Animation and Museums

Nov 30, 2019

Gone are the days of dusty display cases and fading labels. The modern museum has a refreshing approach to communicating information to its visitors. As new technologies open new possibilities, museums are embracing animation in many forms

“Museums are boring.” That's the reason I usually hear in some form or another when I chat with friends and who aren't big museum fans. “Museums are tiring,” and “there's so much to read.” “They have so many rooms,” and yes, “they're boring.” And if a museum isn't boring, that's usually because it's a hyperenganging one bursting with activities designed just for children.

As a writer and information designer, I get where they're coming from. In some cases, it's true. Museums can be boring. When their exhibits are designed with only the artifacts and not the visitors in mind, it takes extra effort for people to engage with the material. Although every museum's collection is more than likely bursting with interesting objects, they aren't always presented in ways that highlight those qualities.

But maybe being boring isn't the museums' fault. When you look at the trajectory of their development as a whole, the story of why so many seem to share this trait becomes a bit clearer. Modern museums are a blend of older institutions, some of which prioritized visitors, but the majority of which did not. Take a look a this video. It goes over some of that history.

Like the difference between the exclusiveness of curiosity cabinets and the showmanship of Barnum's American Museum, museums have historically danced on the line between public and private. When material was presented in these more recent iterations of the idea, it was often inherently shocking or mesmerizing, which naturally drew the interest of its viewers. When it wasn't so naturally engaging, that was often because items were curated with highbrow intellectual engagement in mind. I have found that this latter thinking still carries on to this . Many people who avoid museums do so because a visit to a museum seems to float on a different plane than other activities do. It's like going to school, but there is no teacher around to explain the material.

Although the Babylonian princess Ennigaldi founded her museum some 2500 years ago, her labeling methods are still being used today in museums throughout the world. A label with basic information, often in phrases, is engaging to a scholar who already knows the context of an object, but for most of the everyday public, labels like this alone alienate rather than interest them. Why go to a museum if rather than helping you , it reminds you of what you don't know? 

Additional tools like diagrams and longer text descriptions can be helpful, and since collections range in content type, so can the tools used to communicate information about them. Enter animation. Research has shown that animation is more effective in teaching material to people with all levels of background in the material than static content alone (Dasu, Ma, Ma, & Frazier, 2019). Besides, since it's such an adaptable medium, it's flexible enough to fit the many subjects museums cover.

More than likely, if you've been to a relatively well-funded museum within the past few years, you probably came across some form of animation while you were there. Some are large, attention-grabbing installations, and others are smaller ones that are easier to miss, but all play a role in helping museums share information with visitors.

What you might not have realized, however, is that museums are using animation well beyond the examples you may have seen in person. There are three main categories that cover these uses.


Animation within exhibits

Animations in the physical space of a museum help visitors connect with the material while they are there are in person.

Animation of exhibits

Museums (or their supporters) can use animation to elaborate on the space of the museum and the way that objects are showcased within that space.

Animation beyond exhibits

Animations that may or may not involve the institution directly can introduce the public to museum material from afar and without regard to how they are presented in the physical setting of the museum.

Although these categories are not universally used in the field of museum studies, I've divided some examples of animation between them because each of the three categories tends to use animation for similar purposes.




Because museums are “‘free choice' environments,” their education structure is by definition different from a classroom setting (Dasu et al., 2019).) Instead of sitting in chairs listening to a lecture, museum-goers pick up information as they wander. Historically, this information was focused on how the actual objects were displayed in the physical environment, but over time, and with the advent of new information design technologies, that structure has changed (Lin & Din, Dec 10, 2008). 

Here you can find a collection of examples of animation usage within museums. From interactive tables to large scale projections, they each have their own ways of introducing audiences to material, and in doing so, change the way they perceive it (Kenderdine, 2013). Overall, they support the ongoing role of museums to not only gather artifacts to display, but give structure to the stories they tell. (Dasu et al., 2019)


Some common types of animation within exhibits:

  • interactive exhibits
  • virtual reality
  • 3D and 4D videos
  • projections

Wall Street Journal Overview

Let's start with an overview. Here the Wall Street Journal presents a rundown of some common types of animation that fit under the umbrella of interactive exhibits. While not all interactive exhibits feature animation, it is a common combination because of the versatility of the medium.

