Museum ExplorAR: immersive augmented reality experience at National Museum Cardiff.

Museum ExplorAR is an Augmented Reality (AR), trilingual, self-led mobile experience providing visitors with impressive animations and a ‘wow-factor’ means of delivering new interpretation and updated contemporary storylines to some of our most popular permanent exhibitions.

National Museum Cardiff, the second most-visited of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’ seven museums, has popular permanent exhibitions, some of which have not been updated for up to a quarter of a century. The Museum receives around 525,000 visits per year, 57 per cent of which are repeat visits, so it is  important to provide additional and enhanced interpretation to augment our permanent displays. We wanted to explore how best to do this without the labour and cost of a major physical overhaul involving big budgets, lots of staff, contractors and complex project management.

During the summer of 2018 the Museum began a pilot project to investigate the feasibility of employing augmented reality for enhanced interpretation. The initial objective was not to generate income, but to evaluate how best to employ new and emerging technologies in our Museum spaces. Augmented Reality can aid and direct the visitor’s attention by emphasizing and superimposing content and graphics, so the technology was an appropriate choice to meet the needs of the Museum.

Using a handheld device available to hire from the shop, visitors to National Museum Cardiff can explore the following self-led experiences:

  1. Underwater life:  Witness our sea creatures including jellyfish, manta rays and sharks come to life in the Marine Gallery and see our humpback whale skeleton as it would have looked when alive.
  2. Monet’s Water Lily Garden: Explore the inspiration for our collection of Monet’s water lily paintings. Listen to Monet introduce the Impressionist gallery and also meet the Davies Sisters who collected most of what you see in the gallery.
  3. Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures: Discover the lives of dinosaurs from 220 million years ago; see their skeletons brought to life and swim with the prehistoric creatures that once swam in our seas.

Technical innovation

We were keen to explore augmented reality as a means of enhancing our collections and public displays, however we found that traditional AR has its limitations within museum environments, requiring either the placement of an image to trigger content or for visitors to place content in a scene themselves.

Jam Creative Studios have created a system that uses a combination of area learning with AR. Essentially it means that, rather than having to rely on traditional AR triggering methods (such as image tracking within your camera view or markerless AR-which requires the user to place their own virtual content within a scene) the ExplorAR can tell exactly where the user is within the gallery and can trigger appropriate content accordingly. This makes for a much more immersive experience giving users the freedom to explore all around the virtual content with no restrictions.

A huge bonus of the system is despite the Museum ExplorAR offering a geographically aware tour, there is no requirement for any WiFi, GPS or data networks, overcoming many connectivity obstacles in a complex and busy public space. All the data required is stored within the units themselves. The only connectivity requirement is a small packet of data sent over WiFi containing the usage statistics. This data is only sent when the units are recharging and idle.

By combining area learning technology with AR, Jam Creative Studios have brought a whole new dimension to the visitor experience allowing virtual content to appear with six degrees of freedom (ie the ability to walk all around it) while still anchoring it in a specific place without the need for image triggers or any connectivity to WiFi or networks.

Beta launch

Rather than launching the pilot with a big fanfair, we wanted to gently introduce this new experience to our visitors to:

  • test the feasibility and understand the appetite for this type of technology with our visitors, and
  • allow the museum a chance to test the additional administrative tasks. The shop had to sell the units, get them to sign disclaimers, take deposits, keep an eye on the charging sequences all on top of their normal busy jobs. The Museum Assistants had to support visitors in wayfinding, deal with technical questions, and demonstrate the technology.

Evaluation, feedback and uptake

User analytics were incorporated into the experience to measure dwell times, periods of engagement, language choices etc., together with qualitative feedback via a short questionnaire. Since launch we have gathered a broad range of metrics to determine popularity, ease of use, navigation, interpretative approach and overall enjoyment from our visitors as well as investigating the uptake of Welsh, English and Japanese languages.

Over the 16-week initial evaluation phase, the ExplorARs were hired over 270 times. The experiences have been enthusiastically received by our visitors, with 93.5% of people providing ratings of 4 – 5 stars. Over 80% thought that it offered good value for money, and almost every single person wanted to see more experiences available in future (99.3%). Of the three experiences, Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures was the most popular. 61% of visitors visited all three AR experiences in the loan period.

Qualitative feedback has been very positive, with younger audiences particularly engaged in the Monet’s Water Lily Garden experience. This pilot study now features as a case study in the curriculum of the School of Museum Studies at Leicester University as an example of approaches to new digital visitor experiences in museums.

Some feedback we received from visitors and stakeholders not only highlighted engagement but also the access benefits of the experience:


  • This really got my kids engaged in art for the first time (5 stars)
  • ‘Star rating – 5! This is one of the most creative reimaginings of a gallery that I have seen, and it opens a new world of possibilities’ David Anderson, Director General Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales
  • ‘Although I often take my children into the art galleries they are usually really quiet places and I worry about disturbing the serious art appreciators. However having the Monet water lily scene made me feel more confident about being in there; like the museum were actively encouraging families to visit.’ Cathryn Scott, Influential blogger
  • ‘Thank you for sharing this, my son is autistic and I have been struggling all morning to calm him. He’s been transfixed.’
  • This is great, I have a visual impairment and for once I can see the labels clearly. It would be great if all your labels were available to read this way.






Despite the ExplorARs not initially having much promotion, we found that visitors who saw it being used were more likely to hire units themselves, also word of mouth, especially on social media brought visitors in specifically to use the ExplorARs. One of the unexpected benefits of the concurrent Tim Peake Spacecraft exhibition (which included a virtual reality experience)  was that the Museum was able to cross-promote both augmented reality and virtual reality experiences. Disappointed under 13 year olds unable to use the Tim Peake VR Experience were keen to try out the AR experiences instead.

Future plans

Following on from the successful launch of the Museum ExplorARs National Museum Cardiff is continuing the experiences, and is planning updated narrative focussed on an audience of 5-14 year olds. Now we have tested the logistics of hiring the devices, we are confident in increasing marketing and promotion. Working alongside teachers we plan to establish an income model for hiring out the experiences to school groups. Future concept development is being considered for other spaces across our family of national museums across Wales.


Graph showing the ages of visitors using the Museum ExplorAR devices
The age range of the youngest members of the group to use the ExplorAR devices were between 5-14
A graph showing the overall ratings of visitors using the Museum ExplorAR devices.
Visitors were asked use a 5 star rating to rate their overall experience with the Museum ExplorARs
Pie chart showing that 82% of visitors thought the experience was good value for money
Visitors clearly thought the £10 per hour hire was good value for money for the Museum ExplorARs
Visitor holding a Museum ExplorAR device showing an augmented whale with a whale skeleton in the background
Museum ExplorAR in use in the Underwater Life gallery
picture of a mobile screen explaining the Underwater Life experience and a picture of a manatee
Introductory screen for the Underwater life experience



Links to extra information:

Museum ExplorAR Promo

About Museum ExplorAR

Museums and Heritage Advisor In-Focus article: