Virtual reality and the museum of the future

Imagine being able to visit the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum and the Guggenheim all in one day! Imagine looking at the world’s most famous masterpieces from your favourite chair in your own home. Imagine being able to look around museums and visit heritage sites that you otherwise might never be able to see because you can’t afford it, or aren’t physically able to travel, or just don’t have the time. Then imagine creating your own museum, populating it with your favourite works of art and sharing your creation with others.

Sounds like science fiction? Not at Europeana! Soon, everything described above will be reality. Not a physical reality but a virtual one. With the advent of 3D computing and affordable head-mounted displays (HMDs) it is already possible to walk around in virtual representations of buildings, cities and other settings. In these virtual worlds, everything is digital so the physical constraints as we know them – things like time, distance and gravity – simply do not apply.

2014: the breakthrough of virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is expected to enter living rooms soon. The California-based company Oculus VR is working on an affordable VR-headset that displays immersive 3D scenes and uses head-tracking sensors to make the virtual environment respond to head turns. Initially, the glasses will be used mostly for immersive 3D games – many developers are already adapting their games for the Oculus Rift headset. The market for games is already in the billions of dollars and this will only increase it.

But there will be many more applications of VR besides games. Already, virtual reality is used to train aeroplane pilots and to help people overcome the fear of heights. Through VR, scientists can interact with chemical compounds as though the scientists themselves were the size of a molecule. Architects can give guided tours of buildings that don’t even exist yet. All of this technology is coming down in price so that it will soon be affordable to the likes of you and me. In fact, your current computer is probably already powerful enough to render 3D worlds, and virtual reality glasses such as the Oculus Rift will probably only cost about $300 when they’re released next year.

Els trying the Oculus Rift

Virtual cultural heritage experience

Virtual reality will offer great opportunities for the world of museums, galleries and archives. A first step would be to recreate existing museums online so that people from all over the world could visit them from exactly where they are. And then each of us could curate collections and put them in an environment of our choosing: how about looking at some of Rembrandt’s paintings in one of the workshops he worked in? Or what about a museum in which you could change the entire collection with a press of a button? How about stepping into a painting from Monet and being able to walk around the water-lily pond?

At Europeana, we have been experimenting with this new technology. We asked the Dutch design agency ArchiVision to develop a 3D model of a small fictional museum (the ‘EUseum’) in which you can marvel at some of the masterpieces from the Dutch Rijksmuseum. For this demo, we used a development kit for the Oculus Rift virtual reality glasses. Using the headset, you can ‘walk’ around and see the paintings at much closer range than would be possible in reality. When you turn your head, your view changes accordingly, giving you a sense of actually being in the virtual museum. To get the idea, just watch the video in which you’ll see some of our staff members enjoying the demo!

We think that virtual reality combined with the diverse and fascinating collections you can find in Europeana make a great combination. And we’d love to support you if you’d like to try developing a virtual museum experience or culture-related game of your own. If you are fortunate enough to own the Oculus Rift development kit, you can download the demo for Windows and OS X and get started now. Please contact Wiebe de Jager (email: wiebe.dejager at or @wdejager on Twitter) for more information or if you’ve got an idea we could help with.

External links

Oculus VR
Virtual museum demo download page
Wikipedia’s entry on virtual reality

About Europeana
Europeana is the trusted source of cultural heritage brought to you by the Europeana Foundation and a large number of European cultural institutions, projects and partners. It’s a real piece of team work.
Explore millions of items from a range of Europe’s leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Books and manuscripts, photos and paintings, television and film, sculpture and crafts, diaries and maps, sheet music and recordings, they’re all here. No need to travel the continent, either physically or virtually!

About ArchiVision
ArchiVision is specialized in designing and creating virtual presentations since 1995. Apart from a broad and up-to-date knowledge concerning 3D visualizations and interaction trough out the company. We cover the entire scope of visual and virtual presentations: from live action films to animations, from 2D and 3D presentations to augmented reality. We make your ideas become reality, or we can develop a concept based on your briefing. You name it, we create it!

Europeana's virtual museum

Paintings you can see in the EUseum demo

The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn

Size: 144 x 171 cm

A swan fiercely defends its nest against a dog. In later centuries this scuffle was interpreted as a political allegory: the white swan was thought to symbolize the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt (assassinated in 1672) protecting the country from its enemies. This was the meaning attached to the painting when it became the very first acquisition to enter the Nationale Kunstgalerij (the forerunner of the Rijksmuseum) in 1880.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Children learn a cat dance, known as ‘The Dance’ by Jan Havicksz Steen

Size: 68,5 x 59 cm

These children are up to mischief: they are teaching a cat to dance to the music of a shawm, a 17th-century wind instrument. While they are clearly enjoying them-selves, the cat screeches in protest, joined by a barking dog. The old man at the window angrily rebukes the children: should they not be learning something rather than giving dancing lessons to a cat?

