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Is virtual reality driving up visits to places and spaces?

By Martin Hinchliffe.

In 1975 I was 14. The Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain), had recently acquired David Hockney’s ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’. My art teacher, George Hatton, showed David Hockney’s painting to my art class. He projected an image of the painting on to the classroom wall. George positioned the projector far enough away from the wall so that the dimensions of the projection coincided with the dimensions of David Hockney’s painting. He removed notices and drawing pins from the wall and all of the obstructions that might cast shadows onto the image of the painting. George then closed the blinds and dimmed the lights before turning on the projector.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. David Hockney. 1971. Tate Britain, London. © David Hockney.

This was a significant moment for me. I stared in wonder at the sharp and highly visible detail of the painted surface in the projected image. I was struck by the scale of the painting, the illusion of the three dimensional interior of the room. The near life-size representation of Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, and of course, the idea of this creative couple living their seemingly easy lives in their comfortable Notting Hill flat. But I was also struck by the idea that what I was actually looking at was a representation of a painting, not the painting itself.

My overwhelming urge that day was that I had to see the actual physical painting. The following week my desperation came to an end as I stood in the Tate Gallery in front of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – a painted illusion of the couple and their cat.

50 years later, I am still on a journey, aligning ‘things’ (products, objects, services and experiences) with artificial approximations of those things.

Implementing Virtual Reality

Recently this journey has lead me into the realm of virtual reality and we have just completed the Dreweatts sponsored virtual tour of Freud, Minton, Ryan: Unholy Trinity. Curated by Julian Machin, the exhibition is now open in Bath until 19 September before moving to Falmouth.

Virtual tours are used widely in real estate marketing. Arts and heritage sectors are beginning to use it more.

One particular virtual tour that we produced recently was made out of necessity. An important retrospective exhibition of photographs, curated by Matthew Conduit for Museums Sheffield called The Sheffield Project, was launched as the UK went into lockdown. Galleries and museums everywhere were closing their doors to visitors. This virtual tour was concieved at the time as a workaround, enabling visitors to see the exhibition whilst the gallery remain closed.

Embedded outbound links within the tour enabled visitors to make enquiries, visit the gallery shop, buy the exhibition catalogue and even make a donation to the gallery. That was over a year ago and since then the doors have thankfully opened and physical visits have started to take place again.

It might be too early to say if Museums Sheffield’s virtual tour has generated further footfall beyond that which has already been created by their very successfully marketing activities and channels. The covid context will be skewing marketeers’ understanding of what is happening regarding footfall but it is likely that there is a strong correlation between well executed approximations of an experience (virtual reality) and the very strong desire to follow through and experience, first hand, the tangible reality for yourself in the flesh.