A missed opportunity to bring an eccentric Museum to life with VR

Olivia McEwan

LONDON : Sir John Soane’s Museum is a true oddity of a museum. Occupying a townhouse in the law firm-heavy area of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn, central London, it is the former home of neoclassical architect John Soane, best known for designing elements of the Bank of England. Soane used inventive and unusual architectural tricks, such as strategic mirrors to direct the scant natural light, and movable walls to maximize the spatial limitations of the house, which he stuffed with a vast collection of contemporary paintings and eclectic sculpture from antiquities to sarcophagi, making for a wholly unusual viewing experience. Running the small museum presents a challenge; only 90 people are allowed inside at any one time because of spatial constraints and there’s no ticket desk save for a little marquee in its tiny yard. Such conditions are stipulated by an act of Parliament in 1833 stating that the collection be kept as it was in Soane’s time. Making this stuffy, archaic personal collection of an English eccentric relatable and appealing to wide, international audiences must be no mean feat.

It seems a natural choice, then, to mount an exhibition using the medium of virtual reality, which defies such physical restrictions. Multidisciplinary design practice Space Popular is led by Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Helberg, who here present The Portal Galleries, two films experienced via VR headset in temporary displays throughout the house. Portals are an inspired choice for a museum in which entering practically feels like stepping into another world, with its narrow passages and low-ceilinged alcoves, and the press release takes pains to demonstrate the intellectual relationship: “Visitors will be guided through the magic and mechanics of virtual travel in an exhibition that bridges the technologies of Soane’s time and ours.” Tying the physical experience with the virtual, portals “[respond] to the virtuality” of the museum “[granting] entrance into another environment.” 

Installation view including labelled carpeting of VR installation

It would have been fantastic if this stated relationship continued into the VR films themselves, but from their content one could be forgiven for concluding that Lesmes and Helberg have never set foot in the museum. The press release states that the ground-floor VR experience presents “a series of portals across environments derived from Soane’s spaces,” yet the video shows a vast black open space centered on a podium, around which various items float, such as the monolith from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey or the VHS cassette from Videodrome. On the floor is a semi-circular rug emblazoned with such words as “object,” “hole,” and “water.” Floating texts ask things like “are we already travelling vast distances through our screens?” before images of doors or other openings appear, interspersed with stills from other popular films like Disney’s Turning Red. Little here is obviously “derived from Soane’s spaces” in any visual or even obviously thematic sense.

Similarly, the second VR experience is accompanied by an oval table displaying various circles that contain “types” of portals seen in popular films. The accompanying VR film explores the history of the portal in storytelling since 1950, from early cartoons in which Road Runner holds aloft a black hole “portal” through to 1980s horror films like The Fly, or the Harry Potter series. The plethora of film on display feels incongruous within the historical surroundings of the Soane’s Museum. Nothing is inherently wrong with such a presentation; indeed, the kids enjoying the show while I visited were clearly captivated, and engaging young audiences is hardly something to complain about. For younger audiences, the nuances, subtleties, and historical significance of the museum will at best appeal as an amusing experience, yet nonetheless remain obscure without knowledge and context. 

The main sculpture gallery of the Soane’s Museum

This isn’t to argue that kids need an art history education to appreciate culture, but not to use this VR opportunity to link back to the museum’s incredible architecture and visual richness results in a missed opportunity to bring to life its archaic walls and artwork. A VR experience wholly contained in itself here is essentially no different from a fun, interactive diversion at the Science Museum. It becomes about the temporary content, not the building or its history. This would have been forgivable had the press release not been so assiduous in asserting the union between the videos and the museum.

VR presents museums with plenty of constructive and relevant ways to engage with audiences. Yet in this instance the VR content does not complement the physical; instead it widens the gulf between art history and contemporary art making.

Installation view of upstairs VR experience

Courtesy: hyperallergic