Barnes Foundation Uses VR to Engage New Audiences

Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation is bringing its collections outside of the museum walls with the help of virtual reality.

The program aims to engage new audiences who may never have been to the museum by bringing VR goggles to community spaces. Using the goggles, visitors can tour a simulation of the museum and look at the artwork inside. Museum staff hope this virtual tour will get them excited about visiting the real space. The Barnes offers people who participate in the VR experience free admission and in some instances, free transportation to the museum.

This community outreach program began in 2018 with a partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia. Initially, the VR program took place in four libraries throughout the city and one recreation center. The Barnes staff found that thirty-one percent of the people who participated in the VR experience then attended a follow-up field trip to the actual museum. Eighty percent of these visitors had never been to the museum before. Further, the museum was able to engage a population that was reflective of Philadelphia’s racial and economic breakdown.

In response to this success, the museum expanded the VR program this year to sixty-two sites. Val Gay, deputy director for audience engagement & chief experience officer, described the program as a natural extension of Dr. Barnes’ goal of providing broader community access to art. She said, “We look forward to introducing new audiences to the Barnes collection and deepening our relationships with Philadelphia’s many diverse communities.”