VCUarts Virtual Anderson: Promoting Greater Access, Student Engagement, and Preserving the Archive in the Gallery during COVID-19 and Beyond

Tracy Hamilton, Virginia Commonwealth University, United States

Abstract

In the spring of 2020, in direct response to the immediate needs created by COVID-19, Virginia Commonwealth University’s art gallery, The Anderson, collaborated on the construction of a fully navigable 3D model of the original gallery space. Produced in well-documented, open-source, and freely available software, the Virtual Anderson leverages graphics and game development software to create rich new art viewing experiences that extend far beyond simply substituting a virtual exhibition space for a physical location. Current and future programming – the spring 2020 BFA Senior Show, the fall 2020 SECAC Conference exhibition, and a revisioning of the 1996 Yoko Ono show FLY originally held at what was then called the Anderson Gallery – become curatorial and pedagogical archival material while the digital platform ensures the dissemination of events and ability to output public programming far more widely and with great inclusivity to the highly diverse populations of VCU, the city of Richmond, and the larger world.

Keywords: virtual exhibition, academic gallery, game design, archive, accessibility, inclusivity, student engagement

VCUarts Virtual Anderson: Promoting Greater Accessibility, Student Engagement, and Preserving the Archive in the Gallery during COVID-19 and Beyond

In the spring of 2020, in direct response to the immediate needs created by the COVID-19 public health emergency, Virginia Commonwealth University’s art gallery, The Anderson, collaborated on the construction of a virtual exhibition platform produced in well-documented, open-source, game design software (Raymond, 1997; Plotkin, 1998). The first phase of the Virtual Anderson had as its opening installation the virtual 3D replication of The Anderson and the cancelled in-person BFA Senior Capstone Exhibition. This prototype was built by two teams working in collaboration. One team, led by Kinetic Imaging faculty, Professor Semi Ryu and the students of her Virtual Interactive World’s class, focused on constructing the exterior of the Virtual Anderson (Figures 1 and 2), the interior hall (Figure 3), staging virtual exhibitions for senior Kinetic Imaging students (Figures 4 and 5), developing a theater for virtual film screenings (Figure 6), and organizing the overall architecture for linking each scene and hosting the project online. While the exterior of the Anderson is closely replicated, these interior spaces were created as part of this team’s artistic vision and are not reflective of the actual galleries of the Anderson.

Students and faculty collaboratively designing the Virtual Anderson exterior using the Unity Game Engine.
Figure 1: View of the exterior façade and courtyard of the Virtual Anderson during the collaborative construction of the BFA Capstone 2020 Exhibition showing VCUarts Professor Semi Ryu and students from her Virtual Interactive World’s class
A person shown as a black silhouette standing outside the brick facade and courtyard of the Anderson.
Figure 2: View of the exterior façade and courtyard of the Virtual Anderson 2020 BFA Senior Capstone
The main hall of the Virtual Anderson 2020 BFA Senior Capstone with Gallery and Theater doors and labels as well as black silhouettes of a variety of figures.
Figure 3: Interior Hall of the Virtual Anderson 2020 BFA Senior Capstone
The Kinetic Imaging Gallery sign and portal in the the space from the main hall with black silhouettes of visitors.
Figure 4: Portal to the Kinetic Imaging Gallery space for the Virtual Anderson 2020 BFA Senior Capstone
An imaginary space created by the Kinetic Imaging students for their Gallery that contains a sky and clouds, brown ground with a footpath, an aqua building that has each indiviual student's gallery portal and a organic serpentine water form descending into and emerging from the ground.
Figure 5: Example of Kinetic Imaging Gallery space for the Virtual Anderson 2020 BFA Senior Capstone
Darkened red-tinted interior of the Virtual Anderson Theater and a bright screen displaying multi-colored burning candles.
Figure 6: Theatre of the Virtual Anderson 2020 BFA Senior Capstone

The other team that has continued to develop programming during the 2020-21 academic year in addition to the BFA exhibition is led by Clayton Harper, Creative Director, 3D artist, and PhD candidate in the Media, Art, and Text Program, and Chelsea Brtis, 3D Artist and Programmer and Communication Arts adjunct faculty member. Coordinating and administrative support for both teams was provided by Anderson staff Chase Westfall, Curator of The Anderson and Monica Kinsey, Administrative Coordinator. Contributions were also made by faculty and students in the departments participating in the show, and Tracy Chapman Hamilton, as Digital Art History Professor and Consultant.

