Backdrop - 3/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 3 (March 2003)

Backdrop - 3/03

A virtual exhibit transports museum-goers back in time to view a famous art collection in its original setting

By Phil LoPiccolo

Alan Price, associate professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, co-directed a virtual exhibit that re-creates the art collection of Etta and Claribel Cone as it appeared in the sisters' apartments.

Why did the Baltimore Museum of Art decide to recreate the original setting for the Cone sisters' famous art collection in virtual reality rather than recreate it in physical space?

Actually, to some extent, they have done both. The touch-screen display is mounted in a beautiful, interpretive gallery in the Cone wing at the BMA. There is a curio cabinet where visitors can open drawers and see objects collected by the sisters, and one section is a life-size diorama constructed with some original furniture from the apartments. Of course, the diorama is a composite, while our virtual reconstruction allows the visitor not only to see how the sisters maintained the art works that can be seen first-hand in the gallery, but also to experience in full detail the architectural layout and historical setting of the place where they lived.

Why did you augment the real-world exhibit of the Cone sisters' collection in this particular way?

The virtual reconstruction was not designed to reproduce the art works hanging on the current gallery walls. Rather, it was created so that visitors could better understand the origins of the collection and the lifestyle of Etta and Claribel Cone. When you view the collection in the gallery, you learn about Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, and the other artists. We set out to capture the presence of the sisters and their lives, around which these works revolved. What better way to intuitively and visually learn about someone than to take a stroll through his or her living room? The virtual exhibit also adds an element of surprise. For example, while Matisse's masterwork "Reclining Nude" hangs in the central rotunda of the grand Cone wing at the BMA, Etta had it hanging in one of the sisters' smallest back rooms. Curators at the BMA mused about the juxtaposition of the some of the works that were hung together, andit has been interesting to overhear patrons of the museum making similar observations while touring the virtual apartments.

What have been visitors' reactions to the exhibit?

Some people find it very intuitive to navigate the apartments using the touch screen, while others just sit back on a couch in the room and watch the screen as it runs automatically‚ÄĒsometimes for a very long time. Some of the most rewarding times have come when overhearing the discussions of people who were already quite knowledgeable about the sisters as they discovered new items or sought out something they wanted to see in the apartments. The Cone collection originated in Baltimore, and the sisters were part of Baltimore society. In fact, Etta Cone bequeathed the collection to the BMA on the premise that the museum would continue to promote interest and appreciation for modern art. The exhibit has built on the popularity of the Cone sisters to help achieve that goal.

How would you rate the exhibit's success, technologically?

For the Imaging Research Center [at the University of Maryland Baltimore County], it has been proof of concept. We had been experimenting with real-time and performance animation applications for some time prior to this project. Some of the research had resulted in successful presentations supporting the IRC and the University. When we began meeting with the BMA and identified the Cone Collection as an opportunity for collaborating on a technology-based exhibit, the challenge of making a real-time recreation of the Marlborough Apartments surfaced immediately. The final result has proven to be exceptionally valuable for both the IRC and the BMA.

What worked especially well?

For the large-scale installation that debuted during the two-week re-opening of the gallery, it was exciting to be able to bring this technology to a public place for so many people to experience. In one day alone, more than 3000 visitors came to the museum, and most of them donned 3D glasses to tour the apartments. For the touch screen display, I think the navigation interface has proven to be successful. There are no menus at all except for one help icon and one map icon. Every mode of interaction is learned by feedback from the first time the screen is touched. You simply tap an artwork to move toward it or touch a doorway to move into the next room.

What could be improved upon?

I think higher-resolution geometry and texture maps for greater photorealism and higher-resolution displays would improve the experience. While you can no longer say we're limited by technology, we are still limited by the cost of technology. What you can do today on a $3000 PC is stunning. But affordable real-time cinematic graphics is still around the corner.

Have any other historically significant places and events been recreated in this way?

There have been many recreations of historical places and architectural reconstructions done in virtual reality. But many of those have not been done to the same level of detail achieved in this project. Access by the public has also been a limiting factor for many, while this one is open to the public to interact with daily. These things and the user interface are what set this project apart.

What else is the IRC working on?

Recent projects include a recreation of a room with murals by Vuillard for the National Museum of Art in Washington, DC, and an interactive exhibit in collaboration with the Solstice Project that displays the Sun Dagger, an ancient solar and lunar calendar construct on top of Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Information on many of the projects is available on line at Currently, the IRC is creating two new visualization projects that focus on the history of Maryland: "Landscape of Liberty" shows how certain cities in Maryland were intentionally designed with different motivations, and a recreation of the 1904 Baltimore Fire shows how it affected the current design of the downtown area.

What benefits do such projects provide for education and entertainment?

These projects suggest that gaming systems have the potential to become valuable learning tools as well as a medium for artistic expression. Game developers are doing some beautiful work in the existing genres, but they don't begin to cover all the possible applications for this kind of technology. As art programs continue to develop curricula that incorporate elements of game design, real-time graphics, and performance animation, more people will embrace new ways of looking at the kind of content that can be developed.

What's the next technique that could be added to this approach?

The latest version of the Cone sisters project features animated objects that the user can pick up and examine: diaries of the sisters' travels, letters from Matisse, a trunk full of collected textiles, and drawers full of drawings by Picasso. To make a big leap, a virtual automaton that could respond to and immediately adapt to the level of communication and interest of any child or adult who engages it would be very interesting. Just as you might walk with a docent in the museum, a virtual docent could attend you as you explore such virtual recreations of historical settings. Artificial intelligence, real-time networked data sharing, autostereoscopic displays, and the like are all being developed, but it is going to be the way they are combined and integrated with the content that will make them unique and successful.
Visitors appreciated the Cone sisters' odd juxtaposition of certain paintings.

What do you envision as the ultimate application of this method?

Relative to real-time interactive simulations and access to information for educational purposes, I think the ultimate development would be its ubiquity. The Internet offers virtually unlimited access to information, and some users seek its resources to the extent that it is criticized for its tendency to disengage people from social activity. That's due to the nature of its interface; even at the rows of computers in a public library people are glued to their individual screens. When groups of observers use our touch screen installation or stand in front of the large-scale 3D display as if they were inside the apartments, they have conversations and interact with one another as they are learning. By engaging in the learning process using the same means of interaction and perception that you have every day, the processes of access to information and human interaction are blended back together. CAVE systems are considered effective for this reason because they allow groups of researchers to mutually explore and discuss their data. If you imagine holographic projections, unobtrusive sensing and input devices, and user interfaces that more closely resemble our natural social and physical interactions, information systems may begin to blend transparently with our surroundings.