Access to long-vanished sites and experiences are enriching learning for American students visiting museums and cultural centers from coast to coast, as the United States begins to catch up with Europe and parts of Asia in the emerging field known as “virtual heritage.” Many of the technology-driven advances in this new discipline are likely to become accessible to schools and colleges in the months and years ahead.
For one Kentucky resident, that future is now.
Kathy Choi touches a kiosk screen, then looks up at a larger wall screen to see digitally created yellowish-brown mounds snaking through bright green grassland dotted with brilliant blue rivers and lakes.
The ancient earthworks in the Ohio River Valley now are grass- and tree-covered mounds and walls diminished by development, floods, and agriculture. But she’s seeing them as they might have looked 2,000 years ago, by way of a computerized fly-over.
“It makes it all seem more real,” said Choi, 59, of Covington, Ky., maneuvering her way through the Cincinnati Museum Center’s interactive video tour of Fort Ancient and other earthworks.
Archaeologists and historians agree. Museums, educators, and others increasingly are using video, animation, graphics, and other technology to depict historical sites virtually, in three dimensions–beyond what text, maps, and drawings can offer.
On a virtual tour of an 18th-century American Indian village in North Dakota, visitors can enter an earthen lodge and hear sound effects as the animated figure of a woman scrapes a deer hide. The Archaeology Technologies Laboratory at North Dakota State University used 3-D computer visualizations to re-create the On-A-Slant Village of the Mandan, a tribe that inhabited the Plains area.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is creating a virtual 3-D model of a recently excavated theater in Williamsburg, the restored 18th-century capital of Virginia. The foundation also plans to add animation to the theater project and eventually create a virtual tour of the entire town, said Lisa Fischer, manager of the foundation’s digital history center.
An exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston used computerized 3-D animation to re-create a temple and a palace built by Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti. The museum plans a virtual heritage exhibition next year on the Assyrian Empire.
Phil Getchell, the museum’s director of new media, said museum officials are looking for other new ways to use virtual-reality technology, and he sees museums increasingly turning to virtual heritage.
“It really seems to have taken off over the past two or three years, especially as [the technology] has become more affordable,” Getchell said.
Virtual-heritage exhibits and projects–considered novel a decade ago–have become popular in Europe and parts of Asia, where there has been more national funding. Virtual-heritage projects are found in several countries, including Italy, Germany, and Japan.
They are gaining momentum in the United States, too, as computer speed and technology improve and costs drop. Equipment costing more than $1 million a few years ago now can be purchased for tens of thousands of dollars less.
“Depending on the project, you can still spend a lot generating the content itself, but the equipment and technology is easier to use and more affordable,” said Donald Sanders, president of Learning Sites Inc., a company that designs and develops interactive 3-D models of sites, including those of a palace at Nimrud in Iraq.
At the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., visitors can view actual stone reliefs from the palace of a ninth-century Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, at Nimrud. A computer animated fly-through of digitally reconstructed palace rooms shows the reliefs in their original locations. Visitors also can navigate their way through a virtual tour of a 3-D model of the palace.
Besides offering a means of improving understanding of the past, virtual heritage is seen as a way to digitally preserve and document sites threatened by the environment, pollution, or–like the palace at Nimrud–by warfare and looting.
“It creates a vivid image that can persist in the public imagination and provide more insight and appreciation of lost architecture and cultures,” said John Hancock, a University of Cincinnati architecture professor and director of “Earthworks: Virtual Explorations of the Ancient Ohio Valley.”
Reconstructions in movies such as Gladiator have pressured university research and media labs to make their projects look more real, but virtual-heritage reconstructions aren’t intended to compete with Hollywood or replace site visits, Hancock said.
“You see that these are computer representations. But if done well enough, people can get just the right amount of reality to spark their imagination,” he said.