Samsung and the British Museum bring virtual reality to the Bronze Age
Standing in a field you look up at the sun. Beside you is a cluster of ancient houses – earthen roofs bulging up from the grass. The sun is bright and you walk towards the entrance of the closest hut. There is a fire burning in the centre, there are items on the floor, there are no signs of life.
After removing the virtual-reality (VR) headset, returning to a busy room in the British Museum, it takes a few moments to bring your mind back from the Bronze Age roundhouse. This virtual space is the outcome of a collaboration between the British Museum and its technology partner, Samsung, who have worked with developers Solius Heritage to create an interactive 3D version of a Bronze Age settlement.
Museums and galleries run the risk of detracting from exhibitions by using too much new technology, but in the short time I experienced the VR roundhouse I found it approachable and engaging enough to justify spending a few minutes looking at objects. If i’m honest, I could have happily spent an hour simply wandering around the field. Importantly, it provided a much-needed sense of context to a period of history that suffers from a lack of surviving structures.
Image: © Soluis Group Limited
“The challenge for us is to find something that’s difficult to do in normal teaching,” said Chris Michaels, head of digital and publishing at the British Museum. “And the Bronze Age is very difficult to do in normal teaching, because you’re often talking about things that come from somewhere that doesn’t exist any more.”
Since 2014, Bronze Age history has been a mandatory part of the curriculum for 7- to 11-year-old students in the UK, but teachers have found it a difficult period to teach. The fact that real Bronze Age roundhouses were knocked down more than 3,000 years ago means schools tend to favour taking students on trips to reconstruction sites rather than museums – for the basic reason that it’s hard to dramatise tools and bracelets kept behind glass.
Michaels told me that the lack of existing buildings and monuments makes the Bronze Age ripe for virtual reality. Using Samsung Gear VR headsets, students are able to see these objects in context. “That’s something that virtual reality can uniquely do – not just seeing an object abstracted in a case but seeing where it comes from. You start to get a tangible sense of what things were like.”
Image: © Trustees of the British Museum CC-BY
At the press event Andy Griffiths, president of Samsung Electronics UK and Ireland, reinforced the company’s commitment to working with the British Museum to bring VR into the world of culture and heritage. “Together, our aim is to use the latest technologies to enhance learning, and provide children and adults alike with an immersive learning experience like no other,” he said.
The VR project had a leg up from another project in the British Museum, which involved extensive 3D modelling of objects in the collection. “We’ve worked with the [UCL Institute of Archaeology and British Museum] Micropasts project,” Juno Rae, co-manager of the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre at the British Museum, informed me. “So we already had 3D objects ready and knew we could incorporate artefacts from the collection, some of which are not on display. The idea of bringing those objects to our audiences was exciting.”
Bringing the ancient past to life
Working with the museum’s European Bronze Age curator, Dr Neil Wilkin, has helped to give the VR environment an added sense of authenticity. The idea is that the virtual environment is used in conjunction with the real artefacts, and that after exploring the Bronze Age roundhouse through the Samsung Gear VR headset, the objects will be imbued with new contextual relevance. For children it presents an opportunity to bring this period of history to life. I asked Michaels if the museum was planning to widen the use of VR to create experiences aimed at adult visitors.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The discovery centre is a great playground for us to develop new experiences. At some point we’ll do a similar thing for a more general adult audience. We want to learn first – how do you do this well – but of course you can do bigger things and different things for adults. So watch this space.”
Students and adults alike will get a chance to try out this VR environment this weekend at the British Museum Virtual Reality Weekend, which runs from 8-9 August.