For the BFA show, this second team focused on constructing virtual scale models of existing Anderson galleries (Figure 7) and installing Painting + Printmaking and Photography + Film senior capstone exhibitions (Figures 8-11). This included modeling, texturing, and lighting the space, as well as enriching the auditory experience for parts of the show; gathering images and plans from the associated departments; populating the space with student work in a collaborative manner that developed student’s professional skills; and setting boundaries to allow for 3D navigation. For this Phase 1 stage of building, we primarily used the Unity game engine, Autodesk Maya, and Blender (all of which are free or licensed by VCU). 3D annotations and hyperlinking functionality were included, creating web portals to student portfolios or additional content.

Four different views of the virtual replications of thenwhite galleries of the Anderson.
Figure 7: Early virtual builds of the Anderson galleries
iew of the Painting + Printmaking Gallery from the 2020 BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson. There are white walls and a series of objects hung on the wall and standing on the floor.
Figure 8: View of the Painting + Printmaking Gallery from the 2020 BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson
View through the doorway of the Photo + Film Gallery 2 from the 2020 BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson
Figure 9: Exterior view of the Photo + Film Gallery 2 from the BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson
Detail of texture and cast shadows in the Painting + Printmaking Gallery from the 2020 BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson and explanatory text (“Press F to open link”) to hyperlink out to the artist’s website.
Figure 10: Detail of texture in the Painting + Printmaking Gallery from the 2020 BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson and explanatory text (“Press F to open link”) to hyperlink out to the artist’s website.
View of the Photo + Film Gallery 1 from the 2020 BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson with the guest book that pops up when a visitor is leaving a room
Figure 11: View of the Photo + Film Gallery 1 from the 2020 BFA Capstone Exhibition at the Virtual Anderson with the guest book that pops up when a visitor is leaving a room.

As I’ve said, this latter group continued to work on the Virtual Anderson development after the BFA exhibition. As was the case for so many recent conferences it was decided to hold the SECAC Conference, which was scheduled to take place on VCU’s campus in the fall of 2020, online. So our next task was to convert the two exhibitions scheduled during the conference that could no longer physically hang in the Anderson, the Juried Exhibition and Adrian Rhodes’s Artist’s Fellowship Exhibition, to a virtual format (Figure 12).

SECAC's 2020 Juried Members' and Artist’s Fellowship Exhibitions being built in the Virtual Anderson using the Unity Game Design Engine
Figure 12: SECAC’s 2020 Juried Members’ and Artist’s Fellowship Exhibitions being built in the Virtual Anderson using the Unity Game Design Engine

As you can see from Figures 13-15, Harper and Brtis, did an extraordinary job of building the two shows, incorporating additional browser functionality, greater modulations in the lighting, shadowing, and texture, and the ability to zoom in on objects even further. If you enter the Rhodes exhibit in particular you will see how they’ve pushed into three- and four-dimensional display with the floating bees and rotating polyhedra.

SECAC's 2020 Juried Members' Exhibition launch site in the Virtual Anderson using the Unity Game Design Engine
Figure 13: SECAC’s 2020 Juried Members’ Exhibition launch site in the Virtual Anderson using the Unity Game Design Engine
Example of SECAC's 2020 Juried Members' Exhibition gallery in the Virtual Anderson
Figure 14: Example of SECAC’s 2020 Juried Members’ Exhibition gallery in the Virtual Anderson
View of Adrien Rhodes’ installation as SECAC's 2020 Artist’s Fellowship Exhibition in the Virtual Anderson
Figure 15: View of Adrien Rhodes’ installation as SECAC’s 2020 Artist’s Fellowship Exhibition in the Virtual Anderson

But alongside the resilience and optimism engendered by the short-term “uncancellation” of the BFA and SECAC exhibitions, the Virtual Anderson dramatically enhances the gallery’s capacity to provide solutions to current and long-range needs in the museum field (see, for example, Finnis, 2020). It increases the capacity of the Anderson to disseminate future events and output public programming far more widely to the highly diverse populations of VCU, the city of Richmond, and the larger nation and world with this digital medium. Teaching, learning, and research opportunities arise through the processes of experimentation, development, and maintenance that both support and are manifested through the digital exhibition space. So too, the enhanced archiving and availability of virtual programming ensure that the exceptional student and professional work happening at VCU is, through accessible design, open to the public in ways it has not been in the past. Finally, the Virtual Anderson will act as a model and inspiration for other institutions in adopting similar virtual designs, while keeping humanistic research questions rooted in artistic expression, pedagogy, conservation, and inclusive community impact at its core. Building on our knowledge and data gathered during Phases 1 and 2 (May 2020-August 2020 and September 2020-August 2021, respectively) our continued work will enable the Virtual Anderson to further our civic-minded research- and community-building potentials, built with the means and viewed through the lens of the digital museum.

