The UX of Virtual/VR Tour of Museum

By Elise Fu

Virtual tour of museums has been around for a while, but it is far from being widespread and popular, which I found it is a pity because it can really benefit a lot of people if we do it right. It is also a perfect category for the recent hottest tech – VR to implement. After browsing some virtual tour project of museums, I found some common issues and drawbacks and a few shining points. As a UX designer, I would like to try on analyzing these projects from a user experience perspective. Below are the key factors I found that matter the most for a good experience of virtual/VR tour of museums.

Smithsonian Museum Virtual Tour

(Typical setting of virtual tour: map, arrow, controller)

To clarify, a virtual tour is a simulation of an existing location, often composed of a sequence of videos or still images that are panorama. If it is still images, users often have the control of the pace and location where they “stand” and look at, the drawbacks are the scene is static and most of the projects are difficult-to-control. If it is video, then the location will be filmed at a walking pace while moving continuously from one point to another, where users have to follow the sequence and won’t have free control.

Virtual reality tours are the virtual tours that can be viewed and experienced by a VR viewer (headset). They are more immersive and have different controllers compared with viewing on a computer, tablet or phone, depending on which headset or app users use.


3D vs 2D

There are two ways these virtual tours present the work in the museum – 2D photos or 3D model.

The most common way is using 2D still photos where users can only see the work from a certain angle, which presents the same scene with the physical museum but the experience is incomplete, such as the one from Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

(2D Virtual Tour – Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History)

While some project use 3D model to rebuild a virtual museum, where each object is independent, so users can select, zoom in, and rotate to observe closely, such as the project of Ancient Sculptures of Vietnam.


(3D Virtual Tour – Ancient Sculptures of Vietnam)

From the user experience perspective, the experience of 3D is much better than the 2D one, because users can interact with objects. It also has the advantage of better storytelling, since the narrative or commentary can pair with each object, and be presented only when users select the object. Sketchfab, a 3D models platform, also has some exquisite 3D models in different categories including one for cultural heritage & history.

Sketchfab- Cultural Heritage & History


User-control and Interaction

Another issue I found when experiencing the virtual tours is the awkward user-control.

In the most common 2D virtual tour, users can only stand in one location at a scene. The only interactions are rotating the viewing angle and zoom in/out. Since users can’t move horizontally, they can’t see the objects placed in the longest distance clearly. It means what users can see in the virtual tour is partial. The only movement users can take is to move the next scene by clicking the “large arrow” on the ground where the transition isn’t smooth and continuous either. I think the poor performace of user interaction is the most important reason why the virtual tours are not real enough so far.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History2


Narrative and Commentary

The accessibility and convenience of narrative or commentary should be the advantage of a virtual tour because users already have a device anyway. However, I can’t find the well-presented narrative or commentary in most of the cases. This is tied to the issues of 2D photos which can’t separate the objects within it.

For cultural heritage like the work in museums, the stories behind them are too important to neglect. On the app or website of Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), there are great introductions and audio commentary for each work. While in its virtual tour, the narratives are still missing. Since this kind of narrative and commentary resources is already there, I would say adding them to the virtual tour should be the next step to improve the experience.

Met App

(App of The Met)

Searchability and Shareability

Other features that should be the advantages of the digital tour while missing are the searchability and shareability. When people are consuming information, search and share are the two vital parts of their behaviors. (Wilson, T. D., 2000). One happens at the beginning (of information behavior), and one happens in the end.

In the physical museum, people use a map to search and locate the information they want, and they take photos or write notes to share with others. While in the virtual tour, the map (often located on the top right corner of view) is majorly for switching location. There is no search bar or menu as other digital products, and the map is not listing enough details for users to easily locate the things they want.

Virtual Museum Tour Map

(2D Virtual Tour – Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History)

In terms of the shareability, if users experience the tours on the computer, tablet or phone, they may be able to take screenshots, although it is not convenient and personalized. If they watch with a VR headset, then there is no way for them to keep a record and share with others. Without the shareability, the virtual tours just lost the free yet powerful marketing opportunities – word-of-mouth.

I believe the virtual tours has great potential because it makes the best work and cultural heritage of the world more accessible to anyone. It has unique advantages compared with physical tour while there are still some gaps it needs to catch with the experience of the physical tour. Hopefully, it will happen soon as the evolvement of virtual reality and 3D modeling.



[1] Dalbello, M. (2009). “Digital cultural heritage: concepts, projects, and emerging constructions of heritage,” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA Conference, 25-30 May, 2009

[2] Wilson, T. D. (2000). “Human information behavior.” InformingScience3(2): 49–56.

