Augmented Reality and The Wende Museum

by Jen O’Leary

Augmented Reality in Museums

Augmented Reality (AR) is becoming a widespread technology in museums as curators, educators and archivists explore ways to integrate users into their exhibits, create interactive learning environments, and exhibit different types of media in innovative ways. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto developed mobile applications that overlay skin onto dinosaur skeletons when a mobile device is held in front of the bones. The British Museum created an AR scavenger hunt where children collected words and digital objects to solve puzzles when they scanned specific exhibition objects with a mobile device. Mobile applications have been developed by the Museum of London and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney that allow users to walk around London and Sydney respectively, and when they hold their devices up to certain landmarks, archival photographs will show what that exact location looked like in the past. The Wende Museum has also been an early adopter of AR, integrating moving images into their recent book Beyond the Wall and bringing interactivity into their newest exhibit, Facial Recognition.

Augmented Reality in Beyond the Wall

The Wende Museum began their foray into augmented reality when they partnered with Blippar for the Taschen book Beyond the Wall. Blippar is an AR company that creates technology to bring enhanced content to different fields and spaces. They have created an app that can be downloaded on any smart device for free. Content creators choose an image or an item, take a picture of that item, the enhanced content is added to that image using the company’s software, and the image properties and enhanced content are added to the app. When users hold up their smart device with the app to that item or image, wherever they are in the world, the app will recognize that image, and reveal the enhanced content. The content can be anything from additional images, links to websites, written text, videos, polls, and even a photo booth.

For Beyond the Wall, if readers download the free app at home, they can use it to scan the cover and pages in the book to bring up related content.


By scanning the cover and pages in the book, readers can access audiovisual content.

This application makes many of the items in the Wende’s collection more accessible to people who might not be able to travel all the way to Culver City to see the artifacts in person. It also allows content that cannot be printed in a book due to its original medium, such as videos, to be viewed in conjunction with the other artifacts in the book to create a more complete picture of not only the Museum’s holdings, but also life in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Augmented Reality in Facial Recognition

The Wende next used Augmented Reality in their exhibit Facial Recognition, currently on display until March 18, 2016.

In conjunction with Leo Selvaggio and URME Surveillance, the Wende is using AR to test facial recognition and open a discourse on surveillance technology in use today. Museum visitors can wear URME’s prosthetic mask, or make a paper mask, and when the Blippar app scans the guest disguised with the mask, it identifies Selvaggio’s faceand brings up biometric information about him as well as content related to the exhibition.


Museum visitor wearing URME’s prosthetic mask with Blippar content confirming Selvaggio’s face was recognized.

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Enhanced content can be accessed by scanning URME’s mask.

This exhibit emphasizes URME’s quest to protect the public from government surveillance, and allows Museum visitors to participate in and learn first-hand what facial recognition technology is capable of, instead of only reading about the implications.

In addition, the Wende has used Blippar to create an interactive guessing game with four different sculptures of Lenin. The Museum’s collection contains approximately 85 Lenin busts, and they are continuing to experiment with the capabilities of Augmented Reality and facial recognition technology to decipher geographic origins and emotional expressions of figurative artworks. This collaborative project will expand to analyze images of Lenin from collections all over the former Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union.

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Each bust is recognized by the Blippar app and visitors have the opportunity to guess from the country of origin for each.


The multiple choice question is posed to guests. Once they have made their choice, they will see the correct answer as well as the percentages of other visitors’ choices.

Each country depicted Lenin in a slightly different way according to its own pictorial tradition. The facial recognition technology allows visitors to look more closely at the artifacts and interact with them in new ways. Most museum patrons would not classify Lenin busts as “fun,” but this interactive game brings interest and enjoyment into an analysis of these artifacts.

In an age where most children–and adults–are glued to their cell phones and tablets, it is a challenge for museums to engage their visitors with traditional methods and older technologies. Augmented Reality has opened up innovative options for creating interactive opportunities for museum visitors, allowed museums to exhibit their content outside of the institution’s walls, and made different types of media, especially moving image content, which is often a challenge to exhibit in a traditional museum setting, available to users. With the exponential growth of this technology over the past few years, museums have been able to create extraordinary exhibits, and as this technology expands into the future, there is no limit to how a museum’s artifacts can be engaged with, displayed, and shared.

Jen O’Leary worked as an AV Intern at the Wende Museum. She is a 2nd year graduate student in UCLA’s Moving Image Archive Studies program focusing on camera and projection technologies’ influences on the restoration and preservation of moving image material.

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