Breathe new life into museum exhibits

The nature of museum exhibits means they are steeped in history, but technology can bring the lessons of the past to life – almost literally in some cases.

In the late 20th century, museums underwent a transformation, shedding their image as places with space-filling static exhibits in glass cabinets with information-heavy labels but little context. Today, most feature some interactive element, be it a touchscreen display or virtual reality like the one used by Tate Modern in London to depict Modigliani’s 1919 Parisian studio in the artist’s retrospective.

In June 2021, the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris went a step further and introduced Revivre, which offered visitors the opportunity to meet with extinct or critically endangered 3D animals.

The museum partnered with SAOLA, an augmented creation studio, to create the augmented reality (AR) experience. Founded by filmmaker Jeremy Frey and producer Florent Gilard, SAOLA comprises a naturalist, a scenographer and a team dedicated to 3D creation. Depending on the project needs, specialists in wildlife, organic, architecture and design are consulted.

Bild Studios worked with art historian Dr. James Fox and the creative team at The Experience Machine to reinterpret Edward Hopper’s painting of Nighthawks into a three-dimensional world

Photo credit: Gettyimages

The 3D modeling and animation process took six months and included multiple visits to scan the entire space so the AR didn’t conflict with the architecture.

“We had to make sure that the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) jumped on the window and not off it, or that the Angolan flightless beetle rolled its dung on the floor of the room,” says Marie Wacrenier, director of museography and technical services at the museum.

The AR experience takes visitors through the space, guided by an AR passenger pigeon (itself extinct since the early 20th century). With Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 AR glasses, visitors can pause in front of a display on which a life-size 3D hologram is animated. You can experience each creature in its natural habitat, be it in the African grasslands or under the sea.

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The museum says augmented reality was chosen over virtual reality because it provides an immersive environment where visitors can interact with others in the group while enjoying the sights and sounds.

Binaural and spatial sound create 3D audio when the visitor encounters a creature. Or visitors may not notice the tiger by their side until they hear it roar!

The creators used the museum’s current collection, its archives, and contemporary descriptions and sketches of animals to model 3D creatures and animate them within the historical architecture of the space.

Revivre was designed to highlight both extinct and critically endangered animals and explore the causes of their demise. Some of the “exhibits” have been extinct for centuries, like the dodo, but the rythine or Steller’s sea cow (similar to a manatee but 10 m long and weighing 8 to 10 tons) was exterminated by hunters in the 18th century in less than 30 years after the first sighting in the Bering Sea.

Revivre not only highlighted the threats to some species today, but also addressed “good practices” by indigenous peoples to conserve others and their habitats.

The Revivre exhibition ran from June 2021 to the end of December 2022, although you can still find a promotional video on YouTube. A potentially limiting factor for such displays is the cost of the headsets – Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is currently well over £3,000. Unfortunately, it will likely require a significant reduction in the cost of this hardware for such large scale public-scale exhibitions to become more practical.

Housed in the Carnegie Mansion in New York City, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is dedicated to historical and contemporary design. When it reopened in 2014 after the mansion’s renovation, an immersion room was introduced to make it easier for visitors to browse its wallpaper collection. At the interactive table in the center of the room, visitors can view a scale wallpaper pattern that is projected onto the walls via two projectors that communicate with the table in real time. Visitors can also draw their own patterns on the table, which will be displayed as wallpaper.

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Credit: Image Studios/MARS Volume

Credit: Image Studios/MARS Volume

The museum also wanted to encourage visitors to engage with the design on display and commissioned the Cooper Hewitt pen. A New York consulting firm identified Sistelnetworks’ vWand, an inventory control pen used in healthcare, as a suitable model. GE developed a slimmer form factor and Sistelnetworks modified the circuitry and electronics. A sensor read the data from the NFC tags embedded in the item labels. The pen’s onboard memory stored the data that could be displayed on the interactive tables. It could also suggest similar exhibits that might be of interest with a picture and catalog information. At issue, the pen was paired with the visitor’s admission ticket. Upon return, a receipt was issued with a unique code that allowed the recipient to access all of the images and data collected during their visit via the museum’s website.

Despite its usefulness, the Covid pandemic resulted in the pen being phased out for health reasons.

Exploring art – really exploring it – can bring a painting to life. This is the approach pursued by Bild Studios, a production company that uses large video screens and LED screens with mixed reality, visual effects and real-time rendering for performances and installations.

In 2020, Bild used his MARS (Mixed Augmented Reality Studio) in west London to recreate Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks as a 3D virtual presentation. Using an in-camera LED wall, LED ceiling, cameras and real-time rendering, a virtual production studio was created that allows art historian Dr. James Fox made it possible to ‘enter’ and ‘explore’ the diner pictured.

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Image mapped Nighthawks in a 3D space and used 3D reconstruction to recreate the interior of the diner and its occupants. AI was used to analyze Hopper’s brushstrokes applied to the entire environment to fill in the gaps not seen in the 2D original. Using the immersive mixed reality stage, Fox was able to get a closer look at the patrons seated around the bar.

With this 3D recreation, the viewer can explore possible answers to frequently asked questions about the painting, such as: B. What is the relationship between the man and the woman who sit side by side but do not speak? It also allows to create a series of alternative paintings and to experiment with different lighting conditions, for example. What would the same scenario look like at noon? Or with rain reflected in puddles on the sidewalk outside?

These three projects illustrate how readily available technology can be used to transform exhibits in museums and galleries into objects to behold and amaze. From there, they can begin to uncover more knowledge by branching out into areas of interest in an accessible manner and in an easy-to-digest format.

Watch as British art historian, BBC presenter and BAFTA nominee broadcaster Dr. James Fox was placed in a 3D virtual representation of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks” through Extended Reality.

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