Museums use technology to spark interest in artistic past

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This article is part of our last Fine Arts & Exhibitions special report, on how artistic institutions help the public to discover new options for the future.


Twenty-five hundred years ago, in a workshop in Athens, a master potter and his apprentice created a vase representing Hercules leading a bull to sacrifice when the potter had a eureka moment – instead of painting figures in black, why not in red. Red? No one had ever done this before.

“Something extraordinary happened to them that day that changed the course of history,” said Alexia Roider, Creative Director of Zedem Media, an animation studio based in Cyprus. By applying different substances to the clay and controlling the temperature inside the kiln, the potter changed the colors and effects of the paint on the vase. (The creator is believed to be a potter known as the Andokides.)

“It is a very sophisticated technique of pottery making and the vivid colors remain to this day,” Ms. Roider said. “The smoke in the oven turns black, and increasing the temperature brings out the red. There are a lot of advanced technologies out there these days, but they’ve done it with fire and sticks. “

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts holds a rare vase from this period, one of 55 in the world that shows both black and red figure paintings. It inspired the museum’s first animated film, “How to Make an Athenian Vase”, produced in partnership with Zedem Media.

“We wanted to represent an epiphany to help visitors appreciate the profound change from black-figure vase painting to red-figure vase painting,” said George Scharoun, museum director of exhibitions and media, “almost like the transition from black and white to color photography. “

The film is part of the museum’s efforts to use technology in new ways to engage visitors in deeper and more memorable ways. In addition to animation, the museum will use augmented reality, computer graphics, 3D computer modeling and sound design to create innovative exhibits and interactive experiences in five newly transformed galleries in the George D. and Margo Behrakis wing for the art of the ancient world.

“The museum uses the same tools they use in Hollywood films to provide new ways of understanding and appreciating objects from the past,” Mr. Scharoun said.

The efforts of the Museum of Fine Arts to make art more accessible through technology are part of a larger trend, said Eric Longo, executive director of MCN, an association where museum professionals can share their ideas. practices on emerging technologies (formerly known as Museum Computer Network). .

“Most museums have increased the size of their digital teams,” he said, and many museums now have technology labs and innovation incubators to develop and test new ideas.

Digital is integral, Mr Longo said. “This is part of the missions of museums.”

The reconfigured galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, which will open permanently on December 18, will benefit from architectural upgrades such as raised ceilings, new windows to increase the flow of natural light and custom furnishings. They will present nearly 550 works of art and provide a new home for its collection of Byzantine art, introduce gods and goddesses, and explain the deep role of mythology in the daily life of ancient Greeks and Romans.

Part of the goal is to highlight the inventiveness of early Greek artists and to examine the development of portraiture during the Roman Empire. Rotating exhibitions will juxtapose ancient art with works by 20th and 21st century artists to explore how they drew inspiration from classical culture. The inaugural installation will feature American abstractionist Cy Twombly.

“It’s one of the best collections of Greek and Roman art in the world,” said Phoebe Segal, one of the museum’s Greek and Roman art curators.

Part of a curator’s job – the word comes from the Latin “to care” – said Dr Segal, “is to keep material relevant, to make people understand why they should care”. Good design, wall text and, increasingly, digital media contribute to that, she said.

“We would like to make the same connection in the museum when you are confronted with the original work of art as when you are watching a period film,” said Mr Scharoun. “I want visitors to see ancient Greece and Rome as real places, to imagine the living and breathing people who made the objects and the world they lived in.

In ancient times, statues were usually painted in bright colors or decorated with gilding and precious stones, but over time the colors dissolved or faded. A 3D digital reconstruction of the Athena Parthenos statue can be experienced thanks to the augmented reality available on the museum’s app, as well as in a behind-the-scenes video of the process presented in the gallery. The goal is to recreate how the people of ancient Rome may have seen it – in color.

“It allowed us to use a lot of pretty cheesy visual effects tools to visualize how Athena could have been painted, what she could have looked like,” said Evan Errol Fellers, director of Black Math, a production company and a Boston-based art studio. who collaborated with the museum.

The museum’s conservation team examined traces of pigment on the predominantly white statue of Athena using special lights and photographic techniques, as well as chemical analysis. A digital model of the statue was then created from hundreds of photographs.

“It’s a technique called photogrammetry that uses triangulation to compare the similarities between photos and then reconstructs the 3-D geometry based on that information,” Mr. Fellers said. “Once we had that, our tools allowed us to digitally draw on the model and create photorealistic images using what is called unbiased rendering, and to ‘paint’ the statue of Athena without touching the real thing. “

Some of Athena’s original pieces have been lost “so with these visual effects and 3D sculpting tools in our hands, we had the opportunity to recreate her missing pieces,” Mr. Fellers said.

“It’s very special to work on a real work of art, an ancient work of art that has now found its way to our studio so that our artists can then repaint it once more,” he said. -he declares. “It’s that delicate balance between the playful use of these techniques and digital sculpting tools, but in a way respectful of the era and the original sculptor. It adds a whole new appreciation for the intricacy of the artwork.

Sound installations are another way to help museum goers slow down, viscerally connect to the past, Mr Scharoun said. A large-scale projection of images recorded earlier this year at an archaeological site will accompany a new 3D digital reconstruction of the 6th-century Temple of Athena in Assos.

The “atmospheric piece” will use audio to invoke the landscape people used to live in and immerse museum visitors in the sights and sounds of nature, he said.

“You get the same panoramic ocean view that visitors to the ancient temple would have had through some sort of virtual window,” he said.

In a gallery designed to evoke an early Byzantine church, visitors will stand under a gilded-ceiling dome in front of a 10-foot altarpiece surrounded by a soundtrack of sacred Byzantine music. A small touch panel allows them to choose specific hymns.

“You have to be imaginative to appreciate the depths of time,” Mr. Scharoun said. “And once you do, you can see the collection in a whole new way.”


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