In addition to open-source publication of its software, the Virtual Anderson will fully address issues of accessibility for individuals with disabilities. While the physical interface of virtual reality programs can be a complex area in which to incorporate accessibility, utilization of a variety of haptic interfaces and touch controls can make it far more available to a wide range of users. For instance, many user interfaces are particularly challenging for people who distinguish color in atypical ways, so we will include multiple color blindness modes, taking our cue from current video gaming practice. Our audio engineer will also be incorporating procedures to aid those with hearing impairments. From another perspective, those with mobility challenges who had previously not been able to access the physical Anderson (one of the gallery’s greatest disadvantages), will suddenly be able to do so at their own pace and desire.

Imagined in this way, a Virtual Anderson can serve multiple roles. It will create a permanent record of the numerous exhibitions The Anderson hosts each year and in doing so allow its audience to view work when the gallery is inaccessible either through physical or social restrictions, such as disabilities or COVID-19 regulations – making it fully inclusive to our diverse population – or the temporal restriction of an exhibition having already ended. Additionally, it can create a point of access that may be more inviting to those who feel excluded or unwelcome in the gallery context, prompting a reimagination of patronage that may help physical galleries realize a more egalitarian ideal. Through preservation it can then also offer its archive as a resource for students to experiment with and develop essential creative and professional skills as artists, curators, and exhibition designers through the unique learning opportunity of a client-creator experience, while allowing the public a view into that process as well. Simultaneously, this virtual model of The Anderson provides a platform for drafting proposals that can precisely map out the space while other work is still on view. Also, because of the spatial flexibility of the Virtual Anderson, other VCU departments who are increasingly turning toward the digital (Archaeology, Art Education, Art History and Museum Studies, Communications Arts, Fashion, History, Interior Design, Kinetic Imaging, Media, Art, and Text Program, Public History, etc.) will find a home to design and display their work. And finally, it will allow VCU and other institutions who choose to replicate the concept behind the Virtual Anderson to continue to innovate current disciplinary boundaries of what art, design, and an exhibition space entails. In so doing, the research, teaching, learning, and public programming inherent to the museum will find a new and innovative digital form. By tracking user experience through every stage of this process in these variety of platforms and modes of accessibility, including online surveys and records of spatio-temporal user data, and publishing regularly on VCU’s Compass repository and in the field, we will be able to address and answer our research questions on how virtual and augmented environments like The Anderson can enrich our understanding of the museum within our global community.

Thus, the research questions that have arisen in relation to the Virtual Anderson are:

1: Who does our world and art belong to? How can the enhanced archiving and availability of virtual programming ensure that the Virtual Anderson programming is open and accessible to the public in ways it has not been in the past? Could a virtual art gallery swap out exclusions for inclusions? How can other institutions replicate this experience with relatively few resources?

2: How do teaching, learning, and research opportunities arise through the processes of experimentation, development, and maintenance that both support and are manifested through the digital exhibition space?

3: How does creating an alternate reality, whether a verisimilitude or entirely different version of that reality, affect visitor participation in that art? Does the utilization of graphics and game development software, linking and hypertext, accelerate the virtual platform and expand the interpretive context within which artworks are situated?

What happens when a “real” space is replaced by its virtual counterpart? What is lost when the experience of art is no longer grounded in material? What new pathways of knowledge and true widespread community access are opened up as technology grants us greater mastery over the conditions of art viewing? Artists, art and other historians have long argued for the value and irreplaceability of the original (Benjamin, 1935). The incredible proliferation of digital technologies in recent decades has challenged, while yet failing to overturn, this assertion. During the spring, summer, and fall of 2020 these arguments have taken on renewed urgency as pandemic conditions have, in many cases, forced us to observe and engage the world from a distance. We are separated from artworks, from authentic sites, and even loved ones. How does this make us reckon with our structures of knowledge and priorities? We are reminded of all the people in the world who, even in the absence of pandemic conditions, will never easily partake in the making of, travel to, or consumption of original works of art. With the Phase 1 of the Virtual Anderson complete, we know we can build the stage on which to pose such questions through experimentation and the collection, measurement, and analysis of user (visitor, artist, curator) data.

