais. “Presenting digital artworks and information in the real world through a mobile device, without any other equipment, is a real opportunity, letting us engage with a wide range of audiences. Discovering AR artworks within the comfort of your own environment is an important asset for us, especially during lockdown.”

“The Smithsonian is dedicated to making our content accessible to everyone, even if they never visit one of our museums,” adds Head of the Smithsonian’s 3D Program Vincent Rossi. “Technology like AR allows us to share our collections and expertise with people where they are, which is more important now than ever before. Education is at the core of everything we do, and our goal is to be the nation’s knowledge partner. With AR, we can bring our collections and expertise directly into people’s homes and classrooms, creating a learning experience that is both immersive and personal. When people virtually try on the hat made by Vanilla Beane, they aren’t just modeling a piece of fashion — they can learn about the tradition of ornate hats in the African American community.”

“Here in Versailles, all is about the heritage and fantastic collections of the Estate and showing them in the best conditions to everyone,” notes Château de Versailles Head of Department - Digital Developments Paul Chaine. “AR provides the ability to add extra content in different environments, and it’s an amazing tool for us to explain and show more to everyone. Versailles is a complex place, and our role is to make visitors comfortable with it. Using technology they use in other parts of their life (gaming, work, etc.) makes the museum more familiar to everyone.”

Improving — and broadening — access

With over 155 million objects in its collections and only about 1% on display in its museums at any given time, the Smithsonian is uniquely invested in digital solutions. It began 3D scanning its collections in 2010, helping to make more of them accessible to people anywhere, but there are still limitations. AR effects offer a fun and intuitive way to begin bridging the gap.  The effects capture multitudes, showing not just the objects themselves but also visual notations or audio that help tell the full story or bring a viewer along a journey of exploration. 

“AR allows us to build a user experience that is more interactive and immersive than what someone could experience in a museum or by exploring our 3D models online,” notes Rossi. “When people visit our museums, they can see these objects in person, but they can’t get this close. With AR, people can explore objects in their own space for the first time. They can examine objects from angles they couldn’t see on display in an exhibition. Now anyone can see the Space Shuttle Discovery prepare for takeoff in their backyard or make the boots from The Wiz dance around their living room. AR lets us bring the Smithsonian’s awe-inspiring collections directly into people’s homes, into classrooms, and become part of their daily lives in new and exciting ways.”

For the Château de Versailles, its sheer scope and scale may prove overwhelming without some sort of mediating factor. That’s where technology like AR has a role to play, for example by bringing to life the story of the Greek god Apollo and the fountain that bears his name.

“Versailles is so rich and diverse with the painting, decor, ceilings, and sculptures in the Palace and in the gardens, groves, and fountains — you need assistance to understand the history of the place and get the most out of Versailles,” says Chaine. “For the first visitors of the museum in the nineteenth century, books and personal guides were the only option to get some extra content and explanations. While they’re still available, mobile apps, social networks, and AR are also an option now. Our goal is to provide each visitor with the medium that suits them best and the most appropriate content for each artwork and place.”

By sharing their experiences on Instagram, museum-goers (and those of us at home) are able to make the experience all the more personal. And in the case of Le Grand Palais, that might mean the ability to place Michelangelo’s Moses in your living room, or standing face to face with the grand Statue of Liberty. 

“In recent years, we’ve seen an important change culturally in the way audiences engage with content,” notes Celine Negre, Head of Web and Social at Reunion des Musees Nationaux - Grand Palais. “Museum visitors increasingly want to be a part of the content themselves and control their environments. They capture the incredible experience of visiting the Grand Palais, our exhibitions and events, creating their own experiences. User-generated content excites curiosity and inspires people. Since Rmn-Grand Palais began joining social media platforms, the way our spaces operate has begun to change alongside the increase in the importance of social engagement. For example, we’ve developed a few Instagram-ready art attractions at the Grand Palais.”

(Re)creating culture

For these institutions, AR is not meant to replace but rather to replicate. The details matter, and they’re one of the reasons that engaging with AR has been shown to deepen the appreciation of a subject. These AR effects have been rendered in stunningly lifelike quality to preserve the integrity of the real objects with accurate representation, including lighting, textures, and reflections. The effects can be captured and shared to Instagram via Stories or Feed, inviting others to experience the art in their own way.

“Museums have been part of everyday life for more than a century and have always been able to evolve with their time and provide more to their visitors and public,” says Chaine. “Museums should show artworks, creation, and heritage to all, in the best possible ways. Technology, including AR, can help museums reach their public and new audiences in order to spread their content and stories in better ways.”

“Museums and cultural institutions must evolve with their times,” agrees Amit. “Technology in general and AR in particular are important parts of our day-to-day lives, and in this sense will play larger roles in our institutions — not just as mediation and advocacy features, but also as artistic tools and creative expressions. It’s not about the technology itself, but what we are doing with it, like audience engagement and creativity. To that end, we’re launching a new festival ‘Palais Augmenté’ next February at the Grand Palais, dedicated to avant-garde artistic creation in augmented reality.”

It is perhaps the intimate familiarity with Instagram that makes this so compelling. We’re accustomed to pursuing our interests on the app — these experiences show how AR is becoming just one more way to enhance the activities you do every day and make them even more fun.

“We hope that these AR experiences will spark curiosity and creativity in users,” adds Rossi. “We want people to have fun exploring these Instagram filters, but also hope that they’ll learn something new about these objects and be inspired to take that learning beyond this experience. Perhaps a theater lover will be inspired to learn more about The Wiz and its historical significance, or an aspiring astronaut will go on to explore the other objects related to space flight in our collections. All of the objects featured here are part of Smithsonian Open Access, meaning anyone can use them without copyright restrictions to create something new. We also hope that these examples inspire people to explore and use all of our Open Access images — more than three million of them — in new and creative ways.”

From screen to shades

By distributing AR effects on Instagram, cultural artifacts are not only preserved but enjoy improved discoverability and accessibility for more people, regardless of physical location. Now, at a time when people are less able to travel and looking for new experiences at home, AR effects let anyone from parents and teens to art novices and museum buffs to experience and interact with major global cultural institutions, right from their own doorstep.

AR enhances how people connect with each other and the world around them. Ultimately, we envision a future where all-day wearable AR glasses will let people augment the world around them in the blink of an eye. They’ll help people defy distance, bringing the world closer together. And the mobile experiences that are possible today provide an exciting preview of the future that AR glasses will unlock.

To access these effects on your mobile device, visit each museum’s profile on Instagram and tap on the Effect tab. From there, you can scroll through and try multiple effects. 

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