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Archives & Museum Informatics



Bringing the object to the viewer: Multimedia techniques for the scientific study of art

Michael Douma, WebExhibits/IDEA, USA
Michael Henchman, Brandeis University, USA

Session: Making Data Work: Functional Design Strategies

Often, topics can be taught online that are unteachable in other media. One such topic is materials science and art -- an increasingly popular topic for art museum visitors. This is a visual subject, which requires visual materials for teaching and learning. Books, articles, slides, videos are often unavailable, inaccessible or in an unuseable form, and the physical nature of museum objects generally precludes side-by-side comparisons.

To identify the underdrawing of a painting, one must be able to superimpose infrared and normal photographs of the painting. To authenticate a particular Greek kouros, one has to be able to view it from all angles for comparison with authentic kouroi. Pictures in books, and discreet kouroi in different museums will not accomplish that. The material must be made available in a useful form.

We are now completing a 1 1/2 year project (an NSF sponsored partnership between Brandeis and the National Gallery of Art), for an interactive web site about Bellini's Feast of the Gods. This exhibit should be online in late January.

Our exhibit, Investigating Bellini's Feast of the Gods, considers a single painting. Within the period 1514-29, it was painted and overpainted three times. Scientific data are presented, enabling the viewer to reconstruct interactively the various versions and reasons for the overpaintings. The viewer discovers the chemistry of the pigments and their degradation, how the scientific investigation was performed and how to identify the various painters. Uniquely the exhibit allows the viewer to manipulate images—magnifying, superimposing, and comparing. The painting is examined in great detail.

Our paper will address the specific technologies and pedagogical approaches which we have used that may have direct application to other art-and-science web sites. For example, a common challenge is to make one exhibit that is useful to many different audiences. It is important not to lower the common denominator too low, or the exhibit will be useless for all. This is easier to accomplish in an online exhibit than in a physical one because whole sections on a site can be geared toward more knowledgeable visitors without disrupting the experience for others. Another approach -- which has been very successful for us -- has been to limit the scope of our subject matter. By focussing on depth rather than breadth, often experts and non-experts alike are able to wholly follow a narrow topic without being overwhelmed with too many academic concepts. We are thus able to keep the level of sophistication quite high.