Environmental Scans

One of the most compelling reasons for funding the fully developed Virtual Anderson is the dearth of similar projects. The creation of a virtual museum experience has been part of the discussions taking place in the Digital Humanities and in Cultural Preservation for years (Carrozzino and Bergamasco, 2010; Brennen, 2012; Drucker, et al., 2014; Powell, 2016; Sites Eternels, 2016; Ding, 2017; The Getty Museum’s Legacy of Ancient Palmyra, 2017; Judah, 2017;  Kunjir and Patil, 2019; Jung, et al., 2019; Tennent, et al., 2020; Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office) and while exhibition programs like ArtSteps, Esri’s ArcGIS StoryMaps, and Northwestern University’s KnightLab StoryMaps and Timeline, as well as plugins to Omeka like Neatline or Curatescape, and even gaming opportunities like Occupy White Walls, have provided us with the possibility of curating online, none have had the ability to be tailor-made to virtually mimic a pre-existing physical space. And of those latter examples there are very few. A comparison of the Virtual Anderson to two of the virtual exhibition spaces that exist, Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry show and Shepard Fairey’s DAMAGED, both produced by VR’t Ventures, are beautifully rendered, but require an exorbitantly expensive virtual reality headset to experience them fully. The Virtual Anderson has and will be programming similarly innovative material, also rendered in stunning detail, but lacking the exclusivity inherent in many current virtual reality and in-person museum experiences. Additionally, the two software platforms that we are using to build the Virtual Anderson, Unreal Engine and Unity Engine can be downloaded for free, both websites provide a rich set of learning resources, and Unreal’s source code is open and available on GitHub. So as to make our project as readily available for duplication as possible we will publish a detailed log of our process, as well as the scripts (snippets of code that drive individual interactive features), blueprints (node-based flowcharts that can be used as scripts), and assets (all objects and effects inserted into the virtual space) developed for the project through Unity’s webstore, Unreal’s marketplace, and GitHub for free. Thus, not only will users have access to the Virtual Anderson itself, even more importantly the whole spectrum of galleries, museums, historic houses or history museums will have the ability to, with the proper support, build their own virtual environments.

In addition to the work of VR’t ventures, there is of course Google Arts and Culture, which allows for a certain amount of curation and an increasingly comprehensive coverage of certain sections of museum collections, but which for the most part is lacking in user interaction. Another type of virtual experience, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago opens with a visually engaging virtual tour of its buildings, using a Google StreetView approach, and incorporating 360 views of studio interiors such as its Foundry and Wood and Metal Shops as well as an exterior of Millenium Park. There is no interaction proper as has been built into the Virtual Anderson interface. The SAIC site also has an accessibility page that provides good inspiration for our even more robust accessibility implementations in the Virtual Anderson. Working in a more enhanced virtual medium, the California College of the Arts Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco released its current show, The Word for World is Forest, on May 14, 2020. Functioning as a virtual exhibition that does not reproduce a pre-existing show, but instead functions as “a working document of [their] plans for installing the physical exhibition, and as a way to envision the spatial relationship between the works included in the project.” This mission reflects a few of our goals for current and future iterations of the Virtual Anderson, and we appreciate that the show is hosted as a lightweight web-player that can be easily accessed by a wide audience. With the Virtual Anderson, we intend to build something that shares some similarities with the Wattis Institute’s exhibition but provides a more extensive and integrated experience with the possibility of directly participating in the curatorial process, and expanding notions of viewership, all while allowing for the collection of data to answer our research questions posed above. Furthermore, we plan to explore solutions like a Parsec-based streaming platform that would allow us to get around the visual, audio, and interactive limitations that come with web-GL based players. Ostensibly, this would allow for experiences that maintain the accessibility of something like The Word for World is Forest while enriching its aesthetic and pedagogical depth. Nevertheless, for the moment its code is not open-source, the opposite tack we take in our dissemination of the Virtual Anderson.

The final comparative virtual exhibition, the senior show of the Department of Art + Design at Arkansas State University held at the Bradbury Art Museum was also published earlier this spring on May 3rd, 2020. With an excellent build execution available via web browser or higher quality standalone downloadable version which relied heavily on photogrammetry for its 3D effects, its code is not open-source having been built in Unity. As we have discussed the Virtual Anderson has made all of its code available and will continue to in future models.

