Museo Archeologico Virtuale (Virtual Museum of Archaeology)
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Article by Virtual Worldlets Network
Copyright 21/09/2008
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Museo Archeologico Virtuale (MAV) is a first in museums. This Italian project aims to preserve history, improve upon visitor participation and deal with shrinking budgets all in one fell stroke. MAV is a prototype for a new kind of museum. It is located a hundred yards from the edge of the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, onm the Italian West coast, and deals with… the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum.

If the name Herculaneum does not ring a bell, perhaps you remember another Roman town, destroyed and preserved in the exact same manner, by the exact same volcano. Herculaneum is a sister town to Pompeii, which was west of Vesuvius, not to the East. It actually gained more ash fall and pyroclastic clouds than its sister, but because of its smaller size as a settlement, gained less fame. .

That has not stopped the excavated ruins from being a major tourist destination. Ash fell up to 25 feet deep over the city, preserving it. Most of that has now been removed, exposing the beautiful Roman architecture to tourists. Unfortunately, tourists have a habit of touching, of breaking bits off, of taking unauthorised souvenirs. There is the very real threat now, that the town which survived an eruption, may be destroyed by a hundred million probing fingers.

MAV from the outside

MAV hopes to be an alternative to that fate, to persevere Herculaneum in all its glory for future generations. Inside its walls however, is not a single piece of stone from the ruin. To take artefacts and exhibits would be to mimic the tourists, to help destroy what still stands. Instead, everything it has taken is virtual. MAV stands as an attempt to use virtual reality in a physical museum, in lieu of actual exhibits.

The head curator of MAV, Walter Ferrara, has stated that his inspiration came from seeing the ruins at night. He felt that was the best time to see the ruins, since as he put it "Your imagination fills in the gaps.".

So, MAV reflects that. Whilst the building itself, does definitely have windows, aside from for a few enclosed and separated offices, server room, café and storage, the entirety of the museum is darkened, windowless rooms, lit only by backlighting from the displays and enough overhead light to see by.

To a one, the displays are all monitors, touch screens, or backlit projections. Every single display surface, whether horizontal or vertical has a degree of interaction within it. Each and every one also serves a larger purpose, for the ultimate goal of MAV is to digitally reconstruct the destroyed town and recreate what life there was like.

To this end, the displays are continually changing, evolving, and being added to as new material is discovered, new programs are written and new models are integrated. Scans and photographs are blended in as seamlessly as possible, and to help complete the look, the interior walls are decorated with a chunky, ruins-like plastistone effect.

Although MAV is near the actual site of Herculaneum it does not try very hard, to show the ruins as they are now. Pieces of representation of how they are now, do exist, but mostly they are blended back into the original models, to show how the town once stood.

"You can see only stones and some buildings," said Mr Ferrara of the existing ruins, seen through one of the museum's functioning windows. "You cannot see them how they were… these reconstructions you can see here are immersive and have a lot of appeal."

An advantage of no exhibits, is that the building has no security guards beyond the front desk. There are no ropes, no warnings not to touch the exhibits. They would rather you touch them. In fact, there are several horizontal touch screen surfaces scattered throughout the museum, functioning as both tables and as interactive display surfaces, able to call up information on a whim, and access the central databases. Some can even affect the displays on the walls around them, changing those to meet inputted data.

A touchscreen table awaits visitors

Wherever possible, the displays, even when they have limited interactivity, are not completely static. Little animations, in even the tiniest detail can bring the concept of life two thousand years ago, back to life.

Some of the displays start off when you first see them, as walls of dirt, projected onto a display. Machine vision systems in front of the display wait for you to wipe your hand across, or walk on them. When this happens, the dust blows away in the arc, or where feet tread, revealing the intricate detail beneath.

One display in particular, is breathtaking. A panoramic view of the city, from what will one day be any point in the city, at different times of day. At the moment it is limited to only a few areas, and not manually navigable, but this C2 display wall, literally makes you feel like you are traversing the streets in the city's heyday. Ultimately, the museum plans to put you there, interacting with other citizens of the city, complete in every detail.

Perhaps ironically, the Romans are a well-suited subject for a digital museum, as they were great proponents of the pixel, and were technologically ambitious.

That said, the key concept throughout all of this has been to not let the technology take over. It is there to serve the reconstruction, and display of ancient knowledge, not the other way around.

Gaetano Capasso, concept developer for MAV, stated "Technology has to prompt curiosity, but remain discrete."

With a shrinking government budget to protect a rich cultural heritage, this virtual museum could become a model to preserve Italy's fragile archaeological sites in the future.


MAV - Museo Archeologico Virtuale

Museo Archeologico Virtuale - Translated

In Pictures: Museo Archeologico Virtuale