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Through virtual play, a peek into the future of museum curation

New interactive exhibit at the Herskovits Library makes African objects tangible through augmented and virtual reality
augmented curiosities
The exhibition was designed to be incredibly interactive — and to imbue objects with more personal stories — than had been possible in the past, according to curator Craig Stevens, a Ph.D. student in anthropology, shown here demonstrating the technology. Northwestern Now staff photos

Have you ever wished that you could reach into a museum cabinet halfway around the world to pick up a sculpture, or listen to an expert tell the story behind it?

An innovative new exhibit at Northwestern’s Herskovits Library of African Studies (on the fifth floor of University Library) enables visitors to do just that, with the help of both augmented and virtual reality.

Augmented Curiosities: Virtual Play in African Pasts and Futures” is open through Fall Quarter. For those who can’t visit in person, a digital version of the exhibit is also available online.

The exhibition was designed to be incredibly interactive — and to imbue objects with more personal stories — than had been possible in the past, according to Craig Stevens, a Ph.D. student in anthropology, who curated the exhibit.

“My practice is about animating objects and telling stories through objects,” he said. “When it comes to curation, that impulse makes me search for ways to make stories dynamic outside of texts and articles.”

The exhibit’s title is meant to start conversations. Historically, “cabinets of curiosity” were private exhibits that European aristocrats assembled and displayed to demonstrate their global mobility and taste, Stevens said.

Though this practice laid the foundation for modern museum collecting, it also problematically labelled African and other objects as “curiosities” and made access to them exclusive. By contrast, this exhibit makes objects more accessible, and exhibits them with awareness of their cultural context.

From hundreds of images, a digital version for visitors around the world

Six objects from the library’s vast collection of material culture — which is the largest separate Africana collection in existence at any university, according to its website — are featured in the exhibit. They include a Yoruba statuette, a Nuna smoking pipe, and a beaded Zulu fertility doll designed in part to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, along with memorabilia from the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and other objects.

Each object is physically present and described with a traditional label in a display case, but then also digitally reconstructed through photogrammetry — the process of using hundreds of images stitched together by software — so that a piece can also be manipulated by visitors around the world in the virtual space.

The digital renderings, along with 3D-printed models of the objects that replace them for security at night and on weekends, were created through a collaboration between the Herskovits Library and Northwestern IT’s Media & Technology Innovation unit.

“There is no limit to the ways technology can support innovative scholarship, enabling scholars to explore new dimensions in their work,” said Rodolfo Vieira of Media & Technology Innovation. “We’re thrilled to be able to collaborate with students like Craig, who exemplifies this by leveraging augmented and virtual reality to bring this exhibit to new and different audiences.”

The partnership has spurred new interest in the Herskovits collection from people across campus, according to Esmeralda Kale, the library’s George and Mary LeCron Foster Curator, who is a proponent of student-curated exhibits and helped facilitate the project.

“We have seen people in this library from Northwestern we’ve never seen before, who want to talk about virtual reality, augmented reality, and have those new conversations in this space,” she said.

So, what, exactly, do users see in the exhibit?

To the left and right of the display case are pedestals where visitors can use an iPad or personal device to scan QR codes and choose an object to virtually place on the pedestal, allowing them to walk around the 3D rendering while learning more and examining it from different angles. This is the augmented reality portion of the exhibit.

Stevens says it's “like Pokémon Go” in that you see the object superimposed on your reality and can interact with it via a screen.

Behind the case is a separate viewing area, where visitors can don a headset that allows them to “reach” into a digital facsimile of the display case and pick up and interact with the objects virtually in an immersive environment.

In the background, videos play in which Northwestern community members who have scholarly expertise about the objects, a personal connection to the objects through culture or geography, or both discuss the objects’ stories. This is the virtual reality portion of the exhibit.

New ways we can engage with museum objects

For example, performance studies Ph.D. student Natalia Molebatsi can be seen in one of the videos discussing the Zulu doll, based on both her own experience and that of her mother, who is also featured in the video.

“I wanted to use my mother as my cultural reference for this kind of intergenerational knowledge-making practice,” she says in the video. “Calling my mother was the ‘stamp of approval,’ because a lot of (this knowledge) is really embodied. It’s those kinds of things that you know without knowing how you know.”

Stevens said that even as curator, he learned a lot about the provenance of the doll that he hadn’t previously known by watching Molebatsi’s mother talk about it, including the fact that it has elements of both Ndebele and Zulu culture and was likely made by a group of women to talk about their experiences during the HIV/AIDS crisis.

“Her firm rooting in that cultural context was able to make that clear for us in ways that the literature wasn’t telling me,” he said. “That was an incredibly moving experience.”

Transporting an exhibit to … anywhere

By calling attention to the fact that objects can be examined in three dimensions even when they are not physically present, Stevens said, the exhibit is also contributing something new to important ongoing conversations in the museum world about access and repatriation.

“I hope exhibitions like this open up people’s imaginations regarding what they can ask for from museums,” he said.

Having 3D digital renderings of objects and online galleries allows exhibits to be compressed onto thumb drives or websites and transported anywhere, which improves access.

Stevens noted that this summer he took the virtual reality experience with him — compressed into gigabytes on a thumb drive — to present to African colleagues and communities in Liberia, the Gambia, Ghana and Cameroon, audiences that would not have been able to visit in person.

Ultimately, Stevens wants people in the U.S., Africa and around the world to be able to join in mutual appreciation for cultural objects in conversations that “foster intergenerational healing and communication across difference” without being exclusive or extractive.