Through the manufacture, interaction, and multiple layers of space and time within the Virtual Anderson, it simultaneously allows for enchantment, accessibility, preservation, and pedagogy in this augmented and virtual reality (Hazan, 2001). Rather than offering up the Virtual Anderson as an authoritative account of material works, we see it as an invitation to more closely investigate the processes that underlie curation and documentation. A virtual 3D world is neither closer nor farther to its subject than the reality proposed by the photograph and caption; it is instead a space whose less-familiar dimensions can inspire us to rethink how we classify artworks and how we choose to narrativize the art experience. While cultural theorists like Baudrillard (1981) cautioned that virtual knowledges may starve us of true intimacy with the Real, we believe that the challenge to invent, share, and discover material knowledge within its virtual expression compels us to pay closer attention to our surroundings than ever before.

Museums, galleries, artists, and curators have been grappling with the possibilities and restrictions that a virtual interface allows for years now, and although the conversation has fully accelerated within the realm of the digital humanities and beyond because of the change in reality that COVID-19 has produced, the prototype that the Virtual Anderson could provide would bring us ever closer to a widespread incorporation of the virtual into the museum world. This grant would allow us to be on the forefront of that current discussion, while realizing the full future potential of how the Virtual Anderson could function as posed through its research questions.

Virtual Anderson Project Work Plan

Phases 1 and 2: April – June 2020 and Summer 2020-Spring 2021

These stages are described above in the opening of this paper. In addition to the WebGL browser link to access each of these shows, prerecorded virtual walkthroughs are also available. Testing of the Virtual Anderson was performed throughout the build by all members of the team as well as outside unpracticed users and experts in the field, so as to detect any faults or inconsistencies in the program. This experimentation and testing will continue to be implemented throughout the future of the project and will especially address users with impairments and disabilities. We also surveyed the artists to gauge their thoughts and satisfaction concerning the process of exhibiting in this virtual manner through online surveys.

The combination of harrowing and fortunate circumstances, available expert participants, and emerging and existing technologies has made this Stages 1 and 2 of the Virtual Anderson a real success. We look forward to similar synergies and impetus from Stage 3 and on. We are poised to craft it into a tool with the potential to transform the ways in which we interact with, study, and research space, art, and human experience through the fusion of the long and crucial study of the museum within these digital technologies.

Phase 3: Summer 2021-Fall 2022

Beginning June 1st, 2021, this phase of development will focus on the Virtual Anderson team addressing a thoughtful, research-based process of data collection. At the same time we will be building a basic system for archiving individual assets (virtual objects) online and retrieving them to interact with and be manipulated by individual users of the software. Thus first “current exhibitions” will, as new programming comes online, be migrated into “past exhibitions” functionality. Ultimately the timetable for this process is flexible as it is dependent on volume of new programming. Alongside that process, development will focus on prototyping features for placing objects in the space and defining an intuitive user experience for making virtual mockups. Additional members of the Virtual Anderson team in the form of programmers will be brought onto the project at this time. Using code such as C# or C++ languages they will collaborate with the 3D artists, Digital Consultant, and Project Manager to create an even more robust user experience. Ideally their contributions would come sooner in this schedule and they will be if funding becomes available. This will also include a basic solution for importing simple files (like images) and applying them directly to objects without needing to access the engine’s editor that controls the virtual gallery. Early versions of a system for changing exhibition lighting and sound will also be implemented. The work of Zachary Acosta-Lewis as Audio Engineer will therefore also become essential in this period of development. Finally, we will fully begin capturing and incorporating laser-scans of material using a Leica Geosystem BLK360 into the VA application as well as experimenting with photogrammetry captured with a phone (known through Hamilton’s Digital Art History class, Spring 2020). Comparison of the more and less expensive versions of 3D photography that can then be incorporated into a virtual space will prove invaluable for future builders as well as the Virtual Anderson project.

For this next stage the members of the Virtual Anderson team also plan to build a second non-WebGL dependent version in the form of The Anderson by comparing Unity and Unreal engine which will allow for a stable standalone desktop application, as well as experimenting with a variety of other tools such as Quixel, Perforce HelixCore, Substance Painter/Designer, Autodesk Maya, and Blender (all of which are free or already licensed by VCU) as needed. In addition, time will be spent exploring solutions for running the entire application through cloud computing services like Parsec. These features will be the basis for the entire platform proposed here, so a great deal of testing and iteration will be needed to refine the interface and user experience as well as the data that arises from those elements and interactions.

Phase 4: Fall 2022 – Fall 2023

During this phase development by the entire Virtual Anderson team, including the programmers, will focus on expanding the online services integrated with the application as well as continued support of Phases 1-3. This includes elements like an online portal, user profiles, and submission features. Different classes of users will need to be defined to handle permissions. In addition, work will be spent refining the features included with the 3D viewing/prototyping component and adding interactions like virtual snapshots and pinned comments.