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer

Size: 44 x 38,5 cm

Vermeer chose an unusual vantage point for this painting. From a dim space in the foreground, a glimpse is afforded of another room with a domestic scene. An elegantly dressed woman looks up expectantly at a maidservant, who has just handed her a letter. The seascape on the wall behind them may well allude to the epistle’s subject: during the 17th century, the sea was often compared to love, and the lover to a ship.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Meager Company by Fans Hals (finished by Pieter Codde)

Size: 209 x 429 cm

A commission for a civic guard portrait was rarely granted to a painter from outside the city. Quite exceptionally, Frans Hals – from Haarlem – was asked to paint this group portrait. However, he soon found himself at odds with the guardsmen, and the Amsterdam painter Pieter Codde had to step in to finish the seven figures on the right. Known for his small-scale, very smoothly and finely executed works, Codde nevertheless imitated Hals’s loose style as best he could.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn

Size: 379,5 x 453,5 (337kg)

Rembrandt’s largest, most famous canvas was made for the Arquebusiers guild hall. This was one of several halls of Amsterdam’s civic guard, the city’s militia and police. Rembrandt was the first to paint figures in a group portrait actually doing something. The captain, dressed in black, is telling his lieutenant to start the company marching. The guardsmen are getting into formation. Rembrandt used the light to focus on particular details, like the captain’s gesturing hand and the young girl in the foreground. She was the company mascot.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Fall by Cornelis van Haarlem

Size: 273 x 220 cm

In the left background we see God (a cloud with a human face and hands) cautioning Adam and Eve. They may eat the fruit of all of the trees, except the tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’. Tempted by the serpent (with a human torso), Adam and Eve nevertheless eat the forbidden fruit, for which they were driven from Paradise.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Girl in Blue by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck

Size: 82 x 66,5 cm

Why is this portrait so popular? Because it depicts an adorable child dressed in her Sunday best? As was the custom of the day, the young girl is portrayed as a small adult lady. That she is playing a role is betrayed only by her facial expression. Unfortunately, we know nothing about her identity or her family. Perhaps she resided in Haarlem, like the portraitist Verspronck.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Portrait of Gerard Andriesz Bicker by Bartholomeus van der Helst

Size: 94 x 70,5 cm

Like his father, the twenty-year-old Gerard Bicker is portrayed as self-assured, his arm akimbo. The striking differences in the garments worn by father and son confirm that they are from different generations. While his father Andries is dressed in dignified black clothing with an old-fashioned ruff, Gerard wears a colourful and showy outfit with a flat collar and elegant gloves. Gerard was not awarded as many key administrative positions in Amsterdam.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

Size: 45,5 x 41 cm

A maidservant pours milk, entirely absorbed in her work. Except for the stream of milk, everything else is still. Vermeer took this simple everyday activity and made it the subject of an impressive painting – the woman stands like a statue in the brightly lit room. Vermeer also had an eye for how light by means of hundreds of colourful dots plays over the surface of objects.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street’, Johannes Vermeer

Size: 54,3 x 44 cm

This painting of a quiet street with a few figures occupies an exceptional place in Vermeer’s oeuvre. Straight angles give the composition balance, while the triangle of the sky introduces a sense of dynamism. The old walls, coarse bricks, and white plasterwork are almost palpable. Vermeer nonetheless took some liberties with reality, such as the oversized green shutters.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Sick Child by Gabriël Metsu

Size: 32,2 x 27,2 cm

In 1663 the plague raged throughout Amsterdam, killing one in ten citizens. Dating from around this time is Metsu’s poignant portrayal of a sick child, rendered in powerful, bright colours against a grey background. The scene is reminiscent of a pieta, a representation of the Virgin Mary holding her son’s dead body in her lap. The painting of the Crucifixion on the back wall also recalls Christ’s suffering.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen by Frans Hals

Size: 140 x 166,5 cm

This happy, smiling pair sits comfortably close to each other. Posing a couple together in this way was highly unusual at the time. It may have been prompted by the sitters’ friendship with the painter and the occasion for the commission – their marriage in April 1622. The painting thus contains references to love and devotion, such as the garden of love at right, and at left an eryngium thistle, known in Dutch as ‘mannentrouw’, or male fidelity.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

The Massacre of the Innocents by Cornelis Cornelisz

Size: 245 x 385 cm

When Herod, the King of Judea, learned that a child destined to become ‘King of the Jews’ would be born in Bethlehem, he ordered the slaughter of all boys under the age of two. The painter portrayed the massacre as a gruesome nightmare. Horror follows upon horror: at lower left a soldier slits a child’s throat, while above them a woman gouges out a soldier’s eyes.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

