WHAT WOULD DA VINCI SAY?
Some of the world's oldest and most venerable cultural institutions are embracing new technology to bring internationally treasured curations to life.
But far from sacrilege, these innovations are making history and helping new audiences learn about art and ancient times in an entirely different way.
It's easy to think of AR, VR and 3D printing as shiny-new toys for strictly modern times, but these things have the power to help us reimagine the past, animate art and share thousands of years of knowledge in a more dynamic way.
So, let's take a guided tour of some of the best examples of the use of new technology in a selection of the world's finest museums and galleries today. Juxtaposing the old and the new never looked, sounded and even felt so good.
THE LOUVRE IN L.A
Two centuries ago the most famous museum in the world was the palace to the kings of France and a medieval fortress. Today a sleek and ultra-modern glass pyramid welcomes around 8.8 million visitors a year to its hallowed halls.
The Louvre is well-known for mixing the old and the new and it would be impossible to leave its walls uninspired. The Parisian museum houses the Venus de Milo, ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace' and, most famously, Leonardo da Vinci's ever enigmatic ‘Mona Lisa'.
But not everyone can jet to Paris with ease, especially when they reside in sunny L.A. Fortunately augmented reality can transcend geography and space and take people on an incredible journey, without the need for transatlantic travel.
A smart example of this is demonstrated by the film below. Immersive media company RYOT used augmented reality to showcase the Louvre's world-renowned collection to a group of L.A school kids. Watch the results below and witness a straight-forward, no-nonsense example of how technology opens doors to education and inspiration with ease.
THE REAL MUSéE DU LOUVRE
Let's stay with The Louvre for a bit (On all accounts, it's a place that demands more than one visit). When a timeless palace, housing 6,000 years of art history, considers propelling itself into the digital era, a considerable amount of trepidation from the old guard is all but guaranteed.
Do you really want people navigating a palatial 15-acre labyrinth of breathtakingly beautiful galleries, whilst staring at their smartphones? Doesn't this kind of mash-up lead to the technology replacing the experience, rather than enhancing it? Such concerns are valid, but for The Louvre's the real question is: ‘Is it a gadget or is it useful?'
The Louvre made global headlines when it originally announced that its traditional audio guides would be replaced with Nintendo 3DS handheld video game consoles. But a couple of years down the line, the impact of the change has been resoundingly positive, with only 4% of visitors now preferring to use the old audio guide.
The handsets add value to The Louvre experience, primarily by providing visitors with an interactive map, with real-time localisation technology. This enables visitors to select guided tours from the museum's own curators, in an extensive choice of languages and find instant directions to a particular masterwork. But that's just the start.
Let's take one famous artwork, just as an example. There's an entire cast of historically important characters in Jacques-Louis David's 1806, 33ft wide, neoclassical painting. Now, through the new Nintendo consoles, visitors can zoom in on a single, seemingly obscure face and learn more about that person, why they were present at Napoleon's coronation and what happened to them in the end.
'The Coronation of Napoleon' Jacques-Louis David's 1806
The console's 3D and animation technology also bring an extra dimension to Alexandros of Antioch's shapely, but armless Venus de Milo, displaying it from every angle and rotating it in its space, an effect which apparently ‘accentuates the sensuousness' the artists intended.
The museum's excellent website is now similarly immersive and meticulously detailed, with more than 3,000 pages. Louvre Associate Director, Agnès Alfandari laughed off predictions that a richer virtual experience would reduce real-life paying admissions, with a wonderful quip, stating: “It's like saying a website showing gorgeous beaches will cause people to stop swimming in the Caribbean!”
But, in truth, The Louvre isn't trying to shock or disorient anyone with their new technology. They simply want to get more young people and people with pre-existing digital expectations, into their illustrious building. Louvre Multimedia Project Manager Matthieu Canto explained:
“Everybody is expecting these kind of services now. They're not saying ‘oh it's magic' they take it for granted and they're looking for museums like The Louvre to lead the way.”
THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF LOS ANGELES
Even the greatest museums of natural history would be hard-pressed to rival the real-life wonder of the natural world. Big fish tanks full of stuffed sea creatures are fine, but they pale in comparison to the power, majesty and sheer variety of life within the deep blue sea. In short, actually competing is hard, virtually competing, less so.
That's why gangs of excited school kids are in for a treat when they visit The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Today visitors are being encouraged to strap-on a VR headset and explore the virtual ocean. ‘theBlu' uses VR technology to submerge the user to the bottom of the sea and use flashlights to help them look around.
Giant turtles, sunken ships, hammer-head sharks and all manner of deep-sea life appear, as if from the depths of the ocean, to illuminate an environment that few people ever get the chance to see first-hand. This otherworldliness is a big selling point for both the technology and its potential applications in museums.
With VR people are not limited to a time or place or even the Earth itself. Off world locations, like the Moon or Mars or periods from the past, like ancient Rome or prehistoric times, could be simulated in VR. Viewed in this light, the possibilities for museums become as limitless as time and space itself.
CHICAGO FIELD MUSEUM'S TOURING EXHIBIT
Don't touch the glass, stay behind the barrier, don't exchange any objects; Museums often give visitors a set of instructions and warning signs that sound scarily similar to the ones you'd expect to receive when visiting a hardened criminal. But 3D printing and scanning is changing all that.
Museums are already using the latest 3D technology to make replicas of historical objects and provide visitors with a way to physically interact with an artefact, without damaging the original. The benefits of 3D are also two-fold, with 3D scanning tools enabling safer analysis of fragile specimens.
An interesting example of 3D technology being used in this way comes from Chicago Field Museum's touring exhibit ‘Mummies: New Secrets from the Tomb'. The team used a medical CT scanner to digitally ‘unwrap' the mummies and effectively allow museum-goers to ‘peek' under the wrappings.
Large table top computer scans, placed alongside specimens, revealed the mummies hairstyles, clothes and even the jewellery they were embalmed in, 500 years ago.
TO WRAP THINGS UP:
The digital revolution is changing everything in our society, right down to our relationship with time and space itself. The boundaries of art and technology have shifted, allowing unprecedented access to an entire world of knowledge, art and history.
Museums present a prime example of how new technology can be levered to take down barriers to learning, inspiration and enlightenment. Dusty exhibits become fully interactive displays into the lives of lost civilisations and art masterpieces present new dimensions, revealing long-held secrets of the past.
We might imagine great artists and classical scholars of the past to be staunch, time-honouring traditionalists, but real geniuses embrace change and run with it; Being ahead of their time, fusing the old and the new, thinking creatively and breaking with tradition. Bearing this in mind, we know exactly what the great Leonardo Da Vinci would say about the emergence of innovative new technology in the most revered cultural institutions. He'd say ‘Bring it on'.