This same inclusivity and dialogue of the final Virtual Anderson program will also be available to the public beyond VCU, albeit at varying levels of access. From a web portal on The Anderson’s website, visitors will be taken to a digital foyer where they can choose from options to 1) view current exhibition, 2) view past exhibitions, or 3) build a custom exhibition (of their own work, or from a catalog of existing works). Should they select current exhibitions, they are then able to simply begin navigating the space, or to choose other locations within the building from a heads-up virtual map, any of which will launch them directly into the selected space. As they walk around the exhibitions, they can take virtual snapshots that save to an online profile, interact with specific artworks to view title cards or artist’s statements, or leave the Anderson site through artwork portals that link out to artist’s portfolio pages or other relevant content.

Should users choose to view past exhibitions, they will be presented with an archive of shows listing the title, included artists, and start/end dates. Hovering over an entry will give a brief synopsis of the exhibition, and once an option is chosen, users will enter the 3D space to view the work.

Finally, should users choose to build a new exhibition, a prompt will ask them to assemble an exhibition inventory. They will have options to import content of their own or to make selections from a catalog of existing content. Choosing to import new content, they will follow a series of simple prompts to provide essential information about their artwork(s) (dimensions, media, etc.) and ensure that files are uploaded with the system-appropriate file size and format. Once users have finalized their inventory, they can begin the virtual installation of their works. User-friendly controls will give users great facility and flexibility in placing items from their inventory within the space, with options to change the hanging/framing of work and tune the color, intensity, and positioning of overhead lights and adapt the sound preferences. Once users are satisfied with their mockup, they will be given options to save the show to their profile or submit the show to Anderson staff for review. From here, staff could view the mockup, pin comments to points in virtual space, and submit their feedback to the user’s profile.

A successful outcome to this project will involve multiple approaches to quality control. First, we plan to host public previews at different stages of development to give students, the VCU community, and the general public an opportunity to playtest what we are working on and submit feedback to help us improve the feel and function of the software. Second, we will conduct postmortems after major milestones are reached to reflect on lessons learned and draft recommendations for continuing to build and maintain our software. This will also involve writing documentation for finished features or proven workflows. These reports will then be adapted to flesh out documentation for our various features and assets to be compiled in a publicly available manual hosted on The Anderson’s website. This manual would be updated with new contents and revisions at each milestone. Finally, we will use production management software like Trello to organize tasks, track bugs, and evaluate overall progress toward milestones.

Our goal is to build a software application that is either accessible through a web-player or a streaming platform accessed through a university-hosted webpage. In this sense, we would build an experience that integrates near-seamlessly into web-browsing, without requiring extensive downloads or expensive hardware. Put simply, we imagine a solution where accessing the Virtual Anderson is as straightforward as playing a YouTube video. Hosting the Virtual Anderson using a web-player will require a compatible web-browser. Most browsers we have tested work with our Unity prototype, but some additional work may be required to improve the controls for a mobile interface. If we are successful integrating our project with Parsec, our application would be accessible by any operating system with browsing functionality but would also require tweaks for different interfaces.

All throughout we will be tracking user experience within these different platforms and modes of accessibility to further examine the usability of virtual environments for humanities research. Part of the full development of the research questions prompted by use of the Virtual Anderson will involve the collection, measurement, and analysis of user (artist, visitor, curator) data (qualitative and/or quantitative). For example, in this first phase we have already incorporated a guest book that allows for visitors to provide us with their response to the overall experience, down to a specific artwork. We are looking into a full array of additional feedback tools. Another useful dataset would be linked to spatio-temporal user experience. Thus, we will be incorporating measurement of time spent within the galleries to see if there is an intensity of focus in any given area of the space. We are also looking into ways to measure the difference in response between, say, experiencing an artwork in-person, in a printed book, and in a virtual environment, long questions within the domain of the humanities and at the core of our research method.

As our work plan illustrates, the Virtual Anderson has and will continue to become much more than a replica or an enhancement of the physical campus gallery, but its own (in)finite, and yet still connected, entity that invites and advances the inclusive museum experience through community collaboration, artistic innovation, and institutional replication.

Virtual Anderson Project Results

Throughout all phases of the Virtual Anderson, production grants, funding, and sites of presentation and promotion will be sought out both internally and externally. In addition to achieving public notice from awards, the permanent Virtual Anderson team will be publicizing the Virtual Anderson though the regular academic and GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archive, and Museum) outlets. Just as importantly will be the full utilization of the growing list of open-access venues for publication as well as a variety of social media outlets. The Communications Office at VCU will of course be integral to this process.