La Corniche near Monaco by Claude Monet

Size: 75 x 94 cm

In Monet’s time La Corniche was a narrow mountain track; nowadays, it is the main road between Nice and Monaco. Here the sun is high, the lone walker’s shadow short. Monet’s colours glisten: red, green, blue – everything shimmers in the sunlight. The painting was given to the Rijksmuseum already in 1900, when Monet’s work was still entirely unknown in the Netherlands.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Maria Magdalena by Jan van Scorel

Size: 66,3 x 76 cm

The woman is Mary Magdalene. She can be identified by her jar of ointment, which she used to anoint Jesus’s feet. Van Scorel painted her as a seductive, luxuriously dressed courtesan, a reference to her reputed past as a prostitute. Her clothing shows the influence of Italian painting, to which Van Scorel was introduced during his trip to Rome.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Self Portrait with Beret and wide-eyed by Rembrandt van Rijn

Size: 55,5 x 40,1 cm (original size: 5,5 x 4,1 cm)

A sketch of Rembrandt, portrayed himself a beret and a surprised look on his face.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Self-portrait, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

Size: 22,6 x 18,7 cm

Even as an inexperienced young artist, Rembrandt did not shy away from experimenting. Here the light glances along his right cheek, while the rest of his face is veiled in shadow. It takes a while to realize that the artist is gazing intently out at us. Using the butt end of his brush, Rembrandt made scratches in the still wet paint to accentuate the curls of his tousled hair.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Portraits of Sir Thomas Gresham and Anne Fernely by Antonio Moro

Size: 90 x 75,5 cm

Sir Thomas Gresham (1519–1579) was the leading English merchant in Antwerp and also the English king’s financial agent in the Low Countries. He and his wife, Anne Fernely, are expensively, yet soberly dressed. Their status is also evident in their choice of painter: Anthonis Mor was one of the preeminent portraitists of his day and court painter to the Spanish king.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh

Size: 42 x 34 cm

Vincent moved to Paris in 1886, after hearing from his brother Theo about the new, colourful style of French painting. Wasting no time, he tried it out in several self-portraits. He did this mostly to avoid having to pay for a model. Using rhythmic brushstrokes in striking colours, he portrayed himself here as a fashionably dressed Parisian.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters by Hendrick Avercamp

Size: 77,3 x 131,9 cm

The high vantage point of this painting turns it into a sampler of human – and animal – activity during a harsh winter. Hundreds of people are out on the ice, most of them for pleasure, others working out of dire necessity. Avercamp did not shy away from grim details: in the left foreground crows and a dog feast on the carcass of a horse that has frozen to death.

Rijksmuseum – Public Domain

14 thoughts on “Virtual reality and the museum of the future

  1. Dear Europeana people,

    I applaud you for your idea and work, but have to say that Virtual Reality museums do not sound like science fiction to me at all, I’ve been visiting them for almost 5 years now and they have been around for 10 years.
    Online 3D detailed recreations of real museums have been accessible to the worldwide public since 2003.
    I have already visited the Dresden Gallery, in perfect realistic detail.
    And some of these options have also been available to Oculus Rift users for a while now.
    Let me explain.

    Second Life is the biggest online 3D virtual world there is and it has been around for over 10 years.
    Here people have been building museums for all that time and making them available to users from all over the world.
    These creators have even gone beyond the idea of a virtual museum and have started creating new and exciting ways to see art.
    They offer you immersion, the real goal of virtual reality.
    Don’t see a 2D copy of the Nachtwacht in a 3D museum, no go see it in Rembrandt’s studio, while he is actually painting it, go beyond that and explore his house and the 17th century street he lived in.
    Don’t watch a 2D copy of a Van Gogh painting, go inside it, visit the place where he painted it as it looked back then.
    All this is possible and has been for years.
    I myself send my avatar into several famous masterpieces, seeing them from more than just one side.
    I’ve already seen the nachtwacht in a virtual reality online world.
    And some of us are already using the Oculus Rift in SL!

    If you get access to real VR technology, you should use this freedom and go beyond a static 3D version of a museum.
    For the last 4 years I have been running a VR recreation of 1920s Berlin, streets, houses, cars, rain, snow, trams, etc.
    I offer visitors the chance to not only see one of those Weimar Republic masterpieces but to experience the time and location they were created in.

    Use this new freedom, dare to go further than just a digital museum.
    Feel free to contact me if you want to have a look around Second Life or if you want to talk about my experiences and perhaps discuss options for cooperation.

  2. I am running the Israeli national project for digitizing, preserve and publish the museums’ collections in a national portal.
    I am interesting in building concept and series of templates to enhance and facilitate the process of orgenizing new virtual exhibitions.
    I wonder if you are confident that people are looking for a 3D tour inside museums while visiting virtual museum. I, personally, find it complicated and boring to waste efforts on touring while my goal is to be impressed by the exhibited collection.

  3. The promise of virtual reality in relation to museums is amazing, not only would it allow people from all around the world to discover works of art and to interact with it in new exciting ways, but it would also transform what museums do and are for. Very exciting indeed.

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