[3] Virtual tour, Wikipedia

[4] How VR Is Changing UX: From Prototyping To Device Design

[5] Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History

[6] First 3D Virtual Museum with 3D scans of ancient relics – Ancient sculptures of Vietnam,

Preserving Dissent: Labor Archives and Archivists’ Labor

By alisonmacdonald

The directory of labor archives in the United States and Canada compiled by the Labor Archives Roundtable at the Society of American Archivists makes it clear that preservation of, and access to, records concerning labor movements is a priority for North American institutions of status and power. The Labor Archives Roundtable aims to connect archivists, labor organizations, researchers, and institutions with an interest in records concerning labor to ensure preservation of and access to such records. In its directory the Roundtable lists archives in the field of labor in 30 U.S. states, among which New York is particularly well-represented by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at the Tamiment Library at New York University, and the archives and library at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. This article will review some of the roles, contradictions, challenges and opportunities faced by archives that deal explicitly with the records of organizations like those in labor movements who challenge established social power relations.

When making decisions about preservation of, and access to, archival records, archivists face significant conceptual, technical, and social hurdles. One conceptual challenge concerns the natures of archives and archival work themselves. In 2002 archivists Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook made an argument for the creative social and historical powers of archives and for the resulting responsibilities of archivists. Their article, titled “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” asserted that traditional archival practice had clung to the conjoined myths of professional and archival neutrality. By refusing to recognize the role archives play as sites for the negotiation of social power and the creation of social memory, and the resultant influence of archivists upon that negotiation and creation, archivists refused accountability for their own roles in the perpetuance of existing social power relations. As Schwartz and Cook note, archives originate in the information needs and social values of the powerful; they are not spontaneously-occurring historical repositories but reflect instead the concerns of a society’s privileged classes. Without continual questioning by archivists, the records chosen for inclusion in an archive may well document and justify only the powerful.

This lack of questioning is dangerous because it implicitly supports the archival myth of neutrality and objectivity, and thus sanctions the already strong predilection of archives and archivists to document primarily mainstream culture and powerful records creators (Schwartz and Cook, 18).

The challenges faced by archivists include technical and social obstacles. As the article “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” by historian Roy Rosenzweig, underlines, “preservation of the past is, in the end, often a matter of allocating adequate resources” (Rosenzweig, 761). Writing in 2003, Rosenzweig focused on the new challenges of preservation and access posed by records in digital formats. He concluded that although the technical hurdles involved in archiving born-digital materials are substantial, “the problems are much more than technical and involve difficult social, political, and organizational questions of authenticity, ownership, and responsibility” (Rosenzweig, 748). Allocation of resources to preserve historical records is complicated when, as with born-digital materials, ownership of, and thus responsibility for, those records is diffuse and/or ambiguous.

Of course archivists focused on records pertaining to organizations, such as labor organizations, who challenge existing power relations are not immune to the reassuring inclination to view their profession as a neutral endeavor committed to safeguarding an uncontroversial historicity. Neither are they free of the technical, social, and political challenges facing archival work in general and the archiving of born-digital materials in particular. In fact, it could be argued that such archives face those hurdles to a greater extent than do less politicized archives as they document the more diffuse and less well-funded efforts made and media used by those who oppose the interests of society’s powerful. Nor does the existence of specialized archives that treat labor movements, such as the Kheel Center, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and the archives at the YIVO Institute, obviate the necessity for sensitive consideration of the ways in which such archives’ records should be preserved for future access. As political scientist Michael Lipsky noted in his 1969 paper, “Toward a Theory of Street-level Bureaucracy,” the existence of such specialized units may only reinforce omission of less powerful groups from consideration and responsible treatment by mainstream organizational efforts.

These units permit Street-level Bureaucrats to allege that problems are being handled and provide a “place” in the bureaucracy where particularly vociferous and persistent complainants can be referred. At the same time, the existence of the units deflects pressures for general reorientation (Lipsky, 19).

Archivists at Cornell, New York University, and the YIVO Institute are privileged and supported in their work by their affiliation with high-status institutions who enjoy substantial funding and influence. Similarly, the Progressive Librarians Guild, an organization committed to hosting discussion of radical and labor-related issues in libraries and library work, locates its archives at the American Library Association Archives. The American Library Association is a well-connected and funded organization whose stability and status will help to ensure the continued preservation of, and access to, those archives (housed currently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). It can thus be seen that archivists who work with records that explicitly challenge existing power relations, and in archives that prioritize those records, do not enjoy a simplified approach to their material, but rather face a heightened need for sensitivity to the conceptual, technical, and social challenges faced by the archival profession in general. Specialized archives that prioritize the less powerful will need to ensure their own survival, likely by alliance with more powerful organizations. Archivists will need to include consideration of such relationships in their archival work if they are to achieve, as Schwartz and Cook enjoined, an opening of archives’ and archivists’ power “to vital debate and transparent accountability” (Schwartz and Cook, 1).


Works Cited

Lipsky, M. (1969). “Toward a theory of street-level bureaucracy.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, NYC.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era,” The American Historical Review 108(3): 735–763.

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

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