Another priority within the Virtual Anderson team’s process of dissemination is for the virtual space to be as readily available for as rich a user experience and duplication as possible. The two software platforms that we are using to build the Virtual Anderson, Unity Engine and Unreal Engine can be downloaded for free, both websites provide a robust set of learning resources, and Unreal’s source code is open and available on GitHub. We will also publish a detailed log of our process, as well as the scripts (snippets of code that drive individual interactive features), blueprints (node-based flowcharts that can be used as scripts), and assets (all objects and effects inserted into the virtual space) developed for the project through Unity’s webstore, Unreal’s marketplace, and GitHub for free. Thus, not only will users have access to the Virtual Anderson itself, even more importantly they will have the ability to, with the proper support, build their own virtual environments. We would further break down barriers to its access by packaging the entire project as a free downloadable in both marketplaces.

Through the creation of a virtual exhibition platform using accessible design, tailor-made to virtually mimic a pre-existing physical space, we can open up new pathways of knowledge and widespread community access. In addition to the broad dissemination made possible by the virtual space, the format of the Virtual Anderson allows us to collect essential feedback from our public by questioning and recording user experience through the use of online surveys and tracking spatio-temporal user records. The virtual space also keeps artistic expression, pedagogy, and conservation as the core of the museum, but expanding our understanding of the conditions under which we can meaningfully engage with art. Finally, the Virtual Anderson will act as a model and inspiration for other institutions in adopting similar virtual designs, which many are still struggling to do.

Merging the arts and technology to promote these inclusive conversations, methods, and results is precisely in line with the mission of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Together, these affordances suggest that a fully developed Virtual Anderson can offer immense value beyond the immediate needs raised by COVID-19 for years if not decades into the future.

Tracy Chapman Hamilton, Clayton Harper, and Chase Westfall

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Ding, Mandy Augmented Reality in Museums. Arts Management and Technology Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon Institute, May 2017.

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/51d98be2e4b05a25fc200cbc/t/5908d019f5e2314ab790c269/1493749785593/Augmented+Reality+in+Museums.pdf

Drucker, Johanna, David Kim, Iman Salehia, and Anthony Bushong. (2014). “Virtual Space and Modelling 3-D Representations.” In Introduction to Digital Humanities: Concepts, Methods, and Tutorials for Students and Instructors. UCLA, 69-71.

http://dh101.humanities.ucla.edu/?page_id=72

Esri’s ArcGIS StoryMaps

https://storymaps.arcgis.com/

Shepard Fairey DAMAGED experienced in Virtual Reality by VR’t Ventures

https://www.vrtventures.art/

Farrell, Betty and Maria Medvedeva. (2010). Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. American Association of Museums; Center for the Future of Museums.

https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Demographic-Change-and-the-Future-of-Museums.pdf

The Getty Museum. (2017). Legacy of Ancient Palmyra. Look at these SketchFab models of destroyed monuments in Palmyra.

http://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/palmyra/

https://sketchfab.com/search?q=tag%3Apalmyra&sort_by=-likeCount&type=models

GitHub

https://github.com/

Gokcigdem, Elif M. (2017). “Five Ways Museums Can Increase Empathy in the World.” Greater Good Magazine, University of California at Berkeley (January 9, 2017).

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_museums_can_increase_empathy_in_the_world

Gold, Matthew and Laura Klein. (2019). Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, The University of Minnesota Press.

https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/debates-in-the-digital-humanities-2019

Google Arts and Culture. (2020). “10 Top Museums You Can Explore, Right Here, Right Now.” Google Arts and Culture. Accessed March 31, 2020.

https://artsandculture.google.com/story/10-top-museums-you-can-explore-right-here-right-now/igKSKBBnEBSGKg

Hazan, Susan. “The Virtual Aura – Is There Space for Enchantment in a Technological World?” Museums and the Web Conference (2001).

https://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2001/papers/hazan/hazan.html

Judah, Hettie. (2017). “World Museums Join Forces to Combat Destruction of Antiquities in the Age of Digital Reproductions” news.artnet.com (December 13, 2017)

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/world-museums-combat-isis-destruction-in-the-age-of-digital-reproductions-1178024

Jung, T., Mandy and D. Tom Dieck. (2019). “Exploring usability and gratifications for virtual reality applications at festivals.” Event Management.

http://e-space.mmu.ac.uk/624129/

KnightLab’s StoryMaps and Timeline, Northwestern University

https://knightlab.northwestern.edu/

Kotecki, Emily. (2019). ‘Immersive’ with Brilliant Idea Studio’s Seema Rao (June 3, 2019).

