Virtual reality is often seen as a solitary activity enjoyed by a small group of people wealthy enough to afford the gear and software. This is not how Paige Dansinger, founder of the Better World Museum, sees the future. She seeks to foster empathy, engage with others, and share ideas.
“Our evening events allow each person the opportunity to try [virtual reality] and see their work projected,” she says of her downtown City Center space. “That’s one way to share this incredible technology with the general public, including people with economic challenges who may never have had access to it.”
The worlds created at the Better World Museum are made for the people, by the people. For example, the Snowflake Project started as a humble snowscape. Through contributions from visitors, however, the virtual world soon became a winter wonderland, filled with snowmen, igloos, shooting stars, and snowflakes.
“When you draw a snowflake and see other snowflakes—drawn by people of all races, economic states, abilities—we connect,” she says. “There’s a sense of unity and beauty and honoring of our connectedness.”
Other virtual reality worlds include a train lot where people can graffiti cars, and a tropical world filled with gardens, gem-studded secret tunnels, and waterfalls. Some worlds look super realistic, while others are magical cartoon universes. To enter these domains, one simply pops on a headset and uses two handheld controllers. From there, you can add your own art, explore, or even meditate. The programs are surprisingly intuitive, and folks can watch people create via a large monitor.
Guests who wander the garden can learn about plants. This carries over into Dansinger’s work as an artist-in-residence at the Minneapolis Athenaeum, where she’s charged with getting teens interested in Minneapolis’ oldest library collection, which features rare botanical drawings.
“The idea is that teens could eat these plants,” she says of their urban garden program, which educates participants on Minnesota’s indigenous urban flora. “They can become familiar with these plants and feel like it’s relative today. I hope it will empower them.”
The Better World Museum formed in response to the 2016 election. But while the organization is a reaction to America’s current era of fear, Dansinger resists in a way that is unabashedly joyous.
“We do tend to make these hyper-utopian projects,” she says. “I need to express things in clouds and rainbows and the hope—the faith—of a better day.”
Better World isn’t fighting for rainbows and sunshine alone: It’s part of a coalition of 90 museums working together to ignite social activism, bringing people together through technology.
“I believe that participatory social experiences can go against isolation,” she says. “I really think technology is meant to bring people together. It’s how I use it, and what I believe in. I see all these wonderful potentials.”