Technology creates the exhibit: how apps build historical artefacts


4 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Chief Executive Officer

Arts & Culture

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

Traditionally, museums and heritage sites pulled in the crowds with material objects to tell their historical stories; visitors were lured on the promise of seeing for themselves a famed Viking helmet or rare painting.

While the public still desire physical attractions – monuments, artwork, buildings – it is now as part of a deeper, more personalised offering; stories that speak to individuals, not the masses. As the demand for a three-dimensional experience grows, heritage’s reliance on bricks and mortar – or, more appropriately, stone and clay – is gradually receding.

What makes an exhibit?

Imagine two ancient pieces of Roman pottery, barely indistinguishable from one another. One, an everyday cooking pot found in the villa of an unremarkable but wealthy family. The other, discovered in the ancient burial site of a woman whose tomb bears the inscription ‘Boudica’. Without context to guide, and significance to excite, the layperson would never know the difference.

The intrinsic value in an exhibit is not solely in its physicality, but rather in its context; the stories it tells, and the meaning we imbue in it. Thoughtful tech is already transforming the heritage experience, turning a molecules and atoms version of history into one fuelled by imagination.

From curation to creation

Typically museums focused on preserving and presenting the past, rather than creating new experiences for the future. But things on both sides of the (ancient) coin have changed: because audiences are no longer content to be spoon fed a one-dimensional historical experience, the challenge is on heritage professionals to actively create a rich one.  

Creating new experiences is not just about taking something physical and ‘digitising’ it – technology can now create something real and tangible too. Experts recently produced the first new Rembrandt painting in 347 years, using thousands of reference points from his works – colours, textures, strokes, shadows and depth. The result was astonishing. Machine learning algorithms created a work of art that was both brand new, and historically illuminating.

In our post-truth era it is important that any mission to bring the past to life does not unwittingly reinvent histories. Technology for technology’s sake is never a good idea, nevertheless the possibilities for a digitally created exhibit are extensive. Let’s take a look.

Enabling tactility  

Younger visitors are often put off by the inaccessibility of heritage. ‘Do not touch’ signposts and ‘keep back’ barriers exist for good reason – to protect and maintain – but are at odds with the importance of a multi-sensory museum experience. Using technology to create 3D replicas, augmented, or virtual experiences helps break down barriers – real or perceived – to immersion.  

When a site no longer exists

Places and objects of value often perish or are destroyed long before they are protected – great swathes of our cultural heritage have been wiped out through fire, flood, or war. Experiential apps such as the one we helped create for The Lost Palace can build a heritage site from the ground up, creating a rich ‘something’ from nothing.

Lost, broken, or destroyed

New technologies can help preserve delicate or damaged artefacts by enabling visitors to derive tactile pleasure from a 3D replica. Globally, our cultural heritage can be preserved through projects such as those by Oxford’s Institute of Digital Technology (IDA) who used photos to create a replica of the 2,000 year old Arch of Triumph destroyed by ISIS in Syria.

A new lease of life

Often, exhibits that are text- or object-based can become trapped in the same staid stories, told only through dense visual descriptions. Using AR technology, a dusty manuscript or long-forgotten letters can be given an authentic voice; a collection of archived sketches can be imagined and tried on as VR costumes.

Accessibility for all

3D printing has transformed the museum experience for those with sight disabilities; almost anything that can be digitally scanned – the Mona Lisa, for example – can now be made touchable. But visitors with and without visual impairments can benefit from the future of haptic augmented reality. The possibilities are breathtaking – tactile exhibits that allow visitors to physically trace Ice Age cave paintings, or hieroglyphic inscriptions from Tutankhamun’s burial chamber.

While technology presents a rich new set of possibilities, the process of mixing, remixing, and creating anew has been practiced for centuries. It is no longer enough to simply ‘curate’ – heritage professionals must simultaneously safeguard and liberate their objects. Used properly, technology provides the way forward – not just in the future, but today.  

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