http://emily-kotecki.com/podcast/tag/immersive+experiences

Kunjir, Ajinkya Rajendrakumar and Krutika Ravindra Patil (eds). (2019). “Challenges of Mobile Augmented Reality in Museums and Art Galleries for Visitors Suffering From Vision, Speech, and Learning Disabilities.” Virtual and Augmented Reality in Education, Art, and Museums Hershey, PA: IPI Global, 162-73.

https://www.igi-global.com/book/virtual-augmented-reality-education-art/234360

Mariapina Trunfio, Salvatore Campana, Adele Magnelli. (2020). “The Impact of Mixed Reality on Visitors’ Experience in Museum. ‘The Ara As It Was’ Project in Rome.” In Timothy Jung, M. Claudia tom Dieck, Philipp A. Rauschnabel (eds). Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality: Changing Realities in a Dynamic World. Heidelburg: Springer, 313-322.

https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-37869-1#toc

Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry Exhibition experienced in Virtual Reality by VR’t Ventures (Scroll down to see his material)

https://www.vrtventures.art/

McIntosh, Keith. (2008). “The Social Construction of Virtual Space.” The Michigan Sociological Review. 22, 196-214.

McLean, Kathleen. (2011). “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?” In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press Inc., 70-79.

MuseumNext – Defining the Future of Museums

https://www.museumnext.com/

Museums and the Web and their GLAMies and Best of the Web. The current and past programs.

Neatline

https://neatline.org/

Occupy White Walls on Steam

https://store.steampowered.com/app/876160/Occupy_White_Walls/

Omeka

https://omeka.org/

Parry, Ross. Museums in a Digital Age. Leicester Readers in Museum Studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2010.

Parsec streaming platform

https://parsecgaming.com/

Perforce HelixCore

https://www.perforce.com/products/helix-core

Plotkin, Hal. (1998). “What (and Why) you should know about open-source software.” Harvard Management Update. December, 8–9.

Powell, Jennifer Kite (2016). “Augmented Reality And Kinect Create Unique Art Experience At Cleveland Museum,” Forbes (October 27, 2016).

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferhicks/2016/10/27/augmented-reality-and-kincect-create-unique-art-experience-at-cleveland-museum/#2cab79643771

Quixel

https://quixel.com/

Simon, Nina. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0.

http://www.participatorymuseum.org/

Simon, Nina. (2012). “Opening up the Museum.” Presented at TedX Santa Cruz. September 15th, 2012.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIcwIH1vZ9w

Sites Eternels. (2016). Grand Palais, Paris, and Google Arts and Culture Sites Éternels

https://www.grandpalais.fr/en/node/17335

https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/u/1/exhibit/IQLCquWsLmG7Ig?hl=fr

Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office

Styliani, S. et. al. (2009). “Virtual Museums, a Survey, and Some Issues for Consideration.” Journal of Cultural Heritage 10/4, 520-528.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1296207409000880

Substance Painter/Designer

https://www.substance3d.com/products/substance-designer/

Tennent, Paul, Sarah Martindale, Steve Benford, Dimitrios Darzentas, Pat Brundell, and Mat Collishaw. (2020).  “Thresholds: Embedding Virtual Reality in the Museum.” Journal on Computing and  Cultural Heritage 13/2, article 12.

http://doi.org/10.1145/3369394

Trello

https://trello.com/

Unity Engine

https://unity.com/

Unreal Engine

https://www.unrealengine.com/en-US/

The Virtual Anderson, VCUarts The Anderson.

https://virtual-anderson.itch.io/ as accessed on March 30, 2021.

1) 2020 VCUarts Virtual BFA Capstone

2) 2020 SECAC Juried Members’ Exhibition launch site

3) SECAC’s 2020 Artist’s Fellowship Exhibition of Adrien Rhodes’ installation

VR’t ventures

https://www.vrtventures.art/

The Word for World is Forest. (2020). Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, California College of the Arts, San Francisco.

https://wattis.org/view?id=1052

https://wattis.org/


Cite as:
Hamilton, Tracy. "VCUarts Virtual Anderson: Promoting Greater Access, Student Engagement, and Preserving the Archive in the Gallery during COVID-19 and Beyond." MW21: MW 2021. Published April 1, 2021. Consulted .
https://mw21.museweb.net/paper/vcuarts-virtual-anderson-promoting-greater-access-student-engagement-and-preserving-the-archive-in-the-gallery-during-covid-19-and-beyond/