Museums and the Arts in Inhabited Virtual Worlds

The art gallery at CircleU

The art gallery at CircleU, around 1998

The installation of 3D graphical museums and galleries in multi-user worlds is not a new idea (I built my own first art gallery in my ActiveWorlds virtual world back in the later 1990s, and mine too was far from the first ever built). The number of new museums in virtual inhabited worlds has proliferated in the past couple of years, however, primarily due to the popularity, in general as an immersive environment, of Second Life and consequently the opportunities for translating real-world institutions into globally accessible virtual spaces.  This unit of the course will be structured as follows:

  • an exploration and review of some of the museums, and of some of the museum groups, in Second Life. Museums by genre:
      • art museums and galleries (Louvre, …)
      • art installations (Two Fish, Immersiva, …)
      • science museums (Splo, the Palaeozoic Museum, …)
      • reconstructions of historical monuments and buildings (Renaissance Island, the Tower of London, the Basilica of St Francis, …)
      • other / unclassified (Death by Design, …)
  • a reading of some of the published literature (conference papers, journal papers, blogs, etc) on museums in MUVEs, and a group discussion of the readings
  • a consideration of some of the attendant conceptual and theoretical issues, for example: what is the point of building 3D museums? (‘edutainment’? frameworks for e-learning? enabling armchair access to geographically remote or dispersed collections? promotion of their real-world equivalents?) should virtual museums replicate bricks-and-mortar real-world museums? what is (should be, could be) the relationship between the historical artefact and its digital representation?

Why bring art, culture, and heritage to MUVEs?

There are a number of reasons, among which:

  • the virtual museum offers global access to the real-world museum (even if the RL museum is closed! see examples 2 and 10 below)
  • MUVEs offer the opportunity to create visually rich walk-through museums that have no real-world counterparts (example 4 below)
  • virtual worlds offer an immersive experience in which the gallery visitor becomes an exploratory participant in the artwork (examples 3, 5, 6 and 7 below)
  • unconstrained by real-world physics, real-world costs, and real-world materials, virtual world content creation tools enable the construction of immersive art experiences inconceivable and unrealisable in the real world (examples 3, 5, 6 and 7 below)
  • virtual worlds enable the recreation of real-world historical and architectural sites (see the virtual Tower of London, example 13 below, created by students on this module)
  • virtual worlds provide digital tools for cost-free experimentation and the prototyping of models later to be created as artworks in RL
  • multi-user virtual worlds provide an ideal platform for interactive digital storytelling (both as a ‘storyboarding tool’ for real filmmakers and also as a native platform for virtual theatre and cinema a.k.a. machinima)
  • virtual worlds poetry, music, and drama (e.g. poetry at Empyreal Dreams, drama and music at the Globe Theatre at Renaissance Island)
  • MUVEs enable participatory role-play for immersive teaching and learning of heritage and history (e.g. the Middle Passage Experience)

Examples of museums, galleries, and installations in Second Life

  1. Jonathan Kazan, Digital Art in Second Life
  2. GMOA’s Virtual Museum in Second Life (virtual visit of real museum) [Click to view full-screen]
  3. Bryn Oh, The Rabbicorn Story (immersive installation) [Click to view full-screen]
  4. Museum of the African-American Experience (digital museum only) [Click to view full-screen]
  5. Bryn Oh, Willow (immersive installation) [Click to view full-screen]
  6. Rose Borchovski (Saskia Boddeke), The Story of Susa Bubble (immersive installation–see controversy in this link and this link) [Click to view full-screen]
  7. Lainy Voom (Trace Sanderson), Push [Click to view full-screen]
  8. Tutsy Navarathna, Ma Bohème (narrative, poetry) [Click to view full-screen]
  9. Tutsy Navarathna, Mon Rêve Familier (narrative, poetry) [Click to view full-screen]
  10. Live Early Music Concert with Thom Dowd in Second Life (concert performance) [Click to view full-screen]
  11. Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Globe Theatre [Click to view full-screen]
  12. The Sistine Chapel on Vassar College island [Click to view full-screen]
  13. The Tower of London (work by students taking this module) [Click to view full-screen]
  14. al Masjid al Nabawi (work by students taking this module) [Click to view full-screen]
  15. Natural History Museum (work by a student taking this module) [Click to view full-screen]

Further examples

The International Spaceflight Museum. “The International Spaceflight Museum is a museum in the virtual world of Second Life. It hosts exhibits and events about real-world spacecraft, rockets, and space travel. The museum is located on the island sim Spaceport Alpha.” Katherine Cochrane, founder of the museum, writes in the Proceedings of the First Second Life Education Workshop (2006):

“The International Spaceflight Museum (ISM) is a real museum, with educational goals and high standards of building and scholarship, that happens to exist only within the virtual world of Second Life.Unlike many other educational projects in the ISM was conceived and executed completely independent of any real world organization, by people who met one another in SL and decided that creating and operating such a museum would be a worthwhile, fun project.The items in the museum’s collection fall into several broad categories: spacecraft (historic rockets, space probes, space stations and landers), astronomy-related objects (planet/solar system models and a planetarium), space-related artwork and posters, and guest exhibits. Our spacecraft include over 50 full-scale models of launch vehicles and sounding rockets from the space agencies of over a dozen countries, and two from a private space company. Scaled Composites, private enterprise builders of the XPrize winner, SpaceShip One and its launch plane, the White Knight, provided us with drawings that enabled us to create accurate models of these historic craft.”


Empyreal Dreams

“Empyreal Dreams is a collaborative project between two creators based in England and The United States. It aims to visualize famous poems and literature using Second Life as a canvas. A teleportation machine greets the visitor with destinations available to: The Raven, Emily Brontë’s The Bluebell, The Ancient Mariner and Les Misérables.”

The Cape Able Art Gallery
In light of its being a virtual environment, Second Life is an ideal social medium for the disabled. The Cape Able Art Gallery, a project of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, “feature[s] an exhibition of the works of hearing-impaired artists Ellie Kidder (aka Hope McAlpine) and Ronin1Shippe. The gala [launch] event was hosted by Cape Able Estate Manager Treasure Ballinger. Cape Able was recently acquired by Virtual Ability Inc., a federally licensed 501 c3 non-profit corporation whose mission it is to assist people with disabilities who wish to explore SL and virtual reality environments. The event celebrated a splendid new building to house the gallery and the riveting and whimsical art of these two very talented artists.”
Museums in MUVEs - Culture & Heritage Informatics
Museums in MUVEs - Culture & Heritage Informatics

The Palaeozoic Museum

Death by DesignDeath by Design

Online resources and directories


Urban, R., Marty, P., & Twidale, M. (2007). ‘ A Second Life for Your Museum: 3D Multi-User Virtual Environments and Museums’. Paper presented at Museums and the Web 2007, San Francisco, California, April 11-14, 2007. [Web]


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