Detroit Institute of Arts Overview

Depending on their funding and the nature of their spaces, some museums employ animation more than others. This overview of the Detroit Institute of Arts' exhibits demonstrates the fact that scale is a significant factor when it comes to animation. While, like the Wall Street Journal demonstrated, some uses can be as large as a movie theater, through the DIA we see several smaller examples that accommodate a handful or even just one learner at a time.

Ricci Map Interactivity Preview

Interactive maps like the one featured here from the Asian Art Museum not only expand the opportunities for audiences to explore particular artifacts, they also allow museum educators to provide visitors with additional information. By including buttons and popups on the screen, they account for that wandering learning style that differentiates museums from classrooms.

Display-based Museum Exhibit

While some animations are woven into exhibits as enhancements to the artifacts, others command the majority of the attention. Here is an exhibit that is nearly entirely based on interactive displays. They actually employ some of the same ideas as do the animations in my final category, Animation beyond Exhibits, because they could nearly exist as apps or websites outside of that physical space.

Non-interactive Animation

All right, don't be fooled into thinking that all museum animation involves interactivity. Here is a more traditional animation that was part of a travelling exhibit about Pompeii. As you can see, it imagines the gradual destruction of the city through realistic images. It was shown as a loop within the exhibit, which allowed visitors to spend as much time with it as they wanted (like they would with an interactive display) but it didn't require them to sit and watch in a theater setting (like many larger animated videos do.)

“[Augmented reality] installations transform today's commonplace big screen documentary into kinesthetic and phenomenological encounters with the places they depict”

Kenderdine, 2013




At a certain point, animations stop being important solely for knowledge transfer and begin serving an additional purpose: marketing. When it comes to animating the physical space of a museum, this tends to be done for one of two reasons. Either the space is being defined on multiple levels including routes and tools to improve accessibility or it in some way is promoting the space of the museum (Messina, Matarazzo, Occhiuto, Gelsomini, & Garzotto, 2018).) 

In some cases, the roles of these products change as the technology around them improves. An app designed for exploring the streets of Washington, D.C., for instance, can be altered to provide people with information about the Smithsonian museums. (Lamb & Johnson, 2015) Here are some forms, altered or not, that animation takes when it is used to describe the physical space of a museum. 


Some common types of animation of exhibits:

  • virtual tours of museums
  • multimedia videos of spaces
  • animation of artifacts

ReBlink App Trailer

When it comes to animating exhibits, the Art Gallery of Ontario certainly drew upon the marketing appeal in their exhibit ReBlink. In this teaser trailer for the app that enhanced their artwork, it is at times difficult to tell where the physical use of the app separates from the images created exclusively for the marketing. ReBlink itself involved visitors using mobile devices to see the artwork in new, altered ways.

Jack Sachs Tate Britain Video

In some cases, the animation is as remarkable as the exhibits it features. In this exploration of the Tate Britain, elements move around the museum in simultaneously related and unrelated ways. This relationship with the space teaches the viewer to see the physical in a different way, and because it is also nearly able to stand on its own, the video also recycles the space for a new artistic use.

Met Open Access Animation

By now, it would be easy to forget that not all animations are long. Closer to flipbooks than they are to interactive displays, these gifs are the product of an open access initiative put out by The Met. When the museum released a volume of its public domain artifacts, one animator began making use of the new material by transforming formerly static artworks into dynamic material.

Robot Museum Tour

In terms of accessibility, museum tours like the one featured here can be helpful for a range of people, including those with different abilities, people who are unable to travel to certain museums, and teachers who want to give their students a field trip experience. A considerable part of these tours consists of live video rather than animation, but often animated maps or artifact explanations are part of the user interface.

“When the first museum apps were introduced a few years ago, they were mostly guides to a physical location, including directions, admission fees, and calendars of events. Today museums are producing a wide range of content for all ages.”

