So you’ve finally made it to Paris, France. You wake up the next day, on Sunday, and bring your family to the Louvre museum at around 10AM, and this is what you see….1.5hr line.
Fig. 1. Line outside the Louvre
You tell yourself, 1.5hr line is fine, as long as you can see the famous Mona Lisa painting you’ve heard so much about. But this is what you actually end up looking at…lots of camera screens, not much of the painting itself.
Does this sound familiar? The experience surrounding the visit of a museum is often disappointing for a number of reasons, but up to now no clear alternatives were available. Virtual Reality (VR) headsets are slowly emerging as a substitute to visiting art galleries, potentially threatening museums’ business model.
Fig. 3. Oculus Rift headset
Manufacturers such as Samsung, Oculus Rift, and Sony are bringing to market VR headsets that enable immersive experience from any location. It isn’t hard to imagine how this technology could adversely impact museums’ business model, not just by removing several of the pain points that affect the museum experience but also by making the experience more interactive and exciting in a way a museum can’t.
How are the museums responding to this digital transformation?
One might think that because museums are often nonprofit, they might not care much about a reduction in the number of visitors. While largely funded by state subsidy and private donations, museums still rely heavily on ticket sales to meet their budget. For the Louvre museum, 28% of its 216m€ revenue in 2012 came from ticket sales  (in line with the 31% average figure reported by the American Alliance of Museums in 2006 ). As such, to continue funding their operations and acquire new Art pieces, museums have come up with ways to attract visitors, often adding a layer of digital to their existing installations.
Play it safe – improve existing audioguide offering
Most museums propose audio guides to visitors as a way to enhance their experience, but these guides do not generate significant revenue. The Louvre offers a free mobile app, and a 5€ Nintendo 3DS version that you can rent in place of the usual audio guides. Only 4% of the 8.5 million annual visitors choose to rent the available audio guides, generating a paltry 1.7m€ in yearly revenue . Audiences want to be engaged, but an incremental evolution of the audio guide probably isn’t enough.
Fig. 4. Museum Australia Innovation Study (2014) 
Experiment in exhibit designs
Some museums have started to mix physical objects with basic digital tools, Fig. 5. shows the example of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which uses projection mapping to reimagine how the museum’s Temple of Dendur looked like. Again, incremental in nature, these changes do not appear to radically enhance the visitor’s experience.
Fig 5. Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Temple of Dendur section
Integrate VR into the museum experience
The British Museum uses virtual reality to transport visitors to the bronze age. It allows visitors to explore an historical site featuring objects from the museum’s collection that have been 3D scanned and placed in their original setting.
Fig 6. Interior of a virtual reality Bronze Age roundhouse 
While offering a VR experience helps engage visitors, it does not solve the issue of accommodating a large number of visitors in a given location. Also, once the virtual world has been created and could thus be accessed from home, the appeal to physically come to the museum is reduced.
Comes in the “Netflix of the Arts”
WoofbertVR , a startup ran by a MoMA curator, has partnered with leading museums to offer virtual museum tours accessible to all online. Called the “Netflix of the Arts” by Forbes, it is free for the moment (as museums provide their Art rights for free), but has indicated that it will charge a fee at some point.
Fig 7. Close up view of a painting by Edouard Manet – A Bar at the Folies-Bergère in the VR world.
WoofbertVR also enables users to step into the painting and be absolutely immersed within the scene.
Fig 8. Once in the painting
WoofbertVR is a great example of what the combination of VR headsets and the internet could offer beyond just seeing up close Art.
All previously discussed onsite digital experiences proposed by museums do not appear to radically enhance the value proposition of coming to the museum, nor generate additional revenue for the moment. While VR could be perceived as a threat to museums, it could also be viewed as a tool to democratize access to Art, in turn encouraging people to see the real Art pieces at the museums afterwards. In any case, museums should rethink their business and operating model, and consider licensing the rights to “view” their museums in the digital world, as this could become a new important revenue stream. One caveat to that, observing how the digital transformation operated in the entertainment and music industry with Netflix and iTunes, museums should consider not letting a single 3rd party owned platform monopolize the majority of the market, in turn building a large bargaining power.