In March 2016, the Guggenheim Museum published a blog post about their latest endeavor: “Extending the Museum Experience with Virtual Reality”. In it, they announce a content partnership with Google’s Expeditions Pioneer program, which is Google’s educational virtual reality platform marketed to teachers for “virtual fieldtrips”.
For museums, virtual reality is a very interesting technology that could be a powerful tool for their business model. First, as an educational tool, either as a virtual field trip or a component inside an exhibition at the physical museum. Building a bridge to a new generation of users is important, given that museum attendance has been on the decline for years.
Secondly, as a promotional tool; people who experience the museum in virtual reality may be more inclined to visit the physical space when they have the time or means available.
Google is a great partner for the Guggenheim and other museums. They have already been very strategic about the user adoption rate, which is still very low, with the $15 cardboard glasses to get to the masses before user prices come down. Furthermore, they have a complete ecosystem (Daydream, the VR platform for Android operating system, and Jump, the VR Camera) to offer to any content curators. As discussed in the “Making Virtual Reality Real”, these platforms can only succeed if there is content that people want to view. Google has incentives to work with the Guggenheim and support them with their resources to bring content to the platform to solve the “chicken or egg” platform problem with content creators and users. Additionally, there is security in creating for Google ecosystems in that is highly unlikely that they will disappear over time as do some companies during times of technological change.
The Guggenheim can benefit from Google’s knowledge and expertise in the space, but just as importantly the data collection. Beyond ticket sales, it is hard to gather user data about attendees if they are not registered members of the museum. With user data collected from virtual reality used remotely and in the physical space, the Guggenheim can use leverage the information for many purposes, either about specific exhibitions or in general. They can come up with innovative incentives for getting participants in the doors; either exclusive VR access to content or perhaps other museum collections like Guggenheim Abu Dhabi or Bilbao.
For museums to participate in this new medium properly, they will have to invest resources to create in-house teams around virtual reality content creation. The technology is still very expensive, which is why having a relationship with a behemoth like Google could be helpful. Furthermore, there may extensive issues around the copyright of famous artwork, as described in the original Guggenheim blog post. Another issue may be the monetization of the content; will museums be able to charge money through the platform if they are participating as an educational partner?
Despite all the challenges, it is well worth the upside to figuring out the challenges and embracing VR as a tool.
 Feng Zhu, Sarah Mehta, David Lane, “Making Virtual Reality Real,” HBS No. N9-617-013 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2017), p. 6.