The Rise (and Rise?) of ‘Immersive’ Exhibitions

for The Platform: Dispatches
June 2021
By Geoffrey Marsh

Twenty-five years ago, I was responsible for developing the then new Imperial War Museum – North at Trafford, Manchester in the north of England. Like most museum professionals, I wanted to get many more people from a wider range of backgrounds interested in exploring the cultures of the past. In the early 1990s, I had visited what seemed like one potential solution, the Cathédrale d’Images at Les Baux, about an hour north of Marseilles in Provence. Conceived by Albert Plécy (1914-1977), French photographer and image theorist in 1976, the concept was extraordinarily simple but hugely innovative. Inside an underground quarry, nearly one hundred standard Kodak carousel slide projectors created a thirty-minute show onto every surface facet of the space, including the roof and floor. One walked around surrounded by a continuous environment of moving images accompanied by complementary music.

The effect of Plécy’s ‘image totale’ was fascinating, not simply in terms of presenting a wide variety of subjects (medieval stained glass, ancient Egypt, classical architecture, etc.) in a new way, but that it seemed to engage people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. Convinced of its effectiveness, I worked with the architect Daniel Libeskind and exhibition designer the late Steve Simons to transfer the concept to a much smaller, urban environment, part of the massive inner-city regeneration of Salford Quays. The resulting ‘Big Picture’ show was part of the IWM-North when it opened in 2002 and demonstrated that ‘image totale’, could work alongside conventional object displays, something absent at the Cathédrale d’Images.

Things often move slowly in the cultural sphere, but I was always surprised that such an effective idea, what would now be called ‘immersive’ exhibitions, took so long to catch on more widely. This was particularly the case as many urban regeneration programmes in the early 21st century were looking for cost-effective ways to attract and engage diverse audiences as part of broader urban cultural planning. However, ‘immersive’ exhibitions have now been taken up with a vengeance and there are supposedly five Van Gogh presentations on tour in the USA with two of them on show in London this autumn.

At present, there seem three broad strands of ‘immersive’ exhibitions, although they overlap. Over the last fifteen years, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has presented a series of highly successful exhibitions based on these techniques of ‘sound and vision’, mixed down with rich object displays. The best known was David Bowie is, which over its tour (2013-2018) was seen by over 2,000,000 visitors. However, the run of different exhibitions has allowed wide experimentation with subjects, sound approaches, presentation technology and displays, not to mention audience mix and financial results. The current exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, designed by Tom Piper, opened in May 2021.

Over the same time, the French commercial operator of heritage sites, Culturespaces, had taken over the operation of Les Baux in 2012 and renamed the quarry the Carrières de Lumières. With upgraded technology, more effective marketing and a focus on big name ‘brand’ artists as subjects (Van Gogh, Picasso, Klimt, etc.) visitor numbers rocketed. They have now successfully cloned the concept in Paris (Atelier de Lumières – 2018 using 140 projectors), Bordeaux and elsewhere beyond France, arguably creating the foundations of the first global ‘immersive’ exhibition brand. It is well worth reading the Tripadvisor comments for these sites, if you doubt their power to engage the public.

Finally, and somewhat separately, a range of artists have become fascinated with ‘immersive’ installations. This is a complex story with important creative ‘firsts’ scattered around the globe. Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass’s (Random International), Rain Room, which opened at the Barbican, London in 2012 before an international tour, was particularly important in demonstrating to gallery administrators the major audience pull of such works in terms of attendance, diversity of visitors and income generation.

So, an intriguing past and probably a fascinating future to come as digital technologies, whether funded by the public sector or business, continue to nibble away at the exhibition market, which for much of the 20th century was largely a museum monopoly. If you are interested in knowing more about the evolution of ‘immersive’ exhibitions, some of the practicalities and the V&A’s various projects, please see a longer paper written by my colleague Victoria Broackes, former Head of Exhibitions for the Department of Theatre & Performance at the V&A Museum, and myself presented to members of the Global Cultural Districts Network on 2 June 2021.

Geoffrey Marsh is the Director of Theater and Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 

Photo: Vi..Cult... (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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