Beyond the Walls: Experience the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Virtual Reality

A photograph of a girl playing a game with a VR headset on.

Go explore American art Beyond the Walls, a virtual reality experience that transports you directly into the galleries of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Beyond the Walls blends photorealistic 3D capture imagery of artworks from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection with augmented elements which let you interact with and learn about the museum’s collection using a headset and handheld controller.

Beyond the Walls is a high fidelity, immersive museum experience, and is compatible with Oculus and Vive headsets.  Available for FREE download after July 15.


Tips for a Great Virtual Reality Experience

  • The experience requires use of a VR headset, so find a place where you are free to move and rotate safely.
  • To “click” on an a teleport marker within the space, press the trigger, point to the teleport location with your handheld controller and release the trigger.
  • Although headphones are not required, they are highly recommended for the audio narration track and ambient sound of the media artworks.
  • Although a VR headset can be used at any age, we recommend this experience for 13 years of age and older.

Learn more about the artworks from Beyond the Walls at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

This virtual museum presents a selection of unique paintings, sculpture, and multimedia artworks for you to engage and interact with as you freely explore the museum’s east wing from inside a VR headsets. Four of the museum’s artworks serve hotspots which feature a little bit of extra VR “magic”:

Frederic Edwin Church

An artwork with the northern lights and a remote controller with text over the artwork.

Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis1865, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

In this painting, Frederic Edwin Church has taken the aurora borealis—ethereal, dynamic, and alien—and captured it in oil paint, making you believe that you are standing underneath that phenomenon, witnessing the colors reflected off the ice. In VR, you can stand closer to the painting than might ever be permitted in real life, allowing you to examine its texture and observe its rich custom frame. VR users standing in front of the painting can trigger a teleportation hotspot which sends them to a remote mountain in Iceland, where they are suddenly in a dark landscape, looking around at jaw-dropping, 360-degree 6K video footage of an actual aurora blazing in the sky, provided by designer and photographer Olafur Haraldsson. The ability to compare and contrast the two scenes offers rich opportunities for learning and observation.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

A sculpture of a woman sitting down with her hand on face and a cloth over her head.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Roman Bronze Works, Adams Memorialmodeled 1886-1891, cast 1969, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1885, Marian Hooper “Clover” Adams, an amateur photographer and the wife of the writer Henry Adams, committed suicide by drinking poisonous chemicals used to develop film. Her grieving husband commissioned prominent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a memorial to her that would express the Buddhist idea of nirvana, a state of being beyond joy and sorrow. Saint-Gaudens modeled a powerful shrouded figure, and then worked closely with architect Stanford White, who designed a secluded, contemplative setting for Clover’s gravesite in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.. Decades later, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired a bronze cast made after the original in the cemetery. When standing in front of SAAM’s bronze cast in VR, you can choose to teleport to Clover’s actual gravesite, coming face-to-face with the same sculpture, but this time in the context of the private outdoor memorial for which it was originally intended. Soft sunshine filters through a bank of trees, which move softly in the background, and the bench surrounding the sculpture allows for a moment of quiet contemplation. Flashing back and forth between the museum’s version and the outdoor version, you can notice the differences, sometimes subtle, that distinguish the two casts, and the effects of weather on the outdoor installation.

Hiram Powers

A white sculpture of a naked woman standing.

Hiram Powers, Model of the Greek Slave1843, plaster and metal pins, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The original marble sculpture of the Greek Slave propelled its artist, Hiram Powers, to international stardom. The Greek Slave was almost immediately associated with the anti-slavery movement in the United States, as abolitionists used images of it to promote their cause. The 3D model that appears in the VR app was rendered from a scan of the original plaster model that dates to 1843; in fact, this VR edition is a not work that exists in the real world at all. The presence of this sculpture in VR provides an opportunity to draw parallels between contemporary 3D scanning technology and nineteenth-century mechanical reproduction techniques, and to talk about the slippery (and often unhelpful) concept of “the original,” when it comes to sculpture.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

An image of a media room with three screens showing the same film.

Alex Prager, Face in the Crowd2013, three-channel video installation, color, sound; 11:52 minutes, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The only contemporary artwork to appear in the Beyond the Walls VR experience is a selection from a video installation by Los Angeles-based artist Alex Prager. When you experience it in the physical museum, Face in the Crowd is installed in a black box gallery, where video plays asynchronously on three of the walls. The experience in VR looks no different, with one notable exception: the artist herself is standing in the room with you. You can walk up to Prager (or around her—she was volumetrically scanned and has been fully rendered in three dimensions) as she tells you about the inspiration for her artwork as you experience it “together.”  Prager’s artwork deals with the anxiety of being swept up by the masses while trying to create and maintain a sense of self—conditions long present in the physical world—and how this anxiety can be amplified in the virtual spaces we inhabit today.