For Ayala Museum, virtual reality is just one way to connect

MANILA, Philippines – I was excited to learn that Ayala Museum was refreshing the Philippine history dioramas many of us saw on school field trips with a virtual reality project. The first scene to get a digital reboot: Jose Rizal's assassination. If you're as unfamiliar with virtual reality as I was, that means once you have the headset on, you can turn your head to see what's going on at your left and your right and behind you. Up and down too. As if you were there.

But the treat here is that there are actually 3 films of the execution taken from 3 different points of view – a Filipino bystander, a Spanish soldier, and Rizal himself. It is a great tool for reflecting on the scene – on history – anew.

"Our measure for success is, did it connect?" museum director Mariles Gustilo says on Rappler's "What's the Big Idea?"

"Did it get people to start thinking?" she adds.

I went into my interview with Gustilo wanting to talk about the virtual reality pilot project and all the other technology they are using or looking at. But aside from proceeding to do VR films of more historical episodes, the real innovation that's been happening in the museum is... marketing.

Gustilo knows what she's talking about, joining the museum from the Mullen ad agency (now MullenLowe). Gustilo says the museum staff was good at what most museums are good at: taking care of art and artifacts. Her job, using words like programming and audience development, was to help them learn how to make these relevant to more people.

Leandro Locsin's design for the building included the museum's name in elegant relief high up the structure's stone walls – so elegant one could miss it. Now that's complemented with bright, big letters sitting on the fountain on Makati Avenue. So now there's no question what the building is. Then there are the huge banners that now hang outside, announcing special exhibits. Even if you can't go to or aren't interested in all of them, you get the feel that this is a dynamic institution.

Aside from the permanent and special exhibits, there are talks, including historian Ambeth Ocampo's now annual series, which fill the ground floor and an overflow room as well. There are workshops – as I write this, there is a workshop on drawing on Facebook Live – and there are the occasional "Rush Hour" concerts from 6 pm to 7 pm with decidedly pop themes like Bach vs The Beatles and, on Mother's Day this year, Mamma Mia.

Then there's the once a year "Inspire" day, when entrance is free and special activities are held. On a smaller scale but on a whole different level of fun, last Halloween and last Easter Sunday, the museum partnered with Mystery Manila to create a "Night at the Museum" murder mystery experience and an Easter egg hunt for children.

Unlike most of our museums, Ayala Museum has the benefit of being at the center of a bustling commercial and residential area. Gustilo sees that as a challenge, that the museum is competing with the stores and restaurants in the surrounding malls. She says their aim is for people to make the museum "one of their leisure choices."

Gustilo says she knew their efforts were clicking the first time she saw lines of people waiting to get in for the first "Inspire" day. Her boss told her of the kid who was rushing his mom for them to get in line.

But I got a bigger kick from what she told me about regular days, when she sometimes sees office workers spending their lunch break there. Aside from the various chapels in the area, there are few other refuges from the ever-forward pace and stress of the city. Few places where one can soak in art and beauty, reflect back on history or, now, relive it. –

Coco Alcuaz is a former Bloomberg News bureau chief and ANC business news head and anchor. He now hosts Rappler's "What's the Big Idea?" interview series. Reach him on Twitter at @cocoalcuaz.