Lamb & Johnson, 2015




As a leap forward from the history that we explored in that Ted-Ed video early on, museums are now expanding well beyond their physical locations (and often beyond the limits of their individual institutions) to bring new knowledge to visitors and non-visitors alike. These connect people with resources they wouldn't have used otherwise, many of which can be employed in K-12 classrooms.(Lamb & Johnson, 2015) In doing so, these animations test the bounds of the traditional museum while at the same time solidifying its role as educator.

Some common types of animation of exhibits:

  • videos
  • apps
  • online exhibits

The D in David

There are certain celebrity artworks that are so famous, people don't always even know where they are housed. When they reach that point, they can be used, as they are in this video, to promote the idea of museums in general, if not the specific ones where they are kept. This humorous video doesn't serve the same direct educational functions as other animations do, but it does call attention to the significance of museums as recognizable environments.

Pre-field Trip Video

In a similar style to “The D in David,” this video makes use of famous art pieces. However, all of the ones featured in it are part of The Art Institute of Chicago's collection. In this case, they are being used to teach students about visiting the museum. As a preface to their visit, they learn about the rules of being there as well as the forms of thinking that can be useful when examining art.

360 VR Clothing Explanation

This stunning video gives viewers the freedom to explore a virtual space as freely as they would normally explore a museum's physical space. Videos otherwise are more similar to a static classroom environment.

Higgs Boson Online Exhibit

Many animations that exist beyond the bounds of museum exhibits also exist beyond the bounds of museums. This online exhibit put together by Google Arts and Culture uses multiple sources (some of which include animation) to tell a story. Because it uses material from different places, the information it communicates is more complete than what is found in a museum limited by its own collection.

Although not every museum is able to afford the investment of costly multimedia experiences, any casual museum visitor will see that they are sprouting up in more and more institutions. After all, an engaging use of animation can take many forms. Not every exhibit would benefit from an expensive 4D film, and smaller, less costly experiences, like, for example, a looping video on a comfortably-sized TV screen, can be made with fairly pedestrian software. Nearly every museum has the budget for some animation.

That being said, there is also the issue of whether or not animation is necessary or even possible for some material. Animated maps, a common interactive subject, are wonderful for a history museum, but they wouldn't necessarily translate as well to an airy,  minimalist art gallery. When researchers attempted to visualize metagenomics for a science museum, they found that even though visualizations are becoming more and more common in science, they were entering new territory by bringing metagenomics to a museum audience (Dasu et al., 2019). Some information just lends itself to animation more readily. Besides, there is still debate in the field among museum educators as to whether new media is the right way to go. (Kraemer, 2014)

Overall, the use of animation in museums has been proven to be popular enough to generate  plenty of forms of it, and more than likely, these will continue to shift and grow as technology develops, bringing museums themselves along with them. 


(1777). Charles Wilson Peale in His Museum. Philadelphia, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company. Retrieved November 30, 2019, from

Dasu, K., Ma, K., Ma, J., & Frazier, J. (2019). Sea of genes: Combining animation and narrative strategies to visualize metagenomic data for museums. Retrieved from

Kenderdine, S. (2013). “Pure land”: Inhabiting the mogao caves at dunhuang. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56(2), 199-218. doi:10.1111/CURA.12020

Kraemer, H. (2014). “What is less or more than a touch?” multimedia classics and. Curator: The Museum Journal, 57(1), 119-136. doi:10.1111/CURA.12055

Lamb, A., & Johnson, L. (2015). Interpretation, investigation, and imagination: Museum apps in the school library. Teacher Librarian, 42, 60+. Retrieved from

Lin, J., & Din, H. (Dec 10, 2008). Using animation and interactive virtual technology to create interpretive materials for museum learning and promotion. Paper presented at the 1-10. doi:10.1145/1507713.1507732 Retrieved from

Messina, N., Matarazzo, V., Occhiuto, D., Gelsomini, M., & Garzotto, F. (2018). Museum for all: Wearable immersive virtual tours in museums for people with neurodevelopmental disorders. IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, 364, 12047. doi:10.1088/1757-899X/364/1/012047