Public Release: 

Visitors Can "Touch" Ancient Artifacts & Art Through Multimedia

Georgia Institute of Technology

In the hushed galleries of the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University in Atlanta, visitors can do more than just gaze passively at ancient artifacts and works of art. Through the "hands-on" capabilities of multimedia technology, they can reconstruct a fragmented clay pot, draw their own masterpiece and play a tune on a 1,800-year-old, bat-shaped flute.

They do it all on computer kiosks, thanks to an innovative program developed by the museum and the Georgia Institute of Technology's Interactive Media Technology Center (IMTC).

"People go to places like Scitrek (Atlanta's Science & Technology Museum), and everything's hands-on," said Ed Price, IMTC's assistant director and director of the Carlos Museum project. "You come here and you can look, but you can't touch anything. In a way, we're letting people touch the objects now -- look at them, turn them around, find out more about them."

Elizabeth Hornor, coordinator of educational programs for the Carlos Museum, agreed.

"It's a museum educator's dream to be able to present information in this way," she said. "It makes objects in the museums seem more alive."

Funding comes from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Museum Collections Accessibility Initiative. The 1992 grant put the Carlos Museum on the forefront of a movement that has art museums throughout the country setting up web pages, computer kiosks and multimedia exhibits.

Most projects at other museums are tied to specific collections or events, while the Carlos Museum program is uniquely comprehensive, said Katherine Jones-Garmil, program director of the Museum Computer Network, a nonprofit group that supports the use of computer technology in museums.

"I don't think many museums have done this," said Jones-Garmil, who also is assistant director of information services and technology for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. "I think their vision was there early on and very appropriate for what could happen with technology."

Georgia Tech's involvement in the project began two years ago after the Interactive Media Technology Center's mock-up designs convinced museum officials that the best talent for their money was just across town. (IMTC was formed in 1989 as the Multimedia Technology Laboratory to help bring the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta.)

For IMTC's faculty and students, the project meant coordinating a wide range of multimedia technologies, including audio, video, 3-D animation, computer art and interactive authoring. It also meant anticipating where computer technology was going.

"We realized that if the project didn't incorporate future technologies, the novelty of the kiosk might be lost," said Brian Jones, an IMTC research engineer. "Therefore, such promised technologies as QuickTime VR were designed into the project's future."

More than a dozen faculty members and students have worked on the project, including IMTC students from Georgia State University and Atlanta College of Art. They worked on Macintosh, PC and Silicon Graphics, Inc. systems.

Hornor praised IMTC's efforts, saying, "There has never been a single thing that we've wanted to do that, technologically, they couldn't figure out some way to do."

The kiosks feature a holistic "virtual museum" approach that closely matches the design and layout of the real museum, which opened in a new building in 1993. The six kiosks are located just off the galleries in small rooms designed specifically for multimedia projects.

By touching the computer screens, visitors can access video and audio clips, pictures, flythroughs and manipulable 3-D models. Objects from all six of the museum's major collections -- African, Classical, Ancient American, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Works on Paper -- are available, as well as information on general museum programs and comments about the building itself by architect Michael Graves. Each section went onto the kiosks as it was completed -- the first in June 1996 and the final one in November.

Visitors appear to love the kiosks so far, although children are often more comfortable than adults with the touchscreens. In the museum's comment book, one visitor wrote, "The video is fantastic and made my visit from New York! I hope to visit often, and I will tell all my friends."

Although the kiosks feature only a handful of objects from each collection, they provide a vast array of information.

"There are some museums that have hundreds and hundreds of their images on their computer, but they don't give you any more information than label copy," Hornor said, referring to small informational cards typically posted with art objects. "Others give you a lot of information about cultures and time periods, but they don't often relate it to their collections specifically."

In contrast, visitors to the Carlos Museum's Classical section learn that one particular vase is the only surviving piece of ancient Greek art depicting the story of Melanippe, a lost play by Euripides. They can hear Melanippe's story and how it relates to the figures on the vase, and they can learn more about Greek mythology or theater.

Other features among the program's several hours of information include:

  • An interactive map of the 1920s archaeological expedition to the Near East by former Emory University professor William Arthur Shelton, whose journals, sketches and photographs had been locked in the archives for years.

  • A picture of an ancient jaguar effigy vessel from Costa Rica that dissolves into video of a real jaguar. Visitors also can hear the rattling sound of small clay balls hidden inside the vessel, which simulate a jaguar's snarl when the vessel is shaken.

  • The Works on Paper section offers regular access to delicate drawings only displayed every three years. A drawing game allows visitors to make their own art work right on the computer screen.

In the future, designers plan to copy interactive items like the drawing game onto the museum's World Wide Web page. Currently, visitors to IMTC's Web page can access several video clips and play the bat flute.

Other plans include a searchable database of the museum's 15,000 objects and a CD-ROM version of the kiosks. Already, the museum's staff can update information on the kiosks via a fiber-optic network, but more funding is needed to add new collections.

Other major project participants include Anne Russell King, scriptwriter and consulting curator for the Carlos Museum, and Tiffany O'Quinn, IMTC's art director for the Carlos Museum project.

For more information, see the Web pages for the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, http://www.emory.edu/CARLOS/, and the Interactive Media Technology Center.

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RESEARCH NEWS AND PUBLICATIONS OFFICE
430 Tenth St. N.W., Suite N-112
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, Georgia 30318

MEDIA RELATIONS CONTACTS: John Toon (404-894-6986);
Internet: john.toon@edi.gatech.edu;
FAX: (404-894-6983)

TECHNICAL CONTACTS: Elizabeth Hornor (404-727-6118)
or Ed Price (404-894-3547); Internet: edward.price@oip.gatech.edu

VISUALS: Color photographs of children using the kiosks and ten different computer images from the kiosks are available electronically or as color slides.

WRITER: Amanda Crowell

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