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The Western Hemisphere’s first purpose-built museum has found a new home in a virtual world.

Forced to temporarily shut its doors due to the pandemic, The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture, which opened in 1814, has been rebuilt in the virtual platform Second Life. It’s allowed curators to carry on exhibiting, educating and, perhaps most importantly, networking.

The relocation follows a concerted push by Linden Lab, creators of Second Life, to attract corporations to its platform as a space for business meetings.

The outcome of transitioning to a new digital environment surprised the center’s chief strategy officer and founding director, Nancy Proctor, who says some features cross over into the corporate world. But she admits moving wasn’t without its challenges — including unwelcome guests during one event she hosted.

“Someone entered dressed as a giant phallus and danced around. It made a couple of people feel uncomfortable,” she said. “They suggested we should have warned them this could happen — and they were right. It had been so long since we’d been in there, that we didn’t even think about it.”

The Peale’s display rooms have been digitally recreated. Picture: The Peale

But, perversely, it’s exactly this kind of spontaneity that most of us are beginning to miss, even including Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft. “More could be done on the software side to allow for serendipitous run-ins after meetings,” Gates recently said while sharing his views on the future of work at a New York Times online event, during which he also predicted 50 percent of business travel will soon disappear.

In her defence, Proctor said conferences in hotels are equally susceptible to unplanned events, as the public can wander through certain parts.

Brick by Brick

A series of serendipitous events in fact led Proctor to consider Second Life. “When the pandemic struck, we were supposed to be meeting in Los Angeles for a MuseWeb conference, which I co-chaired, on March 31,” she said.

“We moved the event online. Microsoft was one of our passengers, and we ran the whole thing through Microsoft Teams, but we knew that what we’d be missing is that serendipity of the in-person encounter that happens when you’re in the same space. You run into somebody in the bar, or the hallway, and have the networking conversation that changes your career, or is just fun.”

One of the MuseWeb conference education sessions was on accessibility in virtual worlds, and Proctor had been put in touch with Virtual Ability, which helps people with disabilities use virtual technologies. Working with Second Life, they decided to create a virtual conference space for the accessibility session.

“My expectations weren’t high, but overnight they built us this gorgeous space, an island with water fountains and birds, and a conference center. It was a nice place to be. I was hanging out in there one day, and someone walked by, someone I’d not seen, physically, for a couple of years. Then I suddenly realized we had a space where you could have those serendipitous encounters.”

Only a third of the MuseWeb delegates attended the virtual space, but it had inspired Proctor to further explore. “After the conference, I went back to my day job running The Peale. But we couldn’t do anything in person anymore, so we talked to Virtual Ability and Linden Lab about what we could do,” she said.

After giving Virtual Ability a 3D digital model of the building, which had been made by a local university as part of a project to map Baltimore as it appeared in 1815, The Peale was recreated in Second Life.

Close to Home

At this advanced stage in various lockdowns and other travel restrictions, are people more prepared to enter virtual spaces, compared to platforms such as Teams and Zoom?

“We’ve had meetings in Second Life that could have been done on other platforms,” Proctor said. “But it’s mainly been with people who use Second Life as their work venue. You tend to go the thing that’s close, and habitual, to you. If I’m in New York, I’m going to see colleagues in their New York office. With Second Life, there’s still a big divide. Either you’re a regular user, or you don’t use it.”

Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg told Skift that since March several organizations have been using Second Life to host events, conferences and remote meetings.

In the past few months it has hosted gaming organizations Gen Con and IndieCade, as well as Dutch Design Week and art and technology conference CODAsummit. Educational institutions are also using it, including Cardiff and Vale College International, which isn’t surprising since many are moving education online during lockdown.

A virtual Nancy Proctor (right), The Peale’s chief strategy officer and founding director, sits in the museum’s gardens. Picture: The Peale/Second Life

And in keeping with the hybrid trend, some events include interactive elements, such as virtual food trucks that enable delegates to order real food for home delivery.

“We’ve seen several smaller and mid-size organizations continue to use Second Life for routine business and team meet-ups. Since March, we’ve added 11 ready-to-go virtual world meeting spaces including four dedicated virtual learning environments,” Altberg added.

A Dressing-Down

While Second Life has allowed The Peale to continue to operate, Proctor has a word of caution for those considering their own migration: dress accordingly.

The platform is known for allowing users to let their imagination soar, but she feels it could offer new users more options when it comes to choosing the appearance of their avatar.

“With Second Life’s default avatars, the standard aesthetic is very young, beautiful and a little sexualized. That made me uncomfortable initially, because I’m going into a professional setting here for this conference. I don’t dress that way when I go to a conference in a physical world, like a hyper-sexual being in front of my colleagues. But the nice folks at Linden Labs modified my avatar to tone it down. I would have toned it down even further,” Proctor said.

“But if you have the money, or the technology skills, you can seriously modify your avatar. This could be a quick way to make certain people feel more comfortable in their digital skins.”

Costume malfunctions aside, she said The Peale, which is a small museum in small city, can now tap into one of the largest virtual populations. “People who would never come to Baltimore now come 24/7. For us, in terms of audience outreach, that’s been a huge success. Because that’s part of our job, to reach new people.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated the map was recreated of Baltimore in 1850. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County recreated the year 1815. Nancy Proctor is also no longer co-chair of the MuseWeb conference, which ran from March 31, not March 1.

Photo Credit: The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture, which originally opened in 1814, has been rebuilt in virtual world Second Life. The Peale